Here's to Mrs. Hart
It was just a small country store at a section line intersection in rural Montgomery, Alabama in 1957. I wondered then, and still wonder, how such “ma ‘n’ pa” stores made ends meet. Jan Keown (R.I.P., Auburn, Alabama 2016) and I would ride our bikes those 4 miles (from my house)…just to buy a Buffalo Rock Ginger Beer and split a Polar candy bar. The owner was Mr. Abel, as I remember, a nice man about 55 or 60. His wife was a seamstress and Sunday School teacher. He told us once that he and the wife had owned the store since it was a “country store”, way out in the “boonies.” All his customers were farmers then and his product lines had changed since the farms were getting bigger, owned by companies, instead of farmers. My dad had spoken of the plight of the small farmer before. My grandfather lived in Shipman, Illinois, a farming community of less than 600 people….still today.
One day, I rode to the store by myself. Jan had the “crud”, as his dad called it. When I arrived, Mr. Abel was busy with Mrs. Hart, an older black woman whose family were sharecroppers in the area. She sold a variety of produce to his store. She also sold produce from a mule drawn wagon, tiered to accommodate her products and allow storage underneath. She would drive through the housing additions. The mule, Rufus, was a big, friendly mule and had bells on his reins and harness. Either his bells or her singing would announce them to the neighborhoods. She only sang Spirituals, as I recall. She was also a Sunday School teacher. When Jan and I had gone on “walkabout” looking for a train track, we found acres and acres of dense wild dewberries. Later that same day, a farmer told us we could harvest all the green beans we wanted from the edges of his fields near the trees. We had shared this knowledge with Mrs. Hart and took her grandson, Jake, with us to harvest. We only went 4 times, but we brought back a lot of beans and berries on each occasion. Mrs. Hart also made what my mother called “the best pies I’ve ever eaten….better than Aunt Ruth’s.” When she made dewberry pies and, when driving through the neighborhood, she would stop at our house and leave one with my mother. Sometimes, if we kids were outside when she came around, she would slice a pie right then and there. She was a nice old lady and Jake was a good guy too. He was a good baseball player, as I recall. I had interacted with black people before, but never so personally. I had never played with a black kid. He was a funny kid too, but made good grades in school. Mrs. Hart said he was a “cut up.” I have often wondered what happened to Jake.
Anyway, for a moment, I felt larcenous. I wanted to get away with something. Kids are that way. I don’t know what brought it on or why I felt that way; but there was a small Timex wrist watch display on the end of the counter, hidden by other displays. It had eight different Timex watches on it. It was relatively small and square. It would fit in my book baskets on the back of my bike. I picked it up and very casually walked out. They were too busy to notice. There was a paper bag in the trash can outside the door. I wrapped the watch display in the bag and put it in a basket. Then, so no one would think it strange that I suddenly left, I went back into the store. I waited patiently by the soda machine, without interrupting. It was the kind that had rows of sodas and you would slide them out and pull them up. Sometimes the soda in front was not what you wanted. Mr. Abel had a key that let him lift the sliders and select another soda instead of the one in front. If I waited by the machine, he would figure it out. He did; and, after he pulled it out, he said, “It’s on me. You don’t have to pay for the soda today. You do have to pay for the candy bar.”
Guilt swept over me. I looked him in the eye and began to pout. I couldn’t help it. My conscience was in control. Then, I started to cry a bit. He asked, “What’s wrong, son?” I walked out to my bike, got the wrapped watch display, and took it back into the store. I put it where it had been. I was still crying some; and said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I stole it.” He put his arm around my should and said, “The candy bar is on me too.” Just then, Mrs. Hart came back in. “I told you he’s a good boy. I told you. I knew he wouldn’t steal.” She had watched me take the package from my bike and return it. She had seen me steal the watches and told Mr. Abel.
Just three weeks later, Fall was approaching and Jan and I had made the ride for a Buffalo Rock. We got to the store and went in. A teenage guy was standing in front of Mr. Abel with a large knife. “Put the money in the bag!” he screamed. He was wearing a kind of Lone Ranger-type Halloween mask. “Step over there” he told Jan and I. “Do it!” We moved. Mr. Abel looked at us while he was putting his money in the paper sack and said, “Don’t do this, son. Don’t do this.” Jan poked me in the ribs and whispered, “Hey, that’s Randy…from the Wynn Dixie. He works in produce. He just lives down the street from me.”
Suddenly... I really don’t know why... I said, “Randy. Mrs. Hart said you’re a good boy. You shouldn’t steal. She said you wouldn’t steal…..’cause you’re a good boy. Mrs. Hart wouldn’t lie. She teaches Sunday School.” Mr. Abel looked at me. Randy looked at me. Jan squeezed my arm. Randy suddenly had tears welling in his eyes. He looked at Mr. Abel. Mr. Abel gave him a silent nod. Randy suddenly sobbed, “I’m so sorry” and ran out the door……without the bag of money.
Jan and I never paid for another Buffalo Rock or any other sodas and two kids didn’t become thieves…..
all thanks to Mrs. Hart. And that’s part of the reason I am a good boy.