A small cake loosed a flood of memories for Proust; for me, it was a bar of Dove soap.
While I was washing my face Tuesday morning, I suddenly remembered my mother saying, “No matter how poor people are, they can still afford a bar of soap.” She was referring to a poor family who shopped at the same Knoxville grocery store we did in 1961.
The grocery store was located in Bearden Shopping Center, which also had a Long’s Drugstore, Coffin Shoes, a five-and-dime, Wade’s Bakery, the S&H Green Stamps redemption center, a record store (where I bought my first record: The Beatles, of course), and a jewelry store.
Next door was a lady’s shop called Laverne’s. It was remarkable for its display windows. Everything on display was the same color. One week pink, the next green, and so on through the color spectrum. As a child, I thought it was a bad idea to group everything by color — one outfit blended into the next so the eye was drawn to the mannequins’ beige arms and legs, which provided the only contrast. I filed that information away in case I ever opened a dress shop.
I’ve recollected these things from time to time, but what I had forgotten was the memory the soap brought back — of the poor family and their house, which stood in a hard-packed lot across Bearden Road from Laverne’s. It wasn’t a house really, but a shack in the tradition of all rudely built dwellings in the South: rough wood, the paint long ago peeled off, slanting porch, metal roof and all of it sagging under the weight of its rafters. It was an island of rural Appalachia surrounded by suburbia.
The family who lived there were dirt poor, as people used to say. They would shop as a group dressed in ill-fitting clothes, outdated by half a century. There were children with runny noses and dirty hands, and shoppers gave them a wide berth as they made their way through the store.
The first time I saw them I asked my mother if we could do something to help them. She said people like that were too proud to accept help. I asked why they were so dirty, and mother said, they were poor, “but no matter how poor people are, they can still afford a bar of soap.” (It was an uncharacteristic comment; my mother was one of the most generous and compassionate people in the world.)
I would lie awake at night thinking of ways I might help them. I imagined the family freshly scrubbed, well fed and dressed in new clothes. Their house would be torn down and replaced with a new and modern one like ours. They would have heat and running water and air conditioning — things they did without. Their way of life, right there on Kingston Pike, was unimaginable to me.
I never did anything. I wasn’t one of those children who holds bake sales for her favorite charity. Besides, my mother said it would hurt their pride if we tried to help.
One day, the family was gone, then the house was torn down and eventually replaced with a car wash. Time brought new stores, new shoppers, a new world.
I may be the only person alive who remembers that family; it’s not likely I will forget them again.
Jan Hearne is Tempo editor for the Johnson City Press. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.