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I CANNOT REMEMBER WHEN I did not know our devoted friend, Miss Lowe. Long before I was born, she lived in her little house next door to my mother’s and lived beside us until her death.
She was one of the pillars of my childhood. She was a twinkling-eyed, even-featured woman who bore her seventy-odd years and her stroke of “Paralsy” as she called it with a smile.
Older people said she suffered the stroke on her daughter’s wedding night, perhaps from the excitement or perhaps from overwork. But crippled though she was, she seemed a mountain of strength and an even present reservoir of comfort.
Before she became paralyzed, Miss Lowe had been an unusually hard-working woman. She liked to call herself that when she wished to give others some idea of the large amount of washing, ironing or house cleaning she once did. She truly worked hard for her wages of $1.00 or so per week. She had helped her husband pay for a plot of land and erect a little house on it for their family. Miss Lowe was fiercely proud of owning this home. With a seer’s wisdom she would say, “I’ve got my home paid for, and I never mean to put my hand to a mortgage on it.”
The little house was whitewashed, and the big yard surrounding it was always swept meticulously clean with a brush or stumpy broom. Sometimes the brush broom consisted of long straws tied together with a string, and sometimes it was an old worn affair that she called a stumpy broom.
The yard was wide and dotted with old-fashioned flowers and blooming shrubs. She loved flowers. In fact, she seemed to have a feeling of harmony with the earth. Few days were ever too hot or too cold for her to be seen slowly piddlin’ in and out among her growing things.
She kept a red velvet rose tied to a stake so the blooms wouldn’t touch the ground. She also had a sweet shrub bush that had been brought to her from the graveyard by a friend. The shrub, which had been transplanted to her yard, had become special to all of us, and we were each delighted when selected to receive a sweet shrub bud. Others who wished to sample its fragrance were only allowed to smell it very briefly. The honeysuckle vine that she pruned and tended so carefully ran over the tall fence that separated our yards. In the summertime, she sat for hours enjoying its fragrance and watching the bejeweled little hummingbirds that came to sip from the deep-throated flowers.
At one side of the wide yard was her May cherry tree of which she was so proud. It was a wonderfully large tree, and its fruit seemed to be equally large and wonderful. When the cherries were ripe, she would give us some, and we were always anxious to help her pick cherries for a chance to eat a few more of them. She would gather her crop, make her family a pie or two and then sell the balance for money with which to buy chicken feed for her feathered flock.
Her chickens were just like children to her. She loved each one of them and gave most of them names such as Domineck, Big Sue, and Old Tom. She constantly talked to them as she fed them. They flew all over her and ate with great trust from the pockets in her big apron or from her gnarled old hands.
The big chicken coop, an old-fashioned ramshackle sort of building, was in one corner of the backyard. Several nests were in it, and whenever one would peek inside, eggs were usually in them. She gathered eggs daily, but sometimes the old hens would place the eggs in inaccessible spots. Then I would be called into action. I always loved to work for my dear old friend. However, going into the chicken coop was one task that I dreaded because invariably, my head would pop up at the wrong moment and heavily laden chicken roosts would shower their contents on my head. I never could resist her coaxing, so I always ended up going in, getting showered and coming out with my little dress full of big, yellow eggs. Often, we counted them together, and she would pack them carefully away in cotton seed until she received a call for fresh eggs.
My old friend was a marvelous gardener. Vegetables seemed to grow for her in the face of all odds. In the spring, a hired man would plow the big garden, and after that she would do all of the work. With her hoe and rake, her one good hand and her trust in the Lord for strength, she would divide the ground into plots and rows and plant her peas, beets, squash, corn, etc. All along the fence she would plant running butter beans for “Miss Nannie and her chillen’ cause they loved ‘em.” She raised enough vegetables to supply the wants of her own family and always had to sell to her neighbors for a bit of change. All summer she worked, weeding and hoeing her plants, and later laid them by for harvest time.
One of her most faithful helpers and one who loved her was a large brindle bull dog she had raised from a puppy. He went to the garden each day with her and stayed at her side until her gardening was finished. If any of her chickens happened to stray in another yard, he knew exactly how to go after them and bring them back home.
