“When I was three or four years old Mama and Daddy went to Memphis and took Tiny and Mary. I stayed home with Bama, the only time I ever remember being left with her overnight. Tiny had a brand new hat for the trip, as I’m sure Mary did too. They went to the zoo, and while looking at the Polar bears Tiny leaned over the fence, and her hat fell off close to the bear’s cage. A big Polar bear promptly reached out and got it and ate it. They had to get on a streetcar and head straight for Bry’s Department Store in downtown Memphis to buy another hat. That story remained one of our favorites through the years.
“It was during that trip that Big, Mama’s older sister, came over one night to check on Bama and me. Miss Pearl McLellan, who lived next door, came in, and I asked Big if she knew ‘Mr. Pearl.’ That always tickled Mama and Big and Bama because Miss Pearl was kind of mannish anyway. Miss Pearl was a court reporter and later became a lawyer, the only woman lawyer in Greenwood. Mama would always say it wasn’t very nice for a lady to be a court reporter because they heard things no nice lady should hear during trials. However, I think Mama really enjoyed it when Miss Pearl came over and told her what went on in the courtroom. Mama said she liked the men and came over on Sunday because Daddy was home then.
“She had a sidewalk in front of her house and we didn’t so Mama would sometimes let us go over there to skate. We only had a walk leading to the street. They always told us that Miss Pearl’s was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, [house] in Greenwood. I believe it was just part of an old home which had been moved there. Anyway, it was an interesting old house, and I loved to occasionally get inside of it.
“Her mother, Miss Jenny, lived with her, and when she started acting strangely Mama and Bama would whisper that she was losing her mind. She probably had Alzheimer’s Disease, but that was before anyone knew there was such a thing. She imagined that she saw things all the time and would tell the postman to get a cat out of the bushes when there was no cat anywhere around. I was scared to death of her. Miss Pearl lived to be in her nineties and died just a few years ago. She continued to do some legal work for most of her life. She was tall and had black hair, which she parted in the middle and slicked down next to her head, and a sharp nose. One time when Uncle Roy’s [Roy Stott, Sara’s uncle] utility crews trimmed her trees drastically she got all upset and told him they looked just like armless veterans returning from the war.”
You simply can’t make these people up. To the best of my knowledge, there’s never been a novel written about Greenwood. My sister says she has one in her head (or perhaps on paper by now) but that it can’t be published until a lengthy list of Greenwoodians have moved on to their heavenly reward. Mildred Spurrier Topp wrote two delightful autobiographical books about growing up here in the early 1900s, Smile Please and In the Pink, with many of the names changed to protect the guilty. They are laugh-out-loud funny and Sara could provide the true name for almost everyone in their.
I wish Sara had written that missing novel. She never forgot a name or a face or a quirky story, and following her around Greenwood was a lesson in history and sociology and abnormal psychology for a wide-eyed child. Who could create characters like Pearl McLellan? Or Winnie Baskin, the custodian at the Court House and City Hall, who knew where all the bodies were buried? Or Minnie Attlesey, the tiny, ageless imp who lived in a dark house next door to Sara’s aunt and uncle, decked out in Civil War mourning until the day she died? Or the Burleson family, who lived in a rickety house under the Veterans’ Bridge, bobbing along on oil barrels when the river rose? Or Sally Gwin, who planted a mile of oak trees along Grand Boulevard? What sort of strange mix of genes and soil and intangibles produces this polyglot of memorable players on our stage?
Looking back, I realize what a treasure of encounters I enjoyed as a child, following Sara on her rounds and getting to know so many Greenwood natives, many of whom were children of the 1870s or 1880s. Her fascination with everyone and everyone’s stories wove a strand for me that stretched within a fingertip’s distance of Greenwood’s first days. Just another gift from Sara, never acknowledged.
Ed. note: Pearl McLellan’s house may, indeed, have been the oldest house standing in Greenwood when Sara lived on Strong Avenue. It did have the appearance of being just a section of a larger house, and was later moved to Carroll County. I’ll see if I can find the details on that. Bry’s Department Store was located on the corner of Main and Jefferson in downtown Memphis. An internet website provides a bit of background: “When Bry’s opened their store at Main and Jefferson, they competed successfully for over fifty years with Lowenstein’s, Gerber’s and Goldsmith’s. Bry’s was noted for its annual ‘Daring Sale’ in which it dropped prices and doubled the number of clerks. In 1912, Bry’s entered the history books when it became the first store to sell sheet music written by W.C. Handy. This was also the first store to use ladies as clerks. Bry’s anchored North Main and Goldsmith’s anchored South Main.” In 1956, Lowenstein’s bought out Bry’s, and it closed for good in 1964. The building pictured above has been demolished. [memphistechhigh.com]