I’ve had an interesting life, so far, no doubt about that, and one of the more interesting chapters was a little old lady who would have whipped Satan into shape, given half a chance.
From the time I started kindergarten until after third grade, I spent every afternoon during the school year, some Saturdays, and every day of my summer vacation in the care of a frail, shrunken old hillbilly lady I came to love--at least in a fearful, scared-love kind of way.
Mrs. Doris lived in the middle of nowhere, back when Central Florida was much more country than urban and suburban, like it is now. She owned several hundred acres inherited from her family on the St. Johns River a few miles east of a tiny town called Enterprise. Back then, there was nothing to Enterprise but a gas station straight off the Andy Griffith Show, a feed store, an elementary school, and the Enterprise Children’s’ Home, where my Mom worked.
The old house in which Mrs. Doris was born (literally) and raised probably hadn’t changed much between the time of her childhood, which I’m guessing was in the 1600’s, and the time I found myself stranded there on an almost daily basis hundreds of years later. It was a wood-framed, two story farm-house with a tin roof, wood-burning cook-stove, rattly windows, and Palmetto Bugs from hell. It was surrounded by a couple of miles of live-oak forest, fallow fields and, to the front, the beautiful St. Johns River. In their time, I’m sure the huge, Spanish moss-draped oaks surrounding the house had seen Seminole war-parties, Spanish explorers, monstrous gators, and maybe a hundred kids like me, left in the care of a no-frills, heavy-handed, hot tempered old hillbilly woman with no tolerance for sass--Mrs. Doris. I don’t know her first name. Never did. I’d be afraid to ask, even now.
Mrs. Doris was unique. She was all of five feet tall. Okay, maybe more like four feet eight or nine inches. But she was a giant, at least in spirit. And she was a woman of enterprise. Well, yes, of Enterprise the town, but also of business-type enterprise. She raised chickens, both for food and to sell the eggs they produced. And she raised children, though not her own, and also for profit. She also raised pigs, but as far as I know she only ate them. My favorite pig was a sow named Bessy, after my first grade girlfriend. I fed her every day. She was delicious.
Mrs. Doris was a great cook--and good with a hatchet. Most days, around lunch time--she called it “dinner”--she would tell me to “git a bird” and I would go out to the expansive chicken house and select the upcoming meal. I hated the chickens because they often pecked and complained when I stole their eggs in the morning, so I usually picked the one who was meanest or scariest on a given day. I would deliver the unhappy bird to Mrs. Doris, who would lop off its head on an old piece of log that served as chopping block. It’s one of those endearing memories that stay with a kid. I’m sure it helped keep me in line.
Anyway, Mrs. Doris would cook the chicken and whatever else was on the menu--cornbread was a daily staple--on a huge wood-burning cook stove, and it was good. Anything she made was good. It had to be. Because it didn’t matter: if she made it and put it on your plate, you ate it. Period. Picture five or six kids at a big table in a country kitchen with a wood-burning stove in a house with no air conditioning on a day that’s ninety-five degrees with ninety-five percent humidity…get the picture?
Sweat dripping onto your plate…not hungry with the heat…chicken of the day with a dumpling or two, green beans, tomatoes, cornbread--and eat it all or suffer the wrath. Mrs. Doris was a believer in both cooking and eating. Oh, and discipline. In fact, perhaps discipline should come first on her list of beliefs. In retrospect, delete the “perhaps”. Discipline came first. Yup, the old lady would have done well in the army. Our army. Hitler’s army. The Roman army. Any army.
One of my daily chores was sorting papers. Newspapers, to be exact. Now, enough years have passed that I don’t remember what I was supposed to accomplish in my newspaper sorting endeavors, but sort them I did. This usually occurred during Mrs. Doris’ afternoon One Life To Live or General Hospital soap opera break. I did my chore in the (friggin) hot upstairs hallway, and all I know is that if I sorted wrong, somehow out of whack with Mrs. Doris’ view of properly sorted paper, I received a whack or two of a different sort, and I was sentenced to a hot upstairs cot for an enforced nap time. I learned from that: Do a job right, the first time, or suffer the consequences. Discipline.
And firewood. Firewood was important. Firewood provided all the heat during Central Florida’s surprisingly chilly winter. And firewood produced heat to cook the daily chicken and occasional Bessy--God rest her porky soul. So firewood forays were frequent. Mrs. Doris hired a man nearly as old as she was to cut up the abundant deadfall in the woods around her farm--I think his name was George…I sometimes wonder if they didn’t have a little something going on--and us kids of the chain gang, I mean the kids she watched, loaded the firewood onto a trailer pulled by an old tractor I think Moses built but which was piloted by—yes, Mrs. Doris.
Now, for some reason I don’t understand, the extensive woods surrounding Mrs. Doris’ property were home to a large number of wild dogs. Real wild dogs. They ran around in packs. And Mrs. Doris had no patience for these beasts. While us young’ns loaded firewood, Mrs. Doris would blast away with an old single barrel 12 gauge at any wild dog unwise or unlucky enough to enter her limited visual range. I don’t know how many dogs she killed, if any, and I’m not sure, either, whether they were in more danger from her semi-blind shooting than we were. All I know is that this crazy woman would see a dog and “kaboom!” That shotgun would knock her back a few feet--I don’t know how her brittle old shoulder stood up to it--but as soon as she recovered, she would reload to be ready for another crack at the pesky varmints.
So this was in…oh, the late 60’s, early 70’s, and Mrs. Doris occasionally ventured into town to pick up feed for the chickens. I’m not sure what kind of car she drove…it was like a boat from the forties. A Hudson, maybe, or a DeSoto. Whatever it was, it was huge, and she parked it in a tumble-down barn about a hundred yards from the house. She would load us kids into the mouse and palmetto-bug infested behemoth, power the old beast up, and drive into town. This isn’t amazing, I know, except that she was sitting on pillows, hunched up close to the steering wheel, and I know damn well she still couldn’t see over the lengthy hood of the car! She’d wander from side to side of the winding two-lane road into town, load up, and wobble her way back. Not much scares a seven year old, but that did.
Sadly, the years passed, as years tend to do, and my mom changed jobs. We moved further away, and though we visited from time to time, we eventually fell out of touch with the cantankerous old woman. I grew up. We moved to North Carolina. I graduated, then did time in the Marines and Army. In 1987 I found myself in Florida for the first time in many years. I was headed south for a job interview in Broward County when I decided to swing past Mrs. Doris’ homestead. With the so-called “progress” of the area, I wasn’t sure the old place would still be there, but surprise, surprise, it was. And more surprising still, I spied Mrs. Doris immediately upon pulling into the dirt drive--she was in the yard with a shovel in hand and a scroungy mutt by her rubber-booted feet. Manly-man that I’d become, I got out of my car and strode boldly forward. Apparently I’d caught her burying dog poop.
“Hello, Mrs. Doris,” I said in my deepest manly-man voice, “Don’t suppose you remember me?”
Well, the mutt sniffed me and growled, but didn’t bite, and Mrs. Doris gave me a squinty-eyed look that I couldn’t interpret--but she never was much open to interpretation.
“’Course I remember you. Think I’m daft?” She pushed the shovel into my hands. “Bury that. Dang dog can’t do it hisself, can he?” She started walking toward the house. “And when you’re done, y’kin come in and sign the book. All you young’ns stop by, sooner or later…”
While I was writing this I got up to get a beer, and Christina, my wife, asked what I was writing about this time. I told her “Mrs. Doris”, about whom she has heard before, and she chuckled.
“Do you think she is still alive?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” I answered. “Probably,” I said as I grabbed a cold Ice House. “I’m not sure anything could kill her.”
And that’s the truth. Mrs. Doris lives, if not in the flesh, then for sure in the hearts and minds of the children privileged enough to spend time in the calloused and capable hands of a character who could have stepped straight off the pages of a Mark Twain story. She never had one child of her own—she had all of us, instead.
See you one day, Mrs. Doris--and yes, just hand me the shovel.