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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIG MAMA’S PORCH
By Mattie Ward 

 

 

 

 

Big Mama (Lula) and Big Poppa (James) were the matriarch and patriarch of the Wright Family which included seven daughters, six sons and thirty grandchildren. They were born, raised, worked the fields and married at an early age on the Smith’s Plantation in Tunica, MS. After the death of their parents, they moved twenty-five miles from Smith’s Plantation to Robinsonville, MS; and this is where they started their family. The house was a four room shanty shack with splinter floors, kerosene lamps, woodstove, an outdoor pump and an outhouse.

But the front porch of the house is where I learned the fundamentals of life and survival. This  house emitted love, happiness and a sense of well being to all who had the privilege of being there. 

Big Mama’s first ten grandchildren were all born in her home or two houses down the road. My name is Ana Bell, and my mother Georgia Mae was the middle child born to Big Mama and Big Poppa. Big Mama got up at 6:00 every morning to make breakfast for the adults who dropped their children off each day for her to care for, before going to work.  Once breakfast was served and things calmed down, Big Mama would load us in her wagon and pulled us to her garden.  While there, she picked the vegetables to be cooked and eaten at dinner.

Although we had a frugal life, never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we were poor. We were never hungry because Big Poppa raised all kinds of livestock, including chickens and cows.  He also grew many types of fruit trees and as a supplement to these delicacies; he would go hunting and fishing. In addition the items he grew independently, Big Poppa was also a share cropper.

Not a day went by without a lesson from Big Mama.  After working in her garden, she would sit in her rocking chair and while holding whomever happened to be the baby at that time she would sing  old spirituals like  ‘Amazing Grace or  Twelve Gates to the City’ to all of us who surrounded her in a semi-circle on the porch. Her melodic voice covered us like a security blanket and we would soon all be asleep; perhaps dreaming of angels, and streets paved with gold, which were often the subjects of her songs.   When she wasn’t rocking and singing, my Big Mama read to us from her Bible, or entertained us with family stories, i.e. how she met Big Poppa when his family moved to the Smith’s Plantation.  Although we did not realize it at that time, these stories were our way of learning family history.

Sunday mornings were different. On Sunday morning, Big Mama would take all of her grandchildren to church. We were dressed in our best clothes and she wore her favorite blue suit and wide brim hat. Although she was a grandmother, her Hershey smooth skin was flawless. We entered the church like a mother duck and her ducklings, and all eyes were on us.  At every Sunday service, the pastor preached a dynamic sermon which had people shouting, jumping and running up and down the aisles.

After the sermon we returned home to devour the dinner that Big Mama had prepared before leaving for church. I can still taste the biscuits, fried chicken, greens and chocolate cake that made our eyes water and filled our bellies.

When I turned five years old my father was transferred to the Navy Military Base in Colts, N.J. and our family moved to Princeton, N. J. On the day of the move, my father called out to me “Ana Bell it’s time to go, come and get into the car.”  I cried out “no, I don’t want to go to no old New Jersey!”  I wanted to stay with Big Mama: to pick vegetables, help feed the animals, run the rocky roads but most of all I wanted to sit near her on the front porch while she rocked and talked about her family.  When my father came to get me, I ran to Big Mama and as he took me in his arms, as I kicked and screamed, “Let me go, Big Mama help me.” Those words were the last I remembered prior to crying myself to sleep.

The city had streets but no yards; there were no houses like Big Mama’s house only buildings like the one we had moved to - my mother called it an apartment. My parents had enrolled me in school, and I was in the kindergarten. While in Mississippi, my cousins and I spent the day with Big Mama, we made up games to play, even after work and on week-ends. Big Mama’s house was filled with family to share love, joy and have fun.

However, while in the city school, I didn’t talk or play with the other children because they laughed at the way I talked and at my happy nappy hair. I cried or wetted my pants daily so I could go home but this would upset my mother because she had to leave work in order to pick me up.  Here in the city learning to trust strangers proved difficult and soon I knew the meaning of “homesick.” I regretted the fact that I could no longer see my grandparents and cousins on a daily basis and felt like a caged bird, but whenever I was told that a trip to Mississippi had been planned, I became a free bird. 

I was seven years old when I took my first solo flight to see Big Mama. My aunt and uncle were picking me up from the airport.   Once the plane landed, the stewardess had to grab my hand to stop me from taking off like a late freight train.  I ran and jumped into Aunt Flora Mae’s arms.  Uncle John was waiting for us in the car.  Thinking like the youngster that I was, I simply assumed we were driving back to New Jersey – but when I saw the “Welcome to Mississippi” Sign, I slid from one side of the back to seat the other side so many times;  Aunt Flora Mae said “Ana Bell be still and sat in one place.”  When Uncle John turned down the gravel road; I had my hand on the handle; and before the car came to a complete stop I jumped out ran up on the porch and hugged Big Mama.

