Happy Hands


This blog is for Sarah’s granddaughter, Jenny Adams, freelance writer and globe trotter extraordinaire. She posted the most wonderful piece on her own blogsite,     http://saltwatercureseverything.wordpress.com/2013/04/14/photo-post-one-hand-or-another/ , describing Sara’s hands in her later years. I have tried in vain to make this picture attach to an email for Jenny, with no luck, so here’s an entire blog entry on Sara’s hands.

Just for the record, this is a cropped photo from the late 1940s. The original showed Sara and her Chamber of Commerce boss, Botts Blackstone, in a mega-posed shot, looking over some bit of local marketing. I know it’s the late 1940s, perhaps as late as 1950, because she worked there from 1942 until 1950 and didn’t have that modest wedding ring until January of 1947.

So, Jenny, here’s what I remember of  these hands:

They were always gentle and no spanking that I can recall ever came from them. That could be selective memory.

They weren’t Palmolive Madge hands (Google it, young folks). Sara never had a dishwasher until I was in college, so she spent a lot of time soaking in the soap.

They could wind a Yashicamat to the next frame in the blink of an eye. And thread a roll of film unto the developing spool in pitch black darkness.

They were deathly afraid of frogs and would juggle one in the air if an unfortunate toad was tossed their way.

They would absentmindedly stroke my border collie Chester’s head because he would ease himself underneath them for some sugar.

They could sew anything.  Any.Thing.  By hand or by Singer, with or without a pattern. When they started making mistakes, I knew we were headed south.

They tapped along with Benny Goodman and Perry Como and Andy Williams. But never could find the beat with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or Diana Ross.

They could fly across a manual typewriter keyboard, the right one slinging that return lever like a piston.

They knew a thousand phone numbers by heart that were dialed from GL3-1681. Touch tone was the beginning of civilization’s decline.  And cell phones? Forget it.

They were often covered with cookie dough or cake batter by 4 in the morning. By 4 in the afternoon, Sara’s cooking compulsion had vanished and we were generally rooting in the pantry for cereal.

They could not throw a baseball, palm a basketball, find the laces on a football or keep score in tennis. But they clapped for all they were worth at my modest accomplishments along those lines.

They spent weeks each year carefully hanging Christmas decorations and arranging Nativity scenes and wrapping packages and rolling out acres of divinity and bourbon balls. That’s when they were happiest.

They got old, as all hands do. Wrinkled and shaky and unable to grasp a pen at times. And they had to be held for support, as I know they held mine when I was tiny and unsteady and unsure.

And that eensy diamond? It was the only one Sara ever had or ever wanted. It popped out of its setting somewhere in the attic, sometime in the ’80s or ’90s, and all our diligent searching on our knees with flashlights never brought it to light again. But that’s OK. It’s still there somewhere, hidden under the old plank floorboards,  a shiny reminder of the couple who built that house and filled it with so many years of love and happy memories.

Gotta hand it to you, Jenny. You know how to stir memories. Thanks.

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Baking Bunnies

One of Sara's bunny cakes

One of Sara’s bunny cakes

Just a quick post for Easter and April Fool’s Day, abbreviated because my computer modem has died and I am typing this on my IPad. This is a device that Sara would have loved or hated, I don’t know which, but it was not designed for extended typing or her 100-words-a-minute-on-the-manual-Underwood, for certain.

My birthday and Sara’s were 5 days apart, late March and earliest April, and her creativity cranked up to its highest gear during this lovely and hopeful season. If she had not had a little spring daughter who needed pastel bunny cakes, I suppose she would have just baked them for herself. They were masterpieces of coconut icing and cardboard ears and jellybean noses, objects of envy in the eyes of the less-talented mothers who brought their little darlings to East Adams for my birthday parties. Some of those women never did seem to care much for me over the years, and, in retrospect, perhaps that was a holdover from being outmaneuvered by Sara in the “Betty Crocker Mother of the Century Competition.”

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April Showers

Sara and Liz Williams at that first Carrollton crafts show, 1975

Sara and Liz Williams at that first Carrollton crafts show, 1975


After a round of intense spring storms, another Delta spring is ready to explode into green trees and brown fields and what David Cohn described as “God shakes Creation.” The most vibrant and refreshing week of the year, the one where we all shake off the frost and the dust of a too-long winter and look around and remember why we planted our flags and our lives in this place.

Sara Louise Evans made her entrance into this world just a stone’s throw from the cotton fields and barely a block south of the Yazoo River’s banks, on an April Fool’s morning, 92 years ago. So much about Greenwood has changed in those 9+ decades and so much remains eternally the same. She loved this old town with all her heart and I am so very grateful that she gave it to me for safekeeping.

It’s time to fire up the “daughter of the delta” blog again, even though we have already read all of Sara’s memoirs. But there are so many photos and newspaper articles, which I have been reluctant to post for fear of copyright infringement. The Commercial Appeal has not answered my requests for permission to use these, so I will revert to Sara’s mantra: When in doubt, forge ahead and let the chips fall where they may. More to follow.

