By Sarah Wibell
Have you ever been driving on a road and had a car speed up and pass you? Shortly afterward, you see that same car stopped at a red traffic light. Before the light turns green, you catch up to it. What was the point of the other driver’s rush when no time was actually saved? This was the analogy Lillie Franklin made when describing the life of her mother, Lessie Lawrence.
Born in Madison, Georgia, on August 3, 1922, Lessie was the 12th of 14 children. Her father, John Broughton, was a sharecropper. He had seven children between his first two wives and seven more with his third wife, Lessie’s mother. Their home was crowded.
Lessie recalled one day when she was a child: “We were all sitting on the floor around our granddaddy; folks didn’t have chairs. Children had to sit down on the floor, and my granddaddy stepped on my leg and broke it. And back then, they didn’t take you to no doctor; they had to do what they could.
“I didn’t go back to school because I couldn’t walk like the others, and I didn’t run nothing like they did. That’s why I never worked no proper job or draw no money like my children do because I didn’t do nothing but chop cotton, pick cotton, and had a garden, and I didn’t get nothing like that. I would pick cotton for people, but I didn’t draw no money.”
Lillie said her mother has always shared stories about her life growing up in Georgia, “The field and the farm. Their family raised chickens, hogs, and cows.” That knowledge was useful upon marrying John Henry Lawrence on May 30, 1942. Lessie met her husband when his parents and five brothers were “farming cotton, and we weren’t staying too far apart.” Married 50 years until he died, they raised their four children in Madison.
Lessie started a garden, something she would continue for the next 75 years. She also canned vegetables, made jams and jellies and her own soap. “What God give me to do with the soap and stuff, that made me get that kind of money. I raised all of my stuff in the garden. And I would have got nothing if I hadn’t of had a husband. What God did do come from Him.”
“In her time,” Lillie added, “she did the gardening – she didn’t have cows, but she had chickens and hogs when we were kids.”
Her mother promptly corrected her. “I had a cow when you were born. I milked, and I churned butter from milk. We picked vegetables, and meat came from the hogs. (The pork was) salted in a box. Then you would wash it and hang it up. You could smell it all the way from my house to town when I cooked it.”
Without a freezer, canning vegetables from the garden and making jellies kept food on the table throughout the year. Lessie asserted, “I planted with a hoe and chopped it with a hoe, and I would do all that myself – nobody would come in and help. I just stopped two years ago. I always would share with other people and always try to help somebody and still help people.”
“Momma took care of everything at home…taught survival…had everything we needed,” Lillie recollected. “Momma’s life has been one where she’s always given to others. She worked at home, taking care of us, as a young person – sending us to school, watching us as far as she could until we got out of sight. After that, she did things around the house – cooking, gardening – while we were gone. When we got back home, she’d always have something for us to eat, whether it was stuff from cooking that day or food for the evening.
“She washed all our clothes with a scrub board and hung them up on the lines. And the water she washed in – because back in that time, we didn’t have the faucets and what-have-you, so the water came from the well – she’d draw from the well. We would have to take (water) back and forth to fill up the tubs to wash, and then we’d have to fill up the tubs to rinse. And mostly she did two rinses, so we were washing and rinsing from the tubs.
“Back when we were kids, Momma had a wood stove in the kitchen. She and Daddy would chop the wood, and we would have to bring it in for the stove and the fireplace. We were back in prehistoric times,” Lillie said with a laugh. “Some of the things Momma was doing were just carried over from what she did when she was a child. So, it ended up, we were taught to do things the old way. I didn’t do them; I didn’t like them. When I moved away, it was like ‘Oh, boy’ with the garden and all of that.
“Although she had electric stoves later in life, the early part was old-fashioned like Momma had when she was growing up. Even the outdoor toilets didn’t seem like it was a problem for her. She just maintained her life in whatever setting she transferred into. Working in the garden over the years, the chopping, the making of the soap and the jellies, these are things she carried over. She has even done some of that this past year. So, she’s always done those things somewhat the old-fashioned way, and it has, I guess, given her the strength and ability to maintain her life and to live.”
Lillie reflected on her grandmother, Lessie’s mother: “Work was nothing for her. She worked in the garden, milked cows, got eggs, chopped the wood, used a percolator to make coffee. Grandmama had no electricity. She had kerosene lamps that had to be filled. When I was a kid, it was fun (to visit and do these chores), because it wasn’t something we had to do.”
One by one, Lessie’s children moved to New York to live with her sister. Lillie left after high school. “Basically, we were taught survival,” Lillie explains. “We didn’t have a lot of material things, but we had what we needed. When I moved away to New York, it was for the purpose of survival in the future, because we didn’t have money for college and any extended education. We all moved away for the betterment, I guess you might say.”
Throughout her life, Lessie has sought to do right by and be kind to others. Because she does not drive, she would walk to town to visit older people from her church when they were sick. If it was hot in the sun, she’d carry an umbrella. Lillie remarked that her mother “looked after children whose parents had passed away and looked after older people who didn’t have children around…In the neighborhood, everyone seemed like family.”
“I feel everybody is good to me because I was good to everybody else; it doesn’t matter who it is,” Lessie explained. When a sick woman needed a bath, she gave her one. The husband couldn’t cook, so “I went in my garden and picked my greens and washed them, put them in my dish pan, and took them to the house and cook for them so he could feed her. The man was a white man, but it didn’t make no difference. I felt like I was helping somebody who needed help.”
Lessie was a good friend with the sick woman’s sister whose husband worked at the same place as her daughter. Lessie would make things (he liked to eat). In return, he took her daughter to and from work. “He would do a kindness for me, and I would do a kindness for him. One kindness calls for another. I’ve been getting blessed all the way around. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and God makes a way where there isn’t one when you do right.”
Lovingly referred to as “Dr. Lawrence”, she distributes information on home remedies for various ailments like taking a bit of brown sugar and honey for congestion. She continues to make her famous lye soap for relatives and friends. “I have to make it with a stick…don’t matter what color the grease is when you make it; it turn white,” she said. “I just like to do it.”
Although she stopped gardening in 2017, Lessie still cans vegetables and makes jams. One item that is particularly sought after by those who know her is her Cha Cha – cabbage, onion, and green tomatoes chopped up in various juices – that can be added to collard greens, peas, or some meats. Often asked if she’s withholding a secret ingredient, Lessie says she always shares her recipes with anyone who asks.
“I eat what I always was raised up on, and we always had something to eat: collard greens, cornbread, fatback meat, peas,” Lessie stated with a laugh.
At 96, Lessie enjoys spending time between her home with her dogs and her family that spans five generations, more of whom are beginning to move back to the Madison area.
Lillie moved back in 2008. “We – the next generation – we’re running fast most of our lives because in New York and New Jersey, we were always on the move. We’re running just trying to survive. There, you have to move. You don’t have time for breakfast. You run past it and then you eat it at lunch. For me, life was so fast.
“But here it’s a slower pace, and Momma has moved at that pace all of her life. So her way of living has been what’s extended her life. Coming back here, I’m still trying to slow down from that pace, even though I retired. If you can enjoy what you do and it’s a boost in your life, you can’t beat it. Just learn to slow down.”