It was one day during that visit, as we sat on the porch, Big Mama was reading and telling one of her Bible stories, I happened to look up and saw that the bible was upside down. I soon realized that she wasn’t reading; she had memorized the entire Bible. I looked up and her face was glowing.  It was then that I knew what I had to do. I smiled and asked “Big mama will you help me read the bible?”  Knowing that I was the one who would probably be the teacher, I wondered, “how did she memorize the stories of the Bible as they had been read to her over all these years?”

Big Mama smiled and said “yes, Ana Bell,” which gave me all the reassurance I needed.  It was then that I begin to appreciate the strength and pride women Big Mama’s age possessed. I knew that during their youth on the plantations, it was illegal for them to learn to read but, in spite of that, they adapted to the times and memorized those things most important to them - learning and living their life for God!

Life changed for me as I grew older, and my time with Big Mama became limited to summers only.  When Big Poppa died six months after my visits, I cried because Big Mama was all alone now and she needed me. I wrote my Cousin James every week to get information about her, until my next visit. Everyone in the family said that Cousin James was special, he was a loner, and he loved working with his hands and with the many animals on the farm. He gave names to all of the animals and he talked to them.  My fondest memory was, he didn’t eat meat!

One of my most memorable summers with Cousin James, occurred at the age of eleven. I would run and hide behind the trees or the barn to watch his interaction with the animals.  Cousin James caught me and called “Ana Bell gets your butt here now! Why are you sneaking like a thief behind me?”  My reply was simply, “I wanted to see how you talk to and feed the animals.” His reply was “Well why you didn’t just ask to come with me?”  He went into the barn, and when he came back out, he gave me a pair of gloves, boots, a heavy apron, a basket and a pail. “Follow me and do exactly what I tell you”, he said.

In the hen house James called the chickens to him and I collected the eggs. We fed the pigs and finally, he walked into the barn. James took Bess (the cow) out of her stall he placed a stool near her body and a pail under her udder and said “sit Ana Bell, put your head against her body and pull down on one tit at a time.” Milk splashed in my eyes the first try; but, I stayed until my pail was full. I was so excited that I jumped up and shouted, “Yea”.  My shout scared Bess and she kicked the pail of milk over.

Later that evening I watched Kitty deliver five kittens and helped Big Mama care for them. Early the next morning we found Kitty had died. At that moment I decided working with animals was my forte. I decided to become a veterinarian.

As I grew older, it became easier to assimilate the city life. I met new friends and was happy with those who became important in my life.  As expected, I also began to do the things that young adults worldwide learn to do, I started working at 16. Although working had its benefits, it also had downfalls – my time in Mississippi now only occurred during the Christmas Holidays. I would lock myself in my room after work and cry. Shedding tears became a familiar experience in my life.  But as many youngsters do, I found other aspects of life to make things better. I went to the movies and parties with my new friends.

It was at a party that Lawrence Sullivan glided into my life. He had a voice like Smokey Robinson,  he was a look alike of Will Smith and had sway like Denzel Washington! He told jokes and was well-liked. He took my hand and swirled me around before he asked me to dance. When the music stopped he said “I’m Lawrence, what’s your name beautiful?” I smiled and said “Ana Bell.”  He asked for my telephone number and called me the next day that evening we talked for hours. He informed me that his father was a retired Marine, his mother was a home technician and he had three older sisters. After three months of telephone conversations, I invited Lawrence to meet my parents.

My mother cooked fried chicken, collard greens, candied yams, cornbread and German Chocolate cake for dinner. After dinner, Lawrence asked my dad if “he could he court me and my dad asked him what his interests in me were.” Lawrence looked my father square in the eyes and said, “I’d like to get to know her better because in my heart I know she’ll be my wife.” My father simply said “Respect my daughter” and Lawrence and I became a couple.

It was quite different when I went to meet Lawrence’s family - his mother and sisters pounced on me like a herd of female tigers. I actually felt like I was the subject of a police interrogation, their questions went “from what do your parents do, where are you from to do you know Lawrence is going to be a doctor?” The questions were fired so fast that I was light-head. Lawrence reentered the room, took one look at me, turned and asked his mother and sisters “what’s going on in here?” I stood up and politely said “please, just take me home.”  His response was “wait Ana; I need to let my family know that you are going to be my wife.” His father smiled and said “in time that can be a wise decision, son”.

Two weeks before my graduation from high school; Big Mama died. Lawrence and my friends came to my house, helped me packed and listened to my Big Mama stories. The emptiness that I felt after her funeral was replaced with the love from Lawrence which awaited me when I arrived back home. He held my hands and allowed me to cry on his chest.

Soon we were off to different colleges, but we made a pact to wait for each other. It was stressful trying to maintain my 4.3 GPA, working and making time to see Lawrence. Those four years were the longest years for both of us. When we were home we were always eager to see each other. We knew the next four years would be easier, we both had been accepted into the same University.

