As far back as I can remember Miss Mary was part of my life. It was unusual for a white family to be as close as we were to a black couple in the south where I grew up.
John and Miss Mary lived across the field from us from the time I was about two years of age until I was about 10. Many times my mom would send me over to borrow a stick of butter or a cup of sugar. Many times Miss Mary walked across the field to do the same. We shared Christmas celebrations together. We traded food and baked goods. We shared life. Our families got along fine in spite of the southern traditions that surrounded us and asked us to live somewhat separate lives. And Miss Mary was my best friend.
It was always a wondrous thing in the spring, when the field would be disked up. The soft, sandy soil felt like feathers as I walked across it. There was no path! But over the next day or so there was so much traffic across the field that soon a smooth path emerged, patted down by my bare feet, mom’s shoes, and Miss Mary’s flip flops.
Their house was small, a former rail station. Behind the kitchen was the room where she cured her meats. The aroma was incredible. On many occasions, when I would sneak over to her house to share breakfast with her, Miss Mary would hone her knife to a razor edge and slice a slab of bacon off the edge of her hanging side of pork and the sizzling would begin.
She was a jolly woman, big and round, with arms that jiggled. And she had a mysterious snake tattooed on the inside of her left forearm that seemed to come to life as she moved her arm. For an almost Amish kid that snake was a big deal! She once told me how when she was a young woman she had a pet snake and after it died she had the tattoo done because she was so heartbroken.
Miss Mary and I talked together as equals; me a tow-headed kid whose parents had been Amish, and she a black woman with some Cherokee blood. We talked about everything from TV shows she liked to her reliance on horoscopes (about which I had no understanding). We talked about what really mattered in life, like the kind of fish she liked to fry and how to clean them, or the best way to pick peas. We would talk and laugh together like two old friends. I followed her around as she fed her chickens, geese, and pigs. And each time we went past their outhouse, I would wonder at that mysterious, dark building; knowing what happened there, but not quite able to put it together with the bathrooms in our house.
Miss Mary taught me how to drink coffee. At each of our many breakfasts, we would make a game out of who could drink their coffee first. She put lots of sugar and milk in it, which I didn’t like, but I would drink it with her anyway. She was my friend.
I was six when my beloved dog King died. My mom and dad were away. I came home after school to find him gasping his last breath. Old age finally caught up with him. My older brothers were no help at all. So heartbroken and sobbing I ran across the field to Miss Mary. My sobs were those deep racking sobs that made me gasp for breath in that jerky way kids do when they cry that hard. I was so hysterical that Miss Mary didn’t even know what was wrong with me at first. She finally got me calmed down enough that I could tell her King had died, then she wrapped her big jiggly arms around me, snake and all, and hugged me tight. She fixed me something to eat and began to talk me through the crisis. She told me how when she was young she too had lost a friend, her uncle, and how she had been so sad she crawled under a porch to hide from the world. But, she said, someone had coaxed her to come out. Then she talked to me about how one had to face life, and that loss was part of life. That hiding from pain was not the answer.
And then one day, when I was about 10, mom told me that John and Miss Mary were moving to Charlottesville. This was something I could not comprehend! I had never known life without her comforting presence just across the field. I remember walking through her empty house after they moved. Looking around that lonely kitchen where we had shared so many breakfasts, going into the room where she cured her meats, that was now empty of that tantalizing aroma. I guess inside I felt as empty as her house had become. She was gone.
Once they moved, I only saw Miss Mary one other time as we passed by Charlottesville while on a trip. But she remains frozen in my mind, where she has never aged; jolly, loving, giving, wise as Yoda, and always my friend.