In 1938, I was four and one-half years old and lived with my parents in Fayetteville, Arkansas. One of the highlights of my young life was the daily walk my mother and I took up to the town square. The town square was where everything happened. It was the center of commerce, community, and conversation. The post office was smack in the middle of the square. At the post office, letters that connected us with the world outside Fayetteville came and went. For me, the outside world was a vague idea except for my grandparents and uncles who lived about thirty miles away. We visited them often.
Our daily walks combined many elements of out life. We would stop to visit with friends and neighbors on our way to the square. These "visits" often resulted in a "treat" in the form of a cookie or a flower for me while the adults talked.
My mother and I would window shop. We didn’t have much money and "It didn't cost a cent to window shop," my mother always said.
We would send and pick up our mail, chatting with the postmaster, who almost always commented on how much I had grown since the last time he had seen me—which was usually yesterday!
After stopping at the post office, we would walk around the square to see what was going on in town, again visiting and greeting people.
Often we would walk an extra block and visit my dad at Montgomery Wards, where he worked. Everyone there knew me and most of them called me "Blondie."
Then, we would call in at the grocer's and/or butcher's. From there we usually headed on home to start dinner.
All in all, our walks were peaceful and fun. They broke up our day and gave both my mother and me and opportunity to "get out," get some exercise, and interact with the community. Thus were business and life conducted in a small, Southern university town.
This particular day started out much like any other. I played around in the yard most of the morning while Mother did what she usually did in the house. Around noon, she called me in to get cleaned up for lunch. We ate lunch together and then "took our little rest." Mother seemed to enjoy this little rest time much more than I did. I was more interested in the excitement of our walk and wanted to get on with it. However, nap time was imposed and I complied. Try as I might to stay awake and convince myself I didn't want or need to rest—I often fell asleep for a while.
After our rest, we headed for town. We lived two blocks from the square. Since these blocks went up a hill, we always took our time climbing them. The hill blocked our view of the square until we had almost reached the top. So, we had no idea of what was going on around the square until we were there.
On this day, there seemed to be a bit of a commotion on the corner of the square at the top of the hill so we quickened our pace.
That particular corner was occupied by a boy we referred to as "the crippled boy" who sold pencils. (Mother always called him "boy" although he looked pretty big to me. His body was all twisted and he couldn't talk very well.) I don't remember his name and I am sure Mother knew it. He was one of our "regulars." We always stopped to have a chat with him and Mother would drop a few pennies in his cup. He sold pencils for a nickel apiece. We rarely had a while nickel to spare but Mother always gave him something. We never took a pencil. Mother said that we didn't need the pencil and besides he could then sell it to someone else. Mother always said that no matter how little we had there was always enough to share with someone who needed it more.
On this particular day, three big teenage boys had decided to tease and harass the boy who sold the pencils. They had scattered his pencils all over the sidewalk, spilled his coins, had kicked the pencils and coins around, and were poking him. I had never seen anyone behave like this before.
Nor had I seen my mother behave as she did when she reacted to the situation. Now, I need to say there that my mother was a small woman. She was thin (with big breasts!) and about five feet tall. Suddenly, right there before my eyes, my mother got taller. I swear she did. She became about eight feet tall—bigger than any of those boys. She grabbed the two biggest ones—one by the nape of his neck and the other by the ear, took a swing at the third with her foot, and let out a shriek like a banshee. I'll bet the entire town square stopped, paralyzed, when Mother swing into action.
"You stop that!" she screamed. "Pick up those pencils—every one of them. Haven't you had any proper teaching? Didn't anyone ever show you how to behave? Shame on you! Put those pencils back in that cup. Check to see if any are damaged. You'll pay for any damage you've done. Pick up that money and put it back in the cup. All three of you get down on your knees and apologize. And, don't you ever let me see you doing anything like this again. Now get out of here."
Belief you me—those boys scooted fast. All during Mother's monologue "the crippled boy" was mumbling. "That's all right, Miss Manilla. They don't mean anything by it. They're just cuttin' up."
"It's not all right," said my mother. "Now are you hurt? Are your pencils okay?"
He nodded with tears in his eyes.
My mother dropped our few pennies in his cup. She automatically reached out her hand and I slid mine into it. Meanwhile she had returned to her normal size and quiet personality. I was proud of my mother.
The town square went back to its routine as my mother quietly said to me, "Remember, Elizabeth Anne, we have been given so much that it is always our responsibility to take care of those less fortunate than ourselves."
Those lessons learned that sunny, summer day on the Fayetteville town square have never left me and continue to inform my life.
- Regardless of what we have, we always have something to share.
- If we don't speak up for what is right, who will?
- We can never let the strong abuse the weak.
- When we need the power, we have it.
- Regardless of how little we have, we have been given much.
- It's is always our responsibility to care for those less fortunate than ourselves.
- How much a parent can teach a child by her/his actions!
- How good we feel about ourselves when we do what is right for us!
- Never believe that others have a right to torture or harass you or anyone else
- No one is better than anyone else.