I was reminded of Vertilee Brewer recently when one of her most faithful employees attended my sister’s 50th wedding anniversary party. I hadn’t seen Phyllis in almost sixty years but the reconnection was pure fun. She was one of my heroines back then, being just a little older than I and so knowledgeable and efficient. In my mind, she reigned as Queen over all the soda jerks at Brewer’s of whom I was one. She put up with my immaturity, yet treated me as an equal. I realized Mrs. Brewer trusted her implicitly and that was impressive. But, more than that, she was a good friend and one who had an infectious sense of humor.
But this article is about Mrs. Vertilee Brewer.
I knew her first as one of my mother’s dearest friends. On rare occasions she came to our house for a visit and Mamma was always so glad to see her. Dad had enjoyed her husband, too, until Mr. Brewer died, leaving a lively drugstore business to “Miss Vertilee.” After my Dad died they had even more in common. Mamma admired her friend for being such a successful business woman. I think Miss Vertilee admired my mother just as much for being the mother of ten.
She was a very short little lady with a piquant face and a gentle smile. She reminded me of a mother wren even though she had no children. I didn’t know until years later that she had tried to adopt one of my older sisters. I think she really wanted a child and thought my parents might have more children than they needed. Apparently, there were no hard feelings on either side over her failed attempt. Mrs. Brewer simply continued to be involved with several of us and I am one of the ones who benefitted.
When my brother Orman was preparing to go to the Philippines as a missionary he and his family lived for an interim period in the big Brewer house near the Clarkesville cemetery. Mrs. Brewer had moved over on Main Street to a smaller house. Being sixteen at the time, I was chosen as babysitter for Orman’s four kids. The oldest was ten and the youngest eighteen months, truly a challenge when Orman and Margaret were out of town for two weeks. Mamma sent my brother Stan to help me when he got off work at night. And Mrs. Brewer came at least once every day, just to see about us.
I didn’t think at the time about why she came. I was just glad she did. Her little face decorated with freckles was a welcome sight at the back door. She helped me sort the small problems (like little Joe pulling the sugar bowl over into his hair) from the big ones (like the washing machine flooding the laundry room). Much later I realized she was aware that Mamma couldn’t come into town to see about me and my flock so she would do it herself.
But I was to get to know Mrs. Brewer on a much deeper level after she gave me a job working at the soda fountain at Brewer Drug Company.
Mrs. Brewer was small in stature but she was a quiet force all the same, and when she spoke everyone paid close attention. Dr. Hardin ran the pharmacy but Mrs. Brewer ran everything else. Her office was an open one on a second half-story. She could look down from her loft and see everything that was happening in the store, from the bustling soda fountain to the magazine rack where often a Trailways bus client waited, to the long counters and handsome high cases full of merchandise, to the café tables and the television area.
It was 9:00 of a morning when Mrs. Brewer arrived at work. She came in the front door walking briskly, her valise in hand. With a smile for each she moved through the pharmacy and up to her office where she went right to work on her books. She seldom spoke from upstairs. But she would come down if she saw the need.
When she came downstairs, most often she had a particular mission in mind. A few times when I was late arriving, I became her mission. I don’t know who told her I’d been past 7:30 getting to work, but she found out. My ride to work was with my brother Charlie in his big loud logging truck and usually I was early, sometimes so early I had to wait outside for the store to open. But there were those tense times when I was late. Once, when I tried to explain to my boss that I had no control over my time of arrival, she stopped me in mid-sentence. “There is no excuse for being late,” she said and headed back upstairs.
Another lesson I learned one day during court week. The drugstore was directly across the street from the stately old red brick Habersham County courthouse. When court was in session we were flooded with coffee drinkers at break time and with luncheon clients at midday. It was quite hectic keeping up with the court crowd of attorneys in their somber suits and the many folks “come to town” over some legal matter or just to see what was going on. Particularly daunting to me were the gentlemen who would ask for “the usual.” How was I supposed to remember all the “usuals”?
So–down came Mrs. Brewer from her loft to tell me in no uncertain terms that I needed to speed up and I would have to do better remembering every person’s preference. That’s what I was there for, she said.
I worked harder.
I tried to be friendlier to the clients, get to know them better. That brought on another reprimand. Mrs. Brewer came down one day after a certain Mr. Trotter left the store. “Brenda,” she said, “don’t be fooled by gray hair and wrinkles. You don’t need to be flirting with old gentlemen. They’re more dangerous than the young ones.” I was appalled. My friendliness had been perceived as flirtation? My goodness! This thing called Life was more complicated than I’d realized.
I worked at the drugstore a couple of years between high school and college. I have fond memories of working with Phyllis and others–of trying to write tickets using the great thick Trailways bus schedule book, of learning how not to blush when ladies asked for private female supplies, of digging deep in the five gallon ice cream containers and making scoops stick firmly on the cones, and of taking inventory in January of thousands of little bottles and things.
It was a very big day when Mrs. Brewer gave me a raise so my weekly check was $20 instead of $15. And I enjoyed wearing my smart white uniforms. With my discount I was able to buy a set of luggage for going off to college and it seems to me I can hear the cheers of other employees the day my luggage arrived. Leaving the drugstore was like leaving a second family and for several years I enjoyed dropping in to see how everyone was doing–especially Mrs. Brewer.
She came to my small home wedding. After marrying a South Georgia boy and then having a baby, I had fewer and fewer chances to see Mrs. Brewer. Then Mamma let me know that her friend Vertilee was very, very sick. My husband and I went to see her. She had become even smaller. But her smile even in her pale face was warm and welcoming. We talked a few minutes about old times. Before we left she said something like, “Be good to each other.” It wasn’t long after that when Mamma told me Vertilee had died.
When my husband and I visited the restaurant called Taylor’s Trolley which at one time was located where the drugstore had been, I was glad to see the wonderful old wood cases still there. But when I looked up, there was no little Mrs. Brewer peering down from her perch.