She raised four generations of children – and the rest of the neighborhood, too.
When the doors open for Mrs. Elnora Payne on Saturday, everyone stands and cheers. Her seat on the Archer Community Center stage overlooks the four generations she raised in her 100 years of life. On her table hangs the word of which she taught them the meaning: love.
In the corner, tears roll down the cheeks of the woman who quietly says what countless East Gainesville residents – some blood relatives and many not – say of Payne: “That’s my grandmother. She raised me.”
For her birthday, Payne is decked out in sparkling black and gold, her head adorned with feathers. Her life, by contrast, has been simple – but far from ordinary.
She has decked her life out in love and generosity so consistent, so outsized, that it earned the adoration of an entire community.
Payne was born in Salem, Alabama. “Hop across the river and you’re in Georgia,” she said.
Her mother died giving birth to her. Her father raised her and nearly a dozen siblings on his own.
She moved to Archer in 1945, where she met her husband Lee Andrew Payne, and they moved to Gainesville the following year. They had 10 children together.
He died while their children were young, and Elnora Payne was left to do as her father did and raise them on her own.
Every morning she would cook breakfast for her children before walking downtown to work as a cook at Tim’s Grill. In the afternoon, she’d walk home to cook them lunch and wash up, before walking back to work.
In the 1970s, Payne moved into the new Sugarhill apartments, where she became the neighborhood ‘candy lady,’ selling cookies and candy and squeeze cups of frozen Kool-Aid. To children who couldn’t afford it, she’d always slip something for free.
If there was one rule by which she lived her life, it was to fill every hungry belly that crossed her path.
Every morning at 6 a.m., she opened her door so the smell of her famous grits and eggs wafted out to the children at the bus stop across the street, and they came to grab a plate. Her grandchildren can’t remember a single day when she was too sick or too down to make breakfast.
She refused to serve cereal because it doesn’t stick in the belly. She sent children to school full of food that lasted, helping them to perform well and get their degrees.
“Anybody that rode the bus and was hungry that morning, they knew they could stop by my grandmother’s house,” Payne’s granddaughter Kindra Walker said. “I’ve never seen a person that can cook a pot of grits and feed 50 people.”
It wasn’t just the children at the bus stop. She raised anyone in the neighborhood who didn’t have a mother, loved ones said. And to any mother who needed to leave for work, she’d say to go on and drop the kids by.
Her neighborhoods changed over the years – always in East Gainesville – but her actions stayed the same.
Her family can’t remember a time when she turned someone down for help. She quietly paid neighbors’ bills, watched their children, and served them up plates of greens her family still can’t recreate, even when they put the same ingredients in the pot.
She sat with the men who lived in the nearby residential community for the developmentally disabled, and fed them too.
The care earned her the love of the community, and the people who called her “Grandma” only multiplied as the years passed. Her great-granddaughter, Riunshay Washington, described Payne as “the most well-known caretaker I’ve ever met.”
Washington said she runs into people in their 50s in the grocery store who tell her, “Your grandmother took care of me. That’s my grandmother, too.”
One of those who claims Payne as her own is Tangy Norman. Norman was best friends with one of Payne’s granddaughters in elementary school. Norman said she ran away from home frequently, and when she did, she ran to the Payne house.
Norman thought the family might turn her away, but they never did. Instead, she marveled, they let her take a bath and fed her. She has never forgotten how comfortable they made her feel.
“They didn’t look at me as an outsider,” Norman said. “They looked at me as family.”
Norman and Payne’s granddaughter went off to different schools, but in her 20s Norman moved into Apartment 34 in Sugarhill, and to her surprise and enormous luck, discovered her neighbor was none other than Mrs. Elnora Payne.
Like clockwork, Norman would smell bacon grease on Saturday mornings and head to Payne’s, who always offered her a plate. Payne quickly became someone Norman could go to for anything.
Norman said the Payne family played every part in Norman’s first wedding – ring bearer, bridesmaids, planners – and they paid for the whole thing. They pulled off her second wedding, too, and threw her the first and only surprise party of her life.
“That’s just how they went out of their way,” Norman said.
When Norman went into labor with her second child, it was Elnora Paye who knew what was happening, grabbed a towel and called the ambulance.
“I’ve never met no one like her in my life,” Norman said.
Payne’s family grew exponentially as the generations multiplied, but she remained the glue that held them together.
