Southern Folks: Miss Juanita was a legend in her own mind

Bill Stamps

Back in the mid-1950s, I lived with my mother and two younger brothers in a small farming town in Middle Tennessee. I was in the fourth grade.

On any given month, depending on how many old people passed on and how many babies Dr. Sharp, with the help of good Christian midwives, delivered into the world, the town's population was a little over or a couple under 100. Most all were cut from the same cloth: Quiet in nature. Pragmatic. Hard-working farming families with a devout faith in God and a line they didn't cross nor allow anyone else to.

Southern Folks

It was one of those little communities where pretty much everybody was related through blood or marriage. Old people's children and their children's children and their children lived within a stone's throw from one another. It was wise to keep your derogatory remarks about anybody to yourself. Chances were, the one you were gossiping about was related to the somebody you were talking to. It's still like that in some parts of the South.

Every so often, someone would take off for the big city, hoping to strike it rich. Not too long later, they'd come back. It just didn't work out for them. They got married, had some kids and bought a house. Probably from one of their cousins. From then on, they'd stay put.

One lady, known by everyone as Miss Juanita, graduated from high school, went back to the farm, packed up her belongings and left town to try her hand at acting. She managed to get herself a couple of small parts in Broadway plays and did some lunchtime fashion modeling in Manhattan's fanciest restaurants.

A few years later, with no starring-role offers on the table, she returned home and married an older man who made good money selling and trading farms. He died the following year. Miss Juanita inherited a fine home on over 50 acres and enough insurance money to take care of her for the rest of her life.

She had no intention of marrying ever again. And she didn't. Instead, she lived alone and drifted away into her own little world, living on the farm with her many pets and her memories of days gone by.

Once a week, she came to town for groceries and to do some banking. She drove a maroon-colored, station wagon with wide whitewalls and wood paneling on the sides. She always had the radio blaring and her many dogs in the back. You could hear those dogs and the music from the time Miss Juanita crossed the city limits bridge a quarter-mile down.

Folks on the sidewalks stopped and stared at Miss Juanita and her dogs bouncing up the little road that ran through town. From the back of Whiteside Drug Store, old men got up from their chairs, hurriedly limped up front and peered out the window. Conversations stopped abruptly. Women put their house chores on hold and stood in their doorways to get a better look.

Miss Juanita made a U-turn and parallel-parked right under the shade tree in front of the small, white, cinder-block bank. She stepped out. Everybody got a good long look at the town's one and only celebrity. She definitely stood out from the crowd.

She was probably in her late 40s. Her hair was just past shoulder length and still as jet black as was it those many years ago when she headed for the bright lights. She still had that million-dollar smile.

She wore big, green-shade sunglasses. Her longish fingernails were painted bright red, though not quite as red as her lipstick. She wore plenty of well-applied makeup, heavy on the rouge. She wasn't quite plump, closer to an hourglass figure with a few extra pounds here and there. She took short, fast steps, and she smelled good.

I remember her in flappy low-cut blouses, lots of jewelry and fitted skirts. Miss Juanita wore so many bracelets that she kinda clacked when she moved, like one of those people who carries too many keys. Even when she stood still, she appeared to be in motion, kinda jiggly.

Most all of the women of the community dressed conservatively, wore little, if any, makeup and went out of their way to not call attention to themselves. The same could not be said of Miss Juanita. She was very comfortable with flamboyance and all eyes on her. You might say she relished it.

Many of us stuck around to watch her come out of the bank and walk next door to Mr. Harold's grocery store. I could have made me some money if I'd had some popcorn to sell. When she hit town, hands down, Miss Juanita was the main attraction. I found her to be fascinating. She made me have a tingling in my belly that felt good but was new to me.

With the exception of Miss Juanita's weekly run to the store, you never saw her. She was elusive, bordering on reclusive. Another one of those celebrity traits. Like Marilyn and Elvis.

I used to write my name and telephone number on scratch pieces of paper and hand them out to grownups. I promoted my willingness to run errands and perform light chores for next-to-nothing rates. I bashfully gave one to Miss Juanita. Her voice was similar to Marilyn's. With a little giggle and a sigh, she said, "Thank you, Sugar." I melted.

Several weeks later, and to my utter delight, Miss Juanita called and spoke with Mom, asking if I could come help with some lawn chores.

The next day, I got up and pedaled my bike faster than ever before. She lived out there a ways. I had two steep hills to pull, and then it was smooth sailing all the way down to her red mailbox. It was a pretty long driveway up to the house, swaying green trees on both sides. Halfway there, I could hear her dogs barking. I got a little closer, and here they came. Good thing that I left Prince at home.

Miss Juanita was sitting on the porch and waved to me. The only time I'd heard her speak was when I handed her my homemade business card. When I got up to the porch, she smiled and said, "I hope you're not exhausted from the trip out here." You didn't hear anybody around those parts using the word, "exhausted." Movie-star talk.

I assured her that I was fine, and she put me right to work, pulling weeds around her fence that ran from the front yard all the way to the back. I must have been out there for a good hour with no break. The sun was out, and the going was slow. I was thirsty.

Right then, and perfectly on cue, Miss Juanita pushed the screen door open and asked me if I'd like a little snack and some iced tea. Perfect! She set me up out on the front porch. We sat on white wicker furniture and talked.

I asked her a thousand questions about her experiences in showbiz. She was only too happy to answer me with stories about the theater, living in New York, her visits to Hollywood, and the actors and actresses with whom she worked and socialized. It all sounded very exciting.

In her house, on both sides of her long hallway, were pictures of a much younger her with famous people: Yul Brynner, Debbie Reynolds, Red Skelton, Victor Mature and Danny Thomas, to name a few. She'd point to a picture and tell me the story that went along with it.

I noticed that there were no family pictures. Just two walls lined with photographs of her and celebrities. What's more, she didn't talk about much of anything or anybody other than herself and her glory days. All three times I went to do some work for her, it was the same routine, the same stories.

Except for her dogs, a bank account and all those pictures in the hallway, she was alone. I suppose it was impossible for her to have friends. She'd have been forced to let down her guard and deal with reality. Then who would she be?

For the rest of the time I lived in that little town, Miss Juanita made her weekly trips to the bank and the store. They all stopped and stared at her. Me, too. It seemed to make her happy being the town's star attraction. To me, knowing what I did, it seemed kinda sad.

Live in truth. Be who you are. Be like Popeye: "I yam what I yam, and that's all that I yam, I'm Popeye, the sailor man."

Bill Stamps' book "Miz Lena" may be purchased on Amazon (softcover and Kindle editions). Or order a signed version at His second book, "Southern Folks," is due to be released in late June.