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Now and Then - Dr. Roger Branch Sr.
roger branch

For decades, even centuries, rural communities in the South were sustained by networks of families and friends involving exchanges of work, food and support in troubled times and shared joys in good times. Indeed, such networks extended into towns as well. These exchanges might be called “neighboring.”

Country neighborhoods were typically composed of households made up of extended families and friends who were much like families. People who were not exactly kin were often called “aunt” or “uncle,” which is called “fictive kin” by scholars. Fictive or not, the ties were real, as central as kinship by descent to community life.

An important example of neighboring exchanges was food. Generous amounts of prepared food were taken to the homes of people who were enduring difficulties such as death or illness in the family. Even under ordinary circumstances, those who were enjoying a surplus of garden vegetables, meats, milk, eggs, cane syrup — any kind of food — often shared their bounty with neighbors. They did so without any sense of obligation because “that is what people do.”

My maternal grandparents, Rudy and Ella Williams, lived in the middle of a web of kin — siblings and cousins. Sharing was normal and frequent. Just up the road lived a first cousin, Raymond Coleman, and his wife, Nilla, and several children. Miz Nilla was a generous lady who grew productive gardens. Once, after she had delivered a big batch of fresh vegetables as a gift to my grandparents and started for home, Grandmother said, “No matter how hard I try, I can’t outgive that woman.”

Neighbors provided extra hands and skills for such labor intensive events as cane grindings (syrup making) and hog killings. Their assistance was rewarded by all they could carry of the products of the day — syrup and “fresh,” meaning pork products that would not be preserved by curing, such as sausage, backbone, hogshead, sweetbreads, etc. Rewards were unstinting.

In times when “cash money” was scarce, neighbors “swapped work” in tasks when much had to be done in a short time. Planting and harvesting tobacco were prime examples. Families took turns working with neighbors, counting the exchange as fair even if one household provided more workers than another. When trouble invaded a family, neighbors responded with help. Food was the most typical donation, but some came and helped nurse the sick or “tend to” children. One woman might say, “Why don’t you let the younguns come stay with me for a day or two? They won’t be any trouble; they can be with mine.”

In early 1940, my father was struck down with acute appendicitis, requiring emergency surgery. With the use of newly discovered antibiotics, he survived, but was unable to work in his fields to prepare the soil and plant his crops. Early one day, a crowd of men came with their mules and plows to till the land, preparing it for planting. Nothing brought out more extensive neighboring than a death in the community.

Before the era of modern funerals, skilled carpenters from the community started work on a coffin immediately. My grandfather, Drewry W. Branch, was one such carpenter and kept a supply of straight, wide pine boards stored under his house to keep them dry and ready for use.

Other men went to a designated site to dig a grave. Other people, their gender depending on that of the deceased, prepared the body for burial as soon after death as possible – bathing and cooling it on a wide board, perhaps shaving if a man and dressing it.

Neighboring housewives brought a flood of food for family and others. People “set up with the dead” all night. Few used the term “wake” for that vigil. Lacking embalming, the deceased had to be buried quickly, so the funeral at home or cemetery took place the next day, followed by immediate interment. It was a community event that depended upon the generous effort of neighbors.

Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.

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