Tuesday, March 31, 2015


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Mary Calyx (CAL-ix) Diebold---her Mama thought "Mary Alice" was too plain, and she saw calyx in a book and thought it was some kind of a flower, not a PART of a flower. Mary Calyx wears blouses and skirts---great wide ones, with plenty of room to get on and off her bicycle without her slip a-showin'. Her gray Soft-Spots and thin white anklets can be seen pumping that Schwinn all over town, especially to the site of any local happenings. She will never learn to drive a car---her nerves won't allow it. A thick headband holds her wiry browny-gray hair back from her face, and a big ole stiff turkeytail of it sticks straight out over the tight elastic at the back of her head.

Mary Asenath Diebold---elder sister of MC---they're the only two children of the only Catholic family in town. MA was forever christened Mersenith from first grade on. Mersenith can drive, ride, shoot or field-dress anything that she can get her hands on. She hopped in the pickup beside her Daddy when she was still in diapers, standing on the seat with her little arms stretched across the back for balance. She's spent more than a few days lying in an icy field, waiting for a flock of mallards to come in for the night. She works at the Mayor's office, moved into a little furnished apartment in the side of Mrs. Crossland's house when she finished her Secretarial Course at the Junior College, and drives a second-hand Accord, which she paid for herself.

Nancy Fred Baxter---named after her Daddy. An only child, she was a jeans-wearing, tree-climbing, horse-riding tomboy---the lone small female in a neighborhood of all boys, as far as the eye could see. She learned to rip and roar with the best of them, standing up in the Saturday movie to cheer on the hero and boo the villains with shouts and flung Sweet Tarts. Her pockets were stuff-sprung from the weight of her Barlow, her spinnin’ top and Prince Albert bagful of marbles. In her teen years, she hid her hands beneath desk or book, embarrassed at the still-prominent calluses from her years of winning everybody’s aggies. And in her grown-up jewelry box, transferred from the childhood pink one which opened to let a tiny ballerina twirl to a halting, jerky rendition of “Fascination,” she still has her two steelies from those marble-shooting days.

Nancy Fred hates her name, but not as much as Oscar Jeniece Overton must--- after four boys and two other girls, and her the baby---they finally named one after Mr. Oscar. Between layin’ a burden that great on a little baby, and his triflin’ ways in general, the consensus of the town women was that Mr. Oscar needed shootin’. But they never let on to Miss Ethel, his wife---she has quite a big enough Cross to Bear.

Anna (pronounced AHH-NNA) Helen Upchurch crochets and collects Precious Moments and Lladro. She started with a pretty little corner cabinet from a yard sale, proudly called it her étagère, and proceeded to fill it with tiny sweet-faced, big-eyed little bits of ceramic. It was the eyes that called her, like beseeching little prisoners peeking out from behind those teacup tears. And every wall in her house has at least one print of a house or church or street, with flower boxes, glowing street lamps, and a golden glow through every window.


Miss Audie had gone on a trip to Pensacola once, with her brother ‘n'em, and they stayed in a MO-tel and went crabbin’ and spent quite some time touring the several souvenir shops close by.

And Miss Audie had seen her first flamingoes. Well, not REAL ones, with the pinky-rose feathers and upside-down bill and storky-legs and all, but whole flocks of them, frozen in plastic and glass and ceramic, standing in ashtrays like in water, and beneath slapdash leaning palm trees and printed on shirts and skirts and postcards and handbags, clustered around seashells holding soap, dabbling their heads upside-down in bowls of permanent shiny stuff with tee-ninecy plastic fish and lobsters embedded in the bottom, crooking their slender necks around thermometers and pens, and in all manner of other postures on quick-buck souvenirs. And she was smitten.

She thought them the height and depth and breadth of Nature’s talent for outlay of Beautiful. She loved the pinks, and the rose, and all the Made-in-Japan shades in between on those impossibly-structured and colored birds. They just COULDN’T be part of THIS world. Nothing that rich and strange could exist outside of Heaven itself, and she pictured the gawky grace of those long legs trying to stroll those Golden Streets, their graceful necks like a bevy of worshipful giraffes, bowing to Glory.

And she brought home dozens---she ate crackers and ketchup every time they went out for supper, eating only on the nights they had just-caught crabs and light bread and chili-sauce and cans of Showboat or Pride of Illinois or Bumblebee Tunafish they’d brought from home and cooked up in the Motel kitchenette. She saved every penny for buying flamingoes. Had there been an Outlet Store selling the live ones, she’d have crated up a pair and brought them home to her backyard. She just fell in love with those things right off the bat, and it lasted.