In the summer and on weekends, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren would pack into Payne’s living room and make pallets on the floor – piles of sheets and blankets to sleep on. At 6 a.m. Payne would come by, laundry basket on hip, telling them to go wash up. Hair in rollers and hymns on her lips, she’d start breakfast.
She was their favorite entertainer – cutting jokes and dance moves, doing impressions, playing kickball and sinking “granny shots” when they played basketball, even into her 80s.
Washington remembers sitting on the porch with her great-grandmother. Even in the blistering heat, Payne would be dressed in long-sleeved T-shirts under floral dresses, socks on her feet, hat on her head. (If you want to live long and not get arthritis, you’ve got to keep the cold out of your bones, she said.)
It seemed to Washington like 20 times a day people would roll by with their car window down and wave, “Hey, Ms. Payne!”
And Payne would respond with a “Hey, baby!”
When her kin left town, even for half a day, Washington said the men Payne raised as children would come by to check on her.
It seemed like magic, how Payne stretched the money in the sock pinned inside her dress to provide for so many people, but there are clues to the trick.
She coaxed “the garden of Eden” out of the Florida dirt in her yard: watermelon, strawberries, green beans, all kinds of fruit trees.
She dug for bait with her grandchildren and took them fishing.
She combined plants from the woods with ones she grew, and turned them into remedies for every illness: soup that gave her oldest daughter her strength back during chemotherapy; tea that seemed to make her grandson’s asthma vanish; ointment for Norman’s tooth infection.
When Washington hurt her leg and had to be wheeled out of gym class, Payne rubbed a homemade balm on her as she fell asleep in tears. When she woke up, she could move it again.
Walker said Payne’s remedies did more than just ease pain, “they really, really healed.”
One day, when her grandchildren were playing outside, Payne called out, “Let me show y’all how to survive if things get bad.”
Surrounded by a circle of wide eyes, she plucked one of the chickens she raised in her yard and fried it up. Walker estimates 20 children gathered. And then, like Jesus with the fishes and the loaves, Payne fed them all with it.
“That’s the secret,” Walker remembers Payne telling them. “Whatever you have, if you put it the right way, you have enough to share with everybody.
“If you do nothing else, make sure y’all stay close and make sure you’re feeding children – anybody – if they’re hungry.”
Payne is full of these sayings. Her family quotes them by the dozen. But most of them boil down to three rules.
Treat others how you want to be treated.
And don’t be a fool.
She taught them other things, too, that family members brought up by saying “it may seem small to you, but . . .”
When Washington was getting bullied at school for dandruff, Payne scrubbed her hair with V05 shampoo and baking soda for weeks until it all came out.
“Someone took the time to take care of my scalp,” Washington said. “Someone took the time to make sure I was OK.”
Payne taught her great-grandson David Benton how to have self-confidence, he said, how to look people in the eyes when they speak to him.
Her days have always started and ended with prayer. She’s a nearly lifelong member of Johnson Chapel Missionary Baptist Church. She calls Jesus her “main man,” and credits him for why she’s lived for so long.
Washington gave another theory: “I think people with big hearts live longer.”
Washington remembers her great-grandmother often sang the hymn “Rough Side of the Mountain.”
Although my burdens
sometime they press me down,
but if I can only keep this faith
I’ll have strength just to run this race;
I’m looking for my starry crown.
Loved ones couldn’t give a specific response when asked what hardships Payne has overcome, partly because they said she never spoke of her own burdens.
But the timeline of her life sketches an outline: Jim Crow, the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights Movement and desegregation. She turned 91 before the saying that her life mattered became widespread.
“Being an African American,” Washington said, “there’s always something attacking the community. But she always taught me to love.”
Washington said when she would be down about something, Payne would say, “You’re alive, right? You’re breathing, right? That’s more than enough to keep going.”
Mrs. Elnora Payne has kept going for 100 years.
Making a single meal, helping out one person in need, or watching a child for one day might not be remarkable. But to do it without fail every day for a century changed the neighborhood.
She took the one life she was given and turned it into something that fed everyone. Something that healed. Something that stuck.
While the rain begins to pour outside the windows of the Archer Community Center, her family – blood and non-blood – prepare to eat.
Four generations bow their heads in prayer and thank God for Mrs. Elnora Payne.