On June 2, 1995 I spent an entire glorious day standing in a ditch on the beautiful Craig Springs Road just before you get to Sturgis, sketching and painting.
What in the world am I doing at the bottom of a tall hill inside a ditch? A day earlier, I had been out riding looking for country scene to paint when I suddenly glanced out my car window and discovered a pink house, a colorful weathered tin roof, tiny front porch, five windows, and two rooms added on.
Shiny silver hub caps lined up all across the bottom of the house. When the sunshine hit these hub caps, they looked like diamonds. There was one bright pink flamingo right at the entrance of the doorway, plants everywhere, and one American flag gently blowing in the window. I could not resist returning to capture forever on my canvas this landscape. I called my cousin, Pete Thomas, who lived near by on the Sturgis/Louisville Road asking, “Who in the world lives in the pink house with all those hub caps?’
He said, “Carole, this is the home of Miss Johnnie Miller, but she will probably be gone fishing down at Sand Creek. She has a passion for fishing! I’m going to be helping down at Adam’s Hardware Store today, but I promise to come down and check on you.”
When I arrived at my destination, I pulled over to the side of the road, parked, got out my easel, huge umbrella, tall red director’s chair, all my paints, brushes, canvas, floppy straw hat, and placed everything I would need at my finger tips standing in a spot in the ditch looking upwards to Hub Cap Hill. I had named my painting this before I placed one pencil mark on my white canvas.
Remember the words of the song, “On Top of Blueberry Hill”? I had found my very own, “On Top of Hub Cap Hill.” I bowed my head and prayed, “Dearest God, guide my fingertips on this beautiful early morning to show others who will become my viewers Your beautiful world so we all might glorify and enjoy You forever on my blank piece of white cotton canvas. Amen.”
Hours went by, and Pete Thomas did drive up to check on me, bringing along a cold Coca-Cola to sip and Nabs to munch. I sketched and painted all morning and afternoon before I suddenly heard a very old rattling truck slowly coming towards us, and I glanced up to see a faded blue truck slowing down and making its way to a dead stop right beside me. Sitting in the driver’s side with her two hands clutching the steering wheel sat the most spunky lady I have ever seen in my entire life, and she said, “Hello, I am Miss Johnnie Miller. What are you doing in my ditch in the road? You could have come on up the hill and into my place.” I said, “I wanted to, but I did not want to trespass on your property. Is it okay if I am in your ditch? I am Carole McReynolds Davis. Glad to meet you, Miss Johnnie. We instantly became friends, and I dearly loved her immediately.
Sixteen years have come and gone since 1995, and on August 17, 2011, I returned to see my dear friend. I could not find her telephone number, so I just took a chance that “Miss Johnnie” might be at home and headed back down Craig Springs Road to her house on Hub Cap Hill.
This time, I wound my way up the hill to the old house that was now painted gray with those same old hub caps almost invisible, now being covered up with tall grass and yard art everywhere surrounding the entire front yard. I spotted a long old barn board plank just propped into a sagging old yard chair with two words scribbled on it — “No Trespassing.”
The house looked abandoned, but suddenly I heard a dog barking and saw and heard a rooster crowing along with several hens plucking food from the ground in the driveway. I decided to keep following in my car the little grass pathway to the front door of the little porch.
There stood Miss Johnnie bare footed with a colorful, printed hot pink blouse filled with beautiful red roses all over it mixed with bright purple, yellow, and green leaves, white slacks, and the biggest smile on her face. She wearing her big glasses on her eyes, curly black mixed with touches of gray hair, and with great gusto in her words and voice as she opened up her screen door and said, “Oh, Carole. It’s you. Please come inside.”
The bright sunshine was dancing across the old wooden gray porch, and my print of “On Hub Cap Hill” that I had given her years ago was propped nearby on the floor on the left side near her bare feet. See it.
I gave her a great, big, tight hug, and explained that I could not telephone her to ask, “If I might just pop in to see her because I could not find her number that I had scratched down on a piece of paper, and her telephone number was not listed in the Sturgis section of the phone book, so I just came on down anyway. She said, “Oh, Carole, I am just so happy to see you sit over there on that kneeling bench.” I found my spot on a tiny narrow seat that folds up into a garden seat when you go outside.
