Polar bears and Miss Pearl

Sara, Rena Stott, Buddy Stott, Mamie and Tiny, with Pearl McLellan's house in the background

“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]

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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6 Responses to Polar bears and Miss Pearl

  1. Jenny Adams says:

    I put a Mrs. Minnie in my novel I’m writing. She’s not modeled after the original Miss Minnie … just took her name. I used to LOVE to sit on the couch in the living room with you, and my mom and grandma and listen to the gossip about everyone in town. The stories were always “almost unbelievable”
    How did so much stuff happen in such a little “out of the way” town? Small towns are insane. Nothing cool ever happens in nyc 😉

  2. sec040121 says:

    Here’s a Pearl McLellan story to add to the book, courtesy of Tricia……Pearl went to see Dr. Sandifer (old Dr. Sandifer, not his son the orthopedist) and peeked at her chart when he walked out of the room. He had described her as an “obese white female.” She furiously got dressed, stormed out and went to Lackey’s, where she ordered “not one, but TWO pieces of German chocolate cake.” Tricia recalls that she worked out of her home and never had a law office. Her home was indeed moved out to Blackhawk in Carroll County. Does anyone know how to find it?

  3. Re: Miss Pearl
    My Aunt Bobby remembered Miss Pearl very well; she was a dear friend of my grandmother, Mildred Topp, and the court reporter for the famous Ruth Dean murder trial, which I’m writing about right now (nonfiction narrative tentatively called POISONED). Thought I’d share a portion of the book where she tells me about sneaking into the courthouse during the murder trial and seeing Miss Pearl–Miss Pearl will have a role in the solving of the case later on in the book!

    “When I got there, hundreds of women were outside on the lawn trying to jam through the courthouse front door. I managed to slip through their skirts, lost my sense of direction and found myself getting carried up with everyone else into the balcony. I could barely see, there was so much cigarette smoke, but I tucked myself behind the last seat.
    “It must have been a break, because the judge’s pulpit was empty and all the ladies around me were chatting and knitting out of their little baskets that they had carried in. Mama said there have never been so many sweaters made or socks darned as in those six weeks of that trial. All of a sudden the ladies started shushing and elbowing each other and it looked like there might be movement at center stage. I strained my neck to get a look past all the hats, then fell back at the first person I recognized. Squeezed in tight at a table next to the judge’s pulpit and scanning the room like she was looking for somebody doing something wrong was Miss Pearl.
    “All right. Now I have to tell you about Miss Pearl McLellan. Miss Pearl was one of Mama’s close friends who had a special place at the dinner table and never married but set out to do something in a man’s world. I don’t think she ever went to law school, but she was so smart she studied up on the subject and passed the law bar exam all on her own. They didn’t have a lot of work for lady lawyers in those days, but she loved the law and loved keeping details straight and organized even more, so she found a lifelong occupation working as the official stenographer for the Circuit Court.
    “She was a big lady, maybe six feet tall. She couldn’t help but loom over us children–and most men too. If someone’s ball would go into her enormous blue hydrangeas that hugged her house, it was lost forever. No one dared get close to that porch. I don’t even think the mailman wanted to pass through her yard. Like Dr. Dean, Miss Pearl parted her dark hair like a curtain in the middle of her head, then scraped the sides into a knot at the back of her neck. It was an old-fashioned style that made Dr. Dean look like Mrs. Wallace Simpson, the divorcee who married the King of England. For Miss Pearl the choice was not so fortunate. It had away of emphasizing her nose—and what a nose it was—she probably hoped to grow big and tall just to catch up with that nose but no matter how big she got, the nose got even bigger, about the size of a five dollar bag’s worth of pennies. But she was not one to waste things and so used it with great purpose, sniffing out the littlest wrong doing as easy as if it were lying in the middle of the road, dead and rotting to high heaven.
    “Any time she struck her concentration on me, I’d shrink into a pea and want to confess I pinched the dog and I was awful sorry for it—I would have said it too if I had a voice, but I couldn’t find it and so I’d shrink some more. It didn’t make any difference. She already knew. That lady had eyes that could pierce your very soul.
    Mama used to say Miss Pearl was a life-long member of the school of perfection. Sometimes I’d wonder if she came over just to make sure the silverware was laid out correct and we were keeping up our beautiful manners, but that’s unfair. She loved Mama to pieces and would have guarded over all of us if we needed it like a wild animal guards her young. She’d get her feelings hurt now and then when Mama teased her about something, but she had a way of forgiving the ones she loved. She told me once when I got mad over something…I don’t know what it was, it was probably small like not wanting to eat the liver and lima beans on my plate, and I was sent to my room without supper. Well, when I got to come back out, Miss Pearl took me aside and told me she was glad to see I had strong feelings because without them people would be dead….”
    “Anyway you can imagine that of all the people besides Mama I didn’t want to see in that courtroom was Miss Pearl. But I got lucky. Before she could catch wind of me, the judge took his seat behind his pulpit, lit up a pipe and watched as Dr. Dean and her lawyers came in a side entrance and got themselves comfortable at a long table set up to face him and Miss Pearl. It seemed like a week of Sundays before he hit his hammer but somehow things got quiet, everyone dropped their knitting and leaned forward to concentrate on what lay below. ”
    –Melanie Cleveland

  4. sec040121 says:

    Melanie,
    Write fast…..we need to know what happens next! Thanks for the memories of Miss Pearl.

  5. medieobrien@att.net says:

    Would love to hear more of Miss Pearl. She was my mother’s cousin. I have been researching family history and would love to know more about her. The McLellan side is a mystery.
    I grew up in Belzoni but we didn’t see her much as she was very busy.
    You all bring back many memories of small town life. Funny to think that I considered Greenwood a big city since there were so many more places to shop there.

    • sec040121 says:

      I wish Sara was still around to fill you in, as she had a load of “Miss Pearl” stories. A friend commented the other day that if you wouldn’t fit in well in a Tennessee Williams play, you can’t live in Greenwood. Miss Pearl would have been a starring character, for sure.

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