11: The Last Lunch

11: The Last Lunch

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

The Last Lunch

Me, sexy? I’m just plain ol’ beans and rice.

~Pam Grier

Salvation seldom comes when you want it, and generally shows up when you least expect it. Because, given the sense of humor of the Universe, it very often comes at the exact last minute, that edge of reality where the last vestige of hope meets the final fall into despair.

I moved into my grandmother’s house the year after Granddaddy died. She needed someone to ease her loneliness; I needed stability from the nomadic life I was living with my mother. When she adopted me I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew she promised she’d take care of me from now on.

But I was a hungry six-year-old, and she was a sixty-year-old widow who hadn’t worked since World War II. Granddaddy had left her with a little savings and enough insurance to bury him. And in the spring of my seventh year, the savings were running out.

I was, of course, oblivious. I went to school and came home to do homework and play. Supper appeared on the table every night. If Grandmamma wasn’t eating as much as I was, I didn’t notice.

The problem was that her Social Security survivor benefits didn’t cover the expenses of one older woman, let alone that woman and a seven-year-old boy. Much later, I learned of the countless visits to the Social Security offices, the paperwork, the affidavits that she did have a legal minor child.

But there came the day in the summer of 1965 when she called me in to lunch. Meals had been getting simpler and simpler, and what awaited me that day was a little rice and a few pinto beans. There was a single plate on the table.

We said grace: “God is great, God is good....”

She patted my hand and turned away. And she said, in a small voice that I heard very clearly, “I don’t know where the next one is coming from.”

There was a Loony Tunes short on Saturday morning TV in those days. It involved a hobo and his dog sharing a meal. The hobo finds an old tin can containing a single bean. He puts that bean on a plate and, with his knife and fork, carefully slices it like a choice cut of meat. I imitated that hobo every chance I got, because I thought it was neat.

Because it took me a long time to eat a plate of beans one slice at a time, I was still at the table when the mailman came. We heard his footsteps on the porch, and Grandmamma went out through the living room, drying her hands. I heard the screen door close, and there was enough of a pause to slice another bean.

Then I heard her say, “Oh!” And the screen door opened and slammed again, and there was a thump and a great deal of crying.

I rushed into the living room. Grandmamma was on her knees in the middle of the floor, clutching an official government envelope and weeping like a baby. The check had come between the last breath of hope and the realization of disaster.

It didn’t make us rich. But we weren’t exactly poor, either. Grandmamma had stared starvation in the face. After that, we never worried about being hungry. She always had a meal on the table, and I always ate it. Even if it was rice and beans.

Even now, after all the ups and downs life has thrown me, rice and beans is my favorite comfort food. I associate it not with poverty, but with hope.

~Bill Mullis

More stories from our partners