She talked about them at church, and at Club, and at WMU and Prayer Meeting; she likened them to God’s Own Doves, right up there in the CHOSEN of the animal kingdom. She looked for pictures of them, and begged used copies of Southern Living and Redbook from her neighbors, just in case someone had vacationed there and chronicled it on the bright pages.

Miss Audie almost came to a falling-out with Mrs. Davenport, when on the second trip to the bathroom during Club one Second Thursday, Mrs. D. happened to see her flicking through Mr. D.’s prized collection of National Geographics, hoping to rip out a picture and get back before time for Reading of the Minutes.

And her glorification of the birds, so beautiful in their garish grace, and the corruption of their reputation into dimestore gee-gaws—all that caused the title to start---Flamingoes were just TOO TOO; they were gaudy and proud and snobbish and just getting Too Big For Their Britches. And anyone, anytime, was open to ridicule as a Flamingo, by getting above themselves in dress, or expenditures or choice of vacation spots, automobiles, or too-elaborate Weddings For Their Daughters.

Uppity ways segued from Puttin’ on the Dog to Flamingoin’---and all due to Miss Audie’s love affair with those wonderful pink birds. And it was Pure Grace that she never DID catch on.


Miss Kathryn Roseberry is an older married woman with a perfectly good husband, but who is still known as Miss, as are many of the older women still today. We younger women would call them by their first names, but only by appending the “Miss”---never “Mrs.”   It’s like the Peerage---you’d never say Sir Connery, but Sir SEAN.

Miss Kathryn is an imposing, rumbly-voiced woman, of opinions as solid as her ample figure in those Goldsmith’s dresses, and of a great kindness, especially to all the children.   She has “help” in the house, and for the yard, and belongs to every organization, club, committee and foundation between Memphis and Greenville.  She can be relied on to get the job done, whether it’s raising funds for the incumbent governor, or raising a tent for a Lions’ Club fish-fry (well, maybe she’d bring her long-time employee Jonah to help with that one). 

One day I got an excited call at work from Miss Kathryn, speaking so fast I could hardly decipher her words.  She’d been in an absolute fantod for days, having lost the quite large stone from her engagement ring, and had searched high and low, still wearing the ring with its sad empty clutch of prongs standing there like a wistful coronet on a Disney-Frog Prince.

 She'd come into our office several times, and would pry and poke around, to the extent of going into the trash can once, even lifting out the sag of the big grounds-stained coffee filter in her fingertips like an overfilled diaper.

She'd made her way up and down the street, stepping into stores and offices with her purse square on her shoulder and Mr. Slim's big ole square EverReady flashlight in her hand, looking under desks and into corners to see if her stone might have rolled that far. We'd see her on the street, kicking a rock, looking down down down, her glasses sliding from her sweaty nose to end with a little bungee jerk on the end of their rhinestone chain.

You'd have thought the Kohinoor had been purloined and secreted somewhere in our small town, and SHE, Allan Quatermain, commissioned to ferret it out.

She called me one day, having been in for her “Standing Appointment” at the Chat ‘n’ Curl, and having her quite sizeable up-do “done” in its weekly intricacies of swoops and hairpins and enough Aqua Net to plaster Paris. She’d also had her manicure, those dark old talons shellacked within an inch of their lives in a deep red, which rendered her every gesture a blur of crimson. You could always tell who had just had her nails done, by the position of their hands on the wheel, or how they sorta scrambled for their keys or wallet with the sides of their thumbs, so as not to disturb the not-quite-dry polish.

I answered the phone, to hear a babble of excited words, uttered in what I quite possibly believe was one breath:

“I FOUND IT!!! I FOUND it!!! I opened the door on the right hand side, and it TWINKLED at me!!! It was just a-shinin’ in that dirty flowboard over there by the gas pedal! I leaned in so quick to get it before I lost sight of it, I knocked three a' four pins outa my hair on the stirrin’ wheel and the gearshift!

I come up with it, though, my hair just a-hangin’ and my fingernail polish done scratched all to Hell, from grabbin’ so hard in that sandy carpet.

I’m just tickled to death! I was afraid I was gonna hafta go clear to Memphis to find another one, or else wear this ole hole on my hand forever, one.