After the night chores were done, the two of them would come and “set” on the porch until supper time. Then she would fix her plate and bring his pan, and the two of them, an old woman and her faithful dog, would eat supper.
Miss Lowe’s birth was the result of the cruel system of slavery. I don’t think that she knew her exact age, but she often told me she was about sixteen years old when freedom came. Occasionally, she told me of the long hard work in the fields and seeing the slaves whipped with locust tree switches with the thorns left on them. She seldom spoke of her father-master. Of her black mother, she seemed to have fond memories and a heart filled with love and gratitude to her for what she tried to do for her with her bare means.
She didn’t get any “larning” as she called going to school. Somewhere she had learned to pick out a few letters of the alphabet, and I think she knew a few words in the Bible. One of her saddest statements to me was this: “Rosie, I didn’t get to get no larning.”
All of her life, though, she was most eager to read and to learn of things that were happening in the world. Being able to read books and papers was one of the greatest accomplishments in the world to her, and I think her joy would have been complete if she had been able to read the Bible for herself.
Little attention had been paid her by her father-master, but this fact had not soured her life. She had tried to make use of the great abilities with which nature had endowed her: the ability to work hard, the ability to endure, and the ability to love all things and people.
Down in her heart she had a keen sense of humor. She loved a joke and funny papers were treasures to her untutored mind. She kept large bundles of them tied up with a string stored under the rafters of her house. When she had extra time, she would call over a crowd of children to have a funny paper reading. Everyone was excited when the dusty papers were brought down from the rafters, the knots were untied and the papers were spread over the porch to be read.
Billy Bounce came to life in a hurry from childish lips, and the Katzenjammer Kids and The Captain performed antics for each of us. She seemed to get as much enjoyment out of the papers as the youngest child present. Her childhood had been so starved and barren of any bit of color or childish experience that she was always full of the excitement that a little girl feels with a first doll. When the reading was over, we would tie the papers up carefully, and she would store them away in the rafters for the next reading.
Some of my happiest childhood hours were spent on her front porch having a party with several other children. She never had much to give us, but she often provided little bits of meat and bread or some other little tidbit for us to enjoy. It wasn’t really necessary for us to have much to eat at such a party. Just to play make believe on Miss Lowe’s porch and see her enjoy it was fun. She rocked in her chair and laughed heartily as we played Sally Walker and shook our dress-tails as hard as we could. All children were a source of joy to her.
The children of my family were her special charges. Sometimes in the summer our mother worked at an office, and she was often late getting home. Miss Lowe took notice of this, and when darkness began to close in, she would call us to the side of the porch next to hers. Then she would tell us bedtime stories until our mother came home.
One of the facts in which she took an inordinate pride and which she often said to others was “None of Miss Nannie’s chillen have ever sassed me.” I heard her make this statement often. I took pride in it, and nothing on earth could have made me sass her, even though it meant that at her bidding, I had to stop doing some mischievous prank such as walking the top rail of the fence.
My old friend was a deeply religious person. On account of her infirmity she would not walk to church. sometimes her daughter would arrange for her to ride in a carriage (which was used in that day). Her heart would be filled with happiness, and for days she would look forward to going to church and hearing the preacher preach the word.
I distinctly remember her Sunday costume. It was usually a neat black or gingham dress with a large white apron tied around her full waist. Her daughter would part with slick hair in the middle and placed a nice ball at the nape of her neck. A large palmetto fan often completed this costume.
She reverently went to church, and she always turned with a life renewed for Christian living. Hers was a simple faith like the fisherman of old, but it gave her strength to stand the storm against all odds. She was a veritable rock of old-fashioned religion.
She once told me that she wanted me to help dress her when she died, but I was not privileged to do this task for my friend. I was miles away when she passed after a lingering illness. She died in her own bed in her own little home. I think she must have been satisfied.
For years afterward, whenever I would come home and not go to see her, it seemed as if I had forgotten something. It took years for me to realize that she would never need me to button her dress again
Love, Rose Leary. Plum Thickets and Field Daisies: A Memoir. Charlotte, NC: Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, 1996