Jefferson Country Store

Tony has parting gifts to send with me. He hands me a fifty-pound Styrofoam cooler. Inside is sausage, chicken salad, bologna, hoop cheese, pulled pork, honey buns, hog head cheese, and pork cracklins.

West Alabama is alive. The wide fields are painted in goldenrods. Green live oaks everywhere. A cow chews cud, watching cars on the highway. It’s a perfect day.

I should be happy.

But I haven’t been myself since my floppy-eared dog went to the Great Beyond. Ellie Mae has been gone a few days; my passenger seat never looked so vacant. I haven’t felt like talking. I haven’t even been hungry.

A road sign ahead.

“Jefferson Country Store,” it reads.

I’m in no mood to stop.

But then, I’m a sucker for country stores. The building is clapboards and tin. Rusted Royal Crown Cola signs and old posters for Nehi, Grapico, and MoonPies. A United States Postal Service sign out front. An American flag.

I pull over.

The front door is propped open. An attic fan is going. A hand painted sign advertises hoop cheese, hog head souse, and cut meats. Tony is behind the counter, taking it easy.

He recognizes me.

“Hey Sean,” he says.

Do what?

The last thing I expected to be recognized in the sticks of Jefferson.

He shakes my hand. His wife, Betsy, hugs me. And even though I’m a stranger, they treat me like it’s homecoming. Tony offers me a burger.

“No thanks,” I say. After all, I’m not in the mood, I’m too busy feeling sorry for myself today.

Tony isn’t about to let me go hungry. In this part of the world, that’s a sin. In seconds, the grill sizzles and this place is alive.

I’m looking at this country store. My entire childhood is on these shelves. MoonPies, Star Crunches, PayDays, pickled pig feet, quail eggs, Golden Eagle syrup, ribbon cane syrup, rag bologna, and of course, red rind hoop cheese.

As a boy, my mother would carry me to a country gas station to buy me hoop cheese and a bottled Coke. For dessert, she’d give me candy cigarettes.

Today, a mother could get twenty to life for giving a child candy cigarettes.

My burger is ready. Tony has made a fat patty topped with dollops of pimento cheese. This isn’t the pimento-colored blasphemy from Winn-Dixie. This is homemade stuff.

I sit at a red-and-white checkered table. I fold my hands and say grace. And I ask that whoever hears me Up There tells Ellie Mae that she’s missing a good day.

While I eat, I’m feeling something. The clouds break. I’m smiling. Maybe it’s the food. Maybe it’s the photograph of Hank Aaron on the wall.

Maybe it’s the sacks of Domino Sugar, the MoonPies, the bottled Coke, or the Nehi. I’m a kid again. A happy child in a rural mercantile.

This is a happy place. This is a happy burger. Tony and Betsy are happy people.

They are salt-of-the-earth folks who deliver tobacco to old men who can’t leave the house. Folks who volunteer for community barbecues, raising money for the fire department. They give up weekends to paint the community center.

This is a real town. And these are real folks.

Folks who still leave casseroles on front porches for newlyweds, grieving families, or anyone with the flu.

Tony has parting gifts to send with me. He hands me a fifty-pound Styrofoam cooler. Inside is sausage, chicken salad, bologna, hoop cheese, pulled pork, honey buns, hog head cheese, and pork cracklins.

And candy cigarettes.

It’s too much. He’s being too generous. I tell him there’s no need. But Tony won’t have it. He smiles and says: “We both love you, thanks for visiting our country store.”

More hugs.

But I’m the one who should be doing all the thanking today. My day started sad, but Tony and Betsy changed that.

So right now I’m driving, eating hoop cheese. The sun is shining. My passenger seat has a ghost with floppy ears sitting in it. She’s pretty as a song.

She left me better than she found me.

That was the best burger I’ve had in years.

53 comments

  1. Nix LaVerdi - April 28, 2018 5:44 am

    Golden. Your stories are Golden. But what am I going to read in the morning? Oh no! I read this piece just now? Oh dear. That was the first time I read your story at night time. I suppose I can go to sleep now with my Sean of the South fill. Thank you Sean. So happy about your hamburger.

    Reply
  2. Pamela McEachern - April 28, 2018 6:00 am

    You bring smiles to so many, and we love you and grieve the loss of Ellie Mae with you. Sounds like God put you with some much needed Angels today and they were able to lift your spirits for a smile. I am happy you had this day and I know it will be the first of many more. Memories last a lifetime and they carry us to places, people and much loved fur babies.