I feel like if I hadn’t-a gone by Clorene’s with those fruit-jars, I never woulda found it, cause when I opened the door in her yard, the sun hit it just right, and I KNOW it woulda done been eat up by the vacuum cleaner next time Jonah washed my car!

Thank you, JESUS!”

Thank you, indeed. He was even mentioned in the ad she took out to impart her good news to the whole county.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Bobbie Helen Shumake has never been one of the “pretty” girls.   She was always rather plain, except for her amber eyes, which  shine like honey-held-up-to-the-sun, and her palest-of-pink/blonde hair with a natural sort of glimmer to it, tamed into a big curly pile on the back of her head. 
         She’s always been lanky and wiry, with long slim boy’s legs and arms corded as those workout-women who count out edamame one by one.    She was the best athlete in all the school, climbing that rope in the gym faster than any boy, and never touching it with feet or legs.   Once, when the Lady Globetrotters came for a charity game in Expedia, her coach-who-knew-their-coach got them to let her play in the game, and she was wonderful---scoring several times, and clowning a bit, just as the pros did. 

She’d married a really nice Bubba of a guy and their four boys were exactly like their Mama---long and lean and living for every sport, every season.  

And the most faithful fan and loudest-shouting supporter at every game, no matter the sport, was Bobbie Helen.  She and Harold were tailgaters, water-carriers, team-parents, and rode late into the night on more preposterone-filled buses than any other couple in any school.   To the whole town, they seemed to live their lives in a state of elbows-and-pranks and rollicking hilarity--- bemusing most, and providing many a tale of their crazy doings around the county.

Long into parenthood, she was still known for her antics and sense of humor, and the time she got tired of wearing that dang brassiere right in the middle of an Elvis concert, right there in the front-row-balcony of the Memphis Coliseum---that grew into a legend that almost, but not quite, eclipsed the TV appearance of Mac MacIntire, who drunkenly wagered his pants at an Ole Miss Game that time, and whose wide flat behind was captured full-screen by ABC SPORTS, just as he left the stadium in blazer, tie, and boxers.

When the Thirty-Fifth Class Reunion was coming up, Bobbie Helen approached it with more trepidation than most---she knew all those pretty women would be there---those Homecoming Queens and those Miss This and Miss That, and even with just her hometown friends, she thought she was starting out behind, to begin with.   All those laugh lines from all that joking around for so many years were evident around her eyes, and since she laughed at most everything in life, mostly at herself and her foolishness, she decided to skip the Avon Lady and all the little bottles of Youth This and Renew That at Paynes’ Drugstore.

   She thought this was serious enough to just take a splurge, and go to Memphis for the Big Guns:   Merle Norman.    She didn’t want just a wrinkle-remover---she wanted a Wrinkle-Corrector, one of those clear, instant-apply things that simply smoothed away the years in one swift application. 

She bought the best they had, and tried it out for a few days beforehand, and dad-gum if she DIDN’T look younger.   She could tell the difference right off.    And when she put on a little base and powder, well, she looked really nice.    She’d always been confident of her figure and knew she looked good in her smoky-green silk dress with her hair up, so on the evening of the party, she applied the stuff as directed and stepped out, right pleased with her appearance.  

And if she’d left it at that, she’d have been a nicely-maturing lady, with glowing skin and beautiful eyes and an infectious smile.   But when both Geneva Grace Crossland-Holloman and Karla Kay Fullilove Morgan walked in at the same time, with their three-hundred-dollar haircuts and their handsome husbands-from-off, Bobbie Helen reached into her purse for the Youth Stuff and rubbed a little bit more around her eyes.   

Then another few women chattered their way into the room, and she felt the need to renew the application just a teense more.   She dabbed dots of the stuff on her face and smeared it surreptitiously around every so often.   And then, after sipping a Mai Tai or two, she grew less secretive with her efforts, snapping open the little bottle of viscous glue and squirting a bit on her fingers before swiping it around her eyes and down the small grooved parentheses flanking her lips.

As the evening grew later and the chatter more lively, the band even louder, the Mai Tais flowing and the smoke hovering like bayou mist, she grew unheeding of her motions, as she gave a big squeeze of the gel into her palm and massaged all around her face with it, as unconsciously as if she were sitting at her vanity with the Pond's, talking to Hairl over her shoulder.  

