Cornbread & Bean Soup

I’ll always remember the day I first saw Ned.

“Phoebe! It’s time to bring in the laundry!” Mother called from the kitchen. I sighed and pulled myself away from my dolls, made out of old scraps of cloth Mother had salvaged from my baby clothes.

“Coming!” I said, and went out to the backyard to take the laundry in.

But just as I was about to finish, I saw him. At first, I mistook him for a pile of garbage.

“What in the world…? Why would someone dump a bunch of rags…”

And then the bunch of rags lifted its face and I saw that it was a little boy.

“What are you doing here?” I asked crossly.

The boy opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“Phoebe? Are you finished yet?” Mother’s voice interrupted me just as I was about to shoo the boy away.

The next moment, Mother had opened the back door and was standing with her hand on her hip and a puzzled look on her face.

“Are you talking to someone, Phoebe?”

“No,” I said. “Just a little urchin that stumbled into our backyard. I’ll make him leave, Mother.”

“Phoebe Elizabeth Case!” Mother said. “You will do no such thing. Tell him to come in.”

“Tell him to what?” I said.

“Come in,” Mother said, stepping out now with a welcoming smile on her face. I sighed. Ever since Daddy passed away, Mother had worked her fingers to the bone trying to make ends meet. We were not rich by any means, and often had nothing to eat for supper. But Mother still insisted on feeding the hungry riffraff that appeared on our doorstep, whenever possible.

“Generosity is Godliness,” she would say.

I sighed and watched as Mother bent over the boy. “What’s your name?” she asked.

“N-ned,” he said, trembling.

“Hello, Ned. Are you hungry?”

Slowly, the boy nodded his head up and down.

“Well, come in then. I made some bean soup and cornbread for supper. You are welcome to join us.”

I sighed noisily as I followed my mother and the ragged urchin inside. I wrinkled my nose as Mother sat Ned beside me. After saying grace, Mother broke the cornbread and made sure to give Ned the biggest piece. He had inhaled every crumb before she even dished out the bean soup.

I had never seen anyone eat so hungrily. Ned literally licked the bowl when he was finished, and although Mother always scolded me for doing that with my ice cream bowl (I got ice cream once a year, on my birthday), she said nothing to Ned. Not fair.

When I reached for the last piece of cornbread, Mother gave me a look that made me snatch my hand away. Instead, she wrapped it in a cloth and gave it to Ned.

“Why don’t you take this home with you, in case someone else is hungry?”

“Thank you…Mrs…”

“Mrs. Case,” Mother said.

“Thank you Mrs. Case,” Ned said.

“You’re very welcome, Ned.”

Ned came back, after that, almost every day.

“You see, Mother?” I complained to her one day. “When you feed him, he just keeps coming back. He eats so much, and also, he stinks!”

“Phoebe Elizabeth Case!” Mother scolded me. “You are not to speak of guests in that tone of voice, young lady.”

In a gentler tone, Mother mused: “Ned must be one of the coal miner’s children. The mines have not been doing well lately. I wish there was more I could do, but for now, just feeding one of their children is the best we can afford.” She sighed and shook her head. “You should be grateful that we have a roof over our head and food to eat, Phoebe. Not everyone is so lucky. God has been good to us, and we must share that goodness when we can.”

In time, I grew used to Ned’s company at the dinner table. He almost became a little brother to me, and would occasionally even teach me something interesting–a joke, or how to make a ball out of household odds and ends.

So it was a bit of a shock when one day the coal mines closed and all the miners and their families left the area, overnight, it seemed.

The dinner table seemed somehow emptier without Ned’s scruffy presence, and one day when Mother caught me glumly bouncing a sock-ball against the wall, she gave me a hug.

“Maybe we’ll see Ned again one day. But even if we don’t, we can rest happy knowing that we were able to be his friend for a short while.”

I sighed.

Decades passed, and I grew up. Those early childhood years became something like a dream to me, and I started to forget about Ned’s existence.

Then one day, at work, when I was 25, I received the call I most dreaded.

“Mom, how are you feeling?” I asked, after I had dropped everything and raced to her side in the hospital.

“I’m fine, dear,” she said, although her pained expression told me otherwise. We were in the Angel of Mercy hospital in the heart of the city. For decades, it had been just me and Mother. She had worked so hard, I knew her health was frail. And I did my best to contribute to the household finances, but we still barely had enough to make ends meet every month.

It was obvious Mother needed much more care to recover, but I did not have the money to transfer her out of the charity-based hospital.

What was I going to do? I was crazy with worry. Mother was my only family, the only person in my life that I truly loved. And now…

The next day as I raced to the hospital after work, Mother’s room was empty. My heart squeezed. I turned, and there was a nurse behind me.

“Are you Mrs. Leonora Case’s daughter?” she asked.

“Yes, yes I am,” I replied breathlessly.

“Oh, then I am supposed to tell you that your mother was transferred to Hope Hospital.”

“Hope Hospital? But isn’t that a private…” I wondered how I would ever afford the bill.

“Yes, one of the benefactors at Hope Hospital heard about her case and offered to take care of her medical expenses.”

“Who?” I said in wonder.

“I’m not sure,” the nurse said. “But I heard them say it was Mr. Edward Leon.”

“Mr. Edward Leon?” I echoed. The name seemed vaguely familiar.

“He’s that businessman who has been very involved in philanthropy in this city,” the nurse explained, and I remembered seeing the name accompanying a man’s face in a copy of the City Gazette a couple months before. I marveled at my mother’s luck in attracting the kind attention of the young businessman-philanthropist, and thanked God for his mercy.

It took me an hour to find a bus going in the right direction, and then my mother’s new hospital room, but when I entered, I was surprised to see she was not alone.

There was a man in a suit sitting beside her, holding her hand and speaking with her in a low voice. His back was to me.

Mother looked up and saw me. “You’re here!” she said, all smiles.

I took an uncertain step inside, and the strange man stood and turned. It was Edward Leon.

I gasped. “Mr. Leon?” I said.

The man smiled. “You remember me?”

Remember? How did he know I read about him?

“Of-of course, Mr. Leon. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for us, for Mother, I–”

“It is the least I could do,” Mr. Leon replied, “After all Mrs. Case has done for me.”

I blinked at him. How did my mother know the city’s wealthiest businessman? More curious, how did she ever help him?

Edward Leon tilted his head to one side and looked at me with a half smile. “Looks like you don’t remember me, after all,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

To my surprise, Edward Leon turned to exchange a look with my mother.

“Phoebe, don’t you remember Ned?” she said.

I started, then stared. Memories flooded my mind–the scruffy urchin hiding in the bushes in our backyard, the famished child licking bowls and spoons so clean that Mother laughed and joked about not having to wash dishes, the excited boy exchanging jokes and teaching me how to make my own toys.

You’re…Ned?” I breathed.

Edward Leon–Ned–stepped forward, hand outstretched. “That was my nickname, when I was a boy,” he said. “I had seven brothers and sisters, and Pa’s salary was often not enough to feed us all. As the oldest, I let the little ones eat first, and then I would walk across town to the house of a kind lady and her daughter, and they fed me–kept me alive, basically–for well over a year. So when I heard that the kind lady had fallen ill, I knew what I had to do for her and her daughter. You two have always been a second family to me.”

I took Ed’s outstretched hand and shook it. It was larger, stronger, than I remembered, but still had the same wiry energy of the little boy.

“It’s good to see you again, Phoebe,” Ned said, smiling at me.

“You too, Ned,” I said, smiling back.