During a brief visit to Valdosta Georgia last month, habit steered me to the address of the house where I was born. I sat at a distance far enough to create a panorama of where family, good neighbors and friends helped me to begin my memories. Most of the buildings have changed, but the geography was the same, and I remembered two persons who took walks in that setting.

He Sang from the Heart

Mister Will Hamp helps me appreciate that some people express themselves, literally, by a different tune. He was a big, solid man, weighing more than 200 pounds. Almost anything heavier than my childhood weight was noticeable, but adding to his appearance were the baggy denim overalls he wore, always with one strap unfastened and flopping down his back. He clenched in his teeth a large pipe with the curved stem, the bowl filled with Prince Albert smoking tobacco. His lady was Miss Louise, whose attractive green eyes sparkled and danced as much as her hips swayed when she balanced a basket of clothes on her head and walked along the unpaved avenue.

On Saturday, Mister Will fastened the strap on his guitar over his shoulder and became the neighborhood troubadour, creating sounds and new lyrics to describe whatever he perceived at the time. His perceptions were often influenced by another lady — “sweet lucy” — (moonshine). Sometimes, his songs were tuneful. But being in tune was not nearly as important as his poetry and his manner. He had the knack for singing without removing his pipe, which always stayed lit, and his speech was not slurred, even as slobber curled from his lips downward along the crooked stem and fell at his feet. 

My next-door neighbor was Miss Darnella. Our homes were separated by a field where she often planted corn and sweet potatoes. Miss Darnella had a sister who occasionally came to visit. Her name was Johnnie Mae. One week Mister Will sang a song that rang as clearly to me last month as it did eight decades ago. He stood in that field and lyrically spoke to Miss Darnella and asked a question:

“Hello Darnella,
How is Johnnie Mae
When she comes to visit you
I hope she comes to stay.
Oooooh, oooooh, Darnella, how is Johnnie Mae?”

I had no knowledge or understanding of his interest in Johnnie Mae, but she eventually came— and she built a house — in that field — and she stayed. 


We never knew when she would take a stroll in our direction, because her schedule was her business, like everything else she did. But the first person to glimpse her approach seemed obliged to sound the alert: “Here comes Annie.” Then all eyes turned in her direction, as each person, including Annie, prepared for a performance for which the only script was tradition. All participants knew their respective roles as both player and audience.

Everybody loved Annie. Annie loved Annie. Annie also loved “Sweet Lucy” — moonshine. She and the bottle were bosom buddies.

Annie was most charming in the summer, when the heat gave her an excuse to slow her pace and to wear lighter clothes, which highlighted her thin frame. She always presented some constants. Even if her dress was made of feed sacks, as was the apparel of most of her neighbors, Annie’s seemed to be the cleanest and the most neatly ironed. Her feet and legs also appeared freshly washed and oiled with the appropriate amount of lotion, lard, or butter. Annie was always ready for her close-up.

Quite often as she drew near our home, my grandparents sat on the front porch in their respective rocking chairs, each sipping lemonade and using a cardboard fan to stir the summer breeze. I was usually seated nearby reading a book assigned by Papa. The narrow path between the paved highway and the yard became Annie’s boardwalk. At the appropriate moment she glided from an unsteady gait into a sashay, and then put her hands on her hips and issued proper’s, “How do you do, Reverend and Mrs. Alexander, and you, James Edward.” The juice had altered her step and her speech, but her sense of dignity was unscathed.

She was not just a community resident; she was a neighbor. It frequently happened that Annie made her way to the bedside of an elderly person to offer prayer and support even before news of the person’s illness was community-wide knowledge. Annie had gained that level of respect that is bestowed on one whose manners signal trustworthiness. It was this character that once prompted my very strict minister grandfather to comment, “Sister Annie’s constant companion might be that bottle, but I would trust her to wipe the last drop of sweat from my brow.”

A few yards further down the street the imaginary curtain rose again, and she uttered, “Good day to you, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas.” The greetings signaled respect to her elders. Her sashay signaled respect for herself.

It was a good visit to Valdosta.

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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