Saturday, February 20, 2010

Magnolia and Josephine

I’m reading The Help by Katherine Stockett, A New York Times best-seller which depicts white society in early 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi from the perspective of the African-American women who worked in those white homes. Those black women helped raise white children and manage white households; all while being treated as if they were an inferior but required appendage to the effort.

If you have not yet read the book, capturing southern life at the dawn of the civil rights era, you should. Ms. Stockett tells a moving story which awakens within me echoes of my own past. My boyhood spanned the late 1950’s and 1960’s and I well remember “The Help” we had in our own home during those years. There were a steady progression of quiet, stalwart African American women ever-present within my own family of origin and, as I close my eyes, I can remember them all: Lena…Lucille…Marjorie…Leatrice…Marva…and then, ultimately, Magnolia.

Redoubtable, tough-as-nails, Magnolia.

She was “tough,” sure --- but Mag could also loose the most infectious laugh when something tickled her. Quiet in a dignified way, Magnolia would seamlessly engage you in conversation at any time. But, you had to start it. Once you did, you would invariably find her insightful and supportive. Even now, she is that way as she still works for my Dad.

I see her differently now, of course. “Sweet Magnolia,” I call her.

Back in the day, however, she would come and go on a schedule dependent on “her ride,” as ---to my knowledge--- Mag never got behind the wheel of any vehicle to drive. She had people who handled that part of her life. Arriving at our home with a handbag about the size of a respectable fireplace, she would enter with no notice or fanfare, hang up her bag and coat and go to work addressing whatever evolving calamity was underway. In a home where we raised 3 boys and a little sister, SOMETHING was always afoot. Whatever it was, she would step into it with poise, like a fearless shortstop.

Dark as a briquette, Mag’s eyes were bright and brown. Never a tall lady, she carried her weight in a stolid but graceful way – like Gleason. And pal, when she locked those brown eyes on you and moved her hands slowly to her hips, whatever situation had advanced to a point where ---in Mag’s silent opinion--- a halt was warranted, you halted.

She and Momma saw eye-to-eye on everything. They seemed in symbiotic partnership on issues big and small. I cannot count the times Momma would ruminate on some change she was contemplating within our home. She would say: “Magnolia comes on Tuesday. She and I will see about it.”

Mag was the same way about Momma. When the kids would float an idea in Mag’s presence about anything, she would counter: “Now, what Miss Sally gone think about that?” We would allow as how we didn’t know what Momma might think…..which was why we were sorta tryin’ to sneak one over the plate on Mag. We knew if we could get Magnolia to approve of the course being pitched, then we were in like Flynn with Mom. “Ummm-hmmmm,” Mag would say, slow and drawn out. “I’ll see what Miss Sally say.”

And that would end that.

We knew then that a summit meeting above our pay grade would be convened outside of our presence. There, Momma and Mag would decide on policy.

The policy would be revealed in due course.

And, ever true to my mother, Mag was The Enforcer of Policy. The thing about Magnolia’s “enforcing” style was interesting, though. I have never figured out how she engendered it, but I do know this: You wanted Magnolia to be pleased with you. Thus, if Mag indicated that a certain course of conduct was unacceptable, you did not do it. With a few regrettable exceptions to be expected in a tumultuous house, this understanding was not violated. It still is not violated. If you asked my brothers or my kid sister, they would tell you the same thing.

All of this happened as a routine matter in our home, day in and day out.

I knew my mother had her own deep bonding experience when she was a child in Opelousas, Louisiana. The “help” they had in their home back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s was a lady named Josephine Davis. Momma called her “Jo.” As a small boy, I was taught to call her “Aunt Jo,” which I did. This was important because, on every visit we would make from Baton Rouge to Opelousas to see our grandparents, who still lived there---and I mean EVERY SINGLE visit---a certain moment would come when my mother would say: “I want to go see Jo. Come on, James Ronald, we’re gonna go see Aunt Jo.”

Momma would scoop me up and we’d pile into our car, drive north on Union Street past the train tracks and into a section of town that looked different to me, although I could not then put my finger on exactly why. On the way, Momma would stop and buy some groceries and a few packs of Camels. Then, we’d turn east along the train tracks, where a certain weathered, wooden house was located alongside others which looked similar.

Unloading the car, we weren’t 3 steps toward Jo’s house when an old voice would come through the screen door on the front of the porch: “Lawd God, is that Sally? Come in here child and see Old Jo.”

Momma would fairly trot up those concrete steps into Josephine Davis’ home, with me in tow, and she would embrace Jo as she sat. Apparently age had made it difficult for Josephine to rise. What I remember about those meetings was that, once to her side, Momma and Jo’s hands never came apart. Holding and patting each other’s hand, they would fall to chatting immediately and effortlessly, as I stood and watched. Shortly sensing I was somehow “out-of-the-loop,” Josephine would say to me: “James Ronald, come here, honey. Come give Aunt Jo a hug.”

