A Lesson in Living
For nearly a year, I sopped around the house, the store, the school and the church. Then, I met, or rather—got to know, the lady who threw me my first lifeline.
Mrs. Bertha Flowers was the aristocrat of Black Stamps. She had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest weather, and on the Arkansas summer day it seemed as if she had her own private breeze, swirling around her, cooling her. Her skin was a rich black, creating the impression that it would peel off like a plum if snagged.
She was one of the few gentlewomen I have ever known, and has remained throughout my life the measure of what a human being can be. She appealed to me because she was like people I had never met personally. Like the women in English novels who walked the moor with their loyal dogs racing at a respectful distance; like the women who sat in front of roaring fireplace incessantly drinking tea from silver trays full of scones and crumpets. It would be safe to say that, just by being herself, she made me feel proud to be Negro.
One summer afternoon, she stopped at the store to buy provisions. Any other Negro woman of her health and age would have been expected to carry the paper sacks home in one hand, but Momma said, “Sister Flower I’ll send Bailey up to your house with these things.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Henderson. I’d prefer Marguerite, though.” My name sounded so beautiful when she said it. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her, anyway.” They gave each other age group looks.
There was a little path beside the rocky road, and Mrs. Flowers walked ahead of me, swinging her arms and picking her way over the stones.
Without turning her head, she spoke to me, “I hear you’re working very well in school, Marguerite, but only in written assignments. The teachers report that they have trouble getting you to talk in class.” We passed the triangular farm on our left and the path widened to allow us to walk together.
“Come and walk along with me, Marguerite.” I couldn’t have refused even if I wanted to. She pronounced my name so nicely.
“Now, no one is going to make you talk—possibly no one can. But bear in mind, language is mankind’s way of communicating with our fellow men, and it is language alone, which separates us from the lower animals.” That was a totally new idea to me, and I would need time to think about it.
“Your grandmother says you read a lot—every chance you get. That’s good, but not good enough. Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.”
I memorized the part about the human voice infusing words. It seemed so valid and poetic.
She said she was going to give me some book and that I must not only read them, but I must read them aloud. She suggested that I should make a sentence sound in as many different ways as possible.
“I’ll accept no excuse if you return a book to me that has been badly handled.” My imagination boggled at the punishment I would deserve if in fact I did abuse a book of Mrs. Flower’s.
The odors of her house surprised me, as the sweet scent of vanilla met us when she opened the door.
“You see, I had planned to invite you for cookies and lemonade, so we could have this little chat. Have a seat, Marguerite.” She carried a platter covered with a tea towel.
As I ate, she began the first of what we later called “my lessons in living.” She said that I must always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy; that some people, though unable to go to school, were more educated and even more intelligent than some college professors. She encouraged me to listen carefully to what country people called “Mother Wit”, because in those homely sayings was couched the collective wisdom of generations.
When I finished the cookie she brushed off the table and brought a thick, small book from the bookcase—A Tale of Two Cities. She opened the first page and, for the first time in my life, I heard poetry.
“It was the best of times and the worst of times…” Her voice slid in and curved down, through and over the words. She was nearly singing. Then her sounds began cascading gently. I knew that she was nearing the end of her reading.
“How do you like that?”
It occurred to me that she expected a response. The sweet vanilla flavor was still on my tongue, the sound of her reading voice was magic to my ears. But now I had to say something.
I said, “Ye ma’am.” It was the least I could do.
“There’s one more thing. Take this book of poems and memorize one for me. Next time you pay me a visit, I would like you to recite it to me.”
I have often tried to search behind the sophistication of years for the enchantment I so easily found in those gifts. The essence may escape but its aura remains. To be allowed (No—invited!) into the private lives of strangers to share their joys and fear was a chance to exchange the southern bitter wormwood for a cup of mead with Beowulf, or a hot cup of tea and milk with Oliver Twist. When I said aloud, “It is a far, far better thing, than anything I have ever done…” tears of love filled my eyes at my selflessness.
I was liked, and what a difference it made. I was respected—not as Mrs. Henderson’s grandchild, or Bailey’s sister, but for just being Marguerite Johnson.
The logic of childhood never asks to be proved—all conclusions are absolute. I didn’t ask why Mrs. Flowers had singled me out for attention; nor did it occur to me that Momma might have asked her to give me a little talking to. All I cared about was that she had made tea cookies for me, and read to me from her favorite book. It was enough to prove that she liked me…