Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Mashed Toes and Yo-Yos

A little cool weather has arrived in Houston, but like a Kim Kardashian marriage, who knows how long it will last. There’s always a chance we’ll see temperatures in the 80s as late as Thanksgiving. But I officially have a “Fally Feeling.” Sweaters, glowing fireplaces, long nights, wood smoke in the air. And closed-in shoes. The end of sandal weather.  Yes, it’s shoe-fitting time. Time for a new pair of dress shoes to replace the dress sandals my daughter has worn to church all summer.
Fall brings certain memories. Football games – going to my high school stadium and watching the Auburn Tigers play on TV. The bluest skies. The wind blowing. Nuts falling. Trees adorned with glorious golden, orange, and red leaves. I remember, as a child, watching variety specials on TV. At the commercial breaks, Kraft would advertise tasty treats to make with cheese or caramel. My family always made a pilgrimage to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the Fall to see the mountains and the colors in The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, though we had pretty vistas of our own in Birmingham, Alabama. I especially remember driving along Dolly Ridge Road on my way from our home in Vestavia Hills to my high school, Briarwood Christian. One curve, right on the top of the ridge, provided a spectacular view and large maple trees boasting vivid yellows and oranges that caught my breath every time I rounded that bend. And another memory blooms along with the pots of chrysanthemums on everyone’s doorsteps -  mashed toes.
My grandmother, you see, sold shoes. More than that, she fitted shoes. She worked for close to two decades at the Shoe Corral in Vestavia Hills Mall. The mall was built in the late 1950s when the city was just starting to grow. It was a wondrous place when I was a child in the 1970s. My Mama would take me there many afternoons after school or during the long days of summer. In Alley’s Drug Store, I looked at comic books and drank Yoo-Hoos. At Britling’s Cafeteria, I ate macaroni & cheese and squash croquettes.  I bought orange slices and caramel marshmallows at Sears candy counter before adding to my collection of 45’s in the record department. At Christmas time, I eyed the Madam Alexander dolls behind a big glass case in the toy department and selected the one I wanted Santa to bring me. When I couldn’t see the blackboard in the third grade, Mama took me to Daniel’s Opticians for my wire-rimmed glasses and the many adjustments that followed. I bought a Bayberry candle for my Mama’s Christmas present every year at Susan Lane Gifts. A & A Ash jewelry store displayed beautiful, sparkly things in their cases, but Mrs. Ash never seemed to want anyone to come in and look. I helped my grandmother search for blouses at the Blouse House and Alfred Dunner pants at Yielding’s. On Thursdays, my grandmother’s off-day, she and Mama got their hair fixed at ten o’clock in the morning in the beauty shop in the back of Yielding’s. That afternoon, after they picked me up from school, there might be an Arts & Craft show going on in the mall, so we’d be right back up there to buy spiced pinecone wreaths, little oil painting, and maybe a cute, tiny, homemade beanbag friend for me. And at Christmas the mall was packed with holiday shoppers. Parisian’s Department store especially bustled. Almost all my clothes came from there.
But my shoes came from the Shoe Corral. Owned by a local family, the business also had locations in Center Point and Cahaba Heights. The Vestavia store sat in the back of the mall, in the middle, with sliding glass doors opening to the aisle of the mall on either side. An old wooden horse with a real leather saddle and a mop tail stood patiently in the center of the store. Children made a bee-line for it and some would only permit to have their feet measured while sitting on the horse. My grandmother fitted shoes at one time or another on almost everyone I knew. All my school mates shopped there. I always had the first pick of the shoes that came in, and soon after I appeared at school in my new Ra-Ra saddle shoes, or Yo-Yos that had holes through the bouncy heels, or Candie’s that looked cute but cut into my feet, or Jelly shoes that made my sweaty feet even sweatier, the other girls in my school would make their trip to the store for the same.  During the late 1970s, there was a 1950s fashion throw-back phase, brought on most probably by Happy Days on the television, so we all got penny loafers. During the Urban Cowboy craze, I got my Dingo cowgirl boots, which I still have and wear proudly during Houston Rodeo season.  During the summer there were thong sandals that produced a permanent, spraddled gap between my big toes and their neighbor toes. And I still have numerous pairs of flip-flops in bright colors, which show their age by the cracked patent leather and worn soles.
But the fitting of the closed-in shoes is my most vivid memory of the Shoe Corral.  My grandmother would measure my foot on the metal measuring stick. When I put the shoe on, she’d mash most of the Hell out of my big toe to make sure there was enough growing room. When Mama would question if she was sure, she’d mash the rest of the Hell out. She fitted hundreds of people, especially children, in the same way. Despite the pain, they returned season after season for their shoes. After the sale was made, she put the shoes in a yellow plastic draw string bag that bore the store name and the list of locations and phone numbers.
If I was there at closing time, I got to help my grandmother straighten up. While she returned shoe boxes to the shelves in the backroom, I would clean the two big mirrors in the store, run the vacuum, and straighten the shoes on the display racks. I’d pick up the measuring sticks and put them in a box behind the counter and straighten the fitting stools and chairs. When everything was done, my grandmother would turn out the lights. I’d slide the two, glass doors closed, and she would lock them with her key.
Sometimes I would spend the night with her. We would leave through the rear entrance of the mall and cross Kentucky Avenue to her apartment a block away on Montclair Lane. She never owned a car, because she never learned to drive. She was divorced in the early 1960s and worked in a bakery before the Shoe Corral job. And when she quit working, there were no retirement benefits.
The Shoe Corral is long-since closed; the mall was replaced with a new-fangled lifestyle center; the Montclair Lane apartment torn down to make room for more shops, and my grandmother is with the angels in heaven. I don’t know where the old wooden horse is. But I still have some of the yellow plastic drawstring bags that I put my shoes in when I travel. Yo-yos have long since gone out of fashion, but I suspect there are many people who remember buying shoes at the Shoe Corral and having their toes mashed.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Monday, October 14, 2013