I cannot describe both the outside and inside of Miss Johnnie’s home. It is filled with the neatest things, junk and stuff you could never even imagine or see in your life. If you know me, I am just like Miss Johnnie. We love our junk and stuff. We collect collectables. Both of us treasure our treasures. They are not worth a penny, but to us, they are worth everything. Miss Johnnie, I first want to say “Thanks” for coming to my “Hats Off, Carole” art exhibit at the Starkville Daily News in late Feb., which was the first Sunday afternoon that it felt like maybe spring might be finally arriving. Miss Johnnie, you looked adorable in your vintage tiny brown straw hat and matching heels.
“Miss Johnnie, will you tell me your story about your life?” I asked. She said, “Carole, I was born Johnnie Elizabeth Hickman Miller on July 16, 1930, so this makes me 81 years old. I was born right back here in the woods behind this house site and was delivered into this ‘ole world by Dr. Crumpton, M.D. We all loved old Dr. Crumpton here in Sturgis, and he was our family doctor. My mother was Minnie Brooks, and she was half Indian. My Daddy was John Lee Hickman. I was the Alpha and Omega, an only child. My granddaddy was Carter Brooks and my grandmother was Babe Brooks.
“I am the mother of 6 children. I ‘birthed’ two sons, Willie Everitte Miller, now 65, and Aaron Burnet Miller, now 62. I loved those sons of mine and still love them very much. I taught them to have integrity and honesty. I went to school over in West Point to a ministerial institute. I used to watch my grandmother and mama cook, and they were wonderful role models for me.”
“In 1952, when I was in Memphis, Tenn. I went with a friend of mine looking for a job. She took a maid’s job, and the lady at the employment office turned to me and said , ‘I have one more job, and what do you do? I answered, ‘Not much of nothing!’ She said, ‘I have a perfect job for you, and it is a nanny job taking care of four little children. Do you want this job? You will not cook or clean; you will be a nanny.’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I’ll take this job.’ I am and will be until the day I die the proud mother of Alex Dann III (Sandy, as we called him), a lawyer; Elise Dann, an architect; Tommy Dann, a writer; and Katie Dann. ( an artist). All four were very creative as children and now as adults. Four boys and two girls, and they are all six mine! I worked for Mr. Alex Dann II a lawyer in Memphis and Washington, D.C. and his wife, Mimi Dann. He is deceased, and she is 84, well and enjoying life. Mimi is a very talented Memphis sculptor. She will be having her one-woman sculpture showing this fall, and Katie will help her. I’ll be attending this event, too. I know everybody who will be invited. And I always feel welcomed and loved at this annual event. Carole, you are sitting on her kneeling bench she gave me years ago. They took me and my boys on our first airplane ride. We loved flying. Every summer we would fly to their Martin Point Farm in Trapp, Md. We had the most fun in the whole world. My boys played, ate, and slept together with the Dann children. We did not see or feel any color difference. We were all one big family. Their beautiful farm home was once rented by Pres. Bill Clinton. My son Willie worked as a supervisor for TVA in Memphis, and Aaron retired from the U.S. Navy and later drove an 18-wheeler. Once, we were at the farm house and some friend was visiting the Dann family. I overheard the man say, ‘Is she your maid, Mr. Alex?’
He said, ‘Miss Johnnie is a member of our family, and she is our nurse for our four children. Willie, and Aaron are our sons, too. We love them all.’ As the years rolled by, I finally retired. The Dann family was so generous to me. When I moved my house that I purchased from Morgan Town and moved to this very spot, Sandy checked on the water and utilities to made sure everything was legally correct.
Sandy called me one day and said, ‘Katie is coming to Washington, D.C. to bring you down to Mississippi. My station wagon for you to drive is a gift from me to you.’ Carole, do I not love with all my heart? There was no discrimination among us. I lived with them in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King was murdered. Memphis was a tough city. I experienced riots and learned to take care of myself there. There were some places that were not safe, yet it is a good, beautiful city, too. I always say, ‘I carry the Lord on one shoulder and side, and a .38 on the other shoulder and side. Which one do you want? See, Carole, I am tough. My boys grew up in Memphis and have remained there. I came back home to my roots on the Craig Springs Rd. I have seen so many changes here in America, but they are all for the better. Mississippi is a better state than the one I left in 1952. I love Mississippi. I moved back into home in 1992 and decided to paint my little house on the hill pink to let folks know that this was a feminine owner. A real lady lived on top of the hill. I later changed to a gray/brown color.”
