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Passing every test
September 1, 2004

                        Tiny Emily Webb was just about three when her Grandmother Johnson sewed handles on a twenty-five pound flour sack  then handed it to the child to take into the field with her Granddad.  As he picked the cotton and put it in his big sack, Emily tagged along filling her own small bag.  When she’d filled it, Granddad emptied it into his own sack.

            The sun grew high, and the child grew hot.  Granddad stood and threw his sack over his shoulder, then scooped up his young granddaughter and her full sack.  He headed for the house where he weighed the small bag of cotton, and then solemnly paid the child.

            She laughs and tells me it was probably only a penny.  No matter. The scene still is clear in her memory. 

            The watchful grandmother gathered up the hot child and carried her into the kitchen for a much appreciated glass of sweetened-clabbered milk.

            “It wasn’t cold,” Emily Webb Thomas remembers.  “Only cool.  But I remember what a treat it was.”

            Young Emily learned the ways of farming with Granddad and her father and the craft of homemaking with her mom, but what she loved was school.  It wasn’t always that easy, since the family frequently moved. But she hung in there and finally finished school.   

            Finish was what she did, for the school in tiny Pinetta, Florida where the family was living ended with tenth grade.  Emily finished, but she didn’t graduate—a  real disappointment for the ambitious young girl.       

            Her dad told her not to worry; other young people in the neighborhood were in the same fix.  Together, they’d find a way to get them all into nearby Madison, where they could continue high school.

            But it didn’t work out.  Times were tough, and they had to return to the family farm in Lee, Florida.  There was no high school and no one else was interested in finding one.  Only lonely Emily.

            Did that keep the youngster out of school?  Well, it may have kept her out of high school, but it didn’t keep her out of school.  The industrious, and studious, young lady got books, and went to work on her own.  She taught herself and went and took a test.

            For in Florida at that time, one could become a teacher by passing a test and getting a certificate.  That’s just what she did. 

            Soon, nineteen-year-old Emily was in front of the classroom in her own school.  She was in charge of a one-teacher schoolhouse.  She taught every thing from “primer through eighth grade.”  She did just fine.

            Along about then, she was at church one night when a very tall slender young man filled the doorway—he was as tall as it was—and caught her eye.  She didn’t think much about it, for a while.  But the old story unfolded and soon young Emily Webb and Joe Henry Thomas married and made a family.  Emily’s teaching days came to an end as she devoted herself to raising and teaching her own family, for a while.

            During the teacher-short days of World War II, Emily hit the books again, took the test again, and was back in the classroom again, this time teaching fifth and sixth grades.  After that, she substituted when she was needed, but she mostly devoted herself to her family.

            Joe was called to farming, she told me.  He enjoyed it when they had their own place, but he loved it when he became an overseer at shade tobacco farms, first in Madison, then later in Attapulgus, because he had the resources to do the job right.  In 1967, the family left farming and opened the Country Store in Attapulgus.   Emily also worked at Belk where she did alterations and later worked in sales in fabrics and the boys’ department. 

            When Joe died in 1980 Emily moved to town.  Even after she left Belk in 1987, she kept busy.  In the early 1990s, she decided to use her teaching skills by becoming a literacy volunteer—helping others to learn to read and write.  Then she noticed something.  She was tutoring people to do what she’d dreamed of.  These folks were studying for their GEDs.

            Why not, she asked herself.  And then she asked Kay Lynn at the Adult Education Learning Center where she was volunteering.  Could she study and take the test herself? 

            Kay laughed.  “You won’t have to study,” she told Emily.

            Emily admits she did get a little tutoring in geometry.  “They told me it’s almost always on the test.”

            Soon, Emily was seated at a desk taking that test, and sure enough there was a written geometry problem on the test.

            “Oh, joy! I’d just studied that!” She recalls with glee. 

            At the age of 80, Emily got what she’d dreamed of when she was that lonely, studious girl in Lee.  She had her GED!

            And Emily still uses all her skills in her home at the Four Seasons Personal Care Home.  She walks almost every day, reads constantly—when she’s not watching the movies her son Dexter drops off, and she goes down the street to Calvary Baptist Church at least a couple of times a week.

            Of course, I asked this busy lady about cooking for that growing family.  “Fried chicken was our favorite meat,” she recalls, “but we all liked the end of the meal.”  Desserts are definitely Emily’s thing.

            “I’d build my meal from the sweet instead of the meat,” she told me.  And no matter how much chicken she’d fried, Joe always saved plenty of room for the end of that meal.

            She says Joe and the kids preferred her cakes, especially her brown sugar pound cake.  Her favorite?  She didn’t hesitate for one second, “Egg custard pie.”       

            Emily didn’t have her recipes on hand, but she told me how she did things and I’ve adapted some of my favorites to her ways.  She says the pound cake is a basic pound cake, only use a package of dark brown sugar and one cup of granulated sugar.  And always use vanilla.

Brown Sugar Pound Cake

1 cup butter

1/2 cup shortening

1  box dark brown sugar  

1 cup granulated sugar

5  eggs

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup milk

1 1/4 teaspoon vanilla

Topping

1/2 cup butter

1 cup chopped pecans

1 box powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla

 milk

Cream together butter, shortening and both sugars. Add eggs and beat well. Sift flour and baking powder. Add alternately with milk to creamed mixture. Add vanilla. Pour into well-greased and floured tube pan. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 1 hour and 30 minutes.

For the topping, combine 1/4 cup of butter and pecans. Cook until pecans are browned. Remove from heat and add remaining ingredients. Add enough milk to spread. Spread over cake.

Emily’s Favorite Egg Custard Pie

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine:

4 tablespoons sugar

1/4 cup butter

4 eggs

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons flour

            Mix well and pour into an uncooked 9-inch pie shell. If you like, sprinkle lightly with nutmeg or finely grated lemon rind.  Bake at 400 degrees for no more than 10 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 325 degrees and continue baking until a knife comes out clean.

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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network