When I was forty, my husband announced that he'd taken a new job in Savannah, Georgia. If I wasn't able to function in the town that I was born and grew up in, how was I going to function in a completely new city across the state? I had to leave everything I knew and loved behind.
Well, I found out when I got to Savannah that there was no end to the tears. I stayed in bed for two months, only getting out to eat. I didn't have to get out of bed to cry. I couldn't even make the trip back home to Albany. It was only about 200 miles, but it may as well have been a thousand. I was stuck in Savannah.
Then one day, I felt like I could see clearly, like I had woken up that day and someone had flipped a switch. I decided that I was not going to let the fear that controlled my life control me anymore. I decided to get out of my bed and start living life to the fullest. I spent the next two years pondering on how to improve my life and especially the lives of my children. I wanted to give my boys wings through either education or a business.
So in 1989, I made the decision finally to follow in the footsteps of my Grandmother Paul. I'll never forget that day and my grandmother's words when I called her to tell her what I had decided to do. After I rattled on quickly for several minutes till I was out of breath, there was just silence on the other end. I thought our call must have been disconnected when she said, "Paula, have you lost your damned mind?" I burst out laughing, "Well, Grandmama, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree does it?"
I would start the journey of mending. I would never again let myself be a victim of controlling fear. I feel as though I have two birthdays: the first one on January 19, 1947, and the other on June 19, 1989. That was the day that I totally became responsible for myself and my actions. It was also the day that with the help of my sons, Jamie and Bobby, we began our business, The Bag Lady. All those years of being a prisoner in my own home were about to pay off. I had become a pretty good cook; after all, cooking was my number one form of entertainment during those years. This lady was off and running! And my boys were delivering home cooked meals to people stuck in their offices all day.
We started the business with only $200, and to this day, I can still tell you how I spent it, almost to the penny. I spent fifty dollars on groceries, about forty dollars on a cooler, and the rest on a business license and incidentals. While the children were out running their routes, I was in the kitchen cleaning it from top to bottom, and beginning the next day's preparations.
It was a good thing that I didn't know how long and hard I'd be running, cause I might not have made it if I had known. Sixteen and twenty four hour days were not unusual, but I was not about to give up my determination because of the never ending cycle.
The first year and a half was quite hard on the family. We spent it working out of my house, a divorce after 27 years was imminent, and we were about to tackle a full-fledged restaurant as well in a space at the Best Western hotel on Savannah's Southside. However, the restaurant required three meals a day, seven days a week. We ran that restaurant for five years with Jamie, Bobby and their girlfriends playing the roles of host, busers and servers! Compared to the Best Western, running The Bag Lady was a day in the park! I called the restaurant The Lady, hoping that people would associate the restaurant with The Bag Lady, and give it some credibility.
Soon, I was able to employ some wonderful and very talented women. They were great cooks, and all I had to do was show them how I wanted things prepared. We were off and running with those ladies teaching me some things in the kitchen, and the boys enjoying a nice boost to their income from their tips.
Still, with the success of this restaurant, the size would not allow me to generate the income that I had hoped for. I dreamed of a place where my style of cooking went hand in hand with the surroundings. We had so many friends and loyal customers on the south side of Savannah, but I knew that we belonged Downtown. My style of cooking was Southern Plantation cuisine reminiscent of the Old South, and the Historic District of Downtown Savannah was the place for me.
My newfound independence with The Lady had given me the ability to ask for the inevitable. My twenty seven year marriage was finally over. Now that I had settled my personal life, it was time to make the next step and find a new home for the restaurant.
One day, a downtown developer walked into The Lady and informed me that he had found the perfect location for my restaurant Downtown. I met him at the corner of Congress and Montgomery. As we leaned against the old building, he pointed across the street to the old Barnett Educational Supply building. It had originally housed Sears & Roebuck when it was built in 1910. It was perfect! I consummated the deal on a handshake that afternoon. Talk about naive! That handshake had just committed me to a twelve year lease in an old building that would need $150,000 worth of renovations.
Different financial institutions turned me down time after time. I was almost discouraged, but my passion for what I wanted would not let me quit. I was determined not to stop until I found someone that would listen to me and would agree to help. I finally found a local banker, Doug McCoy, who would listen. He thought I could make it, but I still didn't have enough collateral, even though I'd saved about $20,000. Local businessmen approached me with the option of backing me, but I didn't want a partner. And just when I was about to reconsider, my Aunt Peggy and Uncle George agreed to lend me the remaining money. I'll forever be grateful to them for giving me a new start on life.
There were still some obstacles to overcome, and the trials weren't over yet! The biggest one was almost a year of downtime with no additional income besides what The Bag Lady catering was bringing in. On the morning of our opening day, I received a call from our accountant, Karl Schumacher. The news wasn't good. We were overdrawn on our construction account, and on our restaurant account. I didn't have money for the meters, must less overdraft charges. I didn't even have a penny to make change with, and our brand new business opened in less than an hour. I had to make a humbling call to my banker explaining the situation and asking for just a little more money for change for the restaurant. He told me to come on down and get our start-up change. They weren't about to let us go as far as we had gone and then stop. That was the last time that we were overdrawn.
