Wednesday, August 26, 2009

For Alma, Wherever She Is


Isn't it strange how obscure memories can pop into our minds at odd times? It happens to me a lot these days. I'll have a brief flash of memory of a place, a road, or a house I haven't been to in decades. A face I haven't seen or a name I haven't heard since I was a child will suddenly pop into my head.


Recently while I was puttering around the house that's what happened. Alma popped into my mind.


Alma was a black woman, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, a tall, slim lady with sad, brown eyes and long hands with tapering fingers. I was about nine years old when my mother took me with her to meet Alma.


In the town where I'm from the ratio of African American to Caucasian was (and probably still is) pretty small. I'm from a Northern Kentucky small town in a very rural county -- no industry to speak of --, one of the largest counties in Kentucky. The native population of African American was made up of the descendants of slaves for the most part. There were very few black people out in the county, but small populations of African Americans could be found in each of the three major "towns" in the county (population 2400 or less), and they usually lived within their own prescribed neighborhoods. (I can only think of a couple of local educators who were black and who lived in white communities in my hometown when I was a child.)


There were two such black neighborhoods in my home town, and they went by indelicate names. One was near the feed mill and was made up of small houses and mobile homes. It wasn't extremely isolated from the whites, though; you could turn a corner and be in an all-white neighborhood. The other was more secluded from its white neighbors and consisted of a lodge, a church, a few decent houses and a lot of what can only be described as shacks. This is where Alma lived.

My mother and our friend Julie (the one who died of breast cancer last year) were teaching Alma to read, or at least trying to. And sometimes I would go with them when they visited her. She really wanted to learn to read, although it was quite a struggle for her. I can remember being embarrassed for her because I could read and she couldn't.

Alma lived in a shack that was the remains of a burned-out house if I remember correctly. I remember that part of the house was enclosed but the rest of it was out in the open. She had fashioned a sort of living area right out in what should have been a yard. She had rugs on the ground, a sofa and chairs, and a few tables, all arranged very nicely, but completely in the open. I think there was a part that connected this lawn-room with the enclosed part of the house that was partially covered, and if I remember correctly there was a stove in this part; a wood stove with burners.

She would offer us a glass of water or cup of coffee when we came, and once she had cookies. She was always sweet to me.

A couple of times when I was there a man came up and pushed his way into the lesson. Even at that age I knew the man was drunk or had at least been drinking. He would talk badly to Alma and I can remember her bowing her head and not looking him in the eyes, and I knew she was so embarrassed. He would get sarcastic with my mom and Julie, too, and he would bad-mouth them and make fun of Alma for trying to learn to read. He said she never would, that she was too dumb. I don't know if he was her "man" or if he was a family member. My mother and Julie inspired me during those visits because they remained very calm. I saw the spark of anger in my mother's eyes and the fire leaping out of Julie's, but they held back. They stayed calm, but they answered him back firmly when he spoke to them. They didn't let him shake them, and they didn't leave, but remained "ladies" through it all. They waited for him to get tired of his game and then went on with their visit and their lesson.

I probably only went with them four or five times, but I can actually close my eyes and see her and her "house" clearly even after all these years. Within just a few years all the shacks and falling-down houses in that neighborhood were gone and the area was built up with new houses and modular homes. When I saw Mom on Saturday I brought up Alma and Mom told me that Alma had eventually moved in with a relative in a proper house. I asked Mom if she had ever learned to read, and she said that she had not as far as she knew. But she had loved the visits and she at least learned her alphabet and how to read a few small words.

Like I said, I don't know why this woman came to my mind, but I'm glad I had the opportunity to go with my Mom and Julie when they visited her. At even just nine years old I was impressed by her quiet dignity when she welcomed us into her "home", which, such as it was, was kept clean and neat. I learned a wonderful lesson from my Mother and Julie about patience and brotherly love, and that it is possible to be angry in the face of ignorance and hate without reacting in kind, to stay cool and calm, to answer reasonably when the person you're answering is being unreasonable, and that being a lady doesn't mean being weak.

19 comments:

Beth said...

This moved me to tears, Lori. A beautiful memory, and I thank you for sharing it.

I'm wondering what happened to Alma...but I'm also wondering if it would be best to not try to find out. On the other hand, what if she were still alive...?

Hugs, Beth

Paula said...

Thank you for sharing this very touching story. It made me think of Old Hut the only black man in our small town. Even as a child I didn't understand why he had to go to the back door of the cafe to buy his hamburger.

sober white women said...

I think this is a great story. My father use to teach adults how to read. My father was just stunned that people could not read.
Kelli

Dawn said...

Oh Lori. Living in suburban NJ, all the black people I met were equally housed and educated... what you described was just heart wrenching, and so sad. How wonderful for you mom and Julie and you to try to give the gift of literacy to Alma. Thanks for sharing. Glad you are back...

be well...

Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Glad you are back, and this is a very inspiring post :o)

Ben said...

Beautiful, touching, and very, very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing this, Lori.

Ben
http://ben-better-left-unsaid.blogspot.com/

Lori J said...

Hello there from ALBERTA Lori,
I am up early and trying to take the time to read journals of people who follow me.
Thank-you for that story Lori...it was inspirational.
My hubby and I have adopted a practise that when someone is brought to mind "out of the blue" we pray for them...or their family...as you wonder why without any reason a person's name comes to mind....
We know that God knows the circumstances in their life or the lives of their family and we commit that to the Almighty,
Have a great week...

Blessings and love sent to you..

Lori

Connie said...

I have flashbacks like that alot lately,too.I like to think in my own mind that they are thinking of me at the same moment. As for my old schwinn bike and cherry trees I climbed..who knows,LOL..I am chalking it up to getting older [speaking for myself here] and the mem-ries are a way of holding onto what once was.

Lisa said...

What an intersting story. I could see the scene as I read the words. Poor Alma, I felt sad for her and inspired by your mother & Julie. I just can't imagine anyone living under those conditions.

Jimmy's Journal said...

That's a fine memory to have and I'm sure it gave you an insight as to the realities of life. Alma sounds like a very warm and caring person.

Jimmy

Traci said...

That's a great memory. Glad you shared it with us!

Nelishia said...

This is such a great true story. Please write a book about it. Even if you have to use the imagination to fill in the blanks.

I hope you and your Mom go find Alma.

My sister lives in Hebron, KY.

I have always wanted to teach adults how to read. I think I shall.

FrankandMary said...

This is so very touching. I wish you'd send a story about her to your local paper. This is the sort of thing more people should read.
~Mary

I Have Tea said...

This is a moving story, Lori. Alma had courage. And who knows...perhaps she popped into your mind because she was remembering you, too. ((((((hugs))) Hope all is well with you.

pam said...

Hey Lori. I am back. Hope you are okay. I love this Alma story. I hope she is okay too. Love Pam.x

Lisa said...

What a great entry!! Thank you for sharing this story.
Reminds me of so many we've known but don't know what has happened to them for one reason or another.
Lisa in KY

Char said...

Lori, thanks for sharing that memory. It had me in tears. ((hugs))

Joann said...

Beautiful story, Lori!! I agree with Lori J. in that you should say a prayer for her, God will handle the rest... wouldn't that be great if she were still alive!!?

Anne said...

Oh Lori, what a wonderful post. So many lessons here. Percious memories....how they linger! Anne