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Miss Isabel

Miss Isabel

"I don't believe in power mowers," she said, "and on Saturdays you will work inside."

Sitting in the library of a three story Victorian home with streams of warm spring sunlight dancing among the books nestled in the floor to ceiling shelves, Miss Isabel began to explain my duties as her summer hired helper.

"I pay $1.25 per hour. Tuesdays we mow; Thursday is flower garden day, and Saturdays will be general house cleaning."

I really didn't hear much past the $1.25, as in 1958, I was only 14 and that was a fortune. I had come to this opportunity by way of an older neighborhood friend who had worked for Miss Isabel for the past 3 years and was leaving for Notre Dame mid summer and so had referred me.

"Can you start next Saturday? 8am sharp?" she asked?

"Sure!" I said, "I mean, Yes, Ma'am." There was something about Miss Isabel that made you say Yes, Ma'am."

Saturday arrived, and at 8am sharp I rang the doorbell. Miss Isabel opened the door. "Good Morning," she said, "Follow me. I had some hot tea ready, but we won't have time, now. We're running behind."

Running behind? How could we be running behind? She had said 8 and it was 8 exactly. As Miss Isabel led me down the hall to the kitchen, she imparted to me lesson one. "I have found," she said, "that when you arrive at work fifteen to twenty minutes early, it allows you to settle in." It wasn't a scold, but I felt somehow I had cheated her out of something important, and I wasn't sure what.

Miss Isabel had already laid out several white cotton rags and a bottle of Old English furniture polish - the red kind - the kind I can remember the smell of to this day. I had observed that the old Victorian house had highly polished ebony hardwood floors. I was about to find out how they became so highly polished.

On hands and knees I began to minister to those boards with which over three years of Saturdays I would form a love-hate relationship. After awhile Miss Isabel suddenly asked, "What's your favorite flavor of soda pop?"

"Orange, I suppose," I replied, not sure what this was about.

"I'm going to Ralph Brown's market," she said, "and I'll be coming back in half an hour. Will you please come outside and swing open the garage doors?"

As I opened the doors, I saw resting comfortably in the huge detached three car garage, a pristine four door sea green Plymouth, circa 1947, and even though 11 years old, looking brand new. I would soon come to learn how this automobile stayed so spotless. Miss Isabel drove away, and true to her word, returned in 30 minutes. I had gone back to finishing up the floors, so she tooted for me to come outside. "Please carry in the groceries and put them on the sideboard," she said, and off she went to the house. As I sat the groceries on the sideboard, she instructed me to dust down the Plymouth and put it away. Here lay a problem - I couldn't drive.

"Miss Isabel," I said, "I don't know how to drive. I'm only fourteen."

"Fine," she said, "I'll pull her in and you dust her down and close the doors." Off she went with me trailing behind. For a woman in her late 60's and barely 5 feet tall, she was surprisingly quick, and I had to hustle to keep up. When I returned to the kitchen, Miss Isabel had prepared two ice cream sodas with orange soda pop. They were resting on a beautiful silver serving tray. "Bring these along to the library," she ordered.

As I carried the treats along behind, she casually suggested that I arrive 30 minutes early on Tuesday for my driving lesson. I was astounded. Driving lesson? I couldn't believe that I was going to get to drive. Lesson two.

Miss Isabel took a seat in one of her high wingback chairs. For the first time, I took a moment to observe my employer. It was hard to believe that someone so tiny could be so impressive. I was accustomed to football and basketball coaches, big men, and even my dad was six feet four, but no one I had ever met was in such control of her surroundings.

"Jerry, do you read?" she asked.

"Yes, I can read really well," I replied.

"No, Jerry, not can you read, do you read?"

"Do you mean for the fun of it?"

"Exactly! What's the last book you read for fun?"

"Riders of the Purple Sage, I guess, a couple of years ago."

"Have you ever seen Purple Sage?" she asked.

"I don't guess so."

"Well, we'll plant some in the garden and you can tend to it. Now, Jerry, pick a book you'd like to read, and we'll discuss it next week."

That started three years of sodas and book reports, although I never knew I was giving book reports. As we discussed the books, Miss Isabel could make me feel the cold of the Yukon, the heat of the Jungle, the dry winds of the African desert and see the glitter of the jewels of King Solomon's mines.

For the first few weeks, I only reported my reading to escape the hated task of pulling the dreaded chickweed from the garden, but eventually, I came to consider those book review sessions the very best part of Saturday.

After three years of polishing floors, learning to drive, and developing a permanent hate for chickweed, Miss Isabel told me one Saturday to come to work in tie and jacket. This seemed very bizarre for a lawn boy/floor polisher, but by then, I had learned not to question Miss Isabel's requests. Unknown to me, Miss Isabel had summoned to her home Mr. Fox, the director of the Springfield-Greene County Library, to have an ice cream soda.

Mr. Fox chose strawberry, and as he casually sipped away, Miss Isabel Shepard explained to him that I was ready to start my employment with the Library system as a page, the very next week. She went on to discuss my qualities as an employee, and spoke of my knowledge of authors, subject matter and considerable interest in National Geographic, although she claimed not to know why. But maybe she did.

Mr. Fox was at least six feet four inches tall, but under Miss Isabel's dominance, he became her willing and eager to please student. He immediately briefed me on when and where to report the following Saturday. Miss Isabel and I spent the rest of the afternoon discussing the responsibilities of librarians, and how I should find a suitable replacement for myself as her employee.

These things came to pass, and though Miss Isabel Shepard has long since passed away, I cannot help but think the problems of teen violence and crime could be diminished by a summer spent among the flowers, sage, dreaded chickweed and books of Miss Isabel Shepard's Victorian home, or even some time spent in the Shepard Room of the public library, which was named in her honor.

After all, when you're 14 years old and you're discussing Ernest Hemingway with Miss Isabel, how can you be thinking about building a bomb?

By Jerry Hayes, Source Unknown


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