By the late 1940’s, America was beginning to emerge from a decade of hard times brought on by the Great Depression and World War II. The country was still predominantly a nation of small towns and farming communities, but out of necessity, families were beginning to migrate to large cities in search of jobs. The morning news was delivered via radio or daily newspapers, not TV or the internet. Cell phones and computers wouldn’t be available for commercial use for decades. Modern conveniences like central air, electric dishwashers, washing machines, clothes dryers and riding mowers were not available in rural communities.
During the 1930’s, when White’s furniture plant thrived, Little River’s economy thrived. In 1942 White’s closed its doors. A few factory workers, who were native to the area remained in town, but other workers searched for employment elsewhere. Shortages of jobs, food and clothing were nationwide issues, but for Little River residents, the lack of hope for a bright future was a greater crisis.
Lila Tanner was ten years old in 1948. She and her classmates dressed in either hand-me-downs or handmade clothes. Fortunately for Lila, her mom was an excellent seamstress. Lila’s clothes fit and were always mended. Her dad Daniel was a math and science teacher at the regional high school. Money was tight, but her dad brought home a paycheck. Her mom Raney was a stay-at-home mom who supplemented the family’s income by selling baked goods at the farmers market—when flour and sugar were available— and taking in sewing. Her family, like most of the families in Little River, grew most of their own vegetables and raised chickens.
Lila had a gift for seeing beauty in all that surrounded her, beauty in spring’s budding trees, the moon and stars in an inky black sky, the gentle flow of a bubbling brook, the colors of a rainbow and the smile on a baby’s face. Her heart’s desire was to record the beauty that existed amidst the impoverishment. For the most part, she was content with her little corner of the world.
The day she knocked on Maud Singleton’s door; her goal was to earn enough money to buy a sketchbook. The day, however, became a turning point in her life and Maud’s. Maud was a retired teacher. For twenty-five years she was the town’s only elementary school teacher. She taught grades one through eight in the town’s one-room schoolhouse. Maud retired the summer before Lila entered third grade. Lila liked the teacher who replaced Ms. Maud, but Mrs. Ingram didn’t have a knack for making the lessons come alive. Maud’s loss was as great as her student’s. Her dream of retirement felt like a punishment instead of a blessing. She missed seeing the faces of her students light up when they were able to solve a math problem or remember a history fact.
She was a stern looking woman, but her manner belied her looks. She took delight in the kaleidoscopic personalities of the young. Maybe it was because of her many years in the classroom that she was able to draw shy children out of their shells. Or . . . perhaps her gift was the reason she chose teaching as a career.
Maud was in the process of deciding how she wanted to spend her retirement. She could follow the example of her friends and spend her free time volunteering, or she could revisit the plan she and her husband Henry created. She was tempted, but she wasn't sure she was up for the challenge.
When she opened her door to find Lila on her doorstep, she was momentarily puzzled. The Tanner’s weren’t close neighbors. Lila had occasionally walked past her home, but the child had never ventured past the front gate.
Lila was one of the students she sorely missed. Because of her love of all things beautiful, and her sense of fair play, Lila had wormed her way into Maud’s heart. She was exceptionally bright and artistically gifted. Maud was a disciplinarian, who deplored inattention. Nonetheless, she looked the other way when Lila drew flowers and small ground animals on her classwork.
“Good afternoon, Lila. What a pleasant surprise. What brings you to my door child?”
“Good afternoon Ms. Maud. I have a problem I hope you can help me solve. I need to earn two dollars and seventy-five cents, but no one will hire a kid. I was wondering . . . is there any chance you need an errand runner or someone to do chores for you?”
In a time when money was tight, another person might have smiled and said thanks but no thanks. Not Maud. She recognized yearning in a child’s eyes. She suspected Lila wanted the money to buy drawing paper or pencils. Maud vividly recalled the year she asked her students to make a Christmas Wish List. She wasn’t surprised to see shiny Schwinn bikes, Flexoplane sleds and Ideal dolls on the lists. She was surprised by Lila’s simple wish for unlined paper and pencils.
“Hm-m. I need to put my thinking cap on. While I’m thinking, why don’t you join me for a cup of afternoon tea and cookies. My mind takes time to percolate.” She stepped back and held the door open for Lila.
Lila’s brow wrinkled in a frown. “Ms. Maud are you offering hot or cold tea?”
“I’ve never had hot tea, so I’m not sure I like it.”
“Well, there is no time like the present to find out.”
She led Lila through a no-frills living room into a bright and welcoming kitchen. Lila’s eyes were immediately drawn to the vase of late blooming Hydrangea’s on the kitchen table.
Forgetting where she was and what her mission was, she whispered in awe, “Flowers have happy faces, don’t they?”
Maud’s eyes softened. “I couldn’t agree with you more. The beauty and abundance of beautiful flowers is one of God’s greatest gifts. People go about their daily routine grumbling about the ugliness in life instead of appreciating the beauty.”
Lila watched in dismay as Maud took paper-thin china cups out of the cabinet. At her house, her mom and dad drank coffee out of chipped cups, and she drank milk or juice out of a Welch jelly glass. Maud’s teapot and china were delicate, and she could be clumsy at times. “Are you sure you want to trust me with your china, Ms. Maud? I wouldn’t want to drop or chip a cup.”
“Darling girl, of course I trust you. Beautiful china should to be used, not hidden away in a cupboard. Now, tell me why earning two dollars and seventy-five cents is so important to you.”
“Most of my classmates like to spend their free time playing the piano, fishing or playing ball. I like to draw. I don’t suppose that comes as a surprised since you used to see my drawings on my homework and classwork. At home, I’ve been drawing on the brown paper our meat comes wrapped in, but my sketches show up better on white paper.
“Mrs. Ingram says I’m wasting paper if I make a curlicue or draw an animal.” She paused before adding, “I can’t ask my parents to buy a sketchbook for me because they don’t have money for extras.”
“You mentioned a price, so you must have your eye on a sketchbook you like.”
She nodded. Mom and I spent a day in Dillsboro two weeks ago. I saw one in Ossie’s Dry Goods.”
“I would like to give my mom and dad a Christmas gift, but I don’t have any money. If I can earn enough to buy a sketchbook, I can make drawings for them. I think my mom would like a sketch of a vase full of flowers, and Dad would like a sketch of a boat.”
Tears threatened to spill over in Maud’s eyes. “You, my dear, have a kind and generous heart. Now . . . I think I might have come up with a plan that will work for you and for me. Thursday is my pie baking day. The ladies on the street share vegetables from their gardens and I share my pies with them. They live nearby, so I think you can handle the deliveries if you don’t object to a little exercise.”
Lila’s smile was radiant. “Exercise is good for you, and I love being outdoors. There are so many interesting things to see.”
“Here is my offer. I will loan you the money, then draw up a contract that states you will repay the debt by running errands.”
Lila’s eyes widened. “You will do that for me?”
“It will be my pleasure. Now, how do you like the tea?”
“It’s delicious and so are the cookies.”