My name is Matilda Louise Moore, but I’ve always been called Tillie.
In September of 1945, I turned six years old. At this age, I suddenly
found myself filled with questions and confusion. Those questions were
sprouting inside me like plump seeds in the moist earth ready to pop
open. The everyday conventions of life just didn’t satisfy me anymore.
I needed to know why, and I needed to know why not.
Maryville, Alabama was home to my grandmother Louise Plant and me. As
the old saying goes, it was small enough “for everybody to know
everyone”, and it was certainly a Norman Rockwell setting. It had all
the qualities of his paintings of the 1940s.
As a child, one takes for granted that things will always remain the
same, and the people we love, who make us feel secure, will always be
with us. In a way, I suppose that’s true; after all, we keep them with
us in our memories, and we keep them with us in pictures safely tucked
away in photograph albums that we visit from time to time. When we do
visit, they are there, unchanged, just as we want them to be and that
gives us comfort.
I can be anywhere when suddenly a sound or an aroma will take me back to
another time. I smell food cooking, and I can’t help but think of my
grandmother. I can almost hear the sound of her humming as she cooked. I
smell Old Spice Cologne, and memories of my father flood my thoughts.
The smell of wet soap makes me think of my mother. I don’t know why
that is because she died when I was an infant. But the aroma carries
with it the memory of a soft soothing murmur.
Sudden recall arouses sounds and smells too. Whenever I think back on
the murder of Jimmy-June Thompson, I experience a heightened sensory
awareness of dust, sweat, and metal. I have no idea why I smell that
particular mixture of components, for I was not present at his murder;
after all, I was only six when it happened, but the shock of it painted
a picture in my mind that can never be changed. The memory of his murder
not only brings those smells to my mind, but it also brings the sound of
hundreds of birds flapping their wings in terrifying desperation to
leave that place of death.
The Osceola River cuts my home town of Maryville in half, while the
bridge knits the two sides together forming one town. When I was a
child, the big gray mill sat by the river sounding like a living
organism as it ground, and bellowed the mixed sounds of clacking
shuttles, and looms, and motors, which to me sounded like a great heart
beating inside a huge drum. Today it sits, a rotting dinosaur, silent,
The stores are all closed now, except for a couple that are rented by
antique dealers taking advantage of the low rent. The dealers sit inside
the dusty stores waiting for customers to stroll in. Outside, the
shoppers lean in toward the windows. Through squinting eyes, they stare
through cupped hands at antique furniture, tables of china, and
knickknacks of various kinds. Old dolls with unblinking eyes stare back.
Once the shopper’s probing eyes find the merchant, hidden among the
many treasures he or she has to offer, they enter the store. A little
bell over the door announces their arrival.
The customers wander leisurely through the aisles. They communicate like
birds calling to one another from tree to tree. Their voices echo in the
half empty store.
“Oh look at this old thing. Remember this? Grandmother had one of
Maryville is a graveyard of the town that used to be. Soon the people,
who remember it when it was truly alive, will all be gone. Perhaps the
buildings will be torn down then, but for now, they stand as brick
skeletons with hollow windows staring silently at empty sidewalks and
empty streets. But I remember the little town, the way it was before
malls and expressways. I remember busy stores and Miss Jo who rode
through town every morning honking the horn of her bright yellow
Studebaker, waving at everyone as she made her way to the corner of her
turn. She was letting everybody know that the Hotel Restaurant would
soon be open for business. I remember the drug stores where you could
get an ice cream cone with two scoops for a dime and the movie theater
which cost a dime as well. I remember them all: the dress shops, the hat
shop, the bank. I remember the small park where old men sat resting
arthritic knees after crossing the long bridge. And I remember the water
fountain with the sign that said “Whites Only”. The bridge, the
schools, and the power plant are all that is left of life in this little
My story begins before malls and multi-lane expressways. It begins when
the little town was very much alive. It was late summer of 1945, two
days before Mose and his mule came down our street without his usual
wagon of vegetables. This particular summer was indeed my last season of
innocence, for those questions I had harbored inside me did indeed find
Just to let you know, I called my grandmother “Mama”, because . . .
well, that’s just what I chose to do, and you will come to know (often
to Mama’s dismay) that Tillie Moore very frequently steered away from
the standard way of doing things.
