A Visit With Miss Lillie

Time passes, but not the love you keep for a woman who shaped your life

By Bill Thompson

I happened to see Jason at the drugstore the other day, and he told me that his mama, Miss Lillie, was visiting him. Jason and I have been friends since we were small children, when Jason’s family lived on my grandmother’s farm in Chadbourn back in the 1950s. We used to go fishing together and whatever we caught Miss Lillie would cook for us. Best fish I ever ate.

When we were “puttin’ in” tobacco (harvesting, tying the leaves to sticks and hanging them in the barn), Jason and I would be in charge of picking up the fallen leaves of green tobacco that fell around the barn during the process. We were about 5 or 6 years old. Miss Lillie was the disciplinarian who sometimes gave us both a spanking for “fooling around” when we were supposed to be working.

Sometimes my grandmother would let me go with Jason and Miss Lillie to the A.M.E. Zion church, which was just down the road from the farm. Miss Lillie sang in the choir, so she always put Jason and me on the front row so she could give us “the bad eye” if we misbehaved.

That all seemed like a long time ago, as Jason and I stood there in the drugstore. That’s when he said: “You oughta go see Mama. She’d love to see you. Just go on over to the house and surprise her.” So I did.

Jason lives on a country road just a few miles from me. I knocked on the door of the little brick house but didn’t get an answer, so I went around to see if Miss Lillie might be in the backyard. As I came around the corner of the house I could hear her singing. I didn’t recognize the song, but I could tell it was a gospel song from the lyrics: “Lord, keep me going down a lonesome road. I can’t make it by myself . . .” Miss Lillie was just singing away as she hung white bed sheets on a clothesline.

“Miss Lillie, Jason’s got a washer and dryer in that house. What you doing with this clothesline?”

A startled Miss Lillie turned to see who had called her name. With a frown on her face she asked, “Who you?”

I should have known she wouldn’t recognize me. It had been almost 20 years since she had left to live with her daughter in Baltimore, but I was still kinda disappointed.

“It’s William, Miss Lillie, from over at the farm in Chadbourn. Remember?”

“Oh, my goodness, William. You sure changed. You ’bout scared me to death,” she said as she rushed over and gave me a big hug. One thing I noticed right away: Even after 50 years, Miss Lillie still smelled like talcum powder.

I may have changed a lot, but Miss Lillie hadn’t changed much. She was still a tiny woman with short cropped hair that had turned gray. She wore a simple print dress that hung loosely on her thin frame. She had on a pair of white socks stuffed into what looked like leather bedroom shoes.

“Lord, child, I didn’t know what to think a white man come sneakin’ up on me like that! You know I’m kinda timid anyway.”

“Now, you know you’re not timid, Miss Lillie. I remember you ran that tobacco barn crew like a drill sergeant. And you’d kill a snake with nothing but a garden hoe. And you sure didn’t mind telling me and Jason what to do.”

“Yeah, but y’all was good boys. You both turned out pretty good, so I musta done something right.”

“We had good teachers like you, Miss Lillie.”

“Come sit up here on the porch and tell me what you been doing.”

Miss Lillie and I sat on the porch for a long time, reminiscing about the days when our families worked together, when we all shared threats of too much rain or not enough, tobacco barns that caught on fire, boiling peanuts in a wash pot in the backyard, fishing in a “creek” that was really just a wide ditch, funerals and weddings of both families.

“Those were good times, weren’t they, Miss Lillie?”

Miss Lillie didn’t answer me right away. She sat in that rocking chair on her son’s back porch and looked out across the corn field at the sun brushing the top of the pine trees. Finally, she said, “They was good times if we want ’em to be, William. At the time, we all just did the best we could. Some of us fared better than others ’cause we didn’t expect much so we wasn’t disappointed. Sometimes we kinda picky ’bout what we remember. We just remember the good. Sometimes we even think the bad was good. All depends on how we want it to be, I reckon. That’s the way I want it to be, William. I want it to be good.”

Me too, Miss Lillie.

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.

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