Friday, October 17, 2008

Welcome to Tillis

"Personally, I have held for a long time that it was the easy credit economy which propped up the Liberal political, economic, social, and educational system. Without this prop, the inherent instability of such a system will reappear. We have “families” which are not really families, we have “neighbors” who are not really neighbors, we have “schools” that are not really schools, we have governments who have lost their concern for the common good, “banks” don’t really have any money. The list could go on and on. When all the credit cushioning is taken away, how will we react to the primary realities of human existence that we have covered over by comfort and technology, realities which our ancestors knew about and dealt with daily?" Peter Chojnowski, Ph.D, "The Crash of 2008: An Update", Catholic Family News

This question stands out for me: "How will we react to the primary realities of human existence that we have covered over by comfort and technology, realities which our ancestors knew about and dealt with daily?" I am so blessed to have had grandparents whose lives helped me to know how to answer it.

Some of the very best memories of my childhood are from my grandfather's country store in Wicksburg, AL. His name was Tillis Thomley, but most folks just called him "Til". We grandchildren called him Papa.

A well-worn footpath tied Papa and his store to my grandmother, "Nanny", and the family home. Papa walked home to dinner every day at noon, passing by Nanny's veritable Camellia forest, ignoring the invitation of the waterfall that beckoned from the secluded lily pond.

Papa sold gasoline at his store, too, but there was no such thing as self-service. He hustled between the pumps and the counter all day. And it was a long one. Papa opened at five in the morning unless a desperate customer came to the house and woke him up earlier with a loud rap on the side porch door. On the other mornings, the bottom of his coffee cup reminded, "Back to work".

Instead of a sign in the window that read "NO LOITERING," Papa had a sign with a Barber's Milk logo on the bottom and "Welcome to Tillis" on the top. Just to back up his invitation, long unpainted benches stretched under the windows that flanked each side of the double screen-door entry. The benches were regularly used by four or five old-timers who sat there with their legs crossed, chewing tobacco. They allowed me a space between them every summer when I visited from my home in Florida. They called me "the Flordy girl" except when they were introducing me to someone. Then, depending on who it was, I was "Anne's middle yungun" or "One of Till's and Myra's grandchillun". Like a dangling spider, I was safely connected to the ancient web of my ancestry by the long thread of the old men's memories.

On one outside corner of the store there was a large square kerosene tank with an orange hand pump on top. My old-timer friends taught me to rub a little on my arms and cheeks to keep the swarms of gnats away. Sometimes the gnats were so bad that I breathed them, and clusters of them gathered in the corners of my eyes.

Inside the screen doors of Papa's store it was dark, probably because the unpainted cement floors had turned almost black, but Papa would greet you with a big smile that made you forget the darkness. Not having too much light helped the overhead fan keep it cooler.

Papa did his own butchering, and the tantalizing smell of sausage drew you through the store better than any display ever could. To get to the sausage you had to pass the U-shaped counter that wrapped around Papa and displayed candy, tobacco, and lipstick, while above it hung cowboy hats, packages of flint, and breath spray. You had to pass by the scale where Papa weighed tomatoes and where slow-moving women in damp summer dresses weighed their babies. You had to pass the icy Coke chest and the Tom's peanuts jar when the two of them were crying out to you to mingle them together just one more time. You had to pass the Meadow Gold ice cream freezer where you knew the push-ups were waiting under hatch number three. . .

If none of these essentials stopped you, you could probably ease past the canned goods to the meat counter, as long as you didn't trip over the salt blocks.

Despite all these indispensable items, the most important thing that Papa's store offered was "trade". As my daddy taught me--in word and deed--trade implies a commitment on both sides of the counter. That's what there was at Papa's store: commitment--a tie that went beyond the cash register transactions and bound Papa and the people of Wicksburg who were his "customers". Papa filled a need in the community. People gathered there to "hear tell" of local folks. When it rained it was the place to visit over a "co-cola" or pitch pennies against the Coke chest. When you were down and out it was the place to charge groceries without having any kind of plastic card and without filling out any applications. Instead, Papa just filled out a page of a simple 3x5 charge pad with the customer's name and the cost of the purchases. No interest. I can remember squatting behind the counter and seeing, year after year, the same dusty cigar boxes full of these used charge pads. As far as I know, Papa never mailed a statement. In fact, there was no office at the store or the house, not even a desk. Yet he provided well for his family and managed it on a cash basis. (They lived in an old wooden house on piers with no air conditioning, but it was full of good food and good company.) I remember standing beside Papa, awed, as he opened a safe that was located under his home stairway and took out $4000, to go purchase a new Chevrolet sedan. I had never seen that much money before.

And so, as I watch the culture and the economy unravel, I remember Papa and the lessons he taught me. I will pass them on to my children and hope and pray for better days, when once again I might see a sign like "Welcome to Tillis" and know that Christian culture is rising from the ashes, one country store at a time.

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