Miss Johnnie, tell me about your philosophy of your being so happy and smiling all the time. She said, “Well, Carole, I am free. To be free you must know exactly who you are. I stay busy going to the Senior Citizens group down at the Sportsplex enjoying doing so many fun crafts. I love making things. I am a member of the AARP. Right around me are so many of my best friends and neighbors. I go to the Senior Citizens place down on Miley Rd. These places are all in Starkville. Down here in Sturgis, I bet you know Terry McClelland, Myrtis and Bill Malone, Shelia and Steve Morgan, Will Hutchenson, Connie Malone (who was born in this home that I moved from Morgan Town to this spot on this hill of 40 acres.) I am so proud of my family land we own. Mayor Walter Turner and Pete Thomas both happen to be my cousins. Carole, I didn’t know they were kin to you?” I think a lot of Sheriff Dolph Bryan, and of course his deputy sheriff, James Lindsey. I really love all of these people.” I loved Mr. Jack Quinn, who owned the Quinn’s Drug Store on Sturgis’ Main Street. He too was my cousin. I didn’t know he was kin to you too, Carole. My granddaddy, Carter Brooks, use to plow his garden each spring and fall for $3 a day and Mr. McKinnon’s garden, too. My granddaddy used to parch peanuts out of the ground and pecans off the pecan trees, drinking milk and bread for our supper meals at night when I would stay sometimes with my grand daddy, Carter Brooks. It all tasted so good at night. That is all we had to eat for supper time. Back then just think $3 a day working hard every day was all he got compared to today’s pay. We didn’t have much, but we sure were happy. I loved Annie Lee Williamson, “Hot Foot Annie,” too, she was some kind of woman driving her big old brown and white truck. Better watch out cause she surely would hit you most of the time and just keep on riding off and away down the road quickly. I remember Miss Tommie Hamill, the postmistress of the Sturgis Post Office and Lovie Quinn who taught English at Sturgis High School. They were all great and wonderful people.
“Carole, I love my chickens and peacocks. I never did have ducks because they take too much water. I love my dog, my cat, and my hats. My favorite hat is made out of bread wrappers, but I can not find it right now. Here is a bright, red, crocheted one filled with Sprite labels and pop can tops. See it?”
“Oh, shoot,” I thought, “Miss Johnnie is a lady who loves what I love, hats. She said, “I love my church down the road from here, Mount Airy Baptist Church, and I try to go every Sunday when I can. I believe this is the day the Lord has made and I will rejoice and be glad in it. Carole, I may not have this just right, but I sure do truly believe it. See that little piece of sculpture up there on my shelf, the one with the girl holding her hands up in the air? Mimi Mann made that pretty, fun piece of sculpture. My baby daughter, Katie Mann gave it to me. She is holding her hands in the air saying, ‘I am free.’ I love the words of the black singer, Shirley Caeser: ‘Hold my bugle. I’ll shout right here.’ That little piece of sculpture reminds me that these Biblical words of her song have the same meaning as the verse in the Bible as she shouts them right into her bugle.
“Carole, I have had a great wonderful life. I demanded respect and I gave respect to every one. Around Sturgis, I am not just Johnnie, but I am Miss Johnnie, and I appreciate my title and treat it with honor,” she said. We got up and wandered into her bedroom for me to see a faded picture of her mother, Minnie Brooks, and Miss Johnnie. Minnie looked so much like an Indian. I then suddenly looked back at Miss Johnnie and saw her same Indian features just like her sweet mama. They were both stunningly beautiful, and they held her heads high with great pride.
It was almost 11:45 a.m., and I knew that my sweet husband would be anxious about my returning back home for lunch. I would call him later on my cell phone to let him know I was okay and would be heading home. We went to the front door and both said, ‘’Oh, we are beginning to get a summer rain shower.” I had on a hat I had just designed for this day with flowers and bows all over it. Miss Johnnie quickly got her big umbrella off the screened in back porch and said, “I shall walk you to your car so you won’t get wet.! The car was just down the concrete steps by her front door. “I can make it just fine,” I said. “No, I am certainly going to walk with you to your car. Come on, let’s go.” I hugged Miss Johnnie tightly, and told her that the two of us had movie date together one of these Saturday afternoons soon at the Starkville picture show to go to see “The Help.” It was written and filmed by a Mississippian, and she was a lady. I said, “Miss Johnnie, I’ll drive back out here to pick you up, and you will be my special guest. We’ll eat popcorn, drink Cokes, and consume a big box of Junior Mints. I’ve seen the movie, but I want to see it once again with you sitting next to me. Want to go?” She said, “Oh, Carole, I’d be so happy to go with you, just call me.” This time I had her real telephone number in my pocket to keep forever so I could call her sometimes to just chat. I was not going to lose her telephone number again.