Opening day January 8, 1996, was so emotional indeed. We hadn't served anyone in almost a year, and without any money for advertising, I wondered how our old guests and friends from The Lady at the Best Western would know we were open. But they came. I spent that first shift crying and hugging everybody's neck as they came in the door for not forgetting us. This business was truly built for and by my local Savannah friends. I'll never be able to convey to everyone my thanks. But the number of familiar faces began to grow, and the guest list grew to have people from all over the world. It was time to take the next step in my plan: to write and publish a cookbook.
Once again I saved up $20,000. Soon, my cookbook became a reality, not a dream anymore. My self-published book had only been out for two weeks when an editor from Random House picked up a few copies while in the restaurant one day. Imagine my shock when I got a call from Random House telling me that they'd like to purchase the cookbook, publish it and distribute it nationwide. Was I interested? You bet I was! So my cookbook became The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook. And just two short years later, it was followed by The Lady and Sons, Too! I enjoyed many regular visits to the QVC network in Pennsylvania to share my recipes from those two books. I had arrived at a stage in my life that I never thought possible.
One of the guests in our restaurant was a food and travel editor from USA Today. Imagine our surprise when we read the article one December day in 1999 naming us "Most Memorable Meal" for 1999. Can you imagine putting us above restaurants in cities like Paris, New York City and Chicago?
Well, while the restaurant was becoming more and more popular, a friend of mine in Savannah wanted to introduce me to Gordon Elliott, a TV personality on the Food Network. So in walks Gordon and we hit it off from the start. Before he left, he had invited me to be a guest on his show, "Gordon Elliott�s Door Knock Dinners. Hesitantly, I accepted, and before you know it, Gordy had my sons and me on a plane to Las Vegas. I won't forget Gordon and me screaming and laughing at the craps tables till five o'clock in the morning. We couldn't stay up any later, we had to be taping at 11 am. Afterwards, we had a fabulous meal at Le Cirque, the amazing "O" show at the Bellagio, and more fun at the tables. What a trip! It is Gordon who is directly responsible for introducing me to the Food Network, and I appeared several times as a guest on various shows including "Ready,Set,Cook" and "Food Finds."
My business was well on its way to being successful. But my social life was still the pits. My life was consumed with work and family, about 95% work and 5% family. Again I tried to figure out how to improve my life, but this time my personal life. Everywhere I turned there seemed to be no opportunities. My days and nights were filled working at the restaurant, I don't do bars, and Sunday's were the day I definitely could not leave the restaurant. So even church was not an option.
I realized, after thinking, and thinking and thinking that I was going to have to turn this one over to God. So I added one more sentence to my nightly prayers: "God, please send me a neighbor." I started this prayer while still living Downtown. One day I got a wild hair and decided that I wanted to live on the water. So I packed up the dogs, cats and birds and moved out to neighboring Wilmington Island. All my neighbors were married! So I continued my prayer.
Towards the end of writing my third cookbook, Just Desserts, my two Shih Tzus, Otis and Sam, came running up to me at the computer and started barking. Of course, this was their signal that they had to go potty. It was the middle of summer and hotter than a June bride outside as we made our way to the door. Not a day that I wanted to be running across the island. As soon as the door opened, they made their jailbreak running the opposite direction they usually run. They even made their way around a big brick wall that surrounds the neighborhood all the way to the edge of the water. Naturally, I was not dressed up at all cause my cookbook, not my looks, were my priority. I had on old jeans, an old t-shirt, a hat and no makeup.
Well, I chased those dogs around that wall and right into the arms of a man I'd never seen before, propped on his fence and talking on his cell phone. He looked like Ernest Hemingway. He seemed to be a man that wanted to be left alone, so I quickly apologized for my dogs invading his yard. He assured me that it was alright, and I heard him mumble, "Let's go have a drink sometime."
And wouldn't you know it, Otis and Sam had their little taste of freedom, and a couple of weeks later, it was jailbreak time again. And there again stood Ernest Hemmingway. This time, we made a date to go boating. His name was Michael Anthony Groover, and he was a fifth generation Wilmington Island boy. He has deep love for his roots and his family. Michael and his world have certainly enriched mine! You just never know what the dogs will drag up!!!
Meeting Michael has definitely got to be one of the best things that's ever happened to me. But there are so many others that I often remember. One of those happened a couple of years ago. I was in the kitchen at the old location of the Lady and Sons on Congress Street, and Rance, my kitchen manager had answered the phone. He handed it to me saying, "Paula, Oprah is on the phone for ya!" I looked at him and said, "Get the hell out!" They were doing a show about women who had started businesses out of the home, and they were interested in possibly having me as a guest. After a few phone interviews, and before I knew what was happening, I found myself on stage sitting next to Oprah! Oprah and I seemed to connect in those ten minutes we had together, and I'll never forget this experience for the rest of my life. It was on Oprah that I announced to the world and everybody that I had just gotten my own show on the Food Network and Paula's Home Cooking would begin airing that following November.