    Peace and Love from Birimgham

    Reply
  3. johnallenberry - April 28, 2018 6:04 am

    Now you’ve gont and made me cry again. God bless those folks, and God bless you, Sean.

    Reply
  4. Lynn - April 28, 2018 6:49 am

    I’m sorry for the loss of Ellie Mae. I’m from Alabama but have been living in Europe for the past 3 1/2 years. Your writing connects me in the most wonderful way to a place I never knew I could miss so much. Thank you for loving and writing about the south.

    Reply
  5. Bev - April 28, 2018 7:07 am

    I feel your pain but a sunny day with good folks who treat you like family helps a grieving heart!

    Reply
  6. Beth Reed - April 28, 2018 8:45 am

    I miss places like this. Hard work, friendship and burgers so good that they leave you with a smile.

    Thanks again for sharing your stories with the people here who can never get enough of your story telling and writing.

    Your Blessed with words and know how to put them together really well.
    I will be waiting for the next one. Take care of yourself. Xx Beth

    Reply
  7. Leslie in NC - April 28, 2018 8:50 am

    I just betcha Ellie Mae is up there in the great blue yonder howling with happiness…because her best friend smiled today!

    Reply
    • Janet Mary Lee - April 28, 2018 2:41 pm

      Amen, Leslie!!

      Reply
  8. Sandi in FL - April 28, 2018 9:27 am

    Next time get two burgers and eat the first one in memory of Ellie Mae.
    Keep on keeping on, Sean. Look for something beautiful in each new day, and you will find it.

    Reply
  9. Leslie Thornton Britt - April 28, 2018 10:24 am

    The best cure for depression is human connection. Every time. And allowing other folks to bless you! You reap what you sow!

    Reply
  10. Melanie Tighe - April 28, 2018 11:10 am

    ❤️

    Reply
  11. Kelly - April 28, 2018 11:28 am

    I am so glad Ellie we sent you two angels to make you smile. She definitely will be with you always. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story.

    Reply
  12. Patti Knapp - April 28, 2018 11:48 am

    Another wonderful story. I’m grieving my lab Mia (4/16/18) with your Ellie Mae – she definitely left me better than she found me too. Thanks for helping me heal. 😢🌈🐶❤️

    Reply
  13. Nancy - April 28, 2018 11:57 am

    I love it that you have a smile on your face! God put you in that very place to let Tony and Betty help you heal. I’ve been praying for you. We all miss Ellie Mae too!

    Reply
  14. Kimberly Hinkle - April 28, 2018 12:13 pm

    There’s magic in a real town and real people… You will always find Ellie Mae’s love there! Real ❤️

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  15. Jo Ann - April 28, 2018 12:14 pm

    We all grieve with you, Sean. I’m glad you met these lovely people who gave you reason to smile. But, I know you just lost Ellie Mae, but would you please find room in your heart for another dog? One who has been in a shelter the longest, one who needs you as much as you need them. There are so many out there that need their own human to love them. Please do it for Ellie Mae. Thanks with love.

    Reply
  16. Dell - April 28, 2018 12:19 pm

    Beautiful story about beautiful people. Ellie Mae will always be in your heart, and one day you may be ready for another four legged partner in this life. Thanks for sharing and being you.

    Reply
  17. Dave conkle - April 28, 2018 12:21 pm

    Sean there will never be another Ella but you need th get another dog as soon as you can to give you anew love and companion . Glad you found happiness in Jefferson co sound like you needed a dose . Doc

    Reply
  18. Judy Mcgowen - April 28, 2018 12:24 pm

    Thanks Tony and Betsy for cheering up our friend Sean.

    Reply
  19. Edna B. - April 28, 2018 12:34 pm

    Another beautiful story to start my day. Sean, I agree with the others, you need to make a trip soon to a shelter. There are so many doggies there just praying for a home and someone to love them. Another fur baby will help to ease your pain. (and you’ll ease theirs!”) God Bless Tony and Betsy for being there. You have a great day, hugs, Edna B.

    Reply
  20. Carl, another pilgrim - April 28, 2018 12:53 pm

    Rudyard Kipling: The Power of a Dog. ICH (In Christian Hope)

    Reply
  21. Mike Guilday (Pensacola, FL - April 28, 2018 1:04 pm

    Ellie Mae will always occupy that seat in your mind. God put a special feature in man’s mind that helps us through a loss. It’s 3D, full color, action packed memories that help us with the pain. It’s hard to be sad when your mind keeps seeing short videos of a wet dog sitting next to you in that truck seat looking straight into your eyes. Don’t push them away, enjoy them. Ellie Mae is directing them from her studio in heaven.