Her night’s worth of effort had the effect of leaving her countenance at the end of the party quite shiny and rigid, resembling one of those bank robbers in the clear plastic masks, rendered grim slick statues except for the eerie bit of life in their eyes.                        

At the Swirl-a-Curl the next week, Bobbie Helen told the story on herself, laughing fit to bust.

“And when we got home, I was all the way in there hangin’ up my dress when I caught a glimpse in the mirror, and I said, ’My-y LAWERD!  Hairl!!  Why ditten you TELLL me?’

“And Hairl says,  ‘But BAY-by,  it come on suh GRADUAL!’”


The only place you could buy wine in Paxton when I was a child was at Edelstein's Dry Goods Store, a bit of an unmeant oxymoron, for I’m sure Mr. Edelstein didn’t have a liquor license---you couldn’t GET a liquor license back in the days when the store flourished and local matrons with their purses hung firm on their arms clinked the little gold bell as they entered, stepping up onto the brass-edged entry tiles---small gray octagons the size of a lady’s watch.

I loved to trace them whilst my mother shopped, and sometimes I’d remember to bring a little twig from home, to run round and round the tiny edges, with the almost inaudible click as the little stick made contact with the next tee-ninecy corner. I have no idea why the flat little things fascinated me so---and I couldn’t imagine how they must have been laid. I thought the workmen must have had really tiny hands.

The bottles of wine stood on a shelf behind the cash register, brightly shining their deepest purple through the gleam of glass---I don’t suppose The Law ever paid any attention to a nice Jewish man selling ceremonial wine to his fellow celebrants, for I never heard that there was any trouble over the Wet Goods sold right there amongst the dresses and shoes and bolts of fabric. To a child who’s never seen liquor in any form, they looked like black-purple Kool-Aid in big ole Karo jugs---the star, unfamiliar, but recognizable, and they were dismissed without a thought, other than for their pretty appearance.
Our neighbor Mrs. Davenport was given a recipe by some of her husband’s people over in Benoit; it came out of a tiny give-away cookbook, and the recipe had the exotic title, “Special Salisbury Steak.” She’d eaten some at her In-Laws' and it was scrumptious---it had wine in it. She debated, weighed her options of being seen buying booze against the elan of having the most popular dish at Church Supper, and since the only game in town was the Mogen David at Edelstein's---she just marched right in there and bought a bottle, as big as you please, right along with five yards of pink dotted Swiss and a Butterick pattern.

She took that heavy bottle home, fried up those little beef patties and onions and mushrooms, measured out a cup of the dark brew into the gravy, and was astonished at the strange color and scent of Welch’s that boiled up out of that pan. The whole thing, meat and all, looked a little bit funny, sort of a deep maroon shade, but one little spoontip told the tale---that stuff was DELICIOUS!

She served it to her family that night, getting out Gran Goldthwaite’s best china for such a fancy dish, ladling the Uncle Ben’s into the too-big tureen just because, and serving the meat and gravy on a PLATTER for the first time in her cooking history, just to show it off. She even served the Pineapple Ring Salads on lettuce leaves on salad plates. With a Cherry.

She carefully made the same recipe on First Saturday, doubling the recipe, and it took her two boilings to cook a whole tureen-full of rice. The big old chafing dish which had hitherto lived out its life sitting on the sideboard except for lending out for Bridal Showers and Wedding Receptions, was wrapped in tea towels and taken along, as well, to give proper honor to such a splendid dish.

Word went round the big Fellowship Hall that Mrs. D’s Sallis-Berry Steak was too good to miss, and she had to go back into the Church kitchen midway of the buffet line to refill the big top pan, for it was disappearing faster than both Mrs. Bingham’s Chicken ‘n’ Dumplins and Miss Hattie Overton’s Tomato Aspic. Even those who had passed by the elaborate setup and the odd-colored stew took their plates back for a taste, emptying the big tureen of rice, and scraping the pan for the last drops of that strange, delicious gravy.

And everyone wanted the recipe; she modestly agreed, telling the ingredients and steps as thirty women fished in their purses for pen and paper. When she mentioned “Morgen David Wine,” everyone solemnly wrote the words on their paper, mouthing the unfamiliar name, relating it to the wonderfully robust sauce they’d just enjoyed. They all tried it, making a special trip into Edelstein's for seam binding or Coats & Clarks or a new pair of slippers, with a soft, unobtrusive request at the cash register for a bottle of wine.  For several weeks, there, neither of the grocery stores could KEEP the little cans of mushrooms on the shelves. And Mr. Edelstein had to double his order for the ceremonial wine, wondering why so many townsfolk had acquired a taste for it.

