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Shumate column: Awesome Aussie

Bailey’s Drug Store was located on the square in Salisbury at South Main and West Innes streets in 1961 when I was a part-time employee there.
One side of the building housed the pharmacy and shelves of miscellaneous merchandise. On the other side, there was a soda/lunch counter with bar stools and several wooden booths.
Mr. Basinger had a watch and jewelry repair area in the front part of the building on this side also. I was a junior at Boyden High School and worked two afternoons a week and an 8-hour shift on Saturdays. My friend, Mickey Jo, a junior at East Rowan High, worked with me. We serviced the soda/lunch counter and made 52 cents an hour. We were paid with cash in little brown envelopes every Saturday afternoon. The regular full-time counter employees included JoLene, Louise, and Helen.Mildred Bell was a wonderful cook and lovely lady in charge of all the short orders from the kitchen. It was no wonder that she was such an excellent and efficient cook. She had six children and her husband to feed at home. We became close friends, although she insisted in renaming me Ann, because the name Margaret was too hard for her to remember, she would say.
Then there was the big boss, Ethel Finn. She was general manager and quite a fascinating person. Even though she was petite, her presence and profound character were just the opposite. Her flaming red, cropped hairstyle and her manner of speaking were more than enough to intimidate any 16-year-old. She had relocated to Salisbury from her home in Australia when her husband died suddenly at an early age. She wanted to be near her daughter, Evelyn Harrison, and her family. She attended and graduated from Salisbury Business College in the 1950s, secured employment and became a well-known and respected citizen.The lunch counter had regular customers, most often for coffee, which was served in stoneware mugs for five cents with free refills. I remember Johnny Suther, Salisbury Post newspaper photographer, Norman Ingle, jeweler, and many others as regular coffee drinkers. It was a warm, friendly place to hang out and confer with the locals.
Mickey Jo and I especially enjoyed making and serving milkshakes, sundaes and banana splits. We would overload these with goodies if Ms. Finn wasn’t around. She had strongly instructed us to use only base for milkshakes and NOT real ice cream. This was more efficient from her point of view, but much less tasty for our customers, we both agreed. We kept a sharp eye out for her each time we prepared our delicious masterpieces. We liked and respected Ms. Finn for her authority and knowledge but felt obligated to rebel when it came to the ice cream substitute issue.Things were going well until one Saturday afternoon when we heard the creaking of wooden steps that led up to Ms. Finn’s office. We were excited. Ms. Finn was coming down to deliver our little brown envelopes. It was payday! She stopped at the end of the counter. Smiles from her were quite rare, and this particular moment proved no exception. She gestured in my direction and announced that I was to follow her to her office. As I climbed the narrow steps, shaking and full of dread, I just knew she had discovered the ice cream scheme and that I was about to be fired.Much to my great surprise and relief, she told me that I was an excellent employee and had great potential ó but she had heard some rumors.
Here it comes, I thought. Someone had told her that I was considering marriage, even though I had another year of school to complete. She went on to give me some great motherly advice as to why this was not a good idea. I was touched as well as shocked. I had never thought of her as a truly caring person, but she was. She truly cared about me and my future. What an awesome Aussie!
Recently, I had a conversation with her granddaughter, Zandra Harrison Spencer, a high school classmate of mine. We lovingly laughed as we remembered her fiery red-haired grandmother, Ethel, and some of her quirky performances. Zandra added that she as a special grandmother and that she missed her very much. I am also inclined to miss her as a small part of my colorful past ó but that doesn’t stop me from insisting on REAL ice cream with my milkshake order.
Margaret Shumate is a regular contributor to LifePlus.

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