Summer was nearly over, and the children of Maryville hated to see it
end. There would be no more playing Tarzan, or softball, or cowboys and
Indians. Swimming pools were nonexistent in Maryville, but in the summer
we donned our swim suits anyway, and cooled our small hot bodies by
running through the water of lawn sprinklers and hose pipes. The icy
water on our warm flesh resulted in sharp squeals and giggles that
sliced through the hot Alabama air. Now that summer was leaving us,
there would be no more of that. There would be no more games of Hide and
Seek at dusky dark, either. We’d have to live through another fall,
winter, and part of spring to enjoy those activities again.
Bessie was Mama’s part-time maid. She and Mama had known each other
since childhood. They had been putting up tomatoes since they first
started coming in. They were ripe, and juicy, and ready for canning.
Late July is when they started, and now they were working on what would
be the last of this season’s crop. They stood in front of their work
area in the kitchen, which consisted of, the counter to the right and
left of the sink, and the stove next to the left end of the counter.
They were working and laughing about something when they were
interrupted by a shy tapping on the wooden frame of the back screen
door. Mama called out, “Who is it?”
A familiar voice spoke softly. “It’s just me, Mrs. Plant.”
Mama wiped her hands on her apron as she walked to the door. She spoke
cheerfully through the screen door. “Well how do you do, Joe?”
“I’m doing fine, Mrs. Plant. I hope you are doing all right
today,” he said timidly. Joe came to our back door fairly often. He
always stood with his hat in his hands, and I noticed that he never
looked directly at you. Sometimes he was alone, and sometimes he might
have a friend or two with him. His overalls were filthy, and he smelled
bad. His cool turquoise blue eyes always seemed out of place in that
tired sunbaked face, and his expression always looked like an apology
was forthcoming. Today he was alone.
Most people called Joe a hobo, but Mama called him a man down on his
luck. She didn’t like the term hobo. She said he deserved better than
that. Mama said some soldiers came back from the war this way with a
faraway look in their eyes, and a bottle of cheap whiskey in their back
pocket. She said we might all do the same if we had to endure what they
had. So there Joe stood at our back door begging for food again. Somehow
Mama always made his visits seem as if he was not begging but simply
visiting. She would say something like, “You know, I was just thinking
about you, Joe. I have some food left over from last night’s supper,
and I remembered how you love fried chicken, so I saved you some in case
you might stop by to say ‘hello.’ ” Or she might say, “Well hey
there, Joe, could you use a little bite to eat today? You know how I
hate to see food go to waste. I have some leftovers if you’d like. Sit
down right there on the steps, and I’ll bring you some.” That was
Mama’s way. I don’t know if she was purposely trying to save his
pride, or that this behavior was just second nature to her. But I can
tell you this, whenever people came to the back door begging, they were
never turned away. She would always find something for them. Sometimes
it wasn’t anything, but a peanut butter and jelly sandwich folded over
with a glass of ice tea or cup of coffee. There was a piece of fried ham
and a biscuit for Joe today. He looked at it as if it was a treasured
Once when Joe was there with several of his friends, Mama and I were
handing out plates of food, I spoke up and said, “Why don’t ya’ll
come on in the kitchen and sit down at the table to eat?” Mama put her
hand on my shoulder, and said in a low but disapproving voice,
“Tillie, the gentlemen are perfectly comfortable sitting on the back
steps to eat. Now come on in the house.” Mama would always fill up a
jar of iced tea for them to take with them or coffee if it was winter.
They always looked sad, and it made me sad, but Mama would just say,
“It’s the times, Tillie. Things will get better for them.”
When Joe left this time, Mama and Bessie resumed their canning, and I
went out to enjoy the tail-end of summer.
Louise and Bessie
“You know, Miz Louise, it been a long time since I see maters come in
so early in the season like this. I got a feelin it might be a bad omen.
I been feeling dem prickles on the back of my neck all day long,”
Louise answered, “Now don’t you go getting all morose on me, Bessie
Thompson, with talk of omens and stuff.”
But Bessie continued, “Yes’m, but don’t you member, it had been a
extra hot summer just like this one, and we was puttin up maters just
like today. Pore old Mr. Clayton sitting on the front porch out there in
that swing, reading the newspaper, minding his own b’ness, when old
Mr. Death come along. Nother time we hada early crop, Little Miss Tillie
other granddaddy die. That pore child had a lot a mizry in her life fo
such a little old thing.”
