I woke up and looked out the window. The big maple tree on the other side of the glass told me all I needed to know about the day. I rubbed over the light screen of fog that had formed on the warm, indoor side of the window. Most all of the maple's leaves had given way to the cold wind and ended up in gold and yellow lines next to the curb across the street.
The first half of the day would feel like autumn. The rest of it and into the night would remind everyone that winter's cold was just around the corner. I needed to bundle up before my dog, Prince, and I called on the neighborhood. It could be a pretty good day to sell cards. After all, "'twas the season." What's more, on a day like this, I might get asked into people's homes. That's where the food was.
Sometimes, I'd be given a PBJ sandwich or cookies with an ice-cold glass of milk, served to me with Christian love from the kitchens of the finest ladies in the community. Housewives, mothers, grandmothers and widows — all of them living in brick houses with tree-lined sidewalks and their last names proudly stenciled on their mailboxes.
They were just a few streets over from downtown Franklin, a sweet little place just this side of Nashville, with a Civil War monument and flapping Confederate and American flags hooked to tall silver poles in the town square.
Once in a while, a very old stooped-over war veteran they called Sarge would stand in the square, up close to the flags, and salute them while he recited every word of the Declaration of Independence. The rest of the day, Sarge walked up and down the sidewalks and saluted everybody he saw. Most everyone saluted him right back. That's the way Americans were back then.
It was the late 1950s. I was in the fifth grade. I don't remember much about that school year. My attendance record wasn't much anything to brag about, unless they gave an award to students who hardly ever showed up.
My mother left in a very early morning carpool for her teaching job in Georgia and didn't get back till late. To my way of thinking, I could decide some things on my own. Like how to best occupy my time. I could see going to school once in a while. But not every day. I have no idea how I managed to graduate to the sixth grade.
There was a big old man, hired by the school board, to track down kids playing hooky and take them back to the schoolhouse. He was bald-headed, overweight, and his coat fit him funny. His face was like-he-was-holding-his-breath red. I was constantly on the lookout for him. Him lurking around could really mess up my income potential for the day.
He was a sneaky fellow. He'd park his white Rambler a few blocks away and creep back into the neighborhoods. He ran down the sidewalks after me more than once. Sometimes, he'd get close enough to me that I could hear his footsteps and heavy breathing. Prince and I always managed to give him the slip. I knew every alley, hedgerow and backyard in the area. He caught other kids. But not me. I carried some pride in that.
It was cold in the house. Mom was long gone, and my two younger brothers had already left for school. It was just me and Prince. They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A bowl of Cheerios, to make my muscles bigger, a couple of buttered, strawberry Pop Tarts for energy, and chocolate milk, right out of the carton, to wash it all down. There you go. Balanced.
Next up, I planned out my day — what streets and houses to hit, which cards to pack. I'd need to take some change with me. I tied my homemade burlap, tote-sack saddlebags stuffed with cards around Prince and off we went.
I sold all-occasion cards, shipped to me by the Junior Sales Club of America. They ran a back-cover advertisement on all of the comic books. They'd ship containers of boxes of cards to kids, no money down. The boxes each contained 12 cards. Rather than sell them by the box, I sold a card at a time, for a quarter apiece. More money that way. I could always count on my base to buy a certain number of cards from me each month. Seasonal, sympathy and birthday cards were my staple sellers.
Prince and I went door to door two or three times a week.
My favorite customer wasn't my biggest buyer. Mrs. Freeland. She bought just one card at a time. However, she was always baking. Pies, cakes, cookies, brownies, you name it. When she opened her door, I'd do my dance and sing the Coasters' song "Charlie Brown." Prince, at my command, would first sit and eventually lie down. I always gave the ladies a show before my very rehearsed sales pitch.
Then came Mrs. Freeland's applause and an invitation to come in. Her home smelled so good. She was well into her 70s, thin and not too tall. She had been a music teacher. She looked like one — prim with perfectly coiffed, short, white hair. Her hands were very smooth. Her voice was soft and whispery. She smiled, and her clear blue eyes would twinkle with her every word.
She'd say, "Billy, honey, would you like some hot chocolate and a cookie?" Yes! Thank you, God.
Mrs. Freeland's home was small. She lived alone. We sat on the couch in the living room. There were shelves on both sides of the fireplace full of books and family pictures. A record player was plugged into the wall. Organized stacks of albums sat beside it on the counter.
Mrs. Freeland, smiling and twinkling, brought out the tray. Hot chocolate topped with miniature marshmallows. She said, "Billy, honey, let us give thanks." She always started with, "Dear Lord and our most precious heavenly Father." She prayed it with all her heart. I kept my eyes closed. I hoped her prayer would be on the short side. That hot chocolate was right under my nose.
We listened to Mozart and Chopin. She played Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" often. It lasts for a while. As always, she put on an album featuring church hymns, the standards. She even had paperback hymnbooks. She'd hand me one and say, "Let us turn to page 24." The song would start, and she'd say, "Sing loudly and proudly, honey." And we'd sing it big!
She really put herself into every song — singing the words with passion at the top of her key, emphasizing certain phrases of the song with impeccable interpretation. Her arms would reach up, and she would look toward God. Music teachers can be quite dramatic.
I knocked on her door one day. It had been a week since I had last visited with Mrs. Freeland. I was sure that she would purchase several Christmas cards from me. She had said as much a few weeks back.
A woman who looked like her opened the door. It was her sister from Smyrna. She told me, "Hon, Mrs. Freeland has gone to join her Savior." After the door shut, the hurt sank in. I pulled out a card from my bag. On the front, it read, "Sorry for your loss." I signed my name inside the card and knocked on the door again.
Mrs. Freeland's sister read my card and said, "Oh, you're Billy. Hold on, hon. I have something for you." She came back and handed me one of the hymnbooks. Inside, on the first page, in perfect cursive, was written, "Billy, remember to sing loudly and proudly."
I regret that I've since lost the book but not the memory of you, Mrs. Freeland. It was my pleasure to have known you and very proudly.
Bill Stamps spent four decades in the entertainment business before moving from Los Angeles to Cleveland, Tennessee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook.