Recalled by Cotton

“Only God knows my story,” Mary has told me often. “No one knows your story but God.” 

She calls me the other afternoon. 

“Katrina, are you home?” 

“Yes….”

“Okay!” 

Click. 

I furrow my brow and pick up a few pieces of clutter around the house, then sit back down at my computer, close to the candle I often burn while I write. The candle is set in a ring of cotton bolls which I got in Mississippi over Thanksgiving. I had just been thinking about how I should show it to Mary. The cotton fields of Mississippi were once her home.

A few minutes later, through the slanted window that faces Brady Street, I see Mary’s two great-grandchildren walking slowly toward my house.

Can Mary be coming over? On foot?

Sure enough, her rolling walker appears at the edge of the window, sliding determinedly down the cement walk. Mary, looking as elegant as ever, arrives at the bottom of our porch stairs. Junior hauls the walker up the wooden steps.

“I had to get out of the house,” she says.

We chat for awhile in the front room.

“I’ve been asking God, are you mad at me?” Mary says. 

She keeps saying she’s too old and she’s not going to take care of children anymore. But it isn’t working out that way. 

I invite them to eat with us. Mary doesn’t like to eat in the evenings, but the children do. We finish up our meal and I remembered the candle ring of Mississippi cotton.

“Do you know what this is Mary?” I ask, setting it in front of her.

“Kite-n!” Mary explodes. “It’s kite-n! Oh girl, I grew up picking kite-n in those long sacks we put over our shoulder, over our shoulder! We would go out early when the dew was on the kite-n, because it would make it heavier. And oh, those sacks got heavy down those long rows, might be a hundred pound!”

“How old were you?” I ask.

“Seven or eight years old,” she says.

The cotton around the candle ring uncorks Mary’s memories. She holds a clump of cotton between her wrinkled fingers.

“This is called a boll,” she says.

“Mm-hmmm,” I say, pleased that I know the term.

“Picking kite-n,” she says. “People ask me why I don’t go back to Mississippi, and I say I done with all that business.”

She tells how her mother had 21 children, with only one set of twins.

But maybe there’s another reason she doesn’t want to go back to Mississippi.

Her father, who played softball with his children (plenty of children for two teams!) in the big lawn behind their house, was killed by a deputy.

“I guess he thought it was someone else. That deputy, he come out to our house and tell my mother, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I thought it was someone else. Mama would always say, ‘God will take care of it.'” 

This is the second quote I’ve learned from Mary’s mama. Awhile ago, when I was still working at the hospital, Mary told me, “My mama used to tell us, ‘It doesn’t matter who’s racist as long as YOU not.'”

The next day I scrub the bathtub. I tear apart the Captain Garrison book. On Monday I do laundry. On Tuesday I take my little patient to school on the yellow bus. And I keep thinking of Mary’s mama.

By Wednesday evening, I can’t stand it anymore. Marnell is studying for his sermon.  I put on my coat and boots and walk through the dark streets to Mary’s house with a clipboard in my hand. 

Who was that woman? I mean, really. Who raises 21 children, first of all. Who has her husband shot accidentally by a deputy because, oh, I thought it was someone else, but then tells her children, “It doesn’t matter who’s racist as long as YOU not!” Who sticks with her story, “God will take care of it”?

Who? 

Someone with a God who is bigger than her pain. Someone who knows that God knows her story. 

But still, I want to know her story too. I feel a burning desire to unravel the past. I want to tramp  through brush in abandoned graveyards or search filing cabinets in small town Mississippi, and somehow–I don’t know–make it better? 

“Katrina, the buildings are all tore down now,” Mary says.

“I want to find out more,” I say. “What an amazing woman your mom must have been!” 

Mary looks at the wall across from her chair, grasping for words, as if to figure out how to have patience with someone who just doesn’t get it. 

“A lot of people in my family don’t want to remember what happened. They don’t like police officers,” she says. “Doesn’t matter if they’re good officers or bad officers, they don’t like ’em. I tell them, ‘You shouldn’t be that way’. But a lot of stuff has happened in our family, not just what happened to my daddy. But if we asked my mama how she could handle it, she just said, ‘God will take care of it’.”

I think Mary is trying to tell me that no amount of “finding out” will ever improve what happened.

She told me of her mom screaming when she heard the news and how the younger children including herself said “What’s wrong with mama? What’s wrong with mama?” And her older brother just said, “We’ll tell you after awhile.”

“I had nightmares for years,” she said. “I kept hearing him say, ‘We’ll tell you after awhile.'”

Just the other day, a screaming child had recalled that day and brought tears to her eyes.

And I just forgot that it happened. 

It is hard to know the story of everyone around you, and it’s easy to forget what they’ve gone through, and how a boll of Mississippi cotton might prompt their memory. 

God knows Mary’s story, and He knew Mary’s mama’s story.  I guess He also knows if I should know it. 

I have an idea. If you go to get your mail on Monday, and wonder why it didn’t go, and then remember it’s Martin Luther King Jr Day, don’t whine about not getting mail. Pray for someone in your life for whom the holiday might be more personal than it is to you. If you didn’t know anyone to pray for before you read this post, you do now. Mary just lost one of her family members to a heart attack as well. She’s been frequently caring for children again.

“I think I’m just tired,” she said when I visited the other night.

Mary can use lots of “Why isn’t the mail here?” prayers.

The truth is, we can try as hard as we want, but we still don’t know someone else’s story. 

But God truly does! 

Two weekday posts planned for next week:

  1. Monday Merchants–another company I have just recently come to love especially in winter! It isn’t a sponsored post, but they also have a “free for you, free for me” referral program. I’m afraid it may only apply to people who live in town, but since I’m not sure I guess you should all come back and read it anyway.
  2. Let’s just say I have new material for What-Not-to-Do-Wednesday. I hope it doesn’t have to become a weekly column! See you then, if you don’t mind a little slime. 

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