One particular visit home stands out in my memory, my father was there and I ran and jumped into his arms hugging, kissing and crying tears of joy.  My mother came into the living room and joined in on the celebratory crying.  Mother really out did herself with dinner.  We talked late into the night and it was then that she hit me with the news that my father was very ill. As a result, I spent most of my time with him, trying to catch up on his activities since he was at home every day, i.e. how was he enjoying retirement?

Lawrence called my father and asked him, mother and me out to dinner with his family. My father agreed to meet them at Don’s in Newark, N.J. on Saturday evening at 7:00p.m. My parents and Lawrence’s parents hadn’t met and I hadn’t discussed my terrible experience with them.

I couldn’t sleep or eat thinking about my parents meeting them; but Lawrence reassured me that things would be okay. At the end of dinner Lawrence stood up and asked me to come stand next to him, I was puzzled, my father was smiling. Lawrence got down on his knee in the middle of that restaurant and said “Ana Bell, I was hit by Cupid’s arrow, the first moment that I saw you, I fell in love. I can’t see my life continuing without you, and I hope you feel the same about me.”

As he continued, tears flowed down my face, “I love you! Will you marry me?” “Yes, yes” I shouted? Everyone started clapping, my mother hugged me, but Lawrence’s mother and sisters jumped up, rushed out of the restaurant and waited outside for his father. Although Lawrence played it off, I could see the disappointment and hurt in his eyes. Lawrence’s father gave us his blessing and left.

My parents, Lawrence and I sat down to have desserts and champagne to celebrate. The following Sunday I received a call from Mrs. Sullivan, she informed me that she had had a headache and the pain was unbearable, and she thought it was best for everyone if she left. This was just the beginning of a wedding war!   Mrs. Sullivan didn’t like the colors that I choose for the wedding party, my wedding dress or where the wedding was taking place.  She basically refused to cooperate with my mother.

Although I had not lived in Robinsonville for many years, I could not fathom being married anywhere but in my much-loved beginnings.   Knowing where my heart rested, Lawrence agreed to have our wedding in Mississippi and we all including Lawrence’s mother and sisters trekked to Robinsonville for my wedding.

I knew that I would be going back to New Jersey. But the joy to be backed home for this occasion was awesome. I became a ‘married woman’ in the place that I loved and cherished most – on my grandparents’ porch.  The trip back to New Jersey had a different feeling, because I knew that I had received the blessings of both Big Mama and Big Poppa.

Many years have passed since I sat on Big Mama’s porch watched her rock and listened to her songs and stories. My respect for Big Mama has tripled and I still wonder how she and the women of her time coped and made it through the storm of life they were given.  Although she had physically left, she always remained in my heart. The rocking chair is empty, but my heart was filled with love and admiration for Big Mama. It is often said “Home is where the heart is,” my true home was always Robinsonville, MS – sitting on my grandmothers’ porch.

When I was two months pregnant with my second child; I sat reminiscing with my four years old daughter and I could not stop crying.  I didn’t know if it was my hormones or if I was missing my mom, who moved back to Robinsonville, to live with Aunt Flora Mae a year after my father died.  Lawrence who specialized in Obstetrics and Gynecology was away at a conference, and I missed him too.

The ache in my heart grew daily.  Soon after, Lawrence strolled into the house with a dozen of roses in his hand and he said “Ana Bell can you guess what I have in my pocket for you?”  I asked gloomily “movie tickets?”  “No,” he said and pulled out airline tickets to Memphis. I began to scream with joy and all I could think was Christmas had came early that year.

As the plane banked and began to land in Memphis, I felt like a little lost child who was finally going home! 

The road to Robinsonville was still long and the countryside hadn’t changed.  The gravel road was paved, and there was a blue fence surrounding the property.  A sign dominated the entry, and I asked Lawrence “What is this?”  Lawrence didn’t mumble a word and continued to drive. As I continued to survey the area, I noticed that the shot-gun house had been replaced with a modern ranch style and the sign in front read “Wright’s Plantation.”

I observed other buildings, a garden, and numerous forms of livestock. As I looked further, the image on the porch resembles “Big Momma” sitting in her rocker.  A closer look reveals it’s my mother. As I jumped from the car she came to meet me with a smile on her face and pointed to a banner that said: WELCOME HOME ANA BELL.  As the tears began to flow, Lawrence took me into his arms and whispered “now you can feel complete, let’s go in and see your new house”.

Confucius said “Wherever you go, go with your heart.”  My cycle of life was completed and my dreams came true.  I was home doing the things that I love to do and my heart was leading the way.

 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Mattie

Mattie Ward is  a retired educator. She relocated to Atoka, TN with her dog, Theo several years ago. This is her first published story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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