The furor lasted quite some time, but then, as under-the-hairdryer recipes go, this one was supplanted by a grand innovation---put a big chuck roast on doubled heavy duty Reynold’s, dump on two cans of Cream of Mushroom, sprinkle on an envelope of Lipton Onion, and sock it tight in the oven before Sunday School. It was perfect and ready, with the meat fall-apart tender and a gentle savory gravy all around, by the time you could hear the sermon, visit a bit in the parking lot, and get home and out of those good clothes, pour the tea, and sit down.

But since Miss Hattie Overton’s trips to her sister’s in Memphis always included a little jaunt over the bridge to West Memphis for a half-gallon jug of Smirnoff, her Tomato Aspic never did lose ITS appeal.


This haunting angel is one of many photographed by Janie at Southern Lagniappe.   I was struck immediately by the name---straight out of Faulkner, and by the age of the young woman---just twenty-seven, and by the words “daughter of” on the stone.    My imagination jumped to several women I have known, forever known as daughters of, for they lived out their entire lives in the house they were born in, cared for by or taking care of, their parents. 

Some were not well from birth, in body or mind or both, and some were simply what was known as “dutiful daughters” to the people who had raised them.    Every small town seems to have one or more of these sweet women, home by choice or chance or need, and I remember well the ones who were my friends.     One dear soul, for forty-five years the teacher of Cradle Roll at her church, referred to her Mama as a “semi-invalid”---always; I assumed it was the family’s word, and certainly not a medical term.
I knew her mother, and understood the exact derivation---she lounged her days away on the daybed or the long metal porch "glider," watching her STOW-ries, receiving visitors with a wan smile and a limp hand, and enjoying having her meals brought on a tray, but became remarkably energized and able to sit upright at the Eastern Star luncheons, bridal showers, weddings and quite a few funerals and dinners-on-the-grounds.    Somehow putting on a pretty hat conveyed extra strength and vigor to her demeanor, and though she couldn’t possibly be expected to bring a covered dish, her enjoyment of the collations and buffets and prettily arranged "luncheon plates" was always remarked upon amongst the hostesses.   My Mason/Dixonary should have a picture of Mrs. Snow beside the word “Tolerable.”

In my little heart-town of Paxton lives Mary Calyx (CAL-ix) Diebold---her Mama thought "Mary Alice" was too plain, and she saw calyx in a book and thought it was some kind of flower, not a PART of one.

Mary Calyx wears blouses and skirts---great wide gathered or gored ones, with plenty of room to get on and off her bicycle without her slip a-showin'. Her gray Soft-Spots and turned-down white anklets can be seen pumping that big Schwinn all over town, especially to the site of any local happenings.
She will never learn to drive a car---her nerves won't allow it. A thick headband holds her wiry browny-gray hair back from her face; a big ole shelf of it sticks straight out over the tight elastic where it touches the nape of her neck, and depending on when she trimmed her bangs last, a spiky ruff sometimes stands across the top of her head like a turkey-tail. 
We’ve all known them---these soft whispers of women.  The quiet demeanor and unobtrusive persona of many a Mary Calyx has graced the lives of almost everyone in the South.  They’re homebodies---not necessarily by choice, but linked to HOME by a physical or psychological thread which holds them like a magnet to the nest.   Perhaps they’re the last chick IN the nest, coddled for their late-in-life arrival or pedestaled as the baby-of-the-bunch.   Maybe Mama and Daddy chose THIS ONE for her domestic skills or shy manner or just because she coddles THEM, and will be an asset in their age.   In some cases, they exert a soft coercion to keep her close, uneducated, shorn of the capacity to choose her own way.

  Like CousinGlee, hip-joined to her Mama, they go to WMU, Missionary Society, Club---where they murmur and sip and listen, sorting Scripture cards or quilt squares, sampling the tiny sandwiches and asking, "Now, did you use lemon or vanilla puddin' in the Bundt?"
Their hair, clothes, powdery skin---all seem to be made of dry fabric, as if they spend their days pinned on a line in the wind.    And their SELVES are as elusive---sweet and unknowable, like wisps of clouds disappearing as you gaze.