“Hey Brother. This is Pig…”

My 9-year-old daughter held my cell phone to her ear and spoke to her 18-year-old brother. “Brother.” She’s always called him that. And he bestowed “Pig” on her in the hospital right after she was born. “She looks like a pink piglet.” Even though I gave them fine, Christian names, I don’t complain. These nicknames speak of familiarity and affection. But more than that, they connect us to our roots. Southern roots.
Nothing indicates that a person is from the South more than a nickname. My family is full of them. Edith was called Aunt Sol. Evelyn was Aunt Abby. John was Uncle Bud. My grandmother was Margaret, but her nieces and nephews called her Aunt Pay; at work, she was Goodie; and I called her Muzzie. My mother, Margaret Ann, is both Peggy and Little Cousin. 
True, nicknames are used everywhere and always have been. The 1950s in the U.S. were an especially golden age for nicknames. Remember the show Happy Days set in that era? If so, you know Fonzie, Richie, Joanie, Potsie, and Ralph the Mouth (who somehow missed out on the ubiquitous “ie” ending). The Andy Griffith Show, filmed in the Fifties and set in North Carolina, gave us Goober, Gomer, Aunt Bee, and little Opie (who would grow up to be Richie on that other show).
And of course we love giving nicknames to our celebrities: from Ol’ Blue Eyes to the Biebs, from the Duke to JT, from the Bambino to Johnny Football, from the Queen of Soul to JLo. Social media has spawned a whole rash of new monikers. There are even websites that provide lists of cool nicknames for your on-line identity.
But in the South, nicknames are never trendy.  There is a reverence, a sacredness about them. The silliest of sounding nicknames will be said with the straightest of faces. Grown, dignified men will answer to them. George Ervin Perdue III, recent governor of Georgia, answered to Sonny. Alabamians sent “Big Jim” Folsom twice to the Governor’s Mansion. Ralph “Shug” Jordan, born in Selma Alabama, led the Auburn Tigers to a 1957 National Championship, and a man known as Paul “Bear” Bryant had a little bit of success up the road in Tuscaloosa. 
Southern literature, sacred only behind the Bible, gives us characters memorable as much for their names as their exploits. Eudora Welty created Teacake Magee in The Ponder Heart. Harper Lee introduced us to Boo, Jem, Dill, and Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Fannie (Patricia) Flagg, a Birmingham girl, presented Idgie (Imogene) in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. Tennessee Williams contributed not only Maggie the Cat, but himself, a man born Thomas who legally changed his name to his nickname; a misnomer because he was born in Mississippi.
Yes, whether sensical or not, Southern nicknames have abounded. Catfish, Cooter, Pork Chop, Skeeter, Peanut, Speck, Peaches, Kitty, Tootsie, Dimples, Zip. I feared, however, that the tradition was dying. Though children love to bestow nicknames, it seems the current, strict anti-bullying rules in our schools have squashed not only unkind monikers, but nicknames of any kind. But then my Mama recounted a conversation she had with a friend at church. The woman mentioned that her granddaughter, a high school freshman, calls her 17-year-old brother Bubba.
I love that my children will always be Brother and Pig.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton

Thursday, October 3, 2013

“I've got a thing about trains” – Johnny Cash

            Before I go to sleep, I read. In my bed, in the still quiet of the night, with a good book in hand, I hear the sound. I’ve been waiting for it, somewhat distracted from the story. And now I raise my eyes from the page and strain my ears to listen to the whistle of the passing train. The train tracks are a long way off from my house, but through the dark the sound travels to my ears and down into my soul.
            I know some folks think the sound of a train whistle at night is lonely. Hank Williams concurred, “That midnight train is whining low, I’m so lonesome I could cry.” And some think the sound bears evil forebodings - “Watch out, brother, for that long black train,” so sayeth Josh Turner. But that wail makes me excited. “Listen, did you hear that? It’s a train!” I’ll say to anyone within earshot as if I’ve identified the call of a rare bird. And to see one - headlight beaming, chugging down the tracks, rushing past, going… somewhere, just thrills me.
I have no explanation for this effect, other than to say that it is in my blood. My maternal grandmother was the daughter of a railroad man. Mack Daniel Thornton, son of a Confederate cavalryman and great-grandson of a Revolutionary War soldier, left Blackshear, Georgia to work for the “steam railroad.” His first wife died, leaving him with four children; the youngest, Talmadge, being just a baby. When he reached Columbia, Tennessee, he boarded at the home of a widow with three daughters. The widow Smith told daughter, Lantie Elizabeth, “You marry that man. He has a good job with the railroad and a solid gold pocket watch.” So, Lantie, age 22, married, Mack, age 39.  She called him “Mr. Thornton,” and he called her “Hon.” Babies soon followed. If you view an atlas that shows rail-lines, you can chart the growing family’s progress as they moved along with the tracks running through Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama. Little Talmadge died somewhere along the way; his existence known only from family lore; neither birth certificate nor death certificate ever located. Aunt Abby was born in Memphis in 1901. Aunt Edna was born in Horn Lake, Mississippi in 1903. Aunt Louise arrived three years later while the family was living in Potts Camp, Mississippi. Uncle Bud joined the family in 1908 at Pell City, Alabama. Aunt Sol arrived in Ensley, Alabama in 1910. My grandmother, Margaret Frances (Muzzie to me), was born in Bessemer, Alabama on January 31, 1916. And there they stayed. My Mama has a photograph, one of only two we have of Mack, in which he stands with some of the men who worked for him by a handcar. The photo is at the top of this post. You can see his pocket watch chain against his dark suit. After settling in Bessemer, Mack left his job as a track foreman to work for Tennessee Coal & Iron’s Bessemer Rolling Mill until his retirement in 1931. He passed away, at the age of 76, in 1934, long before either I or my mother was born.
So, I never got to hear his stories of trains. But I have my own. As a little girl, my family made a few day trips from our home in Birmingham to Chattanooga, where we dined at the Chattanooga Choo Choo Restaurant. I know every word to the song, by the way. I’m always up for a ride and have ridden trains in amusement parks, zoos, and wildlife parks. In recent years, I’ve taken my children to the Kemah Boardwalk near my home in Houston, where we ride the replica of the famous 1863 C.P. Huntington train. My daughter’s favorite part is when a band of animatronic outlaws attack us as we chug through an Old West town. She seems to have inherited my enthusiasm for the conveyance, though I don’t have to be shot at to enjoy the ride.
My interest in trains also extended into my academic career. While working on my M.A. in History, I penned a paper about the Galveston-Houston Interurban electric railroad. The Interurban’ s 53-foot-long, Pullman green coaches featured art glass transoms, plate glass windows, heavy brass work, leather seats and carpet. Honduran mahogany and semi-empire ceilings finished the interior walls of the cars. Special observation and smoking sections provided early versions of man-caves for the male passengers. At night, passengers enjoyed brilliantly lighted cars. The trains reached top speeds of 55 to 60 miles-per-hour, equal to the fastest express trains of the day, and special wheel placement protected the trains from derailment. The Galveston-Houston Interurban first ran in 1911 but by 1936 became history due to decreased ridership – Americans adore our automobiles.
But I wish train travel was more available in our country today. I love the scene in White Christmas when Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney sit in the dining car on their way from Miami to Vermont and sing. How civilized to have sleeping compartments, booths for dining, and room to walk around (even if there’s no singing)! My trips on commuter and passenger trains have been few. I’ve traveled to Paris twice and enjoyed riding the Metro in the city and the train out to Versailles. We need such conveniences throughout the U.S. I hopped on the Amtrak website today and entered that I wanted to travel from Birmingham, Alabama to Houston, Texas this coming Saturday. The following route was provided: Depart Birmingham at 2:24 pm and ride the Crescent to Washington, D.C. (isn’t that in the opposite direction from where I want to go?) arriving at 9:53 am on Sunday; then wait until 4:05 pm when I can board the Capitol Limited to Chicago arriving at 8:45 am on Monday; then I can hop on the Texas Eagle at 1:45 pm to ride to Longview, Texas arriving at 8:28 am on Tuesday when I get to board a bus(!) at 8:40 am for a four hour and thirty-five minute drive to Houston - an odyssey lasting almost three full days at a cost of $373. A direct flight between the two cities takes only one hour and fifty minutes at a cost of $327. I know there are train tracks running between Birmingham and Houston; I can see them on the map. I could get my own handcar and travel down the rails faster than Amtrak can get me there.
Alas, the ease of train travel is most definitely gone in this country; a shame, since the nation is still crisscrossed by the rail lines laid by our ancestors, my great-grandfather included. I’ve heard foreign visitors to NASA’s Johnson Space Center near my home in Houston express surprise that they can’t stay at a hotel downtown and hop on a train out to the facility. The only trains that run by JSC are freight train, not ones such as the Interurban of days gone by. So, I lie in my bed and hear the sound of the freight train’s whistle born by the stillness of the night. And I think of my great-grandfather. Mack must have had some good tales about trains. I wish I could hear some of his stories. And I wish I knew where that solid gold pocket watch is today.

May your tea be sweet and your cotton high,
Leigh Ann Thornton