Mt. Olive Memories

by Teddy Cox Murray

          My childhood, indeed all my days until I grew up and went away to college, was spent in a little town in eastern North Carolina call Mount Olive. It existed only to provide the surrounding farmers with a place to buy their seed and fertilizer, a market for their strawberries and cotton, and a bustling Saturday afternoon meeting place for people to socialize, to buy the week’s necessities, plus perhaps a length of dress goods or a new pair of stiff blue overalls, and an ice cream cone for each of the children.

          The memory of sounds seem to have stayed with me more clearly through the years than any vivid visual images–the early morning rasp of the street cleaner’s shovel as he picked up yesterday’s dirt he had swept into the gutters; the noise of the mules’ plodding feet drawing a clattering wagon into town on an early morning errand; the shattering, terrifying sound of the ancient firebell–later turned over to the Masons to summons them to their monthly meeting but never free of the awful connotation form me; the beautiful music of ice being pounded in a canvas bag for our summer supper’s iced tea. I remember the wailing of a tired child waiting with his mother for the return of his father from the Saturday night visit to Mr. Aubrey Hatch’s store; the weary efforts of his mother to quiet him. These and a thousand others.

          The smells–Mr. Ab Pickett’s livery stables–Good! Old brine sluiced into a ditch in the vicinity of the little pickle factory–not so good. The hot sun on the pine straw in the elementary school yard. Heavenly!!

          But the best–the very best thing that lingers in my memory from those long ago days is the memory of the Fourth of July barbecue which my Uncle Albert and Aunt Lucy held for neighbors and friends on their big farm four miles from town. To the children of the families it was sheer magic. I have tried to tell my children about it, to make them see it as I remember it so vividly, but the enchantment is lost in the telling, and nothing in their upbringing in a series of well-regulated suburbs has given them any background against which to recreate the image.

          The days must have always been fair. Certainly I can’t remember one in which rain even threatened. By mid-morning the neighbors from nearby farms had begun to gather in the grove of trees in front of the big white farmhouse, and relatives from town had started out in their cars. My brother rode out on his pony, as some of the other boys must have done, because I can recall several ponies munching grass off to one side of the gathering.

          Mr. Ol Vernon presided over the barbecue. He was a tall, spare man with a bushy handlebar moustache, immaculate in white, and he was famous all over the country for his way with the chopped, roasted pork seasoned so skillfully with hot vinegar and spices. Aunt Fanny, my aunt’s cook for long happy years, tended to the big bowls of potato salad and cole slaw and platters of corn bread. I suppose there was iced tea, and there certainly were large tubs of fresh lemonade. The preacher always said grace. Cakes, pies, happy people. A little girl being led around on her brother’s pony, down a dusty little road bordered on one side by plum trees spilling their ripe fruit on the ground and on the other by a field of corn drooping in the mid-day heat. Magic!

          The men talked crops and the women recipes and the children were everywhere at once. The ride home in the late afternoon was made memorable by a slide down the tall sawdust pile of a little old saw mill at the edge of the road. The day was over.

          One Fourth of July I was convalescing from a severe case of the measles and couldn’t go to the barbecue. This stands out as the surmounting tragedy of my childhood. Despite my mother’s valiant efforts to comfort me with a beautiful luncheon for the two of us at a table set under the maple tree in the front yard, I was miserable. Only when the rest of the family returned from the farm and gave me Aunt Lucy’s message did I perk up and decide that life was worth living after all. She would come into town next week and let me drive home with her in the buggy.