I cranked up, turned around in the side back yard area, tapped on my car horn to shoo the rooster and the hens out of my path, headed down the hill, glanced into my rearview window, and saw Miss Johnnie standing in her door way holding her screen door open, smiling and waving goodbye with her hands just as she had greeted me earlier. Look closely at this photograph of her. What an elegant, spunky lady. She had a extra special sparkling glimmer of an extra-ordinary spirit of great courage who stands up for herself both spiritually, and with a most courageously and absolutely great passion for living life. What an inspiration Miss Johnnie was to me as I returned to spend the morning with her 16 years later after painting this landscape. We are both free ladies, we both lived and have had happy lives, and we both believe the greatest thing in the whole world is to be yourself, but to be yourself, you have to know who you really are. I was about to turn into Craig Springs Road and head back home to Starkville the same direction I had come. I took one last look back out towards the back glass, and the pink house (now painted browish/gray suddenly turned pink again in my imagination and within my own eyes) with its hot pink flamingo stuck in the ground that Miss Johnnie had found and bought at Palmer Home Thrift Store in Starkville, the American flag blowing gently in the wind on side of the house, the six windows, and one front screen door and the front screened in porch. I could suddenly see all those silver shinning hub caps now really hidden among the tall grass using my imagination that she once had collected along the country road sides that had slipped, rolled off a car or truck passing by.
Miss Johnnie leaned down, picked them up, collected each one by one, and then let those hub caps have a new home at her home.
There is a complete surprise in the photograph within this column. Look very hard, and you will see that I caught myself in a photo within the photograph as a reflection within the glass door/window as I greeted Miss Johnnie at her front screen-in porch door. I am to the right of her hand itself, and to the right side of the print of the painting. Look and you’ll find it. It’s almost a mystery as the bright sunlight and the sun rays had to shine in at the exact moment just before the rain shower. I suppose we might say it was a happening by chance that my own camera caught us both as sort of a keepsake our visit that day together. Maybe it was predestination. Whatever will be will be. Two old friends found each other after 16 years having so much fun chatting, laughing, visiting, sharing, and thinking of our past life,our future life, knowing that we can never really go back to our past, and the future is too much for us to handle, so we really have is an opportunity to only live today and one second, minute, and hour at a time. I loved your one sentence that you used, “We may poor, but we are sure.” How could I forget this wonderful expression of yours. This sounds like a spunky lady to me. Miss Johnnie, you have a heart of gold and rich spirit.
Miss Johnnie Miller, I love you so very much and your family of six children, who you birthed and raised as their momma, nurse, and nanny. Thank you for sharing your life with me, and allowing me to peep inside your heart so that I could paint, photograph, and write about your happy, inspiring life story of 81 years of living. Did you know that you gave me a gift? I get to share it with my viewers and my readers. The two of us got to the Sunday afternoon picture show on Aug. 21 to see “The Help.” You looked so spiffy in your long red dress, shoes, purse, and white straw summer hat. I complimented you on how nice you looked, and you said, “Carole, I am of color so I dressed colorfully this afternoon.” We giggled, laughed and had fun watching this Mississippi movie that was written by a Mississippian and filmed right here in Mississippi. Frank and I saw this movie last Sunday, so this Sunday, he became our driver taking and picking us up. What a joy personally for me to get to watch it with you. Just the two of us together. You were a nurse/nanny in Memphis. You turned to me and said, “Carole, this brings back so many memories of my past life.” Miss Johnnie, I loved being with you, and it was fun watching your reactions, and hearing your feelings towards “The Help” through your eyes. We loved it, didn’t we? What a lady you are. You live so happily and content in your own little heaven on earth surrounded by all your stuff, junk, and things you dearly treasure in your home sweet home on hub cap hill.
Carole McReynolds Davis is a local artist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .