Oh, The Conversations We Heard!
Scientifically speaking we cannot go back in time and relive the past. However, I believe that our long-term memory is a gift that we are given from God that allows us to relive days or events from our past, even if it is only through our memories. I find myself often being thankful for this gift because it allows me to safely tuck away in the crevices of my mind memories of things that I like EB White am passionate about, while also allowing me to revisit those much cherished things that have slowly faded away with the passing of time.
As I reflect back upon the years that have passed, memories begin to unfold much like a road map. One section of memory lane that I find myself traveling down more often than others are those that originated within Mama’s store, Mitchell’s Grocery. Mama’s store stood at the center of Billy’s Branch where relatives and friends lived in scattered houses that surrounded the store forming a small close-knit community. Many people have said that Mitchell’s Grocery was the heartbeat of our community and family.
The small country store meant many different things to different people. For some folks the store was only a place to spend their money while for others it was a place to talk to a friend. The front porch was not just a place where shuck beans swayed in the afternoon breeze, or pop bottles were neatly stacked awaiting their return to the local bottling company. The store porch was a place where great conversations of various subjects often took place. Topics such as politics, religion, death, love, marriage, divorce, the good ole days, and even sex, was discussed between neighbors and friends. Reflecting back, I now realize that many of my beliefs, opinions and much of my early education originated from conversations that I overheard and from those that I later participated in while sitting on the old school bus seats on Mama’s store porch.
I remember the sight, the sound and the smell of the small white block building. A big red sign adorned the side of the building that read "Drink Coca-Cola". Other signs advertised Pepsi, Kerns bread, Southern Bell milk and ice cream. One sign that I particularly remember is the one that hung on the side of the store, it was shaped like a big package of Pail Mail cigarettes. On hot summer days the front door was usually open wide, while on the inside the rotating Westinghouse fan helped to deliver an adequate breeze for those who sought relief from the hot sun. Mama’s store had handmade wooden counters with blue and white linoleum covering the tops. The three counters made a sort of U shape, behind each of them wooden shelves that Papaw had built reached to the top of the ceiling. They held such things as penny candy and bubble gum, canned goods, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, meal, flour, lard, toiletries, material that was sold by the yard and much more. After looking back I realize that Mama’s shelves held everything that anyone needed to survive. A big red Coca-Cola cooler kept bottles of Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper and Grape Nehi’s ice cold while a separate cooler kept milk, butter and eggs chilled to perfection. With all of these items, we found no reason to go to the one fancy supermarket that was located all the way down town.
Mama did not use a cash register to keep her money in or to track her sales. She kept journals of her customers credit charges and sales, the paper money was kept in an old brown leather billfold that lay inside of the big gold colored cookie tin where she also kept her coin. Each night after the store closed, she and Papaw took their money tin up to their house and placed it safely beneath their bed.
I chuckle now as I recall the portable black and white Magnavox television that sat on top of the old white refrigerator in the back of the store. Papaw believed in the old time Holiness way and he also remembered hearing one of the visiting evangelists preach about how it was a sin to have a television inside of your home. However, he thought it was okay to have a television in the store. I enjoyed watching television with Mama while she pieced quilts on her Singer sewing machine. She would peddle while watching her afternoon soap opera while I sat on top of the wooden counter and enjoyed a bologna sandwich with a cold Pepsi. On occasions, one or more of our male cousins would have to follow the television cable up the hill to see why the reception was poor. Usually it was due to a fallen branch on the line. At six each evening Papaw watched the news while we played Red Rover or Red Light Green Light in front of the store, and on Saturday nights we would all gather inside and enjoy the singing and the silly antics of Buck Owens and Roy Clark on Hee Haw.
During the cold winters, the coal-heating stove helped keep warmth inside while it also allowed Mama to cook delicious soup beans with big chunks of ham in a large kettle on the top of the stove. Two old wooden church pews sat in an L shape along the front of the counters, often these pews could be found adorned with relatives and friends who were passing the time of day or events of the week. The customers that came to Mama’ store, were usually known by name, if not we knew them before they left.
Mama’s store was not always a place of fun it was often a place of hard work and responsibility. I earned my first wages stacking pop bottles, washing canning jars, stringing beans, sweeping and dusting shelves with Mama’s big feather duster. It was also a place of mourning when a relative or neighbor passed away and a place filled with joy when an addition to one of the large families entered the world.
Today small country stores such as Mama’s are nearly a forgotten thing of the past most of them have been replaced with the convenience of modern grocery stores where we are able to browse the many isles of items with ease. However, when I step back and take a long look at the modern grocery stores of today I realize that they are only a structure which house a variety of items. When I reminisce back through the cherished memories of Mama’s store I am once again reassured that her store was not just a structure, it was and is the foundation of who I am.
Written By: Joyce Bowling
Copyright September 2006
All Rights Reserved