Monday, October 29, 2007

Here's To Jessie Mae King

Saturday night in a very nice restaurant in Mexico I told a little bit of the story of Jessie Mae King to friends sitting at the table with us. Of course I told them that I had gotten word that morning that she had passed away.

In a very elegant restaurant at a very elegant resort in another country, about 15 minutes after I told her story, one of my friends proposed a toast to this special lady before we began our meal. Kathy and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes after the toast. It was a moment we will never forget. To think that this lady who seemingly had so little was impacting people who seemingly have so much caused chills to run up my spine.

Below is an excerpt from my book, "View From a Hearse."

Here's to Jessie Mae King and her memory.


As were most southern towns in the early sixties, Reynolds was very segregated. Not only did the blacks and whites go to different schools and different churches, but they also went to different restrooms. I vividly remember seeing signs on restroom doors plainly stating “Whites Only.” Crooks Restaurant, which was a typical southern family restaurant, changed its name to “Crooks Private Dining Club” when the desegregation laws came into existence. When you got to the front door, Mr. Crook would look to see who you were and he would hit a buzzer that would unlock the door to let you in. There were two waiting rooms at the hospital. The front room was for the whites. The blacks had to come through the alley to a back waiting room. The main wing of the hospital was for white patients. The back wing was for the black patients. The blacks lived in two different sections of town called “bottoms.” The section across the railroad tracks was called the “Big Bottom.” On the south side of town there was a settlement called “Goddard’s Bottom.” My great-grandfather owned that land at one time. Many of the white families had maids. It was not unusual to see a white housewife driving through town with her maid sitting in the back seat by herself on the way to work. The maids cooked, washed, cleaned, and kept the kids. When the family sat down to eat a meal, the maid would eat by herself after the family had finished, and many times they would drink out of a mason jar instead of using the regular glasses. Many younger readers will have a hard time believing all that, but trust me, it is the truth.

Now you need to understand, as bad as all that may seem, there was an upside for the black community. Many of these ladies were uneducated and untrained and had no way of making a living except for working as domestic workers in these homes. The black men who did not have a job would work in the “white folks,” yards. They would usually be fed on a picnic table outside, and they would drink out of mason jars too.

We had a maid who worked at our house. Her name was Jessie Mae King. She waited on us hand and foot as long as I can remember. She cooked the best fried chicken and hoe-cake cornbread I have ever eaten, and her beef stew could cause a fight at the table.

Jessie lived in a literal shack in Goddard’s Bottom. Her husband died at a young age, and Jessie was left to raise four children alone. They had no running water, and their bathroom was an outhouse located in the yard. Their only heat came from the wood they burned in their stove. Their house consisted of two rooms. One room is where they all slept, and the other room was a little kitchen. There were no monthly welfare checks in those days. Their only income was whatever Jessie earned working at our house. The clothes they wore were hand-me-downs that we gave them. Most of their meals came from leftovers at our house.

The interesting thing is that her children all became very productive members of society. Her oldest son had a career in the military. The two girls moved to California and became very successful. Her youngest son, Billy, married and stayed in Reynolds to look after his mom.

Daddy was determined to help get Jessie and Billy out of that shack. In the early seventies his determination paid off. Jessie and Billy and his family moved into a brand new three-bedroom house, complete with running water, restrooms, and central heat and air. If anyone ever deserved a new house, it was Jessie Mae King.

Jessie was always a very important part of our family. She had full authority to discipline us and all the other kids that were in and out of our house. And she did. She would break a branch off a tree in the back yard, and make a switch, and she would wear us out with it when we disobeyed her. Sometimes her discipline would be misdirected.

Scott Posey spent about as much time at our house as he did his own. He and my brother George were a couple of years older than me and were always doing things to aggravate me. They told me one day that they had formed a club, and I could join it only if I went through the initiation. I had to jump out of the window naked and run around the house one time. I really wanted to be in the club, so I figured I could do that with no problem. So I took off all my clothes, jumped out the window, and ran around the house. When I got back to where I had jumped, they had closed the window. I had to go to the front door and ring the door bell, without a stitch of clothes. Jessie came to the door, and there I stood as naked as I came into the world. She wore my bare bottom out with a switch from a peach tree that day. I always thought that George and Scott should have been the ones getting the whooping. I never did join their club.

Every time there was thunder and lightning, Jessie would make us all sit still and be quiet. She would always say, “The Lord is talking – we better listen.” Whenever we got sick, Jessie would be right there tending to us and making sure we got better. And she would always pray for us.

I always believed Jessie had a direct line to God. She had a child-like faith, and I kind of think God smiled on that. If any of us had a real need, we would always get Jessie to pray. She did not have much education, but she had more wisdom than any person I have ever known.

I never saw Jessie get angry. I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone. I never saw her lose her patience, and she was never rude. Jessie kept no record of wrongs and never tried to get her way. She found no delight in evil, but always rejoiced in the truth.

Jessie will never receive accolades from this world for what she accomplished in life. She does not have a place on her wall where she hangs her diplomas and certificates of achievement. She never had any money in the bank and never even drove an automobile.

The truth is she spent her life on earth serving our family.

I have a strong feeling our family will spend an eternity serving her in heaven.

As I write this, Jessie is 96 years old and is still alive. I drove over to Reynolds and picked her up and took her to our house to spend Christmas Eve a few months ago. I can tell you this: She did not eat leftovers and she did not eat after we got through eating. And she certainly did not drink out of a mason jar.

We brought out the fine china, and she sat at the head of the table. After the meal, we all sat at her feet and listened to her wisdom. And I was reminded of the words of Jesus in Mathew, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Today, the world is much different than it was in my little world during those years I grew up in Reynolds. Values have changed and priorities have changed. Life is much more complicated.

I believe most of us spin our wheels today worrying and dealing with things that don’t make a hill-of-beans difference in the big scheme of things. Because we spend our energy worrying about what may happen tomorrow or what happened yesterday, we miss the moment. Life becomes so stressful that we miss the joy of living. We don’t even enjoy the people we love the most. Our lives become miserable, and we make those around us miserable. And we take ourselves way too seriously.

Then, because we are miserable and we live with people we have made miserable, we start to look in the wrong places to get our needs met. We turn to things and/or people who will temporarily mask the pain and despair. And life becomes a vicious cycle of heartache. The result is we live our lives in a way God never intended us to live. And maybe we miss the important truths of life.

For me to tell you some of those important truths of life, I need to take you on a little trip. Please bear with me and stay with me until we get to the end of the trip. I really do have something to tell you. And if you stay with me, just maybe you’ll never be the same.

(From View From a Hearse, 2005)


Anonymous said...

Well done Jessie Well done.

Anonymous said...

Bruce--what an awesome tribute to a loved one. Growing up, we didn't have a Jessie but we had a Libby. I loved Libby like a mother and I remember when I would get in trouble at home, I would "slip off" and go to Libby's house--she would always give me a bath on her back porch in a big silver wash tub, dry my tears and give me a piece of her "lacey" fried cornbread and walk me back home. I miss her and wish she could have known my children like Jessie knew yours. God Bless. Sue

La'Brashia Kelley said...

This is Brashia, her great grandaughter, and i loved my grandmother to death. Just to see this makes me so happy, i knew she was loved, but not to this extient. I know physically my children will never have the experiences with my grandma like i did, but spiritually, they will know who she was and love her just as much as we do. Thank you Mr.Goodard so much for being a part of our lives, you say my grandmother was just like family to you, well you and your family will ALWAYS be a big part of our family as well.