You could buy almost anything in there; the scents of mint and vanilla and pine tar and bitter concoctions, the whiffs of Coty face powder and the standard small-town perfumes, the aromas of Pall Malls and home-rolled and Mr. Little's see-gars greeted you with the swing of that heavy glass door, and the bell-ting let them know you were coming.

You made your way through a maze of shelves, from school supplies to suspenders, stocks of stuff from way before you were born, the brand-new, the coveted racks of comic books and magazines and craft patterns---we'd sneak around behind when Miss Hazel wasn't looking and spend as much time as we could leafing through Superman and Heckle and Jeckle, til she discovered us and huffily chided our bending the pages and disturbing her corners-aligned arrangement of the bright temptations.

Way down in the middle, the left-hand side brightened with a green-countered soda-fountain, four stools-to-match, and all the shining promise of the chrome handles and cups and mysterious flip-lidded holes sunk into the counter, their long thin ladles the bringers of syrups---the deep dark string of Hershey's chocolate for your frosty-bowl sundae, or the strawberry and pineapple for a banana split.

The straw dispenser, a tall skinny dome of gleaming glass like a bell-jar clock, was eternally fascinating to me, with its pop-up magic. You lifted the little chrome deelybob in the center, and the whole thing rose, with the rainbow of straws spreading out like stiff petals; you took one, careful not to touch the others, and let the platform down, with the straws closing their little umbrella spokes til the next customer. That fragile thing had been in use all my life, and I cannot imagine how it survived all the young hands which grabbed hold of it every day.

The only time I ever heard Leon raise his voice was when some of the older teens were blowing bubbles into their drinks at the table. He came around the corner, saying loudly, "You're using my STRAWS for that ice-water? You need to PAY for something to get a straw, and Y'all need to let some customers use that table."

Said ice water was always served in the same little-bottom, big-top Coke glasses as all the other drinks, so I imagine there was less-than-profit on that item.

I wanted to touch the rounded handles of the soda dispenser, like polished, upside-down spinnin'-tops to be grabbed and pulled for the gush of Coke or Orange syrup or a foam of soda-water. The big glass bubbler with the daily-squeezed lemonade sat to the side like a square aquarium, with gutted lemon halves bobbing like fish.

Doc's was a magical place, owned by the forever-there town doctor, and manned by the same longtime staff who had served our parents and who-knows-who-else for decades. Doc was seldom himself there, but the place ran like clockwork, under the watchful eye of Miss Hazel, a small, quiet woman with a jaw of iron and a will to match. She strode her Mason Oxfords through the store with the ease of a monarch, confident in her longevity and the awe of her customers.

And Leon. Leon the Pharmacist. He held the medical fate of the whole town in his hands, even more than Doc, I think, for whatever he compounded or poured or counted out into those little rattly bottles with the typed-and-licked labels stuck on---we accepted the small crackly white paper sacks and downed each dose with perfect confidence-through-the-grimace, knowing Leon knew all, could tend to all, and would not let us down.

He'd read the square prescription slip and impale it neatly on the "spike file" which was a metal base with what looked like a slimmer version of our ice-pick blade; over the course of the year, the stack would grow higher and higher, somehow magically circling itself into the most beautiful overgrown white chrysanthemum with all that paper of the sharp little corners.

Then he'd reach unerringly for the correct bottle or jar, count out clicky little pills or capsules, or pour some viscous liquid neatly into a bottle, step aside to type the label on an old Royal the size of an anvil, lick the back of the label, and plaster it on.

Leon was a lifelong Baptist, a never-married long quiet man, with the aura of pill-dust and a whisking crackle of white coat; he dispensed, he rousted the too-long-in-the-booth leather-clad ducktails and sent them off down the street after their allotted time's lounge on the green vinyl, making way for shy, waiting little girls and moony-eyed couples to order ice cream and double-straw milkshakes.

He also had the all-time state record for Sunday School Attendance. Leon had never missed----NEVER MISSED a Sunday in those creaky-floored classrooms with the successive sizes of chairs. He was reputed to have been carried to church by his oldest sister on the first Sunday of his life, while his Mama was still recuperating the required two weeks at home.

Rumor had it that something magical in all those potions and pills must have osmosed through Leon’s skin or have been breathed in from the essence-of-pharmacy in the air in that high room of bottle-laden shelves, where he slid up the bubble-glass window and regarded the next customer with genial inquiry or a countenance-molded-to-match for the illness or pain written on the face below.

