Mother and Daddy, recently married, settled in to their life in the Clearview community of Middle Tennessee where he had grown up, living in the old farmhouse where my paternal grandfather had been born.
By fall, Mother acquired a teaching job at the country school, which was much larger than your typical “one-room schoolhouse.” One room housed grades 1-4, the other grades 5-8, and the children sat at tables in the large kitchen to eat their lunches brought from home. Mother, with her high school diploma and six months of business school, taught the older children. They called her “Miss Mary,” and the name stuck long after she was no longer teaching.
Mother and Daddy often shopped at a general store about a half mile from their house. John Armstrong, the owner, was a short, stocky man who always wore a soiled butcher’s apron even though he did not cut up meat. The store carried everything from pickles in a barrel to flour in 10-pound cloth bags that the local women saved to make dresses. Penny candy was at a child’s eye level and the soft drinks were in a large metal cooler whose icy water chilled the hands that reached in for a RC Cola or orange Nehi. The opener for the cold bottles was on the side of the cooler. The floors were frequently oiled to keep down the dust from the gravel road just a few feet from the door.
One afternoon, as Daddy and Mother went in for a routine purchase of some staple items, the scene was familiar—scrawny, red-haired Velma White, the married daughter of the storeowner, sitting with her mother Zelda to pick up store gossip. This day, however, Velma rose from her seat, shook her fists in the air, and yelled, “Who do you think you are, making my little Bobby Joe stand in the corner today? Some teacher you are. Picking on my poor little boy.”
Mother had had a hard day with her four grades of students and at that moment had no memory of what had precipitated the punishment. She stood there as Velma’s verbal attack progressed to obscenities that sent mothers with young ones scurrying from the store.
When Mother and Daddy got home–both having taken the abuse in silence–she said, “Lawrence, I’m never going to that store again.”
“You don’t really mean that,” he responded.
He knew her well. By morning she had resolved to turn the situation around.
“I think I need some cheese,” she decided that afternoon on the way home from school.
She returned to the store, where Velma’s father, John, sold her the cheese. Mother, only 20 years old and new to the neighborhood, decided to address the situation directly. She said, “Mr. John, I didn’t care for what happened here yesterday.” He simply ducked his head and held out her change.
Mother thought that was the end of it. But the next day when she got home from school, Daddy came in, shaking his head.
“Here’s our cream,” he said. “It wasn’t picked up.”
In their rural 1943 community, Velma’s husband Alfred drove the local dairy truck, picked up farmers’ cream, and took it to the dairy every morning. This time he left theirs at the side of the road to sour.
After that, they had to take it to the dairy themselves, and soon they quit selling cream, for the trip to the dairy every day was more trouble than it was worth. Instead they simply gave cream to neighbors.
Beginning that day, Mother started a determined campaign constructed to overcome her enemy with kindness. Every time she saw Velma or Alfred she would smile and greet them. If she were in the car, she would give a big wave. She wrote frequent, positive notes about Bobby Joe. She showered him with love and concern, for of course she continued to be his teacher.
Toward the end of the school year, Alfred flagged down Mother at the edge of his driveway, catching her in mid-wave. Oh, no, she thought. What now?
“Miss Mary,” he said, the words tumbling out as though if he paused he might lose courage. “Miss Mary, down at the dairy we have this new kind of oleomargarine. It’s colored yellow, and it’s in sticks.” He shoved a package at her. “I thought you might like to try some.” And he was gone in a cloud of dust.
Two weeks later, he again signaled for her to stop. This time he held a cardboard cylinder. Thrusting it at her, he said, “These here are canned biscuits. Ever hear of that? No, I didn’t figger you did. Thought you might like to try ‘em.”
Mother had made a point to which Miss Velma’s husband, at least, had responded. But she did not stop there.
As the years passed, Mother and Daddy parented, taught, farmed, and worked in their local church. We children knew nothing of the original conflict between Mother and Miss Velma. All we knew was that Mother always reminded us, “Wave at Miss Velma, children,” every time we passed her house, whether or not we could see her. Mother suspected that Miss Velma peered out from behind the curtains of the neat white cottage and would be pleased that we waved at her.
Year after year when the church put together fruit baskets at Christmas, Mother volunteered to take a basket to Miss Velma and Mr. Alfred, as we called them. Each year when the route for the carol singers was being planned, Mother would quietly add their names, even though they were neither elderly nor shut-in.
I never understood what I perceived as my mother’s fondness for this bitter, tight-lipped woman. Sometimes, as the oldest child, I’d be the one sent to Miss Velma’s door with the message, “Here’s some coconut cake Mother thought you’d enjoy,” or “Mother thought maybe you could use these extra tomatoes since we have a good crop this year.” But most of the time it was Mother herself who went to the dreaded door, smiling all the way up the front walk.
Every summer our rural church would have a “gospel meeting” and Mother would always invite Miss Velma and Mr. Alfred to no avail. Finally, when I was a teenager, Mother came bouncing in from one of her many trips to Miss Velma’s. “Miss Velma and Mr. Alfred are coming to church tonight!” she announced, eyes brimming with tears.
“Great!” we all responded, secretly fearing they would let Mother down.
Not only did they come that night, but also the next night and the next. Emboldened, Mother said, “Miss Velma, what if Lawrence and I come over and study the Bible with you and Mr. Alfred?”
Miss Velma contemplated her answer, then nodded, answering in her country accent. “I reckon that’s a good idee.”
The studies touched their hearts and they were baptized into Christ, remaining faithful Christians for the rest of their lives. From then on, Mother showered Miss Velma with love as another sister in Christ.
After I married and lived out of state, I rarely saw Miss Velma, though sheer habit brought a wave at the times I occasionally passed her house. Sometimes Mother would mention that Miss Velma had given her a quilt top, or some preserves, or a purchased gift.
One day when I was visiting Mother, Miss Velma, stooped and trembly, stopped by for a visit, driven there by middle-aged Bobby Joe. “You know, Lanita, your mama is the finest woman that ever lived,” she said. “I never had a friend like her–ever. I never had a sister, either, but if I’d uh had one, I’d uh wanted her to be just like Mary. You’re a lucky young woman to have a mother like her.”
I smiled, but I didn’t think much of her comments at the moment. Many people felt that way about Mother. After she left, Mother decided to tell me the history of their friendship. “I do love her now,” Mother said, “but there were many years when I didn’t. I kept thinking that I was a Christian and the only way she would ever change was to experience how a Christian is different from other people. I didn’t want Satan to win on this one.” She smiled. “And it has paid off over and again.
“There are all kinds of ways to turn enemies into friends.”
Now as I encounter difficult people in a variety of situations, my natural tendency is to turn away and deal with them as little as possible. But I remember the example of my mother and remind myself not to give up on the unlovable but instead to “wave at Miss Velma.”