Saturday, August 21, 2010

Mrs. Sneed and Her Frozen Chocolate Cake

My friend, Mary B. Summerlin, grew up on a farm near the tiny town of Starr, South Carolina, where her father kept cows and raised crops. I, on the other hand, spent my childhood in a suburb of a middle-sized city in Georgia, where my daddy went to work every morning in a suit, just like the daddies of most of my friends.

Mary shares a wonderful story about a friendship she had with an elderly woman named Miss Lilla who lived near her father’s farm. She tells about the lady and how proud and self sufficient she was, and how she dressed up and put on a hat every time she went to catch the bus to go to town. She also describes helping Miss Lilla by toting water from her well and then being thanked for her effort with Oreo cookies.

Mary's storytelling offered a Norman Rockwell vision of farm life, which left me charmed and transported. I could just imagine my friend, as a child, running barefoot down a dirt road and across a field, knocking on Miss Lilla's door. My Leave It to Beaver childhood didn’t include anything about a farm or cows or an old lady who got water from a well and served Oreo cookies to little girls.

Then I remembered Mrs. Sneed and her frozen chocolate cake.

Mrs. Sneed and her husband, Mr. Sneed, lived next door to me on Bransby Drive. They were both quite old and I was pretty young. I think I was about seven when I started stopping by Mrs. Sneed’s screened porch after school. I remember her as being a pleasant-looking woman with pretty white hair, attired always in a rayon dress and support hose. Mr. Sneed was a bit scary looking and he had a weird voice, but he was nice. It seems that he'd been electrocuted at some point in his working life as a telephone lineman, a terrible accident which left him with scar tissue all over, including his vocal chords. However, I remember I was never afraid of Mr. Sneed, who had a courtly manner about himself.

My friendship, though, was with Mrs. Sneed. It’s funny, in retrospect, that I remember thinking I was doing her a favor by stopping by with pictures I’d drawn or some of my A papers. This was because the Sneeds had never had children of their own, a recognition within my egocentric child mind that caused me to feel sorry for them. I figured I was the one bright spot in their otherwise rather sad life.

I don’t remember ever sitting in the Sneed's living room, dining room, or kitchen. I do recall a small den where Mrs. Sneed kept my little gifts, but the screened porch was where we visited. It was on the side of their house and it overlooked my back yard. I don’t remember ever being hot or cold and wonder if I only visited in the spring and fall.

On really good days, perhaps after sharing one of my extraordinary spelling tests with Mrs. Sneed, she would offer me a slice of chocolate cake, one of those cakes with about a million layers. It wasn’t until I saw the package on the kitchen counter that I realized it was Pepperidge Farm, straight from the freezer. After my first taste, I immediately went home and begged my non-baking mother to buy some, and, although she did from time to time, my mother's freezer just couldn't bake a cake as well as Mrs. Sneed's.

That’s it, every memory I have of the Sneeds, other than visiting them once years later, when they were both in a nursing home. What happened to my friendship with my favorite old lady? Did I just stop going by? Was there one last Crayola-ed gift I handed her before I bid adieu? Or was it she who ended our relationship when frozen dessert prices went up and she could no longer afford my friendship? I don’t even remember how long I hung around the Sneed porch. Was it just one season, a gorgeous spring with azaleas blooming in the side yard and chocolate cake defrosting in the kitchen? Or was it years I visited, growing taller with each passing summer?

I suspect our friendship fell victim to my growing up and the Sneeds growing older. There must have come a time when the porch visits no longer offered what they once had, when our stars were no longer aligned, when neither of us needed nor wanted the special attention we had each provided the other.

As I was thinking about Mrs. Sneed and feeling remorseful over not knowing, or at least remembering, more about her, I suddenly recalled that she had given me a cookbook at some point in my sorry, unappreciative life. Perhaps my mother told me about it after Mrs. Sneed had died, maybe when I was planning my wedding and at least considering learning to cook. Somehow, I'd managed to hold on to the cookbook, although the urge to whisk and saute had been a just fleeting thing. I pulled it off the shelf, and then marveled at the view into my old friend's life it offered with its handwritten recipes, letters from friends, and coupons inserted within the pages. First of all, her name was Estelle. Who knew?

But the best part was the inscription in the front. It was from Mr. Sneed and this is what it said:

Bought 1-18-30
Property of Mrs. W. T. Sneed
Herein contains the secret
of keeping one's husband at home nights.
A good cook


And I'd thought
I was the most exciting thing in their lives. Apparently, from the frozen cake evidence, it wasn't Mrs. Sneed's cooking that kept Mr. Sneed happy and at home.

I too have a footnote. The message I'm trying to convey here isn't so much about the memories I have of a nice lady who made me feel special as a child. Instead, it's about the importance of sharing our stories, no matter how conventional they may seem to us. I have a dear friend whose grandparents came over from Russia and who grew up in Brooklyn and then lived much of her adult life in Israel. While I can't compete with her stories, I don't need to. My personal and family histories are as important to me as hers are to her and all of our stories serve to inform others. Not only do our memories and family stories help our children and grandchildren understand
their history, they also provide a catalyst for other people to recall something they may have forgotten.

It was only when Mary shared her Miss Lilla story with me that I remembered my friendship with Mrs. Sneed. And I'm so glad I did.


Freda said...

I so agree with you, and we can share stories with the younger generation as and when opportunities arise. Thank you for sharing this one.

Jean said...

I loved reading of your visits with the Sneeds. As a high school English teacher, I encouraged my students to write stories of their lives. Sometimes it took awhile, and some examples, to convince the students we all have stories to tell. I'll never forget the student who bemoaned: "I don't have anything to write about. My childhood wasn't unhappy and my parents aren't divorced."

Olga said...

Excellent point. I've found I like blogging because it gives me a voice for my stories and it exposes me to so many thoughtful and thought-provoking stories from others.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad the story of me and Miss Lilla triggered the memory of a story for you. The ripples from stories go on and on. They touch us and our peers and when we pass them down to the the next generations, we pass along some of the wisdom also. Nobody can tell our story but us. I think we need to tell them for ourselves and others. Mary B

Kate said...

Sweet, Marcia. thanks for sharing the memory.

Arkansas Patti said...

Just a beautiful story and so well told. I agree that we all have stories to tell that have meaning and can either bring laughter or sweet sadness.
Blogging is such a powerful too.Hhow I wish my grandparents had the Net available to them so that their stories had not been lost.

"my mother's freezer just couldn't bake a cake as well as Mrs. Sneed's"
Loved that line.

Celia said...

Loved your story, left me wondering why I didn't ask more questions of my relatives while I still had them. Too busy being young,busy, and self-centered most likely. Still have an aunt to listen to and she's wonderful. Glad I finally caught on.

Batya said...

I love all the Miss Lillas and Estelles people have in their lives. Mine was my Aunt Kitty and I hope she knew how much she meant to me and what an impact she had on my life. I remember your post about visiting Mary in Starr and revel in our abilities to keep making connections that enrich our lives.
How right you are that even though all our stories differ, the root feelings we carry about them are the same. We are the same, all of us - language, circumstance, joys, sorrows, whatever - our inner feelings are universal. That's what makes the sharing such a precious gift we give each other.

Batya said...

Is that cute patootie you?

Friko said...

I absolutely loved this tale. As others have said, each and every one of us has a tale to tell; the tale may in itself not be of huge importance in the greater scheme of things but it gives us an insight into our very soul and the little things that make life so precious.

marciamayo said...

Paula, the patootie is I at age 7 or so. As you can imagine, I ended up having some orthodontia. Thanks everyone for the comments.

Wisewebwoman said...

Wow Marcia, just by writing this you brought Delia O'Connor into my mind a most wonderful neighbour who charmed and inspired me.
I will write about this forgotten memory.
Estelle Sneed, an enchanting name and an enchanting story well told.

cile said...

" mother's freezer just couldn't bake a cake as well as Mrs. Sneed's." pure Marcia Mayo! I laughed out loud! I bet Mrs. Sneed did too as you scampered back home after a visit. Wonderful story and really good point about our stories being important in ways we may not even imagine upon the telling.

marciamayo said...

It looks like many of us had old people as friends when we were young. I wonder what my students will remember about me when they are all grown up.

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