Funny how some people stick in your mind with such force, and memory, even though they were only in your life for short moments of time. Auntie Bee was one such person: she was my mother’s aunt, so, in all effects, my Great Aunt, but we were never allowed to call her that. She was far too young at heart for such things. Auntie Bee lived “in town”- that is, in Pietermaritzburg, our nearest town, about 45 minutes’ drive from the farm. Whenever mum went into town for farm supplies, or a big grocery shop, she would visit Bee, and, of course, in holiday times or on weekends we accompanied mum on the visits. Bee was larger than life, in all sorts of ways: she was a renegade; she swore and told rude jokes ( I remember one about a young soldier called Cox- she told mum and didn’t think I was listening. I was, but it went over my head at the time!), she smoked and had a husky voice, she ate Wilson’s mint imperials by the giant bagful, and her eyes sparkled all the time, even when she was in pain and her angina was giving her grief. She was generous, and kind, but more than anything, I loved Auntie Bee because she was a writer. She was intelligent, and interesting, and I thought she was very special indeed. She also did calligraphy: sepia ink was her favourite colour to write in, perhaps reminding her of the many historical documents she used to pore over while tracing our family history- she was a keen amateur genealogist. When I was in boarding school, she wrote to me every week, that careful sepia script on the envelopes, and her letters, crammed with her week’s news, were always so exciting to receive. The arrival of my mother’s letters, and those of Auntie Bee, were the highlight of my tear-stained days at school. In my father’s many moves after my mother died, the very important box containing both my mother’s letters, and Auntie Bee’s letters, went missing. It is quite the most saddest thing ever: I had such links to my mother and others through those letters- now all gone. As we all know, memories sadly do fade, no matter what the great and good, in well-meaning but futile attempts to assuage your pain, may tell you. The letters would have been quite something to look back on, but it’s just one of those things, and I can’t dwell on it.
The one thing I do have, though, is Auntie Bee’s book she wrote, Valley of the Rainbirds. It was published by Tafelberg Press in 1987 (the year my mother died) and it told the story of Charlotte Richards, an English girl and her family leaving England in 1850 for Port Natal, on the Minerva. Bee (or Barbara Reynolds) was of settler stock herself and she had traced our family roots and history, and had drawn heavily on her findings for the novel. The most wonderful thing, for me however, was that she dedicated the book to me: I have it here in front of me: “For Justine Samantha with love”, it reads. As a young girl, I couldn’t quite believe that someone would do that for me, and in fact, as a grown woman, I still find it hard to believe. She was a wonderful soul, who I think of so often and miss very much. I wish I could go back and tell her how much she meant to me, and how often I think of her.
My mum used to make Bee’s “Bean salad” often, and here, I have attempted to recreate it. We always had it at braais (barbecues) or buffet type lunches, and, in true 70s and 80s style, it relies on tins, sugar and vinegar. Please do not let this put you off: it is quite the most delicious mix, and one which keeps in the fridge for a few days. I have, I must admit, added a few of my own ingredients, but the salad is still very much the original version. Perfect with cold cuts, pork pies and the like, this is a complete moment of nostalgia, and I love it.
1 tin baked beans
1 tin red kidney beans
1 tin black eyed beans (or butter, or cannellini: a variety is what you are after)
150g fresh green beans, topped and tailed
1 red pepper, finely chopped
1 jalapeño chilli, finely chopped
2 small shallots, finely chopped
8 cherry tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ cup light brown soft sugar
¼ cup white wine vinegar
1 heaped tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp Maldon salt
Good grinding black pepper
½ tsp paprika
½ tsp celery seeds
pinch white pepper
1 tsp dried herbs (the old fashioned mixed dried herbs)
Rinse and drain the red kidney and black eyed beans. Add the rinsed dried beans to the baked beans, including the baked bean sauce too. Mix well. Steam the green beans very lightly, and then chop finely. Add to the rest of the bean mix. Pound the paprika, celery seeds, salt, pepper and dried herbs in a pestle and mortar and add to the mix. Add all of the other ingredients, and mix well. Serve cold or at room temperature.