Barbara McGahee has worked on the 500 block of Mulberry Street for 44 years.
She has watched people from all sidewalks of life come through the doors of Jeneane’s Cafe and, in the years before that, McCullough’s Cafe a few doors down.
She has served enough biscuits and hoecakes to feed a five-county population. She has poured enough tea and coffee to raise the Ocmulgee River above flood stage.
She calls today “bittersweet.’’ When the last of the dishes are cleared in the afternoon, quitting time will be for keeps.
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Barbara’s retirement marks the end of an era for her family. Her mother, Maude McCullough, worked in the restaurant business on Mulberry for 60 years until her retirement four years ago at age 84.
Today’s forecast in the dining room at Jeneane’s is a 100-percent chance of precipitation.
“I know I’m going to cry,’’ she said. “This has never been a job. It has been a pleasure. It is part of who I am.’’
It is somehow fitting that Christmas Eve is her final shift. Her career has been among her greatest gifts.
Her mother began working at the Coach House Restaurant at the old Lanier Plaza Hotel in 1950. In 1961, Maude and her husband, Ray, purchased Bloodworth’s Cafe at 588 Mulberry in what is now Between the Bread Cafe.
It operated as McCullough’s Cafe until 1989, when Jeneane Barber bought the restaurant.
Six years later, Jeneane’s Cafe moved a half-block down the sidewalk to 524 Mulberry in a building that was once Loh’s Cafe.
(The red-and-white tiles of Loh’s Cafe are still embedded in the sidewalk out front. It began as the Crystal Cafe in 1892. It was owned by M.G. Putzel, and believed to be the first electrically lighted building in the city.)
Jeneane persuaded both Barbara and Maude to remain on the staff. Maude was legendary for her desserts. She would start touting her tempting slices of chocolate, coconut and pecan pie before the end of every meal.
Maude worked until 2010, when health problems prompted her to retire. She now lives with Barbara and her husband, James McGahee.
Barbara started working at McCullough’s in 1970. She began as a server, then operated the cash register.
“I was a shy, single mom with two small children who had never really worked anywhere before,’’ she said. “I didn’t know about how to interact with people, and my mother was a wonderful teacher. It was a great experience. When I look back I realize that place taught me a lot.’’
It has been a constant source of strength. She was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago. While undergoing chemotherapy, her doctor instructed her to stay home.
“I chose to come to work and allow my customers to love me through that experience,’’ she said.
Jeneane’s is a “meat-and-three Cheers,’’ a place where everybody knows your name. Barbara has watched a melting pot of lawyers, secretaries, construction workers, teachers and real estate agents eat their vegetables every weekday.
She has waited on a few celebrities, too, including several governors and local musician Chuck Leavell, a keyboard player for the Allman Brothers Band and the Rolling Stones.
In 1978, she met actor Paul Winfield and actress Cicely Tyson when a scene from the television mini-series “King” was filmed at McCullough’s. She remembers Tyson kept helping herself to the string beans. She must have been hungry.
Among her favorite patrons was the late Judge Taylor Phillips, who left his courtroom and held court almost every day at Jeneane’s.
“He was so generous and kind to everybody,’’ Barbara said. “He was a great man, and I sincerely loved him.’’
Phillips was a regular at both the “Breakfast Club’’ table, which tries to solve the problems of the world every morning, as well as the “Liar’s Club,’’ a musical chairs lunch crowd in the booth next to the serving line.
The 500 block of Mulberry has a heaping tablespoon of history. Barbara said newcomers often want to know if Jeneane’s is the former restaurant owned by Anjette Lyles.
Lyles was convicted of poisoning four members of her family in a nationally publicized murder trial in 1958 and was the first woman in Georgia sentenced to die in the electric chair. (She later died of heart failure at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville.)
Barbara and fellow server Patsy Peacock are happy to set the record straight.
No, Anjette’s restaurant was located between the old McCullough’s and where Jeneane’s is now. It was destroyed by fire.
Her week began with retirement cakes, balloons and best wishes.
The customers haven’t had to tell her how much they love her and will miss her. She already knows.
It’s time to say the blessing.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.