“Well, if you don’t hush up, you gone make me think I’m about to
drop dead in this kitchen myself.”
Bessie laughed and said, “No’m you ain’t! You gotta wait to we
finish puttin up these here maters.” They both laughed but Bessie
caught herself before continuing down that particular memory lane. She
bit her bottom lip to keep from speaking about what she was thinking;
however, she was in it now, and she couldn’t stop herself from
thinking about it.
“Pore Miss Mattie dying with Tillie just a little baby herself, and
Lordy, Lordy, those memories: Miz Louise sitting by her daughter’s
bedside watching her sweet child slip away, and then, when pore Miss
Mattie was able to tolerate being touched, which wat’nt often, we
placed her fresh bathed little baby in her arms. She held that baby
close, whispering sweet things to her, and kissing the top of her little
head. It ’bout broke my heart to pieces watching that.”
Six summers had passed since Mattie’s death, but for Bessie and Louise
it was still a fresh memory, a tender bruise sore to the touch. Bessie
was there when Mattie was born and she was there when she left this
earth. “Didn’t nobody love her no better, neither, ’cept maybe Miz
Louise herself, and I loves that little Tillie just as much as I loved
her mama.” Bessie kept these thoughts to herself and Louise was
thankful for that. She knew Bessie was thinking about it though. She and
Bessie could practically read each other’s minds anyway. Louise
didn’t want to be reminded of Mattie’s death. She lived with that
memory every day of her life. Talking about it didn’t help. Bessie and
Louise pulled themselves out of the past long enough for Louise to
change the mood. She addressed Bessie’s statement about Tillie having
a difficult life for such a young child. “Well, Tillie may have had
some difficulties but she’s a strong child, Bessie. She’s got more
inner strength than most adults I know and she’s so smart. Her
teachers tell me they have to give her extra work just to keep her
satisfied. She’s so far ahead of the other children its plum pitiful.
I wish I had the money to send her to one of those private schools in
Montgomery for gifted children. That’s what she needs, but we just
don’t have that kinda money.”
“No’m, but she gone be awright. Little Miss Tillie gone grow up to
be som’em real special. That child gone make us all proud. Yes mam!
And the lack of a private school ain’t gone change that one bit! No
sir-ree! So don’t you go worrying yoself ’bout that, now, ya
Louise looked over and smiled at Bessie standing next to her filling up
jars of cooked tomatoes. They had been doing this together for all of
their adult life. Their mothers did it together before them. They shared
the work and the tomatoes just like their mothers had done. They had it
down to a science: Bessie passed the filled jars to Louise, who then put
the lids on the jars, wiped them clean, and placed them in the cooking
pot. Louise stopped the work just long enough to reach her arm around
Bessie to give her a little side hug.
“What in the world do you reckon I would do without you, old girl?”
“Lordy, I don’t know, Miz Louise, I sho don’t; now that would be
plum pitiful.” She shook her head back and forth to emphasize the
significance of her statement, as she laughed the joyful, deep laugh
that always lifted Louise’s spirits.
Louise teased, “Well excuse me, Miz Bessie Thompson, just what makes
you so sure I couldn’t function without you ’round here?”
“Well, les us see, now. If’n I ain’t here . . . who gone make them
biscuits so light they near ’bout float in the air when yore’s so
hard we near ’bout break a toof. Not only that, jus who gone make them
window panes shine wif out them streaks you always makes?”
They laughed but they both knew there was truth in that statement.
Bessie ended her laughter by shaking her head back and forth with a
“Whooo-wee”. But then she always ended a moment of fun that way with
a “Whooo- wee”, “Praise God”, or just plain, “Yes, Lord!
“We’re good friends,” Louise thought to herself, “but I can
never say that to another living soul. Why is that? Bessie is the best
friend I ever had. There’s nothing she won’t do for me or my family,
and I feel the same. I wish everybody could see what a wonderful woman
Bessie is, but all most people see is a poor old black woman. They might
feel sorry for her, but they consider her beneath them.”
Excerpted from "A Season of Innocence" by Barbara Buxton. Copyright © 2013 by Barbara Buxton. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.