By Nelda Rachels (first published in Hometown magazine)
In 1975, I was fortunate to move to Palmersville, just up the hill from Opal Mayo and her husband, Irvin.
Soon, I was pulling my two young children in their little red Flyer down the road to her farmhouse for occasional visits. Mr. Mayo would die soon after this, but I would get to know well “Mrs. Opal,” a woman of near legendary proportions, who lived in or near the Palmersville community from 1906 to 1987. It was at her home that I learned the lessons of hospitality, frugality, and piety, which were hallmarks of her character.
Like most women of her generation, she immediately wanted to ply my children and I with food or drink the moment we entered her home. She would have, proverbially speaking, killed the fatted calf to fulfill her notion of hospitality. However, there was never any need for such extreme measures because her larder was always full. So one of the first lessons she taught (and the hardest to learn) was to prepare ahead for visitors. I learned that everything she’d prepared had been made in the time-honored fashion (by scratch) and that she often made her pies, cookies, and cakes in multiples so that not a bit of oven heat would be wasted.
That frugality, to utilize every kilowatt, may be the most legendary aspect of her character and perhaps the one I most admire in this age of excess. The old adage, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without,” was her life’s motto. I think because she’d grown up during hard times, she knew that what you had today could be gone tomorrow. I remember the day she dug up some of her Red Emperor tulip bulbs to share with me. She saw me looking at her shovel, its edge worn away to resemble the eastern border of Tennessee.
“Maybe you think I need a new one,” she said, laughing. “Irvin used it settin’ trees while he was in the CCC during the Depression, but it’s not so worn out that it can’t dig up a few tulips yet.”
Mrs. Opal’s piety was also legendary. She attended the Palmersville Church of Christ and never missed a service that I remember. Even when she was actually “unable” to drive, she drove to church anyway, too independent and strong-willed to ask anyone for a lift. And despite a lifetime of listening to sermons, I think she rarely let her mind wander because she always took notes on every sermon in a tenographer’s notepad. In addition, she never engaged in gossip, read her Bible “religiously,” and filled a large block calendar with information as to meeting times, preachers, and VBS dates.
Those yearly calendars also held information as to visitors, events, and weather. Once, I glimpsed a stack of yellowing calendars in an upstairs room. I’m sure one of them held information about the Dust Bowl years, the time when she bought one of her few cans of “store-boughten” corn.
I guess I was a bit disappointed when no auction was held after Mrs. Opal’s death. I only wanted to bid on that shovel, which, for me, most represented Mrs. Opal’s history and character. I’d be tempted to hang it near my mantel as a testament to her life. However, I think she’d be more pleased if I used it. No doubt, she’d say there is life in that old shovel yet.