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My Feisty Sister, Green Beans, and The Best Birthday, Ever.

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It’s my younger sister’s birthday this weekend and I am going home to see her and mama. Some of y’all may remember about mama moving and selling our family home last Christmas. It’s hard to imagine, but I’ve only been home one time since the holidays. I’ve had a block about it – I can be exceptionally good at putting emotions in boxes and putting them on the shelf. I actually really didn’t realize it until the last time I went home, and driving there I realized I hadn’t been to Mama’s but once. I knew exactly what my crafty mind had been up to…. Of course, I have seen Mama and Jona, but with all the travel, it’s been fairly easy to avoid.

This weekend though? This weekend I am going home to see my sister. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

I love my sister. She means the absolute world to me. She is my heart, my shoulder to cry on, and my biggest cheerleader.

Now, I love her, but we are like night and day. Two more different women could hardly exist. Mama is going to kill me, but I’ve always said that she must have a medical abnormality and have two wombs, because there is no way that my sister and I came out of the same one. And, low and behold this week, a woman in Utah was diagnosed with the condition. Not kidding. Check it out.

We are really different. We used to fight like cats and dogs. She was a biter when she was a little girl and damn, she was feisty. When she was in junior high she was one of the popular girls. I was very much a social outcast nerd and member of the drama club, debate team, and always had my head in a book. She would pass me on the school campus and not speak to me. She was that cool. That, of course, infuriated me, but she ran track and I could never catch her.

She is smart, wicked smart, with math. I have to use my iPhone or count on my fingers for pretty much anything over 2 digits. She balances her checkbook to the dime. I, um, don’t. She sees that I am book smart, but doesn’t think I have a lick of common sense. (We argue of course, on that, too.) I love to travel and essentially left home at the age of 16. She’s a homebody and hates to fly. Clearly, I am an adventurous eater and love to go out to dinner, She’s a meat and potatoes kind of girl. She can’t stand to go out to eat and grumbles at me when I put herbs in the food, suspiciously eyes herbed potatoes and asks, “Did you mess that up by putting any pine needles (aka rosemary) in there?”

This is the look I get when I’ve done something stupid. She’s really going to love I shared this one. You may think that wasn’t very fair of me, but honestly, she makes me so mad sometimes I can’t breathe. You know how it is with sisters.

A couple of years ago Mama called in the middle of the night. She was crying, I think. Honestly, I can’t really remember. She called to tell me Jona had been burned in a house fire. She was at the hospital in the burn unit. I needed to come home first thing in the morning. She was alive, but had 3rd degree burns over 20% of her body. I remember going back to bed and of course, poorly doing the math, “Ok, she’s 5’8” so 20% is a little more than a foot.” I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. (I would have gotten That Look.)

We drove home the next day, straight to the hospital, no, the burn unit. There’s a mighty big difference, believe me. It’s ICU to the nth degree. I remember sobbing, shaking, leaning against the wall outside the door trying to get the booties over my shoes, the mask over my face, the surgical gown over my clothes to enter her room. All the protective covering was necessary to protect her from germs. It became rapidly crystal clear that my math was very, very wrong. I couldn’t see for crying.

I couldn’t breathe.

Over the next few days she underwent a series of debridements, an incredibly painful surgical procedure in which the damaged skin and tissue is removed. Once cleaned, her wounds were covered and protected by cadaver skin. The donor skin helps prevent infection, reduce pain, and would maintain her body temperature until she was well enough for skin grafts from her own skin. She was unconscious and on morphine. There were tubes and machines, and more tubes and machines to help her breathe.

We were fortunate in that her burns were on her leg and arm, her face and head were not injured. Mama and I were only allowed to see her twice a day. We were always waiting at the door as soon as door would open with all the other families.

You know when things are so absurd, life is so topsy turvy that everyone goes into survival mode? I remember one afternoon, she and I laughed so hard we were crying because I had looked in the mirror and I had been crying so much that the bags below my eyes were actually hanging over my face mask. My feisty sister was still practically at death’s door and she was laughing at my puffy eyes.

Only sisters could laugh at a time such as that.

One morning early on, when our grief and worry were still overriding any desire to eat, a group of ladies came to the hospital and set up lunch. The volunteer explained that several of the local churches provided lunch and supper for the families of patients. Pimento cheese sandwiches and individual slices of pound cake were hand-wrapped in waxed paper and homemade yeast rolls were delivered while still warm, shiny with butter. There were hunks of meaty pot roast bathed in dark brown gravy and a comforting combination of tender chicken and dumplings. The food was amazing. Not the first bite of fast food. Not the first bucket of chicken or box of burgers. It was real and restorative, as much for the delicious taste as the real caring and kindness. It was without a doubt the most rewarding, healing love I have ever felt from absolute strangers.

Jona, however, wouldn’t eat. The doctors wouldn’t perform skin grafts until she was consuming a certain amount of calories. The burn unit was so full, they needed the bed, so they sent her home. Yes, you read that right. They bandaged her up, gave us instructions on wound care and sent her home.

I went into high gear cooking, trying to feed her. I cook in a crisis. She couldn’t die, she just couldn’t die. She had to eat. Every day without the skin grafts was dangerous. She was practically comatose from the heavy-duty narcotics and medication. I tried to feed her. She fought me, of course, feisty and mad as hell. She was nauseous and didn’t want to eat. I shoved green beans in her mouth, furious at her, crying. I was so mad I could hardly breathe. We yelled and screamed at each other. She was nauseous and got sick. She hated me. It was an awful, messy scene.