He MUST HAVE breathed in enough antibiotic and anti-viral and analgesic dust to keep him so healthy. He did not LOOK robust; he was lanky and spare. He roomed at Mrs. Stover's and took a lot of his meals at the same divided-plate caffay as all the proprietors on Main Street who did not go home for noon dinner with their families.

But not even that floury food, the Chicken-Fried Steak and pools of gravy, with potatoes and butterbeans and corn filling the heavy crockery sections---those did not contribute an ounce to the lifelong sparsity of Leon’s frame, and though he was on the point of cadaverous, Leon’s strength was legendary---out at his Daddy’s place where he was raised, he’d still spend his days off helping out with the farm work.

He could lift a hundred-pound sack of fertilizer onto each shoulder and walk them quite a ways to dump into the hopper, and he could wrestle a shoat or a full-grown boarhog to the ground when need arose. I’d heard of those exploits and my only thought was fear for the pristine whiteness of his coat. I imagined that he took it off, hung it neatly on a fencepost, went about the grimy business of farming, then washed up and put his coat back on to drive home.

And when Leon came home after his surgery, there at the end, the whole Men’s Class from the church knocked on his door Sunday morning at 9:45 a.m., bringing Sunday School to him. He didn’t live too much longer, but after they laid him to rest out there beside Mama and Papa, that next Sunday morning was the first ever in all his seventy-some years that he’d ever been absent from Sunday School.

Or maybe he wasn’t.


We’ve been plotting and planning and measuring for the new kitchen---just a tiny affair downstairs, one little wall-counter maybe 8’, with a corner turn into 4’ with the stove off on another wall, big and independent, sitting there like a huge squat frog with little round red handles to break the stern black of her face.

I want solid white, sturdy cabinets, with a pale top, perhaps Corian, perhaps not, with pale pink walls and cabinet-insides.   What I’d LOVE is one of those concrete counter-tops, pale gray and forever, with the faint marks of the maker’s touch. We haven’t arranged for anyone to do it yet, and the times make me long for dear old Truman Burke---man of all work, who “did for” everybody I knew of.

Daddy did all our building and re-modeling, as he was a master with wood and cabinetry, but Mr. Truman---he is a Paxton institution, and an artist of his own kind.

Truman Burke---that's a Mississippi name, a Southern name, a name for a solid citizen who IS who he is and does what he does and everyone thanks him for it.

“Cars actin’ up. Better call Truman.”

“Truman, would you take a look under there? She’s makin’ that zzzzzwhoo sound again.”

“How’s Marlee n’ em, Truman?”

“How much I owe you, Truman?”

A mainstay of this great nation, a real person who does what he does, raises up from his hunker over your carburetor, wipes his hands on an oily rag, leans into the window and asks about the family. And when the voice from under the hood says, “Try ‘er now,” you know you’re on your way, your day lightened and your way eased by that noblest of Americans---the small-town mechanic/carpenter/handyman/plumber who everybody relies on and everybody knows by name, though it’s not there on an oval over his heart. A man who cleans up nice and shakes your hand in church and will stop anywhere, anytime, to help a stranded motorist/puzzled map-reader/kid hunting his dog.

He’s a man with a calling, perhaps not from On High, but from the earth---the gravel of the first roads, the concrete and the asphalt and Firestone tires and Valvoline and Quaker State and maybe I got a
part to fit that.

Truman does his part to lift the flag and keep this country on the move. God Bless all the Trumans---I hope you know one.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Chambliss Strong was a woman who knew her strengths; she was a widow-woman with four little chirrun, and she made their living in the Fifties by doing three  things she did really well:  Ironing, Ice Cream and Chitlins, but never at the same time---all things had their season.

 She cooked for folks, right there in her own kitchen.     In Summer, she took orders for makin’s of boiled custard for ice cream, and she “took milk and cream” from the Reids, whose several cows, in conjunction with the hens, furnished all of Mrs. Reid’s butter-and-egg money for clothing her family and providing little extras like tablets and pencils and toys for the little ones, and a now-and-then trip to the picture show in the next-town-over.

Chambliss ordered many gallons of milk-with-cream and many dozens of eggs for each Thursday during the warm months.   She bought the milk raw, because she was gonna cook it anyway; and homogenized---unh-unh.   She wanted that big float of fresh cream on top, unskimmed and so rich you could stand a spoon in it.

