Cynthia Rivers

True Grit & Collard Greens

I like my church and I really like my minister, but sitting with Cynthia Rivers for an hour is better than a month of Sundays. She is so wise and she makes me laugh so hard my soul and spirit feel scrubbed clean.

Cynthia and I are sitting at a Formica table on a Friday morning at Bess' Deli in Fountain Center on Hilton Head's south end. She is taking a break from making the famous homemade chicken and egg salads (without onions) that keep happy regulars coming back year after year. Right now it is quiet and empty, except for Bess who continues preparing for the lunch hour rush that has made Bess' Deli a destination and popular caterer for close to 30 years. Cynthia and Bess are Hilton Head icons.

Across the table from me, Cynthia leans back in her chair. She is wearing black Crocs and white socks which she says are the most comfortable things she's found for standing on her feet. She's been up since 4:00 a.m. She takes the bus back and forth to her house in Beaufort Monday through Friday. If they have a big catering job she comes back on Saturday. She takes a look at my expression (amazed?) and laughs. "I've been coming from Beaufort to Hilton Head since 1975. When I was raising my kids-a daughter and three sons now in their thirties-there was only one bus coming this way and it didn't work out with our schedule, so for 15 years I hitchhiked. Both ways. It wasn't legal, but as long as I didn't stick out my thumb, the police left me alone."

She says she wished she learned to drive, but I don't think Cynthia wastes much energy on regrets. "Thank the Lord above I've never been late to work, I never missed a day and I was never sick. I'm not afraid of nothing. And I guess I was just blessed that I like to work."

Cynthia calls herself a workaholic. "As soon as I put my foot on the floor I don't stop. I love to work outside and clean and keep my place tidy. I mow my own lawn. But I admit I'm not too good at growing things. I don't have a 'green hand'. I guess I'd say I have what you call a 'red hand' for cooking. My hands are my talent."

She got her first cooking job at the former Hyatt Hotel in Palmetto Dunes when she was promoted from dishwasher to breakfast cook on the grill. She later spent almost a decade at a restaurant in Pineland Station on the north end before she came to Bess' Deli ten years ago. But her "red hand" doesn't rest once she gets home. "Last night I put together shrimp, potatoes, green peppers, bacon, sausage, and brown gravy over rice. My kids still come home to eat.  I can't get rid of them."

"Mama" as her kids call her, has a huge smile on her face. "My kids are like my brothers and sisters.but they can still get on my nerves." I nod and we both laugh. I ask her if she ever sits down and relaxes. She loves "Law & Order", Lifetime movies and "Bones" marathons. Are you kidding? This shared interest alone could keep us talking for hours. We're so comfortable now, I ask her what she likes to drink when she gets off work and she says "gin and ginger ale."

There's no man in her life right now (her choice!). We shake our heads and laugh at how easy it is to just have a drink and watch TV without a man to fuss over. I comment on her elaborate hair style. Patting her finger waves in front and the twist in back she says, "I go to my hairdresser twice a week and she does up this bun with pins. With no man messing it up now, it stays looking pretty good." More laughs.

She tells me her grandmother taught her, "Instead of crying, laugh a little." Cynthia's own motto is, "Every day deserves a good laugh." I've already had several months' worth. Her mother taught her manners, respect and a "gratitude attitude."  Her mother had diabetes and lost a leg. "She kind of lost her will after that. But I learned that life goes on and I try not to let things get the better of me. I decided I was going to be a determined, strong black woman."

Cynthia has a very clear goal for her future.  She wants her own small restaurant near her house in Beaufort. "I have a new attitude. I'm ready to think about slowing down and I just want my own nice little place where I can cook up soul food and do what I want to do." She's already told me her killer recipe for collard greens. I don't know what Hilton Head would do without her. But with Cynthia's guts and determination and that awesome "red hand", I bet this dream comes true.

I get up to leave and we give each other a hug. She has told me she loves to sing and says, "It keeps me going." I will be singing the rest of the day. Thank you Cynthia Rivers.

Up Close:

Family: Daughter: Kanya (36); Sons: Roshawn (35), Kevin (32) & Travis (30); 14 grandchildren
Education: Graduated from Battery Creek High School in Beaufort in 1975.
Accessories: Cynthia likes jewelry and wears a gold chain necklace with a dolphin and a gold bracelet with a heart from one of her sons.
Sports fan: She likes the Port Royal Bulldogs and the Beaufort Eagles.