Two days later she’d eaten enough so we took her back to the hospital for her skin grafts. Skin grafting is a procedure where they remove healthy skin from another part of the body to attach to the wounded area, essentially creating additional third degree burns. These surgeries lasted for several days and then eventually we took her home again, for good.

She had to undergo months and months of physical therapy and wear special burn garments for over a year. Now, you can hardly tell. She generally wears long sleeves and a suntan is out of the question. She says sometimes the scars hurt and ache, but for the most part you’d never know. A couple of years ago she helped arrange for supplies for the families and victims of the Imperial Sugar fire and explosion. I don’t think I’ve ever been so proud, humbled, and amazed in my whole life.

We still argue and fight. Always will, I imagine. But, now, when my feisty sister makes me so mad I can’t breathe. I do breathe. I take a full breath as I thank G*d she is here on this earth to make me mad. And, you know why I am going home for her birthday? Because she’s having one and as long as she has one, that’s the best birthday ever.

Here are a couple of recipes, Mama’s Macaroni Salad is one of her favorites. We both love it, and, of course, fight over the last bowl. Then, just because I can, and I can’t wait to hear her complain about it, I am also including a recipe for Green Beans.

I love you, Jona.


And, if you would like, please click on the links to tearn more about and donate to the Joseph M. Still Burn Center and Southeastern Firefighter’s Burn Foundation.

Mama’s Macaroni Salad
Serves 4 to 6

1 (16-ounce) box elbow macaroni
3 stalks celery, very finely chopped
3 carrots, peeled and shredded
1 Vidalia onion, very finely chopped
1/2 cup mayonnaise, or to taste, preferably Duke’s
1 cup mild cheddar cheese, shredded, for serving
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Season with salt and add macaroni. Cook macaroni until tender, about 10 minutes or according to package instructions. Drain well, then transfer to a large bowl to cool.

Once the macaroni is cooled, add the celery, carrots, onion and mayonnaise. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the refrigerator until cold, at least 2 hours. Tastes and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Add cheese just before serving.

Green Beans with Buttery Peaches
Serves 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds green beans, trimmed
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespooon canola or grapeseed oil
4 peaches, pitted and sliced
1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

Make an ice-water bath by filling a large bowl with ice and water. Line a plate with paper towels.

To cook the beans, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the beans and cook until crisp-tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well in a colander, then set the colander with beans in the ice-water bath (to set the color and stop the cooking), making sure the beans are submerged. Once chilled, remove the beans to the prepared plate.

In the same pot, heat the butter and oil over medium heat until shimmering and foamy. Add the sliced peaches and season with salt and pepper. Cook, until browned on both sides, turning once, about 4 minutes, depending on the tenderness of the peaches. Add the garlic and fennel seeds; cook until fragrant, 45 to 60 seconds. Add the reserved green beans and toss to coat. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve hot, warm, or room temperature.

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Virginia Willis

Georgia-born French-trained Chef Virginia Willis’ biography includes making chocolate chip cookies with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, foraging for berries in the Alaskan wilderness, harvesting capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily, and hunting for truffles in France. She is talent and chef-instructor for the digital streaming platform Food Network Kitchen. Her segments feature authentic and innovative Southern cooking. She was the celebrity chef at the Mansion at Churchill Downs for the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. Virginia has spoken at SXSW, cooked for the James Beard Foundation, and beguiled celebrities such as Bill Clinton, Morgan Freeman, and Jane Fonda with her cooking — but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Recently, her work has been inspired by her weight loss success story, Virginia has lost 65# and kept it off for over 2 1/2 years! “If a French-trained, Southern chef can do it, you can, too.” She is the author of Fresh Start; Secrets of the Southern Table; Lighten Up, Y’all; Bon Appétit, Y’all; Basic to Brilliant, Y’all; Okra; and Grits. Lighten Up, Y’all won a James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence in the Focus on Health Category. Lighten Up, Y’all as well as her first cookbook, Bon Appétit, Y’all, were finalists in the Best American Cookbook for the International Association of Cookbook Awards and were also named by the Georgia Center of the Book as “Books Georgians Should Read.” She is the former TV kitchen director for Martha Stewart Living, Bobby Flay, and Nathalie Dupree; has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants; and traveled the world producing food stories – from making cheese in California to escargot farming in France. She has appeared on Food Network’s Chopped, CBS This Morning, Fox Family and Friends, Martha Stewart Living, and as a judge on Throwdown with Bobby Flay. She’s been featured in the New York Times, the Washington Post, People Magazine, Eater, and Food52 and has contributed to Eating Well, GRLSQUASH, Culture, Garden & Gun, and Bon Appétit, and more. The Chicago Tribune praised her as one of “Seven Food Writers You Need to Know.” Her legion of fans loves her down-to-earth attitude, approachable spirit, and traveling exploits. Her culinary consulting company, Virginia Willis Culinary Enterprises, Inc specializes in content creation, recipe development, culinary editorial and production services, cookbook writing, media training, spokesperson and brand representation, and public speaking. Virginia is on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Blue Ribbon Task Force, the Atlanta Community Food Bank Advisory Board, as well as the Community Farmers Market Advisory Board. She is a food and hunger advocate for No Kid Hungry and a premier member of the No Kid Hungry Atlanta Society. She a member of The James Beard Foundation, Chef’s Collaborative, Georgia Organics, and Southern Foodways Alliance.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Anonymous

    I enjoyed this story and could “feel” it as I have two feisty sisters. Happy Birthday Jona!

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