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COLUMN ONE: THE BLACK OKIES

Life and Death of a Guardian Angel

Minnie Patterson brought running water to town and could always be counted on for a lift, spiritual or financial.

August 27, 2002|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last of three parts

TEVISTON, Calif.--The little white shack in a field of tumbleweeds was all set up for dying.

The living room--an old railroad boxcar--had been cleared to make way for a hospital bed. A pillow had been placed beside the one window that looked out to something other than broken earth. With her head propped up just right, Minnie Patterson could see the grapevine that her husband, Willie, had planted upon their coming West more than half a century ago.

She had raised two children and nurtured three generations of neighbor kids, and now the matriarch of Teviston was beginning another journey, this one to a land of no mores. No more tears, the preacher in cowboy boots assured her, no more sorrows.

Her casket had already been chosen--a military gray embroidered in silver, for she had done battle as surely as any soldier. And her daughter, Patricia, had written her obituary just the way she liked it, with a nod to her devoted church service and to her sweet potato pies, light on the nutmeg. Her million-dollar mansion stood waiting on the other side.

Only Minnie Pearl Patterson, a sharecropper's daughter born May 28, 1913, in Carthage, Texas, wasn't going anywhere just yet. If she had a say-so in such matters, she was staying put right here in her living room.

"You all fussin' over me like something's gonna happen," she told her daughter and a nurse, fixing a glare that made people stammer. "A pack of turkey vultures got more couth than the two of you."

She could still throw a zinger or two but it was at night--when the past took over the present and hallucinations replaced reality--that she couldn't stop chattering. People long gone, her husband included, were rapping their bony knuckles on her windowpane, rattling to be let in.

She stared into the half-moon dark and saw a skinny figure scurrying straight toward her. Frankie Allen, that persistent neighbor boy, had come calling again. Only this time it wasn't to sweet-talk her daughter.

*

Open up, Patricia. Frankie boy's wailing like some poor hound. Says his daddy didn't go to the cotton fields this morning. Says his daddy picked up a gun and tore a hole through his momma's back. They found him lying in a little ravine behind the shack. His head right shot off. Now how'd he get that big long barrel pointed toward his self and still pull the trigger? They said they found his daddy barefooted. That he did it with his big toe.

*

Minnie Patterson had seen hard times and dreams come up dry like so many other Black Okies. But poverty and lost hope weren't the whole of her life. Her Willie was a good man who didn't drink or cheat or bide an idle day. He had the good sense to leave her a house and five acres paid for.

She had lived a contented life--quiet, solid, proud. Many of her neighbors had done the same. Amid all the despair of the land, it was easy to miss.

Theirs was the other story of the black migrants who left the rural South to start over again in the rural West, of fathers and mothers breaking their backs as field hands and domestics and raising children to know their history and church and a Southern way of doing things, whether it was cooking ribs over a slow fire or fishing for crappie in the ditches that passed for rivers. Now those children were returning home to help the old folks die.

Minnie Patterson came to this patch of brown surrounded by a sea of white cotton in the fall of 1945. She decided that first night she wouldn't be staying. What kind of land have you brought me to? she asked her husband. Driving three miles to fetch water. Reading Scripture by kerosene lamp. You might as well have kept me hitched to the plantations of east Texas. She wanted a home, nothing fancy, in the civilized city. A tract house up the road in Fresno or Bakersfield would do.

But Willie Patterson kept pounding nails and boards onto that crooked hut in the middle of horned toad country, and the black people kept trickling in from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas and Louisiana. They had come looking for a place where the cotton grew a little taller and the white folks had been raised up a little nicer.

Over the years, Mrs. Patterson would progress from Sunday school teacher to church president to grande dame of her little country settlement on the outskirts of Tulare County. Now on her bed in the living room, as another night fell, she wasn't going quietly.

Patricia Patterson, 55, could hear the voice hoarse with cancer from the next room. She shook her head at the way her mother's mind leaped so graceful across time. One moment she was helping dig the well that brought drinking water to Teviston--1959--and the next moment it was 25 years later and she was burying her own mother again. Patricia began to think of her mother's flights as lyrical riffs, funny and sad.

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