The Night She Died - 1957-1958
This is a preview to the chapter The Night She Died - 1957-1958 from the book Don't Tell Me What To Do: A Spiritual Memoir by Ron Alexander.
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Every week, either she or my father were summoned for a teacher-parent conference to discuss my disruptive behavior. My mother became particularly angry when she had to take time off from work. Nothing seemed to work. Beatings, grounding, pleading or threats did not deter me.
I was placed on a train under the watchful eye of the conductor, who seated me along side of a window. When the engine roared, and the wheels screeched, I was too excited to sit still. The train jerked back and forth, and then smoothed out, locking into seamless motion.
I sat forward so that I was able to see every detail outside of the window. The train picked up speed. I watched buildings and cars whirl behind me. I twisted my neck and head to follow every detail of the scenery flashing and disappearing before my eyes. I had the best seat on the train. I was sitting in the conductor’s seat!
I was so absorbed by what I was seeing from my window, that I was surprised when the conductor returned to check on me. “How you doing there, Sonny?”
I turned, nodded okay, and returned to my fascination with the scenery whirling across my window.
“You be a good boy now!” he said to me. He was off again. I soon lost interest in my picture window and slept the rest the way.
I arrived in Tillery, North Carolina twenty years following the enactment of the Tillery Resettlement Farm, which was formed in 1934 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal.
Tillery was a very different living environment from Philadelphia. There was no running water, electricity or flushing toilets, only pump water, kerosene lamps and outhouses. Tillery had been originally a plantation named after John Tillery, a slave owner, who was awarded a land grant of 25,000 acres from the King of England to develop the land. The purpose of the Resettlement Farm was to provide an opportunity for African-Americans to become landowners.
Born in 1888, Ada Mama became one of the first landowners. She was a tough old lady at 70 years-old. She was well known throughout the area. She had helped to raise many children in Tillery, and she was a reliable source of information for young girls having babies. She was the backbone of a farming community desperately trying to shake off the effects of segregation and racism.
The center of town was no larger than a blink of the eye. There was a general store, a hardware store and a few other businesses providing various services and products. Typical of southern small towns at the time, Tillery had a pool hall which was a hangout where the men congregated to drink, talk and catch up on the gossip of the town, mostly about women.
I was met at the train station in Weldon –a few miles from Tillery--by a relative who drove me to the back wood house where Ada Mama lived alone. She greeted me with a wide, grinning smile, flashing a gold tooth. On her head was an old, floppy hat. This was the woman who raised Grandma' Marie, my father and his brother.
She reached down to hug me with black, skinny, bony arms that looked to be like sticks. She had heavily red, veined eyes. “Hello Ronnie,” she said to me.
I was afraid to look at that gold tooth.
“Was he any trouble?” she asked the relative, who patted me on my head.
“Nope. No trouble at all.”
Ada Mama picked up my suitcase. I followed behind her, through the screen door and into the house, bumping into a large bed on my left at the entrance to the door. In the house was a small living room, a kitchen, and the one large bedroom where we stood. I followed her to the other side of the bedroom to another bed, on which she placed my suitcase.
“This is your bed,” she said.
I shook my head acknowledging the bed, careful not to look into her veined eyes. I turned from her to look through the window between our beds; I saw tall, green and fragrant trees, the branches unbending as a heavy breeze shot through the window.
“You a good-looking boy. You going to like it down here with me. Are you hungry?”
I said “no.“ I was hungry, but I didn't like being here. I didn't like her either.
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