The Tam


In our kitchen, the large round table is often embarrassingly messy, covered with mail, packages, newspapers, and magazines.

Try as I might, I cannot keep it cleaned off because the amount of daily mail we receive is astounding, sometimes six inches high. It’s a shame, too, because the table, which belonged to Tink’s father, is strong and handsome. It is carefully inlaid with various woods and has a wonderful lazy susan in the middle. I suspect it cost more than my daddy earned in three years of working on cars and cattle farming.

For that reason alone, I should keep it presentable.

We use it a lot — I work and do bookkeeping there, often — and many are the times that we each push through the mail and find a place to set our plates and have lunch or supper.

This is to explain how horrified I am for someone to drop by unexpectedly and see it. But such happened recently when my most beloved Aunt Kathleen came by. I immediately began to apologize and she said, “Oh, honey, don’t worry ‘bout that. I just come by to see you and get some of them good biscuits of yours.”

She pulled out a chair and turned it to face me while I made biscuits and we chatted. Among the clutter was a new, deep pink sweater that spilled out of the package I had just opened. From another package was a beret, the same color, covered in pearls. I wear a lot of hats in the wintertime because Mama said that’s the best way to avoid getting sick.

Aunt Kathleen, who grew up in the Appalachian backwoods, enjoys pretty things. She glanced over her shoulder and saw the matching set.

“Oh, my, that’s the prettiest little tam I ever seen.” She picked up the beret and admired it. “And look how it matches that sweater.”

Then, just like that, my mind flew back to a story Mama had told me. “Tam” is the Scottish version of what most Americans call a “beret”. It makes sense that the mountains folks, settled by the Scotch-Irish, would use “tam” instead of “beret” for a little, round flat hat. Mountain people, especially, in generations past, used peculiar Scottish words.

“Tam,” I repeated softly, holding a piece of dough in my hands. “I haven’t heard that word since Mama used it.”

Mama’s story was this: Her daddy, a poor farmer who rented land and fed his family with the sweat of his brow and the stubbornness of an old mule, had announced his calling to preach. Ance Miller was convinced that God had called him to be more than a raggedy farmer and that the Almighty had laid it in his heart to preach the gospel throughout the mountains.

The time came when one of those tiny churches called him to be their pastor. But, first, according to the Baptist bylaws, Ance would have to be ordained in a ceremony where he would be questioned on biblical knowledge, theology, and commitment. It was an important day and, later, they would have a dinner on the ground to celebrate.

My grandmother scraped together 50 cents and ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog, a red tam for Mama and a blue one for her sister, Ozelle. She wanted them to look pretty for Pawpaw’s big day. In the mountains, a man who “made a preacher” was highly respected. The girls were so excited because they had never had anything fancy.

“For weeks, we watched the mailbox, every day, but they didn’t come,” Mama said. “On the day of the ordination, just before we left, the mail came and there were those two little tams. You have never seen happier girls in all your life.”

Over the years, I’ve recalled that story with poignancy and warmth. One word — tam — brought it tumbling back over me like spring’s first kiss of warmth.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of the novel: “St. Simons Island: A Stella Bankwell Mystery.” Visit to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.]