To Tell the Truth
I first met Miss Lollie Schaffer the summer after I started school. Ike was in the White House and the wars were over. At seven I was the oldest of Mama’s girls, and so she had sent me to the store that thick June day with her shopping list and a strict warn- ing. Mama had assured me she knew exactly how much money should be left from the purchase, lest I squander a few cents on licorice. She had promised to use her hickory switch if I came back with the wrong amount of change. I did not dare. Mama kept her promises.
Miss Lollie was ahead of me in line at the gro- cery counter. I looked at her as the grocer, Mr. Porter, counted her change and bagged her canned goods. She was by far the oldest person I had ever seen up close, with deep creases lining her weathered face. She wore a black pillbox hat and veil, her long gray-black braid dangling down her back. She had on a green housedress with a pair of men’s black trousers underneath. The pant legs had been rolled several times into a crude hem and whip stitched in place. Her lips were bright red and smudged across her face. A black patent pock- etbook dangled wide open on her arm, a few crinkled dollar bills peeking out. In my worn green play dress I looked ready to meet the Queen in comparison to this lady.
“…and we thank you, Lollie,” Mr. Porter rat- tled, saying the same thing he said to every customer who paid at the counter, including me. “Need any help getting home?”
“George, I’m not as feeble as you think.” Miss Lollie peered down her half glasses at the grocer. “If I want help, I’ll ask on my own, thank you.” She turned to her left and eyeballed me. “You there, child.” Miss Lollie sniffed. “I believe you’d be well-suited to ac- company me home.” It was not an invitation.
We walked to Miss Lollie’s home in silence, me following her at a pace behind. The trip was a slow one, as Miss Lollie was able to propel herself forward only by shuffling her feet slightly, one foot barely mov- ing in front of the other. I felt very uncertain as we navigated the tree-lined sidewalk. I kept remembering Mama’s constant instruction not to speak unless I was spoken to. So I trod behind Miss Lollie, resisting the temptation to mimic her strange gait.
Eventually we reached Miss Lollie’s house, three blocks from Mr. Porter’s store on the corner of Water and Pine Streets. As I looked up at the worn clapboards I knew the place where water and pine met should have been prettier than the sight before my eyes. I guessed the paint had been peeling at a steady rate for years, and I could read the eras of the house the way one counts rings in the trunk of a tree: the green era, the yellow era, the blue era. The grass needed trimming, and weeds were advancing on the front steps.
But none of this compared to the awesome sight of the three giant totem poles standing in a row in the south corner of the yard. None stood very straight, and all were covered with carvings and too-bright col- ors. A hand-lettered plywood sign to the left of the to- tem poles advertised Miss Lollie’s house as “Stewart County’s Only Indian Artifacts Museum.”
Inside I helped Miss Lollie put her staples in the cupboard and tried not to gawk. There was so much to take in. Three tabby cats tiptoed across the kitchen table. All the windows were covered with crimson taf- feta. Books and newspapers and worn glossy maga- zines sat in piles upon every flat surface.
The Indian artifacts museum doubled as Miss Lollie’s sitting room. An oversized oil painting of Sit- ting Bull dominated the far wall opposite the front door. A tall bookshelf was lined with titles mentioning the Trail of Tears, the life and death of General Custer, and the various tribes indigenous to the Southern United States. Arrowheads and pieces of broken pottery rested upon end tables and filled the corner china cabi- net. Miss Lollie allowed me to stare for a moment be- fore she motioned me toward a straight-backed chair directly opposite Sitting Bull.
Miss Lollie settled herself into the faded pais- ley armchair near the bookshelf. “What’s your name, child?”
I craved the heft of an arrowhead in the palm of my hand and wanted to trace the rough edge of a piece of broken pottery with my pointer finger, but all that would have to wait. “Lina, ma’am. Lina Lawson.” I spoke with a firm voice, as I supposed a woman of Miss Lollie’s years would likely be a touch hard of hearing.
“Surely your parents didn’t christen you that.” She narrowed her eyes. “And there’s no need to shout at me in my own home.”
“Yes’m.” I ducked my head and smoothed the skirt of my dress over my knees, both sunset red from the scrapes I earned jumping out of the tire swing the week before. Mama had slapped me and sent me to bed without supper that night for tearing a hole in my dress. “Lina is short for Caroline, ma’am. My sisters are little, and that’s what they call me.”
Miss Lollie grunted. “Seems to me, if a person is going to have a nickname, she should be the one to do the choosing.”
Maybe staring into the eye of Sitting Bull made me brave. I looked Miss Lollie square in the eye, raised my voice and asked, “Did your parents christen you Lollie?”
For a moment I thought Miss Lollie would jump up and strike me if only she had the mobility to walk across the room at a commanding speed. I had been smart and loud two things Mama hated. Miss Lol- lie glared at me, taking me in from the split ends of my tangled hair to the soles of my scuffed Mary Janes. Then a deep rumbling came up from her belly.
She was laughing. “Actually, I was christened Laurel, after the evergreen wreath given to the ancient victors. But my baby brother couldn’t say it – it always came out ‘Lollie.’ And the name, as you say, ‘stuck.’”
