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(Page 7 of 12)

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

Mary Lee has spent her life among swarms of children. She had 16 siblings growing up. She had eight children of her own, who have given her 30 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren so far. There should have been more. She once saw herself having 15 children. Then came a hysterectomy, and seven of her unborn children were stranded, no way to cross over into this world.

With them is her baby, who died in his sleep. Mary Lee never knew why. 'Pretty baby,' she says. 'Smiling all the time.'

She can see him. He always was a late sleeper, and one morning she let him sleep awhile longer. When she finished her chores and got the other children off to school, she went to wake him. 'He had a real pretty smile on his face. And I said, 'Boy, you better wake up!' Then I said, 'Boy, you better straighten out. What you so stiff for?' Then I busted out crying.'

That boy, he'd have grown up to be sweet-tempered like his mama. Not like her grandsons, she says with a snort. Since she's been sick, unable to crawl out of bed some days, the boys have been running wild, giving her sass. Mostly, they just ignore Mary Lee. They clod sulkily through her house, speaking only to ask for pocket money. Even when she saved enough from her $382 monthly Social Security checks to buy them a computer, their mood didn't improve.

If they seem angry, sometimes they have cause: They spend half their day on a slow-moving bus. The 12-year-old goes to school at the top of the U, but the older two attend high school in Camden, and circumnavigating the river consumes their youth.

The children, Curl and Hilliard are quick to note, would benefit most from a new ferry. Ten minutes to Camden, 10 minutes back. For the first time in 35 years, the children of Gee's Bend wouldn't be slaves to the bus. They would be able to take part in after-school plays, sports and teacher-student tutorials. To those on both sides of the river who fear the change a ferry would bring, Curl and Hilliard insist: A ferry wouldn't be for you. It would be for the children, heirs to the civil rights movement's bravest warriors, and such special children deserve a change.

Mary Lee doesn't disagree. She'd just rather see Curl and Hilliard build the children a new school in Gee's Bend. Or a community center. Or a store. Something to keep the children here, and Gee's Bend alive.

Now, after the long drive around the river, Mary Lee settles into a chair in the high school auditorium, fidgeting, nervous to be in a school again. One of the first speakers puts her at ease. 'Where I'm from,' he says, 'we take away the big words, like 'statement of purpose.' Instead, we say, 'How come us here?'

Mary Lee giggles.

Parents are here, he says, to learn about stiffer state requirements for a high school diploma. Students are here because their parents made a mighty sacrifice.

'You here,' he tells the students, 'because somebody sweated for you! Somebody dragged a long sack of cotton through the dirt!'

'Mm hmm,' Mary Lee moans, as though in church.

For an hour, speaker after speaker explains the new diploma requirements, with pie charts and graphs. Mary Lee doesn't understand much of what they say, until one speaker waxes about the value of education, wounding her deeply in the process.

'If you don't graduate from high school,' he bellows, 'you spit in the face of Martin Luther King!'

CHAPTER SIX / 'I Ain't Ready to Die'

The funeral procession wends slowly past Mary Lee's house and up the hill to Pleasant Grove, past Tinnie Dell Pettway's store, which Tinnie opens whenever she damn well feels like, past the post office, where Mary Lee's best friend, Betty Bendolph, sorts the trickle of mail that comes to Gee's Bend, past the pines, where Benders visit with God.

Most Benders have a special 'praying place' in the pines, a spot to meet God and talk with him. Mary Lee fears the woods, however. Too dark. Too filled with frogs and snakes. She prefers to meet God in her barn. When you see Mary Lee headed for her barn, she's either going to do a little chore or have a big chat.

Should God need to find Mary Lee, she's in church every Sunday morning, and Thursday nights, and whenever there's a choir practice or a town meeting about the proposed ferry. She also attends every funeral, of which there seem to be more and more these days. Today, another one. Another brother going home, the deacons say. Another cousin crossing the river, that's how Mary Lee puts it.

Swaying side to side, Mary Lee aims each note of 'Amazing Grace' at the windows, which are painted pink and green and blue to look like real stained glass. Her voice rises above the funeral choir, and despite the farway look, her thoughts are audible too. Her worst fears have been realized. When the vomiting and pain became too much, she took herself to the doctor, and sure enough, a growth.

Your kidney will have to be removed, he said.

No, thank you, she said.

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