The Best Expressions While Shelling Peas

Dear Reader:

I think some of the most colorful expressions  I ever heard or learned came from Grandmother Wilson, some female cousins, and neighbors who would gather under an oak tree (outside the back screen door off the porch) in the hot weather to catch some shade while they shelled and snapped peas.

This favorite past time, spent in the summers with these ladies, was my own personal introduction to the world of idioms and axioms. It, sadly, is a world that no longer exists in the rural south.

Even though I was only around seven or eight probably at the time it was easy to figure out these old-fashioned rural farm expressions by the stories being told around them. When I look back on these times I now realize that the vast majority of these expressions originated from every day experiences living on a farm and growing cotton and vegetables side by side while still maintaining the traditional flower bed.

While waiting in line at the bank the other day…I caught just enough of one elderly gentleman’s remarks to the teller that brought back one of these funny expressions. The gentleman was explaining that his bank account had “gone to seed” since his great- grandson went to college and he was helping him with some of the expenses.

(“Gone to seed“….I hadn’t heard that expression since my childhood “shelling” sessions with grandmother and her neighbors. It all came flooding back…)

I can still picture the scene…half-broken wooden chairs placed in a circle in the shade around the oak tree…collenders and buckets sitting beside each chair and seemingly endless bags and bags of peas waiting to be shelled and beans to be snapped. But what made it fun were the animated conversations going on….mostly gossip!

I distinctly remember one gossip session because it made me laugh so hard…the women were gossiping about some lady in the little country Presbyterian church (Friendship church) that grandmother and the family attended. Apparently this lady had recently lost her husband and was desperately in search of another…so she tried to “paint” her hair (as they called “coloring” back then) turning it perfectly orange.

She had apparently tried to hide it under a big hat but to no avail from the congregation’s hawk eyes. There was a lot of snickering going on before the pastor started the sermon in which he, too, was having a hard time controlling his merriment…and disguising it with frequent coughing sessions…his grin hidden under  a big white handkerchief.

One “sheller” proclaimed that the poor woman, not only was not going to find her a man with that orange “clown” hair…but she had also let herself “go to seed” and there was no way to put the bloom back on the flower after it had fallen off and “gone to seed.” All the women were nodding in agreement… as if in unison.

Dictionary: “Go to seed” After a plant has flowered, it falls apart, sending its seeds into the soil. As the plant dies, it ‘goes to seed’.

Another “sheller” might laugh and call out a name of some man in the church who might have this poor woman, orange hair and all…the name sent everyone laughing in hysterics…because unfortunately (but apparently) this gentleman had buck teeth so bad…it was expressed like this….“He could eat corn through a picket fence.”

Any time the women decided some man was ‘gitting too big for his britches’ in his high opinion of himself …they might use the expression…”He thinks the sun comes up just to hear him crow.”

On farms (not just in the South) roosters usually crow when the sun rises. Their vociferous habit wakes up the house, signaling time to work.

An extremely cocky rooster might think the sun rises simply because he crows. Similarly, an extremely cocky man might think the same when he speaks — and also that everyone should listen to him.

Looking back nostalgically on these times spent with these pioneer stock “women” in my life…I am thankful for the life lessons I learned from their difficult lives making meager incomes while raising large farm families…the price of cotton in any particular season was the number one topic….it controlled the quality of their economic lives.

Summer after summer hope never died while shelling peas…surely this would be the year they would all be living in “high cotton.” For many…it just remained a dream but these staunch believers never lost their faith.

I do remember Grandmother always checking my little crimson Sunday-go-to meeting dresses in the long mirror in the hall to make sure they weren’t “catawampus” on me before we left for service….that was a big “no no” back then….ladies made sure their Sunday dresses and little girl frocks came down long enough and were hemmed perfectly straight.

Catawampus adj: askew, awry, cater-cornered. 

So until tomorrow….Let us remember that “Traditions are the stories that families tell together.” It is important to remember even small memories from our time with those who came before us and loved us. Laughter is one of the my fondest traditions to pass down.

“Today is my favorite day”  Winnie the Pooh

Another unique tradition for me that I hope I can safely pass down one day (in the not so near future 🙂  is “Little Big Red”….we must keep him going… no matter what!


About Becky Dingle

I was born a Tarheel but ended up a Sandlapper. My grandparents were cotton farmers in Laurens, South Carolina and it was in my grandmother’s house that my love of storytelling began beside an old Franklin stove. When I graduated from Laurens High School, I attended Erskine College (Due West of what?) and would later get my Masters Degree in Education/Social Studies from Charleston Southern. I am presently an adjunct professor/clinical supervisor at CSU and have also taught at the College of Charleston. For 28 years I taught Social Studies through storytelling. My philosophy matched Rudyard Kipling’s quote: “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Today I still spread this message through workshops and presentations throughout the state. The secret of success in teaching social studies is always in the story. I want to keep learning and being surprised by life…it is the greatest teacher. Like Kermit said, “When you’re green you grow, when you’re ripe you rot.”
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2 Responses to The Best Expressions While Shelling Peas

  1. bcparkison says:

    I don’t know when things changed but getting a straight hem used to be of importance. I remember standing …still,,,to get it just rightly pinned up before sewing it in. These ‘catawamps hem on today’s fashions drive me crazy.
    Good quote from Margaret Thatcher..The Rooster May Crow But It’s the Hen That Delivers The Goods. Little Big Red is looking good.


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