I’ve been cleaning through blogs from my old website. I’ll soon do away with the old site and focus only on my author page. This is an old post written in 2012.
Mr. Summers: The Scent and Sound of Friendship
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
When I was a six years old, my family moved from a little house near the elementary school in Florida, from a community I loved, to a cold, uninsulated farmhouse near Whiddon Mill pond. Even though I knew our stay in that pathetic house would be temporary, I couldn’t help but grieve for Florida. I was the new girl in school, and I didn’t know my Georgia family. I wanted to go home to Florida.
At that time, my grandfather, with help from my grandmother, managed the grocery store at Whiddon Mill. Mr. James Oren Ross owned the store, mill, pond, and nearby land. From talk I overheard, I knew my family had great respect for Mr. Ross and the Ross family. I didn’t know Mr. Ross, but I did come to know Mr. C.R. Summers, a successful farmer, known throughout several counties for his work ethic and honesty.
When Mr. Summers dropped by the store at Whiddon Mill, he often spotted me hanging around the place. To reach the store, I had to enter the woods from Mt. Zion Church Road, take a path through the woods, and cross the wooden bridge over the pond. Stepping off the bridge, I was at the store owned by Mr. Ross and managed by my grandfather. If I walked up an easy hill, I would be at the house provided for my grandparents by the Ross family, most likely as part of their payment for managing the store.
My favorite times were when Mr. Summers stopped at the store. He was a giant of a man who left an impression on me and many others. I believe we all admired Mr. Summers, but I adored him.
When my oldest brother, Terryl, worked for Mr. Summers on the farm, he’d come home at the end of the day with wonderful tales of the legendary farmer. I heard he was tough; he was funny; he worked hard and expected the same of his farm hands. Terryl told friends that Mr. Summers had gorgeous daughters, their names all starting with the letter “K.”
With five daughters of his own, Mr. Summers certainly didn’t need the attention of another little girl, yet every time he’d spot me at Whiddon Mill Grocery, he’d say in his deep, rich, tobacco-soaked voice, “Brenda, get an RC and a pack of peanuts.”
I’d rush to the cooler, dig both hands in the ice, and uncover an RC. Mr. Summers would pay for the treats, and then place them in my small hands, as I stood in his shadow, inhaling the fragrance of friendship: tobacco and soil. Not only did I learn the scent of friendship during those months, I also discovered its sound. Friendship spoke in a deep, rich espresso voice. In my young mind, his powerful voice could swallow the whole world if he wanted it to, yet that same voice could make the heart of a child sing.
I’d walk outside with the treats Mr. Summers bought for me and sit on the porch, opening the package of Tom’s peanuts and sliding them into my RC. While Mr. Summers drove away in his truck, I’d be drinking the icy RC. He never looked back. I suppose he was always headed back to the fields or the barn or some other place. If he had glanced back, he’d have seen a dirty little hand waving at him.
During those times, my mother seldom attended church. She was pregnant with my youngest sister, and my father would never be a church-goer. Sometimes, Mr. Summers and his wife Bobbie would often pick me up and take me to church with them. On Sundays, he left the truck at home and drove a car bigger and more luxurious than any automobile I’d seen at that time. Mr. Summers would drive up and idle that beautiful car in front of my house, a home that was colder than the arctic in winter, holes in the floors, windows clinging in desperation to their frames. Wearing a thin dress, old enough to decompose and float away in the wind, a hand-me-down several times over, and probably the only dress I owned, I’d rush from my house and slip into his warm car. My shoes never fit. They were always either too tight, squeezing blisters on my feet, or too big. When the shoes were too large, I’d stuff tissue in the toes to prevent myself from stepping completely out of them.
I’d sit in the back seat of Mr. Summers’ car beside Karol, his youngest daughter. Karol reminded me of a gentle blonde princess, kind and beautiful and feminine. She carried a small purse filled with little note pads and two pencils so we could write or draw or scribble nonsense during the church sermon at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. Sometimes, I would go home with her after church.
Mrs. Summers, a lovely woman with flawless skin and full soft lips, sat in the front seat of the car with a smile so genuine that I once practiced smiling like her. After services one Sunday, she grinned and told me I had pretty red hair. Oh! My goodness! I thought I might melt from excitement. I’d been teased about my hair at school and at home, been called carrot-top and red-on-the-head and pumpkin head. I wanted to shout at my oldest brother that he was wrong. My hair wasn’t ugly. I wanted to tell him that Mrs. Summers said it was pretty. I wanted to tell the boys at school that I didn’t have orange hair. As soon as Mr. Summers dropped me off at home that day, I rushed to a mirror and practiced smiling— by George, I was determined to look like Bobbie Summers. I eventually gave up; I didn’t have the wide mouth and full lips that I needed to fulfill her unforgettable smile.
In church, at Mt. Zion Baptist in Chula, Karol would pull out two pencils and two small pocket-sized notebooks from her purse. The covers of the notebooks advertised brands of farm fertilizer. Before the sermon, the congregation would stand and sing the doxology: Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise Him all creatures hear below; praise Him above ye heavenly host; praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen. When the sermon began, Karol and I would write in the notebooks, often passing notes to each other. If we whispered, Mrs. Summers would lean over and make the sound, “Shhh.”
Mr. and Mrs. Summers never failed to greet me with warmth, to make me feel as though they wanted the little red-headed, freckle faced girl with them. They had a rare gift, and children carry the memory of gifts throughout their lives. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Today, I continue to associate tobacco with friendship. When I inhale certain tobacco scents, I think of Mr. Summers, of his bottomless voice, of the kindnesses he showed to me. When I see a field of watermelon, I think of him. When I see farms with lots of animals, I think of him. In Wisconsin, my two children with me, both in car seats, I stopped by a country store, much like Whiddon Mill. We walked inside the store, and I spotted an RC in a cooler of ice. A jar of Tom’s peanuts was beside the cash register. My heart pounded and tears filled my eyes. I called my mother the next day to ask if Mr. Summers was still alive. He was. But when I moved back to Georgia in 2005, my mother told me he had recently died. I took a walk in the woods near her house and cried.
Last week, I was in Macon, about to enter a bookstore, when I inhaled a whiff of Mr. Summers. I immediately turned and watched a man walk to his truck. My thoughts returned to Whiddon Mill and scent and voice of friendship: “Brenda, get an RC and a pack of peanuts.”
Brenda Sutton Rose is the author of Dogwood Blues.
ABOUT DOGWOOD BLUES
Change has come to Dogwood, Georgia, dividing the town, friends against friends, neighbors against neighbors. With the liquor referendum on the ballot, signs, declaring VOTE YES, others declaring VOTE NO, many signs as tall as billboards, pop up in yards throughout the city limits. All of Dogwood has an opinion. And the local newspaper, Dogwood News, reports it all.
When Boone Marshall , a blues musician who inherits the family farm after his father’s death, brings home a new bride not long after his first wife’s suicide, Nell Sauls, the town busybody, goes bat crazy spreading rumors that have no substance. And when Kevin Kilmer, award-winning author, moves back to Dogwood, the town where he’d grown up, and brings with him a husband, Nell makes it her business to drop gossip like bird poop up and down the historic district.
Compared to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, to Cold Sassy Tree, and to the movie Steel Magnolias, Dogwood Blues is as southern and true as a story can be.
DOGWOOD BLUES by Brenda Sutton Rose was nominated for a 2015 Georgia Author of the Year Award for First Novel. She has been the guest at numerous books clubs that chose Dogwood Blues as their book for the month. She has taught writing workshops at conferences for new and upcoming writers. Click here to purchase Dogwood Blues.