And in that instant, Miss Lollie seemed to ac- cept me as an equal. She never called me ‘child’ again. We spent that afternoon learning one another. My sto- ries were told with the brevity of a young life: three sisters, one dog, one year of elementary school, Daddy’s job at the garage and the blue uniform he wore to work each day, Mama’s aptitude with apple pie and strict discipline, my love of the color blue and my ha- tred of radishes.
Miss Lollie’s stories took until supper. She ran away to New York at age sixteen and earned her wage at a dance hall in the city. She never married, but had been in love twice – once with a traveling minister and once with a married physician – and everyone knew her personal business both times. She studied literature and history in college, and was the first woman in Georgia to earn a master's degree from the University.
As she talked, her mysteries began to open wide like our tulips when they were struck by the first spring sun. She wore trousers with her dresses because she found nylons to be immodest at her age. A thin veil of pantyhose simply could not cover the webs of purple and blue veins that patterned her legs. The makeshift red taffeta curtains were a remembrance of her dance hall days. She had sewn them from the skirts of old dance dresses she wore to kick up her heels to the can- can. Her museum came out of her love affair with the married doctor, who was one-quarter Cherokee and left her his personal collection of arrowheads and Indian novels as a token of his affection once he decided to stay at home with his wife for good.
Miss Lollie told me things that any other adult would keep hidden, things Mama said were not fitting for little ears. I was fascinated and wanted more, crawl- ing off the chair opposite Sitting Bull to land cross- legged on the floor in front of Miss Lollie. I might have listened until the fireflies began to light if Mama had not interrupted our reverie by banging on Miss Lollie’s front door.
Mama was furious. She laid out her whole trau- matic afternoon once Miss Lollie conceded permission for me to open the front door and let Mama inside the house. Mama had checked with all our neighbors on Francis Street before retracing my steps to Mr. Porter’s. There the grocer had informed her I had not bought our own groceries: what I had done was carried Miss Lol- lie's home for her. Mama shot me the look that meant she would deal with me as soon as we got back to the privacy of our home. She turned her full body weight toward Miss Lollie. “Missus Schaffer, what do you mean keeping Lina here all day?”
“Call me ‘Miss Lollie,’ ma’am,” Miss Lollie said. “This town is well aware I’ve never been any- body’s ‘missus,’ so there’s no need pretending other- wise.”
I was impressed. I had never seen anybody talk back to Mama before without getting the back of Mama’s hand. I tried to mask my excitement with what I hoped was a somber face. I did not want another switching. But inside I was rooting for Miss Lollie.
“I had Lina come here this afternoon because she owes me.” Miss Lollie said. “She was careless to- day, and bumped into me on the sidewalk in front of the store. My groceries spilled, and Lina didn’t have the money to replace what was ruined. So I had her carry home my remaining groceries and spend the af- ternoon here doing chores.” Miss Lollie looked at Mama. “So I’m sure you can understand Lina’s tardi- ness.”
The swirl inside me was almost more than I could bear. I hated Miss Lollie. Mama would whip me for sure when we got home. I knew the sting of hickory against flesh as well as I knew the wiggle of a loose tooth against my tongue. I couldn’t believe Miss Lollie would tell such a lie. She only knew a day's worth of me, but she still knew enough to understand Mama was not one to spare her rod and spoil her children. But I had never known for sure adults were lying, although I suspected them of it time and time again. I loved Miss Lollie for giving me that power.
“Yes’m, I can understand,” Mama said. “I’m very sorry for Lina’s clumsiness. I’ll straighten her out when we get home.” Mama glared in my direction. “In the meantime, I’d like to pay you for your loss.” Mama opened her purse and pulled out a patent leather clutch.
“No, thank you, Mrs. Lawson. I’m not inter- ested in money,” Miss Lollie said. “Lina has done a fine job this afternoon. But I don’t feel the debt has been fully repaid.” Miss Lollie turned to me. “I’d like your permission for Lina to spend every Monday after- noon at my house for the rest of the summer helping me with my chores.” She turned back to Mama. “I’d also like you to allow me to handle Lina’s discipline for this incident. I believe you’ll find there will be no need to ‘straighten her out,’ as you say, at home.” Miss Lollie rose from her armchair. “I trust this arrangement is agreeable.”
Mama cocked her head. “Yes’m. I’ll make sure Lina is here. Every Monday. Is one o'clock fine?” Miss Lollie nodded, and Mama kept on. “Very sorry to have troubled you.” Mama returned the clutch down into her bag and closed her pocketbook.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lawson, but there’s no need to apologize for Lina. She’s rough-hewn, but you do have a fine daughter.”
I wondered at Miss Lollie. No one had called me ‘fine’ before. It made me feel tall and proud and whole. I loved Miss Lollie. She respected me, trusted me, and thought I was fine.
I held on tight to that feeling, to everything I learned and saw that afternoon. That night, I thought of blood red curtains as Mama pulled me out to the side yard to cut the switch. I felt the bends and kicks and swirls of big-city dance hall girls as I bent over in front of God and everybody. And with each lash of hickory against my stinging legs I heard Miss Lollie tell Mama that I was a fine daughter. –e-