It was 1987, the year I graduated high school and fifteen years after Miss Della became too old to walk to town.
Rich white folk were a rarity in Ashdown, Arkansas. Nekoosa Paper Mill drove the town’s economy and the small population consisted mostly of blue-collar workers who put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage. The town’s doctor, dentist, and a couple of business owners easily rose to the upper class. These were the people who employed Miss Della.
For as long as anyone could remember, including Miss Della, she walked two miles to the E-Z Mart convenience store in Wilton. There she waited to catch a ride the remaining four and a half miles into town Monday thru Friday to clean houses for her employers. After reaching the age of retirement, one day Miss Della walked the short distance down gravel covered Little River 40 Road and across Highway 234 to our house to ask my dad if he would give her a ride into town in the mornings. Dad agreed.
Dad’s Dodge pickup revved to life at 6:20 a.m. to carry him to the mill for his 7:00 a.m. shift. Miss Della made sure he never needed to wait for her. At first she stood at the end of our driveway each morning, but soon she began walking the hundred yards to sit in the passenger seat of the truck. Dad often opened his truck door only to disturb Miss Della’s morning nap and he wondered just how early she arrived. She awoke at the sound of the opening door and began telling Dad the news of the town. Miss Della knew everything about everyone.
Miss Della’s account of the town news ended at the corner convenience store in Ashdown where Dad stopped to let her out. She walked from there to the different houses where she worked. On Mondays she went to Jimmy and Pat Thrash’s, Tuesdays she worked for Carol Ross, Wednesdays at Jim Cauthron’s, and so on.
In the twenty years Miss Della rode with my dad, she was late only one time. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well, or overslept, or she needed to wait for the sun to come up to pick ripe tomatoes from her garden. I didn’t know why, but I knew it was highly unusual and she had a good reason. She knocked on our front door after seven a.m. and asked if I could drop her off on my way to school. Mom welcomed Miss Della inside and urged me to hurry getting ready. I quickly grabbed my things.
My pace slowed considerably as Miss Della carefully navigated the four steps down from the front porch, eighty years of life added caution to her movements. I held open the passenger door of my green Toyota Celica, slammed it shut four times (it didn’t latch well), and rushed around the car to get behind the wheel. Miss Della fit snuggly between the door and the center console, smelled of her favorite brand of snuff, and looked relieved to have caught a ride. Her round brown face littered with small, dark moles held kind eyes capable of capturing every detail. They lit up as she talked and laughed, exposing teeth stained by years of tabacco use. She interrupted herself to tell me to stop at Gerdie’s house. Gerdie lived just off the highway and Miss Della needed to give her the brown paper bag she had been carrying since I first saw her that morning. It would just take a second.
The Celica eased to a stop on the generous shoulder of the highway, which tilted at a bit of a grade. The low seat, large brown paper bag, and the tilted surface worked to hold Miss Della inside the car while she struggled to get out. Eventually she triumphed her adversaries to walk to Gerdie’s front door. Her dress swayed against her knees as she moved side to side almost as much as she moved forward. Gerdie’s door opened to the sound of good friends greeting one another. Miss Della handed off the brown paper bag and began to make her way back to the car. She fell easily into the seat as it beckoned her downhill.
Our remaining journey included more of Miss Della’s stories sprinkled with her distinctive laugh and shake of the head along with some extra wind and road noise; the door didn’t latch, but Miss Della didn’t seem to notice, and I ignored it too.
The morning’s adventure landed me in the high school’s office requesting a tardy slip that would allow me to enter Mrs. Perkins’ speech class. This was a part of my normal routine, which involved missing as many minutes of speech class as possible. Mrs. Davis, the office secretary always asked for a reason to explain my lack of punctuality as she filled out the small form. Typically I stretched my time out of class by weaving elaborate and fantastical tales for Mrs. Davis’ enjoyment; like rescuing a baby calf that had become tangled in a fence or racing behind a train after noticing my long-lost brother was a hobo onboard. This day I had a true story to tell and a real reason for my tardiness.
I told Mrs. Davis about Miss Della who walked miles into town for years before riding with my dad. I told her about Miss Della’s snuff stained teeth, contagious laugh, her friend Gerdie, and the brown bag. I shared how surprised I was that when I offered to drive Miss Della to her destination instead of dropping her off at the corner store, she said, ‘Yes.’
Imagine my shock when Mrs. Davis said she didn’t believe a word I said. Could it be because I cried wolf every day? Yes. Definitely. Could it be because the story of an old, snuff-spitting black woman hitching a ride with a white mechanic for twenty years was more of a stretch of the imagination than chasing a train to reunite with my imaginary brother?
Miss Della taught me, the truth makes the best story of all.