I would dutifully advance and she would envelope me in those big arms. I never recall wondering how she knew me. I just recall that she did.

I also recall that, as she and Momma talked and laughed, black kids my own age would congregate near Josephine’s screen porch door. Soon, Jo would yell through the door: “Y’all take James Ronald outside and play now.” And, the door would creak open as screen doors do and I would zip outside to tag along with the troops, the door banging shut behind us. I’ve forgotten the names of my periodic friends after all these years, but I remember where I learned how to put a penny on a track and get it mashed just so by the passing trains. I remember where I learned that you can’t walk comfortably on the crossties of a train track – they aren’t spaced for that. I remember where I learned that if people treat other folks like people, color or race never really comes up. I learned that with those kids at Aunt Jo’s house.

After an hour or so, Momma would come out and we would head to the car, all while she and Aunt Jo held an ongoing, extended conversation through the screen door – as if neither wanted to shut it down. With a final good-bye, Momma would make sure I was standing properly on the front seat (that’s the way we did things back then), close the car door and we would head back south on Union Street. Maybe it’s just my memory after all these years, but I recollect Momma as being quiet and reflective during that drive home, a drive that took us back toward the gentrified suburbs.

Until the day my mother died, there was a picture of Josephine Davis on her dresser.

Which brings me back to Sweet Magnolia.

Momma died of lymphoma on October 9, 1996. She had wanted to stay at home, but a scary inability to catch her breath impelled us to the hospital, where IV morphine could be given to make her comfortable and to aid her breathing. We celebrated my birthday at home on the 6th and Magnolia was there, of course. That was the day my mother asked to see me at her bedside and, after a lifetime of making ever sure in 100 different ways that I knew she loved me, Sally Clary told me the last thing she wanted me to know before she left this world. Holding my hands in hers she smiled and said to me: “James Ronald, I just want you to were never any trouble to me as a baby.”

The day after, we went to the hospital and shortly thereafter Momma became harder and harder to rouse. Within a day or so, she was basically comatose. Although Dad and I would try and talk with her, by the late morning of the 9th, she was unresponsive. Soon, the only sound in the room was the pings, shushes and beeps of the medical machinery. Amid those sounds, the immediate family waited in the room, not knowing what to do – each of us facing the prospect of Momma’s death and hoping that some miracle might yet intervene.

When we spoke at all, we communicated in hushed tones.

It was at that moment we saw Magnolia standing at the hospital room door, quietly waiting, her handbag before her like a centurion’s shield. Daddy immediately went to her and hugged her into the room, where she asked: “How Miss Sally doin’?”

Dad and I explained in very quiet voices that she was not doing well. We whispered to Mag that the die seemed to be cast and that we expected the worst at any moment. We further related quietly that she had been unconscious since early morning and, although we had tried, we could no longer get her to speak with us.

“Ummm-hmmmm,” Mag said, slow and drawn out. And, with that, she walked past Dad and me to the foot of Momma’s hospital bed, put her handbag down and said in a voice that was her normal tone – a tone that could carry across seven subdivision yards on a windy day with no trouble whatsoever: “Miss Sally, how you doin’?”

Before we could even react to the question or its jarring presence in the room, we heard my mother reply from the depths of her coma the last words I would ever hear her say:

“I’m fine.”

Magnolia nodded, backed away a step and looked at Dad and me with those bright brown eyes welling with tears.

“She fine,” Mag told us.

After a pause, the room quiet again, Mag repeated, softer now…“She fine.”



  1. I've always been in awe of your deep, fierce loyalty to your friends, Jim. And, too, of your "catholic" (that is, not the religion, but the mind-set of being all accepting) approach to seeing all folks--black, white, yellow, red or other--as well, just people like you. Now I know from whence these most admirable qualities of yours came. Momma taught you well, My Friend!

  2. It's been almost a year... where you been?

  3. Yes....a year. That old Willie Nelson song runs through my mind....

    Well hello there,
    It's been a long long time.
    How am I doing?
    Oh well, I guess I'm doing fine
    It's been so long now and it seems that
    It was only yesterday
    Ain't it funny how time slips away?

  4. JR, You are so gifted to be able to make people see & "feel" the wonderful qualities of these great ladies. I feel blessed to have personally known your Mom (a real "Steel Magnolia") and Magnolia (still a "one of kind" hummm). I have such fond memories of both and it makes me smile when I reminiscence. And always know that they loved you so much and were so proud of you....and I know this first hand ("from the horse's mouth"). Love ya!!