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Sunday Report

Crossing Over

After 180 years of separation from their white neighbors, a stoic clan of slave descendants views a ferry as a vessel of hope--and doom.

August 22, 1999|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He explains that the growth on her kidney wasn't cancer but a benign tumor. He says she can live a normal life with one kidney, so long as she cuts out the meat, salt and fat.

She slumps forward, disappointed.

The doctor didn't understand her question.

She just wanted him to tell her that everything would be all right.

CHAPTER TEN / A New Journey Begins

This is how death will be, she just knows.

Like the end of another long day, when she can finally sit on her screened-in porch, body at ease, mind at peace.

'Yeah,' she says, smiling. 'I'm going home to rest. I sure would like to go there, 'cause I've had enough of hard times here.'

Then she changes her mind. 'No, no, no. I'm not ready to go now. I want to stay here a little longer.'

Torn between the only home she's ever known and the one she sees in her dreams, Mary Lee knew just how her mother felt not long ago. After the doctors diagnosed Alzheimer's, Aola was seized by a need to see where she was born and raised. Without a word to anyone, she set off across the fields in search of her old cabin.

Hours later, Mary Lee noticed her mother missing and got up a search party. They fanned out across Gee's Bend, and, as the sun was setting, they found Aola in a meadow, sitting against a tree, fast asleep.

Never did find my home, Aola said, dejected.

Mary Lee knew what her mother meant.

Things used to end differently in Gee's Bend. Times were hard, but death was soft. People would reach ripe old ages and die in bed, encircled by five generations of loving kin, tucked under quilts older than their mortal coils. They die younger these days, Mary Lee notices. And lonelier.

Of course, a person dies many times in the course of a life, and every death is an illusion. Maybe the same is true of places. If a ferry comes and kills Gee's Bend, it will only kill it again. Gee's Bend died when the widow's henchmen cleaned it out. It died when its mules carried King to the grave.

Something tells Mary Lee, though, this death would be different.

Curl says a ferry won't kill Gee's Bend but revive it. He talks about a ferry as if it were a vessel of salvation, like Noah's Ark, or the basket that carried baby Moses. A ferry will revive Gee's Bend, he says, with new people.

If so, they won't be Mary Lee's people. They'll wave their money under the nose of her poor cousins and buy up all the prime land. What's left, that is. White folks already have the best riverfront. Already they're talking about a golf course along the banks of Gee's Bend.

No matter what Mary Lee thinks, no matter how hard she prays, it's done. The ferry is coming. While she was taking sick, Curl and Hilliard raised the $1 million needed. While she was lying in the hospital, a shipyard near Montgomery won the contract. While she was recuperating, the blueprints were drawn. While she was tending her mother and Raymond and her grandsons, the boat got built.

After a few runs to make sure it's seaworthy, the ferry will begin its momentous journey downriver. September, Curl says. October at the latest. And though he's been saying the same thing for years, Mary Lee suddenly believes him.

She's not sad. Some days, she's not even sure she has the strength to care. She regards the ferry as she does her death: fears and welcomes it at the same time.

It will look about how Mary Lee pictured it. Big. Roughly 100 feet long, and 200 tons, with room for 149 passengers, or two full school buses, or one 18-wheeler loaded with pine trees bound for the Camden paper mill. The county will run it from sunup to sundown, seven days a week, and some say the county plans to call it The Pettway, launching that surname into the next century.

When it finally comes, Curl will be more than the cause. He'll be the pilot. A Coast Guard-certified riverboat captain, Curl will steer the ferry into the latticework of shadows cast across Mary Lee's river by hickory and poplar, sweet gum and persimmon.

Seeing him there at the helm, Mary Lee will have a choice. She can believe he's bringing back the ferry because it will attract new business and boost the value of riverfront property, including his own 60 acres on the Camden side. Or she can believe that a white man exactly her age has done a complete U-turn, in a place where only her river has been known to do that.

It's not impossible for a 63-year-old to do a U-turn. Recently, she thought about doing one herself. When an old widower returned from the North, looking for a new wife, Mary Lee let him phone her, let him woo her, even toyed with the idea of letting him carry her off.

Then an impulse overcame her. She told the widower her long story. In one great rush she blurted out that she was on the mend from kidney surgery, that she was caring for an elderly mother, a troubled brother, three devilish grandsons and six cows with wanderlust.

'He said a prayer for me,' she recalls, giggling, 'and then hung up, and I ain't never heard from him again.'

The sun is eye-level now, making every field a vivid shade of copper, red and orange, a quilt of different colors, but each a distant cousin to the river's syrupy brown.

Another day ends, and the dirt releases its warmth like an exhausted sigh.

Mary Lee sighs too, worn out by the story of Mary Lee.

Long story.

She smiles, apologetic.

At such a peaceful moment, she's not sure the story's ended. Maybe she'll live to be Martha Jane's age, reign another 40 years as queen of Gee's Bend. She smiles. She giggles.

She gets the faraway look.

Farther than ever.

Something coming. Something big. Maybe a ferry, maybe death, maybe the end of the only home she's ever known.

It's hard to tell the difference when the dying sun floods the fields with such a pretty white light.

*

Times researcher Edith Stanley in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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