    Reply
  22. Carol ann ROTHWELL - April 28, 2018 1:25 pm

    You always leave me better than I was…
    Even if I am crying, it’s a good cry!!
    Hugs!
    Love ya.👼

    Reply
  23. Jack Darnell - April 28, 2018 1:30 pm

    One of the best my friend, one of the best. THANKS. I now recall the days after Ace died in 1952. Ace & Ellie jumping in the river.

    Reply
  24. LARRY WALL - April 28, 2018 1:39 pm

    Sean, you always are so able to recognize life’s angels. Much better than most of us, I think. So it is clear you know the two of Tony and Betsy. Good people and God’s people. And God bless them and yourself for being there for us all. Thanks for sharing Tony and Betsy with us.

    Reply
  25. Heidi - April 28, 2018 1:53 pm

    You started my day off great, albeit with a tear at the end. Thanks for helping us realize that America and good folks are still here, that a great hamburger and kind loving from strangers goes a loooong way and dogs do go to heaven.

    Reply
  26. wgarysmith - April 28, 2018 1:55 pm

    Time will not cure our pain and heartaches from loosing something or someone so dear to our heart, but it somehow does make it easier.
    By filling our hearts with love and a caring spirit (as you do daily) God has a way to see us through it.
    Keep sharing your thoughts and feelings, your life through your writing. There are 1000”s of us Tonys and Betsys out here that know and love you. You fill our lives with laughter, tears, hope and the feeling that this old crazy world is not that bad of a place.
    God Bless you Sean.

    Reply
  27. Sue Cronkite - April 28, 2018 2:09 pm

    Part of the healing process. Those folks helped you through a bunch of the 5 stages of grief .

    Reply
  28. Marty from Alabama - April 28, 2018 2:22 pm

    Don’t expect too much too soon. Gizmo has been gone almost ten years, Dingo about five months. Which hurts most? Don’t know, because I love them still. That memory never dies. Guess it will die when I do. My heart bleeds for you and Jamie.

    Reply
  29. RoseMary Forstrom - April 28, 2018 2:30 pm

    God provides and today you needed a friend to help fill your hurting heart and your empty stomach. Bless you as you learn to live with out your sweet girl.

    Reply
  30. Janet Mary Lee - April 28, 2018 3:01 pm

    Now that is a good hamburger!!!! Amazing what love does. Take time and savor those sweet memories! I have had a few great dogs in my lifetime. I always found one, after letting go of the grief part. Sometimes it was a short time- sometimes not. But, I am an animal lover, and always had a family dog from 3 years old. I remember…. Once , I thought I was done…. All were rescues and at one time, I had four at a time. I have a big neon sign that sits over the house. “No dog refused here!” Only dogs can see it. Once, it was a longer time, after my four grew old. Time varies… I know you know that. Follow the love, and follow your heart.
    P.S. Oddly, I have a hound at my feet. Yep, one found me again at 65 yrs. You just never know!! Bless good hamburgers, and good dogs!! Love you like kin!

    Reply
  31. Jack Quanstrum - April 28, 2018 3:09 pm

    Great story!

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  32. Betty - April 28, 2018 3:12 pm

    I have a pet cemetery on this farm. I can tell you good stories about each one of them and their special personalities! I am 69 and God has always sent me my dogs. But I haven’t had one in several years because it hurts so to say goodbye. But I have decided that I am ready for a new chapter in my life. I have always had heelers, labs etc. big dogs but my son’s
    thinks I need a small dog this time. When I can afford one, I am going for a yorkiepoo. I think maybe I would enjoy one just fine. Sorry about Ellie but you have wonderful memories and one day when the time is right you will have a new one riding with you and Ellie will be watching with a smile on her face. She will always be with you. God bless

    Reply
  33. Annie - April 28, 2018 3:29 pm

    NOTHING is better than a small town….cures a lot of “ailments.”

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  34. Jan - April 28, 2018 3:36 pm

    So very glad you had encountered good people who brought back good memories and sent you on your way with gifts of love!!!

    Reply
  35. muthahun - April 28, 2018 3:47 pm

    My friend, Val tells me that in the South, it’s not kokakola, but ko’kola… she hasn’t told me about hoop cheese though. Good people, generosity, good dogs, sweet sweet memories to sustain us. Lots of “kill shelters” in our country, Sean. Lots of deserving hounds to be saved from an awful fate.

    Reply
  36. Susie - April 28, 2018 4:36 pm

    No matter how it starts out your stories almost always leave me in tears. Good stuff. Seems you had a feeling you needed to stop at that country store. So glad you did.

    Reply
  37. Patti Couger - April 28, 2018 5:00 pm

    My heart has been aching for you, as I have been where you are too many times. My fur babies are my children, as I have no two-legged ones. You will never stop hurting, but that is the way it should be. I encourage you to get another dog asap–not to replace Ellie Mae but in remembrance of her. Also, watch “A Dog’s Purpose,” available through Netflix.

    Reply
  38. Jakki - April 28, 2018 5:17 pm

    So glad you’re having a better day today Sean. As it’s National Pay it Forward day today, you should think about that abandoned Coonhound sitting in death row, in a shelter near you.

    Reply
  39. sam smith - April 28, 2018 11:13 pm

    I grieve with you, Sean. You, for your precious Ellie Mae. and me, for my dear, sweet Annie Sue. They will stay with us forever.

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  40. Beverly h - April 29, 2018 12:54 am

    I’m glad it’s a little better…it takes a long time to feel again. You had a wonderful friend.

    Reply
  41. Michael Jordan - April 29, 2018 7:28 pm

    I hate to sound like a downer. I lost my best friend last April 16. Don’t remember his birthday, but I’ll never forget 4-16. Bought him an ice cream cone before I took him to that damned place. I take not one bit of solace in that Rainbow Bridge crap.

    If he just THOUGHT I was leaving the house, he was right by my side and wouldn’t let me go without him. He HATED the summer when it was too hot to wait in the car and wouldn’t let me forget it.

    Four months later, the last thing I told my Mom at Hospice was to go take care of my dog.

    Sean, I’ll be glad to let you know when it gets better. It’s not today.

    Reply
  42. Patricia Gibson - April 29, 2018 8:29 pm

    Hang on to the memories of Ellie!!

    Reply
  43. Diane Ingram - April 29, 2018 11:39 pm

    I’ve only recently begun following you, and though I do not know you or your “people” yet, I share your grief in losing your pup. I’m sorry for your loss and hope that in time your memories of her will always make you smile.

    Reply
  44. Lulu - April 30, 2018 2:34 am

    What a great story. I know where this store is, having spent some years in West Alabama! These are salt of the earth people and glad this helped uplift you! Sorry about Ellie Mae, it breaks my heart to hear of the loss! I too have loved and lost pets! She has now gone over the rainbow bridge!

    Reply
  45. Michael O. Clements - April 30, 2018 2:15 pm

    Tony and Betsy are good people. Thanks for spending your evening with us in Demopolis!

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  46. Carol Childs - May 3, 2018 8:40 pm

    Took me back! To moon pies and Nehi! Thank you Sean!

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  47. Dogs Are Family - May 4, 2018 2:55 am

    “She left me better than she found me”…perhaps that is a dog’s angelic purpose in life! Mission accomplished!

    Reply
  48. Memories - May 4, 2018 3:04 am

    Moon pies and tall RC Colas! A high school friend and I would grab these and park along a residential street in my hometown; and spend endless hours sitting and talking and catching up. Many a world crisis was averted thanks to those moon pies and colas discussions!

    Reply
  49. Pat - June 30, 2018 8:48 am

    It’s 3:30 in the AM, another sleepless night. Your stories always bless my heart! I’m glad you stopped at that country store, reminds me of Perry’s Store at Perry’s Crossroads in OPP, Alabama, and right beside Hwy 84 North is Docs Country Store, also in OPP. I’m glad your heart was blessed by these folks kindness, sometimes our tickers need lifting and blessing. I believe our fur babies are waiting for us on the other side of the river. Thank you for blessing this world with something good.

    Reply
  50. Brenda McLaine - June 30, 2018 5:33 pm

    Sean, my husband and son planted trees, herbicides trees and cleared land for paper companies in the area you write about so I’ m familiar with all these places. Love your stories.

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  51. Bill - June 30, 2018 11:19 pm

    Spent part of my growing-up years in a country store; we lived in an apartment at the rear of the store. It was all my playground where various friends and acquaintances passed thru every day. Shawn’s ramblings carried me back there for awhile. Thank you, Buddy.

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  52. tt-ReRe - July 1, 2018 2:10 am

    I am sorry about your Ellie Mae but even when you are sad thank you for reminding me of Candy Cigarettes!!! 🙂 🙂 🙂 How wonderful the country stores of my childhood and the people who owned/worked there and the community who visited. Your writing is saving wonderful memories for so many….me for sure. Thank you for being you!!!

    Reply

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