For nearly a year， I sopped around the house， the Store， the school and the church， like an old biscuit， dirty and inedible.
Then I met， or rather got to know， the lady who threw me first lifeline.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps.
She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather， and one the Arkansas summer days it seemed she had a private breeze which swirled around， cooling her.
Her skin was a rich black that would have peeled like a plum if snagged， but then no one would have thought of getting close enough to Mrs. Flowers to ruffle her dress， let alone snag her skin.
She didn't encourage familiarity. She wore gloves too.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known， and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be.
She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally.
Like women in English novels who walked the moors （whatever they were） with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance.
Like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplaces， drinking tea incessantly from silver trays full of scones and crumpets.
Women who walked over the “heath” and read morocco-bound books and had two last names divided by a hyphen.
It would be safe to say that she made me proud to be Negro， just by being herself.
One summer afternoon， sweet-milk fresh in my memory， she stopped at the Store to buy provisions.
Another Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand， but Momma said， “Sister Flowers， I'll send Bai-ley up to your house with these things.”
“Thank you， Mrs. Henderson. I'd prefer Marguerite， though.”
My name was beautiful when she said it.
“I've been mean-ins to talk to her， anyway.” They gave each other agegroup looks.
There was a little path beside the rocky road， and Mrs. Flowers walked in front swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
She said， without turning her head， to me， “I hear you're doing very good school work， Marguerite， but that it's all written. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class.
We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to walk together. I hung back in the separate unasked and unanswerable questions.
“Come and walk along with me， Marguerite.” I couldn't have refused even if I wanted to.
She pronounced my name so nicely. Or more correctly， she spoke each word with such clarity that I was certain a foreigner who didn't understand English could have understood her.
“Now no one is going to make you talk —possibly no one can. But bear in mind， language is man's way of communicating with his fellow man and it is language alone which separates him from the lower animals.”
That was a totally new idea to me， and I would need time to think about it.
“Your grandmother says you read a lot. Every chance you get. That's good， but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with the shades of deeper meaning. ”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some books and that I not only must read them， I must read them aloud.
She suggested that i try to make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
“I'll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.”
My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flowers'。 Death would be too kind and brief.
The odors in the house surprised me.
Somehow I had never connected Mrs. Flowers with food or eating or any other common experience of common people.
There must have been an outhouse， too， but my mind never recorded it.
The sweet scent of vanilla had met us as she opened the door.
“I made tea cookies this morning. You see， I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade so we could have this little chat. The lemonade is in the icebox.”
It followed that Mrs. Flowers would have ice on an ordinary day， when most families in our town bought ice late on Saturdays only a few times during the summer to be used in the wooden ice-cream freezers.
“Have a seat， Marguerite. Over there by the table.”
She carried a platter covered with a tea towel.
Although she warned that she hadn't tried her hand at baking sweets for some time， I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.
As I ate she began the first of what we later called “my lesson in living.”
She said that must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.
That some people， unable to go to school， were more educated and even more intelligent than college professors.
She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called mother wit. That in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations
When I finished the cookies she brushed off the table and brought a thick， small book from the bookcase.
I had read A Tale of Two Cities and found it up to my standards as a romantic novel.
She opened the first page and I heard poetry for the first time in my life.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times. . .” Her voice slid in and curved down through and over the words. She was nearly singing.
I wanted to look at the pages. Were they the same that I had read？
Or were there notes， music， lined on the pages， as in a hymn book？
Her sounds began cascading gently.
I knew from listening to a thousand preachers that she was nearing the end of her reading， and I hadn't really heard， heard to understand， a single word.
“How do you like that？”
It occurred to me that she expected a response.
The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue and her reading was a wonder in my ears.
I had to speak.
I said， “Yea， ma'am.” It was the least I could do， but it was the most also.
'There s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit， I want you to recite.“
I have tried often to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts.
The essence escapes but its aura remains.
To be allowed， no， invited， into the private lives of strangers， and to share their joys and fears， was a chance to exchange the Southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Be-owulf or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist.
When I said aloud， “It is a far， far better thing that I do， than I have ever done…” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
On that first day， I ran down the hill and into the road （few cars ever came along it） and had the good sense to stop running before I reached the Store.
was liked， and what a difference it made.
I was respected not as Mrs. Henderson's grandchild or Bailey's sister but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
Childhood's logic never asks to be proved （all conclusions are absolute）。
1 didn't question why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention， nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to.
All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me.
Momma and Bailey were waiting inside the Store.
He said. “My， what did she give you？” He had seen the books， but I held the paper sack with his cookies in my arms shielded by the poems.
Momma said， “Sister， I know you acted like a little lady. That do my heart good to see settled people take to you all.
I'm trying my best， the Lord knows， but these days…“ Her voice trailed off. ”Go on in and change your dress.