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The Elusive Harmon Chavis

img433For those of you who have contacted me about Harmon Chavis, Sara’s great-grandfather, here he is, in all his tintype glory. Native of Louisiana, Confederate soldier, somehow wound up in Holmes County MS and married Sara’s great-grandmother, Margaret Ann Sproles (“Bigma”). Died at age 24, leaving Margaret with a 13-month old daughter, Theodorene (“Bama”). Haunting image in many ways, isn’t it?

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I Remember Fountain’s

Fountain's Big Busy Store, victim of Greenwood's kleptomaniac. Postcard courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com

Fountain’s Big Busy Store Postcard courtesy of Donny Whitehead, aboutgreenwoodms.com


Ed. note: This is from one typed page found in Sara’s papers, with a note at the top that says, “A story I wrote for the The Commercial Appeal but never did send.”

“I remember Fountain’s Big Busy Store, once the shopping center of a large part of north Mississippi in the heart of Greenwood’s business district. They removed the last fixtures from her walls this week, and many a Delta citizen felt a twinge of nostalgia as they recalled happy shopping sprees at the big store.

“Fountain’s closed two years ago, and only the show cases and store fixtures remained, and now even they are gone. Other stores will move into the building but the memories of Fountain’s Big Busy Store will always remain in the hearts of Greenwood citizens.

“From miles around people came to Fountain’s, which opened its doors in 1902 and moved to the big building in 1914. Friends would meet at Fountain’s. They would enjoy the refreshments in the soda fountain with its ice cream parlor chairs or visit on the mezzanine. There were fabulous fashion shows with the latest style creations, and dollar days which attracted hundreds of shoppers. The big wheel which held the thousands of numbered tickets before each big drawing was a part of the equipment being moved out as the fixtures were sold.

“I remember most vividly the toy department that delighted the hearts of so many youngsters. There were no toy departments in smaller stores then, and the opening each year of Fountain’s toyland was the first glimpse we had of Santa’s toys for that year. The curtains covered the big side window all week before Thanksgiving and we could hardly wait for Thursday when they were drawn back revealing trains and dolls and countless other wonderful toys. The doll stands were packed in boxes this week, and seeing them I was once again a little girl with my face pressed against that side window of Fountain’s on a cold November day, picking out my Christmas doll.

“I saw, too, the tall ladder on wheels that was used in the shoe department, and I remembered all those shiny black patent leather Sunday School shoes and the brown school oxfords and the funny little stools the shoe clerk sat on as he measured your foot.

“The elevator in Fountain’s was the first one ridden by many a youngster, and Lena, the colored elevator girl for so many years, would always let the little ones ride up and down while their mommys shopped.

“I saw the stands on which ladies would stand to have hems marked and thought of all the people who had stood there, of the wedding dresses that were bought at Fountain’s and the school clothes.

“I remembered the piece goods department and the big pattern books and the little dresses with bloomers to match made from material bought at Fountain’s. A ‘back to school’ sign tucked away in a corner was another reminder of all those Septembers when folks flocked to Greenwood’s big department store for school clothes.

“Fountain’s Big Busy Store has closed but it will remain as an important part of Greenwood’s history.”

This must have been written in the early 1960s, since Sara mentions that Fountain’s had been closed for about 2 years. My only memory of the store was a final walk-through with Sara as a small child after it was empty and out of business. It seems there was one employee still there, as I recall her talking with someone, and I remember how vast the space seemed. Just a few years ago, I had the chance to go upstairs in the old Fountain building, second and third floors, before the renovation into luxury apartments. The sheer size of those dusty, forgotten rooms was overwhelming, as were the size of the windows. I tried to get Sara to come up there with me but she had no interest in revisiting a space that, for her, still buzzed with happy shoppers scooping up bargains.

We should all have a “Fountain’s Big Busy Store” tucked away in our memories. For Sara, this Greenwood landmark was Macy’s and F.A.O.Schwarz and Saks Fifth Avenue rolled into one perfect package, right on Greenwood’s main business corner. Almost fifty years after the doors were padlocked, she could still mentally walk past every counter and name every salesclerk and she was convinced that there was never a finer establishment in any town in America.

There is life and energy once again in the Fountain’s building, thanks to Viking’s renovations and the addition of Mississippi Gifts, Turnrow Books and the apartments upstairs. Those have been valuable additions to my life here in Greenwood, but Sara could never see them as anything but interlopers. We never went in Turnrow that she didn’t look around and say, “Now, right here, this would have been Miss _____’s counter with the ______ for sale.” And you could tell that she was leaving the present,  moving backwards in time to the days when she would have held her own mother’s hand and wondered at all the treasures waiting to be discovered on that day’s trips to the Big Busy Store. We should all have such memories.

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Happy Birthday to a true April Fool

No new post yet, but it seemed an oversight not to wish Sara a Happy 91st April Fool’s Birthday today. So here’s to a great lady who never lost her sense of humor! More to follow, hopefully very soon.

