Thursday, July 23, 2009
When I was a child growing up in the country in mid-Mississippi it was customary for a lot of the white people to have someone come and do the washing and ironing and other hard chores around a house. This is the story of one, who became my closest friend as a child.
Her name was Matt. She was poor beyond belief. When she was a child, often the only food she had was field rats that her father managed to kill in the woods. She lived in a shack with no lights, water, and only a fireplace in one room for heat. She worked for my family, along with other families in the neighborhood washing, ironing and cleaning the houses to survive. But she walked with pride and really didn't seem to mind having to walk several miles each way to get to work.
She came to us on Monday to wash in an old washtub with a scrub board, and boiled the clothes in an open kettle in the back yard. They were hung on clothes lines to dry. At the end of the day she gathered them to take in so she could iron them on Wednesday when she came back. I still remember how fresh and good they smelled. To iron, she used the old flat irons that had to be heated on a stove or at the fireplace.
She was already working for my family when I was born and she was the only person my mother would ever leave me with when she had to be gone for a day. And while she was babysitting me, she would play with me. We used to go fishing in a little pond nearby with bent pins for hooks and worms we had dug. The fish we caught were very small but she kept them and fried them whole for her supper.
She always ate with us and given a choice of food, she would want fried pork and cornbread with the grease from the pork poured over it. She would eat this with her fingers all mashed up together. And it really looked so good the way she did eat it.
Matt had 6 children and on the meager money that was paid to her for all this work, she managed to feed and clothe the children. She lived in the house with her sister and brother-in-law, who had 2 children of their own living there. The house was only 3 rooms but somehow they all managed to have a place to sleep. Once when she was sick, we went to see her and the bed was made with sheets so clean they were pure white and ironed neatly. She never married.
When my mother would ask her what she planned to do when she got old to care for herself she would reply "Sugar say she will take care of me". She never called me anything but Sugar.
I left home and got a job and she wrote me weekly. I would send her clothing and other needs periodically. When she had a doctor bill, I had it sent to me and I bought her glasses and medicine so I suppose Sugar did fulfill the promise made as a child to take care of her. When I was in my early 20's and living in New Orleans, I received a phone call that she had a stroke and was in the hospital unconscious. I sent flowers. Three days later another phone call told me that she had died. I thought my heart would break upon hearing those words. I asked did she ever know I had sent the flowers and her sister hesitated before she told me she didn't. I asked her to please take them to the funeral.
This all happened a very long time ago but I still miss her.
She was my friend.