Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Mission of Mustard

It was one of those humid days when I would try to find a cool spot in the house and do as little as possible. But, Mom needed my assistance, and when I heard about the opportunity to run for a jar of mustard at Katy and Tory's store, I jumped at the chance - no matter how hot it was.

We had moved to Canton just a couple of years before, and it was hard fitting in at a new school and in a new neighborhood. But, thankfully, after many trips around the block together, Aaron and I were able to meet the Dean Court and Baxter Court kids and make friends while riding bikes, moving about on our roller skates, or finding new hiding spots in the neighborhood. Soon, it felt like we were one of the gang and had always lived there. And, it was through those friends that we heard about "Katy and Tory's." Approximately six blocks away, a small, red-brick store stood in the midst of white older homes. It was nothing fancy. The building was worn. The front sidewalk edges were crumbling. But, it was something special: an old-fashioned neighborhood store run by two white-haired sisters, Katy and Tory. And, that's how everyone knew them. Katy and Tory.

They had a little produce. Some staple items filled the shelves. There was an old butcher case in the back (something I had not seen close-up before) where they would cut through ribs or slice off a few thick slices of bologna as a treat for some of the children. While standing in a special spot where the worn, wooden floor boards would creak, I would shift my weight so that I could see through the glass and in between the sides of beef and watch Katy slice meat or package hamburger. But, the real treats were the contents of the candy case. Near the front door, the old case's sliding doors - wood frames with windows - shifted in the back so that children could fetch their own candy. Special candy that I had never seen anywhere else. Candy that wasn't sold in the big grocery stores across town.

And, it didn't matter how few pennies we had with us. We always seemed to have just enough to purchase a handful of our favorites because of the kindness and generosity of Katy and Tory. Two wonderful ladies who wouldn't let me leave the store without giving me a hug and a kind word - along with a lot of candy.

We didn't have much money back in those days. So, I had learned the importance of not letting items go to waste and eating everything on my plate. (I think I learned that second lesson too well!) At times, well...times were tough. I can't remember why, but that day Mom really needed mustard for something but couldn't leave the house. So, she sent me off on the important errand with just enough money for that important mustard. After securing the few precious dollars in my front pants pocket, I raced off on my bike to get the job done.

I vividly remember entering the store that day. I had never purchased anything from the "regular shelves" at Katy and Tory's by myself... usually just a few slices of bologna, a cold pop, or anything and everything from the candy counter. So, I sought out the jar of mustard and searched up and down the short aisles. In the end, of course, the task required Katy's help, and I happily carried the big glass jar of mustard up to the wooden cash register platform. Tory rang up the purchase and - as usual - insisted that I pick out a few pieces of penny candy for myself. She placed the jar in a small paper bag, and I tossed in the nickel and the few pennies that were Mom's change. Tory gave me her usual, sweet send-off before I set my sights on the cool cement front steps. The familiar thump of the wooden store door behind me and the singing birds in the nearby tall trees comforted me as I enjoyed a brief moment of peacefulness in the neighborhood.

My bicycle was a second-hand version. A good one, but nothing fancy. No extra features like some of the kids had, like tassles on the ends of the handlebars or a woven flower basket on the front. But, still, I appreciated having my bike, especially when running errands or traveling to the neighborhood playhouse on humid days like this. After devouring my candy and just seconds after leaving the shade of the front steps, I fetched my bicycle from the mossy side of the store and prepared for the trip home. Doing my best-but-not-well-thought-out-job of securing my purchase for the ride, I wrapped the crinkled top of the small brown bag around my handlebar, giving my right hand an extra tight squeeze to ensure its safety.

As you're probably guessing, it is quite difficult to know what moved more quickly in the next few seconds: me in my over-energetic pedaling in order to complete my errand for my mother and make up for lost time I spent eating candy on the step... OR ... that big jar of mustard being taken for gravity's ride right through the ripping, sweaty paper bag and crashing down onto the store front sidewalk. I was in motion, mind you. So, to my horror, I became the closest I've ever been to a walking piece of art. Modern art. You know, Jackson Pollock and the like. Mustard... on the sidewalk, on the nearby tree, and on the permanent anthills. On my tennis shoes, in my socks, and right leg completely covered. On my shorts, UP my shorts, on my shirt, on my arm. Worse yet, in my hair, on my glasses, and up my nose.

The crying started immediately. It was a mixture of knowing what I looked like, the bright yellow ooze that covered my clothes, the burning sensation in my nose, that I couldn't see with my glasses covered... but most of all, I knew I had ruined the sidewalk in front of Katy and Tory's store, I had failed in running the important errand for Mom, and we couldn't afford buying another jar of mustard right then. Literally and figuratively, I had made a mess of everything. The tears came more heavily and rapidly.

After taking a few moments to consider my options, I surrendered to the fact that I couldn't ride or walk all of the way home and drip the entire way. Besides... jagged shrapnel was strewn about in the wreckage from the yellow glass bomb, and I couldn't leave that for Katy and Tory or one of their customers to unexpectedly find. So, I knew I had to go back inside to explain my foolish mistake.

In short, I was received in a way that is so uncommon. As I stood at the front door leaning in, attempting to not to make tracks on worn wooden floorboards of the store, I called for assistance in between the sobs. Tory immediately saw the teary-mustardy-swollen-red-eyed look on my face and insisted I come in, despite my messy condition. Tory helped me with my glasses. Katy retrieved a towel. Tory wiped down my legs. Katy hosed down my bike and the sidewalk. Tory helped me rinse out my hair. Katy retrieved a new jar of mustard. Tory insisted I get another few pieces of candy. Four arms embraced me.

