A story I grew up hearing was that my grandmother was dining at the Jackson, Tennessee, Country Club and began talking with one of the cooks. She hired Leonard (Spot) Taylor and his wife, moved them to Jonesboro, and they lived in a log cabin on our home place. Yes, you read it correctly, a log cabin. In defense, it was close to the house and in pretty good condition. His wife became my nurse, and Spot became the cook for our family. My parents lived with my mother’s parents because my grandfather insisted, and it was not a happy home.
I remember nothing about Spot’s wife, except her name, Shug, short for Sugar. She died when I was five, and I vaguely recall a hearse driving up and being told she was taken to a hospital. Sometime after that, Spot remarried, a woman named Polly. He moved to a house on Logan Street, where he lived until he died, surrounded by his wife’s children, who were so greedy that they tried to cash checks on his account even after his funeral. The only way it was caught was that my son, John, Jr., was a teller at the bank, his summer job, and was asked to cash a check signed with Leonard Taylor’s name.
Spot was an important part of my life, and I loved him dearly. I never saw a difference in skin color. Spot was an alcoholic, and my father would have a rage attack when he saw how he was hoarding papers, etc., in the basement. He would throw them out and fire Spot. Then Spot would get sober and beg to return to his job, a true alcoholic in promising he would never drink again.
Spot cooked seven days a week. On Fridays, he had the night off and would leave tuna salad and other snacks in the refrigerator so I could “prepare” our supper. We had dinner at noon and supper at night in our home. On Sunday, Spot prepared a dinner of fried chicken and put the leftovers in the oven from which I would set them out for supper. And no one ever thought about salmonella!
Spot’s favorite pastime was to listen to the Cardinals games on the radio. He had a kitchen stool with a back on it, radio beside him, and sometimes a bowl of egg whites that he was beating for an Angel food cake while listening. He and my grandfather, E.C. Barton, shared this fascination with the Cardinals. Paw Paw, as I called him, arranged a driver for Spot, sending him to St. Louis to realize his dream of seeing his team play.
You may wonder about his nickname – Spot was a tiny man with small bones. He probably weighed somewhere around one hundred pounds.
When something or someone didn’t seem right to Spot, he would comment about something hiding “in that woodpile.” This was particularly true about the woman who left out an ingredient on purpose when giving the recipe for her special pound cake.
My grandmother was raised in Jackson, so my mother had all the Southern roots in her make-up. One day I referred to a black woman as a lady, and I was corrected; I was told, “You never call a black woman a lady.” My father had told me never to question my mother, that she was always right, so I took everything she said as the gospel truth. The remark was probably made with sarcasm, but I didn’t have the maturity to understand their relationship for many years.
Spot was a wonderful cook, and my friends loved having a meal at our house. He was always extremely polite and called me Miss Mary Lee, my friends were Miss Jane, Miss Suzanne, etc.
I was so sheltered that, when racial strife blew up in the 50’s, I could not understand what was going on. I thought of Spot as a part of our family and had no experience with prejudice. I suppose I had my head in the sand, as I never even thought about the fact that there was a Booker T. Washington School for those other people. It was the fall of 1954, and I was a college freshman who had never heard of civil rights. The phrase, “you’ve come a long way, baby,” keeps running through my mind as I write.
We also had a housekeeper, Mary Meadows, beloved and patient. My father would pick her up on Sunday mornings to make the beds. Unbelievable! This was still happening when I was in college. No wonder I knew nothing about cleaning or cooking when I married. I would grocery shop in a state of confusion and embarrassment. My mother always ordered groceries to be delivered to the house, so I had absolutely no experience in choosing a cut of meat and made many mistakes.
On our honeymoon, we had a kitchenette. The first morning, John commented that he sure would like a fried egg. I just looked at him! He had worked his way through LSU as a short-order cook, and I could rely on him for directions. In later years, he made a delicious gumbo, and even though he wrote out his recipe, I have never been able to duplicate it. One of John’s favorite stories was coming home to our apartment in West Memphis and finding me flouring chicken with a spoon. That made me determined to learn to cut up a fryer, and I became pretty good at it – all to prove a point.
Spot taught me to make brownies and chocolate cake. I still make a good brownie and cake, the same recipes I used in my teens.
In the years we lived next door to my parents, Spot would come across the yard to see me. One day, he walked into the kitchen and asked me what I was cooking. I answered that I was making a stew. His response was, “you shouldn’t oughta have to do that” as he never thought his “Miss Mary Lee” should get her hands dirty.
Christmas mornings, he and Mary would come to the door of the living room and be given their presents, then they would be excused, and the family gift time would take place.
There was a half-bath in the basement which the “help” used. It pains me today to say that I never questioned that, though I was told not to use it, as it was “their” bathroom. I think you are beginning to see why I dislike using the words “them” and “us.” I am not particularly ashamed, as I didn’t know better. Through my experience, I am proud to work for acceptance of God’s creatures. Often we have to recognize bias in order to work for change.
When John Jr. was leaving for college, he and Mary Kathryn went by Spot’s house to tell him goodbye. Mary Kathryn told me how shocked she was that he didn’t have better living conditions. Spot was propped up in his bed and asked Johnny why he was going to college, that he had always played with trucks and cars and Spot thought he wanted to be a truck driver. Johnny very gently explained that a truck driver needs an education. That seemed to satisfy our dear Spot. Tears welled up in his eyes when he realized they had come just to see him, because they cared about him.
And we had laughs about Spot. One Christmas, my mother insisted on having dinner at her house. I asked her how she could do that, because she never cooked, and Spot was no longer working. I went over that afternoon to check on her and found Spot sitting on the kitchen stool, showing her how to make dressing. My mother sent him a monthly check for years after he quit working, and once he wrote telling her he needed a raise. I am certain he got his wish.
Having experienced being coddled and spoiled, I became determined not to ask anyone to do anything for me that I was unwilling to do for myself. I felt very guilty in asking for help and, even today, it frustrates me to be unable to do projects that require standing up. I feel accountable for the years of taking service for granted – and in these waning years I think daily of John Wesley’s quote: “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”