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Yesterday’s “Civil Rights Memoir #94” was the end of the line for Sara’s writings. She typed up her memories of her life and those trying times of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s in the early 1990s and never updated them. I’ve had a wonderful time putting them online and reading your comments, and my most fervent wish is that we all have a better understanding of what a remarkable life Sara led, both personally and professionally. I wish there was another year’s worth of memories to share, but she took those with her in 2009. I do have one audiotape recorded by her grandson, Jim, as part of an Ole Miss class project just a few weeks before she died, and when I am feeling especially brave I will listen and transcribe that tape. As I suppose the case is with any child, no matter what age, I teeter on a thin point of emotional balance when it comes to my parents and their absence, and I’m simply not yet ready to threaten that equilibrium. When I do, those of you who have been faithful to this blog since that stormy April day last year when we started will be the first to know. Check back, and thank you.

Mary Carol

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Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #94: End Results

“Otis Allen, Leflore County superintendent of education, said, ‘It will be much harder for parents to make the decision to send their children back to the public schools than it was to make the decision to leave it. Once they are in the private schools most will probably stay. This is a problem which is causing tension between families and friends, between children and parents. We have had more complaints from the blacks than the whites on having to change schools.’ Mr. Allen predicted that the south would probably be the first area in the country to see this thing solved. ‘Violence on the part of local people has not occurred, ‘ he said. ‘Any incidents we have had may be traced to outsiders. No local individual or group efforts have been made to interrupt the educational processes.’

“At the same time the Greenwood schools were being desegregated, so were those in the county as well as those in other school districts throughout the state. Private schools were springing up everywhere and in some of the rural areas the former all-white schools soon became black schools and former black schools were abandoned as all of the white children fled to the private schools. Scholarships were being arranged for those who could not afford the tuition.”

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Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #93: Full Retreat

“The teachers were terribly disturbed especially when they learned that names would be drawn to determine who would be assigned to the black schools to make up the required black-white ratio. A number of them resigned and gave up their accumulated retirement benefits, some leaving in the middle of the year. This, too, was hard on the students who had to have a change of instructors at mid-term. One of the teachers told me she had a guilty feeling about leaving the public schools but just could not face the possibility of being sent to an all-black school and did not know how she would maintain discipline in the mixed classes.

“The merchants were afraid the economy of the city would be hurt with parents having to pay to send children to the private school. A real estate agent said, ‘I think the school situation is hurting the area badly. People are moving out and few coming in. The middle income people who have a choice as to where they live are not coming in.'”

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Sara Criss’ Civil Rights Memoir #92: GHS, Alma Mater

“The first time I put Mary Carol out at the high school after the 1970 court orders were implemented and saw the mixed crowd on the sidewalks, I cried all the way home, knowing that never again would our schools be the same as we had known them and feeling, too, that the black kids would never know the pride they had had in their own school.

“Mary Carol did not want to leave GHS and we felt that she would be better off graduating there, so after finishing her sophomore year she decided to finish school in the summer following her junior year. In the spring [1971] she was awarded a full-tuition scholarship at Mississippi College and made her plans to enter school there in 1971. She had mixed feelings about giving up her senior year and later has regretted that she missed that.

“I went to a pep rally at Greenwood High School in the fall of 1970. The students who had stayed at GHS were doing their best to put on a good show while the black students sat in a group in the stands looking lost. Some of the girls who had been cheerleaders the previous year but who were now at Pillow came back for the pep rally. They looked sad, and I heard one say, ‘I wish I were back.’ It was hard to say which ones I was the sorriest for because it was evident no one was really very happy.”

Ed. note: Once again, this slips into the realm of personal experience. I distinctly remember that day that Sara dropped me off ( as I never had a car in high school, much to my sorrow) and I headed for the breezeway where everyone hung out until the first bell rang. There were little knots of black students scattered about, very quiet and looking very, very worried. There were no incidents and no words even passed, so far as I was aware. As we entered the main building, there was sawdust and concrete dust in the air where walls had been knocked down over the previous days, and I think that’s when it really hit me that nothing would ever again be the same. My most vivid memory, maybe not that day but within the first week of full desegregation, is of sitting in my homeroom Biology class, listening to the clang of lockers up and down Wing B as students cleaned out their books in anticipation of leaving for Pillow. Each locker slamming was like a kick to the gut, worsened by the sound of laughter, as if those leaving were headed off on some sort of permanent lark. As I left class that day, I ran into a childhood friend who had never had much to do with me, even though we were neighbors. She stopped me in the hallway, glared at me and demanded, “I guess you’re leaving, too?” “Hell, no,” I answered, and I meant that with the intensity that only a sixteen-year-old can muster. As the day went on, it became obvious who was bailing out and who was going to hang in there, and those of us left quickly and firmly decided that we weren’t going to let GHS as we knew it vanish. We grew closer, leaped a lot of unnecessary hurdles and made some endearing friendships with the black kids, who had truly gotten a raw deal. All in all, it wasn’t a bad two years, but after watching more than one teacher walk out on us in the middle of class, headed for the security of Pillow Academy, I decided the wisest course would be to take that generous offer  from MC and move on after my junior year. Forty years later, I still regret that that was necessary. And I am grateful that my own children were never pawns in the games that the courts played with our lives and our education in those early years of the ’70s.

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