Because of being so upset, some of the details are a blur. But, both sisters immediately let me know that the situation would be OK, that I would be OK. And, they engulfed me with kindness, wishing me back soon, and sending me on my way with a shiny new jar of mustard for Mom, a second jar which they said was "their treat." With the few sticky coins (with the tell-tale yellow in the creases, that were change from the first jar) tightly clenched in my right hand (coins that Katy and Tory would not accept), I walked home cautiously with my left hand on my left handlebar grip and my right arm encircled around the precious gift that was finally presented to my mother. Katy and Tory told me they would not accept any offers of payment for my mistake and - if it were possible - treated me with even more kindness in my visits after that day.

The good memories of Katy and Tory and the precious lessons that I learned from them are too numerous to name. But, as I think about my gradeschool and junior high years, they stand out as two role models who continuously taught me so much - even though I didn't know I was learning. They were the embodiment of generosity, charity, and compassion for so many - but especially for the children on the east side of Canton. Especially for me. Yes, the material gift was only a jar of mustard, but the spiritual gifts were oh such much more. Especially to those who had so little.

Life brings many heartaches, struggles, and unexpected disappointments. How I wish we could be better at helping one another - especially when the other is down - instead of looking for other ways to bring him down farther. How I wish I could be better at that. What a different world it would be if we would so freely offer what we have and hand out hugs...and candy...and comfort to someone who has so little to offer in return. How blessed I feel to have known two individuals who seemed to always do just that.

II Corinthians 1:3-4 Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God.


Soon after I moved away from Canton, Katy passed away, and I understand Tory is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's and is living in a nearby elderly care facility. I so very much wish I could talk to both of them today.

In recent years, Mr. Dave Pickel, whose photography shop is located in the renovated Wilstead's Grocery building just down the street, has refurbished the store that holds so many memories for the kids on the east side of Canton. This fall, Katy and Tory's was re-opened as a restaurant. Please visit the restaurant by watching this news feature filmed by the local NBC affiliate. Even though the memorable, original floors are gone, you will be able to catch a glimpse of some of the items from the store - along with with my best friend from my hometown, Susan, and her mother, Pat, who just happened to be visiting when the crew was filming. You'll also be able to see a few photos of the loving sisters, Katy and Tory.


Chris said...

What a sweet story - and an interesting way to preserve the history of two wonderful, encouraging saints. I hope to go with you sometime to Canton and try a meal there!

It reminds me of the old Handy's store (before they built the new modern one) that I went to as a child. Just a block from home we could go each day with our 50 cents to buy a candy bar, or can of pop. Fun times, and good memories of Papaw's kindness to give my sister and I a dollar a day to share.

Anonymous said...

great story. Maybe not many but a few times we have talked about how little there was growing up in Canton. But from reading this and other conversations with you I think you had so much.

Reminds me also of two sweet older sisters who lived behind us in an old farm house. They were so kind and could not believe a few of us high school boys loved to vistit and chat with them. alan

Elizabeth said...

What a wonderful memory to share! It kind of sounds like it came right out of a movie, but I know it means more than that. Don't forget those "little" things, sometimes they mean the most.

Dani said...

Good story, there is no store in my not so distant past, but I know several of the sort of people you are talking about.

And just so you know, you are good at giving virtual candy and virtual hugs, and helping others up, I know first hand. Your kind words are always encouraging and appreciated, even if we don't always so it very well.

Dani said...

that should have been "show" not so.

strem said...

Thank you, Dani, for YOUR kind words. Hope to meet up soon.

Elizabeth, I fear my memories are rather boring to others. But, in trying to capture many of the memories that my grandparents and great aunts and uncles hold, I realized I need to be careful to preserve my own. Even at this somewhat "young" age, I feel memories slipping away.

strem said...

Brother Alan: I think Canton is a wonderful place in which to grow up. There was a lack of creative activities for young folks, however... just as I presume it is in many smaller towns. So, that is one of the things I wish had been different about my experience there. I also wish there were some way to bring a large business back to Canton (outside of the correctional center which is now the main employer.) We used to have an International Harvester plant... but since its departure, the economy has declined. A large factory of some sort would help so many issues with which Canton is currently struggling.

As for our own family, there were times we didn't have much. But, God blessed us in keeping us safe, and we were surrounded by loving family. Those difficult times help me remain more clearly focused on the abundance I have now... and the special memories I have with Mom, Dad and Aaron in those early years.

strem said...

Brother Chris: Thanks for sharing your own memory of Handy's and time with Papaw. I'm afraid it is becoming more and more difficult for a brother and sister to share a dollar and have each be able to purchase a treat. It is amazing how prices have soared, just in my lifetime.

I am hoping I will be able to share Katy and Tory's with many who come back to Canton with me. So, next time you're there, let's go!

Sandy-san said...

Even though it seemed so traumatic to you when you were younger, what a wonderful lesson of compassion and comfort those two sisters had shown to you.

We had the local Farm Fresh just two blocks away from where I lived, but I can't contribute a story quite as lovely as yours!

Siren said...

This brought tears to my eyes!

We lived pretty far out of town, so only got to visit Katy's when we were at my Grandma's house (on Myrtle). I remember them being so sweet to us, and always being surprised that we somehow left with more candy than we'd had money for (back then we really didn't have much money at all for anything, let alone candy).

I still remember the creaky floorboards and see the candy counter like it was yesterday.

I was home a few months ago and noticed it was a restaurant but didn't have a chance to stop in. I was delighted to learn Dave Pickel had a hand in it! I knew him back when I worked for Dave Lewis - he was always telling me stories about Dave's younger exploits and generally being really nice to me.

When I started trying to have children, one of the things that occurred to me was that my future kids would never get to have a Katy and Tory's candy counter. Now that it's been renovated, at least now I'll be able to take them to the same place and tell them all about those wonderful women.