Monday, March 1, 2010

Red Beans and Lillian

My mother Lillian died two years ago today. She was almost 97 and had all her marbles so I can't really complain; I had a lot more time with my mother than most people get. Nonetheless I miss her every day.

Lillian was a gentle pioneer. She wasn't a nuclear physicist or an inventor or a modern dancer. She didn't march for civil rights or burn her bra. But she changed her own world with a quiet determination and in the process helped create the world my sister and I inherited.

Lillian was born in 1911, one of six children, and despite the fact that no woman in her family had ever gone to college, she decided that was the path for her. She worked her way through West Chester State Teachers College first as a waitress in a tea room, then later as the equivalent of an au pair with a local family. My sister is named for the baby she helped care for between classes and studying. 

At the beginning of her last semester her father died suddenly at the age of 56, leaving her mother with three children still in school. Lillian and her older sibs pitched in and helped support the family but she was not about to give up her dream. She arranged to do her student teaching near home and worked at Wanamaker's department store after graduation until she found a teaching job. 

It was the policy of many school districts in America at the time that only single women were allowed in the classroom. Women were required to resign if they got married and often had to agree in writing before their contract was approved by the school board. According to a 1932 National Education Association survey, married women teachers were discriminated against because they were thought to be inefficient and distracted by family needs and likely to miss school time, or that they would neglect their own families and do long-term damage to the next generation. Mostly they were discriminated against because married women were presumably supported by their husbands, and if they worked they were taking jobs away from men or single women who needed the income more.  
Shortly before she died, my mom told me that in 1938 she went into her principal's office and annouced that she was getting married in June. And what's more, she said, "I'm not quitting my job."

"What did he say?" I asked. 

"Well, he was mad," she said. "But he couldn't do anything about it. Things had changed."

Things had changed. Discrimination against married women in the classroom had been challenged in court in several states, and though the practice continued for decades in many areas, Lillian offered her own quiet challenge and kept on teaching. 

I never knew that. She never told us. What she did, though, was set a subtle example of equality for women long before the feminist movement. We were nearly the only kids in school whose mother worked and I was proud of her, happy that she had her own life, that she didn't dote on us like present-day helicopter parents, that she had interesting things to tell us about her day when we traded tales around the dinner table. She had a sense of self-worth beyond being a wife and mother, and that image was absent in TV shows and movies in the 50s. 

I asked her once what it was like to be a working woman in the era of perfect homemakers like Donna Reed and Harriet Nelson. She shrugged and said she never thought about it. She never knew what a pioneer she was and what an inspiration she was to my sister and me. 

But what about beans?!?

Mom told me once her mother used to make red beans. I never asked her what they were like, and she never made them for us that I can remember. So in honor of my mother, we're having plain old red beans and rice tonight. This is just a guess, but I sure wish I could call and ask her how to make them. 

Red Beans for Lillian

1/2 lb. kidney beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1/2 green pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups vegetable broth
1/2 t. smoked paprika
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper to taste 

Drain beans. Saute the onion, celery, pepper and garlic until just beginning to brown. Add the beans and broth, bring to a boil then lower heat and simmer until beans are just tender. Add paprika and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Punch it up with the hot sauce of your choice and serve on rice.  For as simple as these beans are to make, they're really delicious.


  1. Thanks for the memories....According to Macmillan's online dictionary, "full of beans" means lively and energetic, an apt description of Lillian, don't you think?

  2. What a lovely tribute to your mom, Marce. She was an inspiring woman!