Ms. Herndon

on June 9, 2010 in Ms. Herndon
Helen "Polly" Voyles

Helen "Polly" Voyles

“That was Ms. Herndon’s place,” said Mama for the ten-thousandth time. She said it every time we drove down LaVista near Old Norcross. “I hear they’re might build the new Cofer Library there one day.”
“What’s wrong with one they have now?”
“Tucker’s growing, and I hope they do spend money on a new library. I stopped buying books – dust catchers. And how many times do you read the same book over again? It’s a waste of money. My Reid Cofer Library card is my most prized possession,” Mama laughed.
“Who was Ms. Herndon anyway? You mention her every time we pass that house. Have I ever met her?” I asked.
Mama smiled as I saw her traveling down memory lane, “Well, Ms. Herndon was a special person to me, a sweet woman,” Mama answered.
“Why so?”
“She was just a kind little old lady, a friend of your Memi’s and she lived in that house back there. That was back when I lived on Old Norcross, across the street from now Aunt Annie’s house. Actually, Annie lived in the same house with us. She bought property across the road where we kept a cow. Later on, we moved to Idlewood. But when I was a kid, we lived on Old Norcross. I walked to school passing Ms. Herndon’s place every day. The now Tucker High was the-all-there-was-school. It wasn’t the fancy school it is now. Some of the teachers boarded in the homes on LaVista near the Methodist church,” Mama shook her head – she knew she was veering off the subject. “I looked forward to seeing Ms. Herndon every day.”
“Every day?”
“Just about. She was always up and about looking after her flowers or winter garden. She was a busy woman. If by chance I didn’t see her outside, I took a minute to check on her. You know, to make sure she wasn’t sick or something. I helped her move flower pots around and took rooted cuttings to Mama. Ms. Herndon always asked me about my studies – always wanted to know what book I was reading. She’d say – you don’t have to know everything – just where to find it.”
“And you know, I hope they do build a library on her place,” Mama said.
“I’m surprised Memi let you go places on the way home from school. I thought she was strict as all get out.”
“Oh yes Mama was strict all right! And so was your PawPaw, but they knew I stopped by Ms. Herndon’s place. Mama kept up with me pretty close, “Mama laughed.
“So that’s it? That’s why she was so special?”
“Ms. Herndon was always my Mama’s friend, but I considered her my friend, after that day,” Mama said seriously.
“What day?”
“The day I graduated from the seventh grade. You know, we didn’t have all that much back then. Times were hard. My daddy made a living digging wells for a dollar a day. Of course, the dollar went a lot further then, but still, we had to be frugal. Mama sewed and kept a garden and canned about all we ate. Your Memi also worked for Mr. Joyner from time to time cleaning chickens. Poor ol’ Mama, I believe she ruined her health working those long hours with her hands in that ice water. But everybody did what needed to be done to get by. Even so, I considered myself one of the lucky ones at school.”
“Why, I mean, how so?”
“I got to attend school every day. The Cain girls and boys had to take turns staying out on Mondays to help their mother with the wash. There were about a dozen of them.” Mama couldn’t help from laughing as she thought about the Cain family. “They lived in that log house on Old Norcross – some say it’s the oldest house in Tucker.I don’t know, but I spent many a day there. With at least ten kids around – something was always going on. And if you tired of one, there’s always a bunch more to play with. That house wasn’t all that big either – not by today’s standards. There was a bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Cain and whoever was the baby at the time – and then a boy’s room and a girl’s room. Oh how I loved it when it came a big storm!”
“Why in the world…”
“Because they had a storm cellar – with Mr. and Mrs. Cain and all those kids – one of them would run down to my house and get me. When Mrs. Cain saw me squeezing in, she just smiled and said, “Always room for one more.”
“You know back then, a lot of kids had to miss school to help out at home. The Story’s stayed out during harvest time.
“Did the Storys go to Tucker?”
