She Told Me Who I Am
On a typical summer day in Valdosta, hot and humid, Fannie and I sat on her front porch chatting about things of our lives together that began 52 years earlier. She was my aunt, but she, my mother Katherine, and another aunt, Ella, preferred to be addressed by their first names, not prefaced by mother or aunt. Most of my family and friends addressed me as James Edward Alexander, but Fannie’s name choice was Angel Baby. That day I asked her why? Before she answered she asked me to get her a glass of water.
When I returned Fannie finger motioned me to sit; she giggled softly and said, “Let me tell you who you are and how we got you started.” I immediately sensed that her emphasis on us and we referred primarily to women. Her answer was emphatic and without doubt:
“When you were born, God changed his mind. He didn’t take you right back as a baby angel, he spared you and gave you a little something extra, then he sent you here to us to teach you how to use it. You will never be hungry, and you will always have someone who loves you.” She smiled and said, “One of the special things He gave you is the gift of memory.
“You were a sweet baby; you didn’t cry a lot, you just seemed to feel comfortable in the arms of whoever was holding you. And if you weren’t asleep, you looked at everybody who looked at you. One woman said you looked as though you were trying to read her mind. Fannie giggled and made an aside remark. “I wish you could have read her mind, because none of us ever knew what she was thinking or what she might do.” She continued.
“You came to us in June, so we passed you around without heavy blankets and wraps. Sometimes Katherine would be washing clothes in the back yard and one of the young women in the neighborhood would stop by and chat for a spell, then pick you up from the soft pillow in the big basket where you lay peacefully, cuddle you and take you for a walk. If you got hungry before she brought you back, if she was still breast feeding her baby, she simply opened her blouse and fed you, or walked you to another house where another woman had milk. There always seemed to be at least two or three women in the neighborhood breast feeding.” She smiled broadly and said, “Angel Baby, you have been nourished from many a different fountain.”
Fannie then asked me to return to the kitchen, to take the ice pick and chip off a little ice from the block in the refrigerator, put some in two tall glass and pour for each of us some of her homemade lemonade. Then, in a tone that signaled my alertness, I mentioned that I also noticed a peach pie in the kitchen. She said, “Leave it alone, it’s your desert when you come for lunch tomorrow.” I had just been told my schedule for tomorrow and the menu.
Last month I introduced you to Katherine. For the next few months, I will share stories of some additional women who energized and guided my early days. Here are two of them.
She comes to me by invitation
Some days I spend a few fleeting seconds with a special lady. She visits by invitation, and she is invited when I sometimes close my eyes and just imagine her outstretched arms welcoming me to a momentary cradle of comfort. When I recognize the lingering smell of Octagon soap on the hands of a wash woman, her spirit is confirmed.
Her name was Melissa, a name as lyrical as my vision of her. Miss Melissa was an old lady whose face was as black as the tar on the edge of the highway where she waited each morning to greet two dozen of us on our way to school. For us her presence was as certain as the steeple on the church three doors from her doorstep. On those cold days as we walked to school, we needed that assurance.
Despite her old age, her nimble fingers moved so adroitly as to suggest that her greeting, and care were her sole purpose in life. Each child received the same salutation, “Hello Honey,” and a smile that warmed us from forehead to feet. Then she embraced each of us, and something unusual happened. Within that brief close encounter Miss Melissa’s agile fingers “re-did” each child. She re-buttoned, re-wrapped, and re-positioned hats and gloves with such speed and deftness that almost seemed magical. Having been “re-done,” we positioned ourselves for her gentle valediction, a warm kiss on the cheek.
And now, in my reverie, I hear, “Hello Honey,” and I open my eyes. My time is up. There is a long line behind me.
She did what heroes do ….
When Betty came to school on Monday, her pigtails framed her plain face, and her brown dress was freshly ironed. She took her seat near me in the first grade at Magnolia Street School in Valdosta, Georgia. The year was 1939. I was five years old, and Miss Fanny, our teacher, decided that I was prepared to start school at that early age.
When Betty came to school on Tuesday, she wore a clean, freshly ironed blue dress. When Miss Fanny was ready to review the alphabet, she took a long pointer and touched each letter that was carefully printed atop the blackboard. I knew the alphabet, and could recite the letters forward and backward, but I had not yet learned to combine the letters into words and build a vocabulary.
When Betty came to school on Wednesday, she sat quietly among the other 20 students, and she was wearing the same freshly ironed brown dress that she wore on Monday. As Miss Fanny began to teach us to read, she frequently had to repeat some words in the first-grade reader, but Betty already knew the words. She just seemed smarter than the rest of us.
Betty and I lived in the same community during the days when our homes did not have electricity, so at night we used kerosene lamps and candles to light our way. Those also were the days before television. Even though Betty and I walked the same pathway to and from school, she always walked too fast for me. She had a purpose that I did not know. So, when Betty came to school on Thursday, wearing the blue dress that she wore on Tuesday, I kept her pace and walked with her and asked how she became smarter than the rest of us. She told me. Betty only had two dresses, one blue and one brown, and after school each day she rushed home and washed the dress she wore that day, and she ironed the other one and made it ready for tomorrow. Then she studied her lessons. And if she had not finished by nightfall, she put the kerosene lamp nearer the pages and kept on preparing for what Miss Fanny wanted us to know.
Even at the age of six, Betty had a strong sense of who she was, regardless of what she was wearing. I started to admire her, and I adopted her study habits. Three months after we began the first grade together, Betty and I were promoted to the second grade. I continued to follow her pattern of study and preparation and at the end of the school year; five months later, Betty and I were again promoted — to the third grade.
Betty became one of my early heroes. She taught me how to improve my academic skills. She did what heroes always do — they inspire you to make yourself better.
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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