The Onion

At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not unusual in the rural South for families to own 100 acres of land or more. This was not a sign of outstanding wealth, but it did separate families over large areas. Life was almost primitive in many respects. Each family had to be, for the most part, self-sustaining which included sharing and bartering with neighbors. Often someone in the area would provide a small store where popular can goods, tobacco, kerosene and maybe soft drinks were sold. This would allow the store owner to purchase these goods in larger cheaper quantities that provided his own family with less expensive supplies, while making a small profit on sales to neighbors.

My mother used to tell me a story about when she was a small child going to one of these country stores late one afternoon to get a gallon of kerosene called lamp oil by most. Families were dependent on kerosene lamps for light at night. She had been given a quarter to make the twenty cent purchase. The storekeeper, not having much business, kept the store closed most of the time only opening it when someone came to make a purchase.

On this occasion he did not have a nickel for change. He explained his dilemma to the small girl and asked if she would take a large onion in lieu of the nickel. This was quite a decision for her. This was a whole nickel they were talking about, but under the circumstance, what else could be done. Struggling to carry the can of kerosene in one hand and the over sized onion in the other, she worried all the way home. What were they going to say?

Cornbread and milk was not an uncommon meal at supper time and when she presented the onion, the whole family was delighted to have the addition. She always recalled the relief and pride she experienced as her family ate the onion that night by the oil lamp.