The milk cost thirty-five cents a gallon, the eggs, two cents apiece, and the sugar, eight cents a pound---two cups being  a pound.    If the folks wanted add-ins like fresh peaches or strawberries or bananas, they could mash ‘em up and stir them in to their own taste, right there at home, before they started up the freezer.  

Chambliss spent all day Friday and Saturday at the stove, paddle-stirring the big pots of custard, one by one, as the mixture heated, began to rise a little thread of steam, then was scrupulously bottom-scrape-stirred for a few moments, to prevent sticking or burning.   She’d lift the paddle, cast a practiced eye on the liquid adhering, and then draw a clean finger through the silky coat.   If the line stayed parted like the Red Sea, the custard was ready; if it ran back together like covering the pursuers---it took a minute or two more.

A stack of twenty-five-pound bags of Domino were a bright golden light in her store-room, and when it was time for the chirrun to walk around to Mr. Jake’s with the little wagon for more, she rotated the on-the-floor supply to put the oldest on top.   So there in the house, she had all her ingredients, ready and waiting, when she got up on Friday morning.

Why, sometimes, she bought more vanilla from the Watkins man than The Busy Bee Caffay, world-famous for their pies, and Sturgeon’s Touch of Elegance Bakery, put together.  

She’d start on Friday mornings, before the kids woke, and have two or more pots done before they came in for their breakfast.     Each gallon took eight egg yolks, three cups of sugar, with a third-of-a-cup of flour and a dash of salt mixed into the dry sugar, then two quarts of milk, and a quart of cream, skimmed off all the jugs first, and left to itself in quarts in the ice tubs. 

  Chambliss had the motions and the order of things down to a personal science---mix flour and sugar while heating the milk gently in the big pot; beat eggs into the f/s mixture and stir in a little of the milk.   Quick-stir the little mixture into the now-scalded milk, then onto the fire for the paddle-cooking and finger-tracking.   The cream and good glug of fragrant vanilla went in last, after the whole thing came off the fire.

 She strained the custard, cooled it a bit, then funnel-poured it into the cleaned milk jugs, and set each jug into the  waiting tub of icy water out in the shade, where the fresh cold gallons of milk had stood. Folks knew the time of their turn, and would pick up the jugs all day---they were all the same vanilla custard---bringing back their clean jugs from the last order. 
The scrupulous scrubbing and scalding of pots and the sanitizing of the returned jugs had their place in the order of the day, as well---Chambliss didn't trust anybody's dish-washing or sanitizing but her own---who KNEW if they’d just given that jug a peremptory rinse to get the skimmin’s out.
Once one of the Jenkins boys, careless and slouchy and eager to be off with his friends, delivered home one of Chambliss' fresh gallons of milk in his hurry, and at church the next morning, you could still see the red mark on his ear from his Mama's pinch as she sent him scurrying back for the right jug.

Chambliss charged a dollar-and-a-half a gallon for that ice cream, only going up to a dollar-seventy-five when Mrs. Reid had to increase the costs of milk and eggs, and folks lined up for a niche in the Ice Cream Customer list---some of the ladies prized their places in her clientele as closely as their Standing Appointments at the Chat and Curl, and guarded both accordingly.    Even invitations to parties sometimes included the words, “Chambliss’s Ice Cream,” and even if not printed on, the mention was sure to guarantee a good attendance.


Her business from April to the first touch of Fall kept her own children in tablets and pencils and school clothes, and her cakes and three-days-available to cook for showers and teas and Missionary Society gatherings and such provided them a modest living, almost without her having to leave home.  

Every time she’d take a warm jug of the creamy mixture out to the tub, Chambliss would wring out a clean washrag in the icy water and wash her face and the back of her neck.    And some days, after the ten-or-twelve hours of boiling heat in that confined kitchen, and after the children were all asleep, she’d go out into the seclusion of her dark back yard and stand in one of the tubs, pouring pitcher after pitcher over her head and down her tired body, before she went inside for her bath.   She always Cloroxed the tub thoroughly  afterwards---her fastidious nature and sense of fair play wouldn’t allow for anything else.

With the coming of Fall, the drawing-in caused all those old hand-cranks and churn models to be cleaned up and retired to sheds and garages.   She still did ironing every week, and then came Chitlin’ Time, but that’s another story.