“No, they went to Glover. They lived on the Gwinnett end of Old Norcross – I lived on the DeKalb end.”
Staying out of school during harvest times was pretty much the norm. I did pick cotton sometimes on the weekends, but never during the school week. Mama and Daddy would pick all day and I had to pick cotton until my big long bag hung heavy on the end.” Mama chuckled at herself, “I picked cotton until I was blue in the face! And that bag still hung empty.”
“I had this little cat that followed me around everywhere. It’d take every step I’d take. I’d pick cotton till my fingers got sore, and then lay that bag down and let that cat walk into it to take a nap. Then I’d hold up my bag for Mama and Daddy to see. ‘See here,’ I’d call out to ‘em across the field – always made sure they were too far away to check my bag. ‘Is this enough?’”
“’Yes, yes that’s enough. You can read now’- they’d say.”
“Read now?”
Mama could hardly get the words out, she was laughing so much, “Yes, I always had a good book to read. I’d find shady spot and read until they finished. Of course, I always emptied my bag before they made it to the wagon!” Mama laughed. “I picked a lot of cotton, but I never missed a day of school unless I was sick with fever. I was mighty fortunate!”
“Sounds like it,” I mused unconvincingly, “Don’t forget Ms. Herndon. That day…”
“Oh yes, Ms. Herndon. Well, it was time for my seventh grade graduation. For weeks everybody went on about what they were wearing, how they would fix their hair and all. You know Diane, some things never change. And I wanted to be just like all the girls getting done-up. I wanted to wear lipstick, but your PawPaw said – no. I wanted a new dress, but your Memi said – no. A new dress was out of the question, but she did manage to revamp an old Sunday dress and made it look different. Mama was good at that. I had a pretty dress that none of those girls had ever seen. I thought I was something! Mama French braided my hair and I put on that “new” dress. Just before I left the house, Mama broke open a hot lard biscuit and shined my shoes with it.”
“And off I went. I walked up Old Norcross and took a right onto LaVista and headed to school. I couldn’t wait to see Ms. Herndon. I left in plenty of time to call on her before school, but I didn’t have to. There she stood out by the road waiting for me.”
“You mean on the sidewalk?”
“Sidewalk! Noooooo! Tucker didn’t have sidewalks back then! LaVista was hardly a road – most roads in Tucker were old logging trails. No sidewalks, no curbs – it wasn’t a street like it is now – just an old dirt road.”
And there stood Ms. Herndon! It tickled me to death to see her and I ran to her. I remember it like it was yesterday. She stood there smiling with one arm behind her back. She made me turn all the way around twice to get a good look at me.”
“’Oh my, you look all grown up. Helen, you’re as pretty on the outside as you are on the inside – just beautiful.’” she said, and I believed her. For some reason, I believed everything she said.”
“Then she pulled her arm out and handed me a corsage – made from her garden. She pinned it on my left shoulder and gave me a hug.”
“Really? What was it made of?”
“Little pink sweetheart roses with a little white blooms of something tucked in all around. It had a piece of white lace crunched up behind it with a sweet little pink ribbon. It was so beautiful! I couldn’t wait to show off my corsage. I would be the only girl there with a corsage. I thanked Ms.Herndon and went to school.”
Suddenly Mama got quiet and turned her head away from me and looked out her side of the car window. Mama wasn’t laughing anymore. She was sad. I wondered why, but thought I should leave it alone as we drove around. When I pulled into Mama’s favorite place to eat, Matthew’s Cafeteria, Mama reached over and touched my arm and said, “Di, I want to tell you something before we go in.”

Matthews Cafeteria on Main Street

Matthews Cafeteria on Main Street

Mama spoke quietly with tears in her eyes, “Yes, I thought I was something special. But when I got to school that day, I realized something. If Ms. Herndon hadn’t given me that corsage, I’d been the only girl there without one. Yes, Ms. Herndon was mighty good to me.”

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