by Mary Wilson
Visiting The Mother Land
December 4, 2004, the day my mother died, seemed like everything under God’s sun kept me from getting to the hospital. I knew in my heart this was the day she would die and I wanted to be there with her. Every attempt to get to the hospital presented a stumbling block. I had been to the hospital that morning and told her I would be back to spend the night with her. Her response was weak and almost incomprehensible. Why did I leave? No matter how many times I have been told it was meant to be that way, my heart aches that she was alone at her demise. I know she went home to be with the father, but I did not get a chance to say goodbye. Why did I leave her?
When I finally made it to the hospital about 7:45 p.m., I parked the car and walked to the front entrance of Wayne Memorial Hospital. I was relieved that I was finally going to be with my mother. I walked through the doors, down the hall past the gift and coffee shop through another set of double doors into the hospital reception area. I politely smiled as I passed two elderly Caucasian female volunteers at the lobby desk. Straight ahead were the elevators and I pushed the up button and immediately an elevator door opened. The 6th floor was my destination and I anxiously watched each floor number light up as the elevator made its ascension. I rode the usually busy elevator alone that evening. When I got to the 6th floor, the door opened facing the nurses’ station. Everyone was going about his or her normal duties, shuffling papers, preparing medicine carts, answering phones, and with polite irritancy answering patient family members questions. I took a right turn at the nurses’ station and then another right turn walking down the hall to room 646, the last room on the left. Mom’s door was closed. I felt probably she was being changed or something like that. I knocked at the door and no one answered so I opened the door to find the curtains closed around her bed. “Mom,” I called out. No answer. “Anybody in here?” No answer. I pulled the curtains back to find what looked like an empty bed. The usually blaring television was silent and I started to leave to find out where my mother had been taken. Suddenly I stopped and looked at the bed again. I pulled the sheets back and was horrified at the lifeless, emaciated corpse of my mother. I cried at the sight. She literally looked like “death warmed over.” I would love to say she looked peaceful, but she looked like she had been through a tremendous battle, which she had been. I cried at the site and also because she was gone. My beautiful mother who was so meticulous about her appearance was nearly bald. Her face was sunken in because she had been too weak to insert her dentures. Her body was thin, but her stomach bloated and her foot was black from gangrene. Diabetes had taken her site, destroyed her liver and kidneys, and obliterated her once beautiful shoulder length salt and pepper hair.
As long as she had breath, she maintained her dignity and never succumbed to self-pity or hopelessness. She enjoyed life even in her state of health and like Biblical Job, never blamed God or took her eyes off of the promised dream of glory after this life. She was courageous. She had died at 7:50 p.m., probably while I was on the elevator. I asked myself again, “Why, why did you leave her?”
For months after mom died, I felt a need to finally see where she was born and visit some of the places I had only heard about in Milledgeville, Georgia. Through one of my sisters, Arlene, I was able to contact a distant cousin, Michelle who was the granddaughter of my mother’s oldest half-brother (20 plus years older) and set up a time to visit.
It was July 18, 2005 we met with Michelle my cousin by way of mom’s older half brother Willie B who as I mentioned is Michelle’s grandfather. We were in Baldwin County/Milledgeville, GA. My husband and I had checked into a room at the base nearby early in the morning that day.
Michelle met us at an old nostalgic general store on highway 49 headed into downtown Milledgeville. A friendly looking, stocky bearded white man in blue coveralls sat outside the store in a chair. He waved as we pulled up on the corner lot, passed the store and parked closer to the corner of the lot. We sat there in our black Chevrolet truck and just sort of looked around at the 4-way intersection. Michelle finally drove up in an eggplant colored Honda with a sorority plate on the front. She got out and we hugged, chatted briefly and then we followed her down the road until we got to Kitchens Road making a right onto an old lot that displayed a sign reading Hills Towing Service. (That building is used as a towing service as well as a get-together for big ball games and such things of that nature, according to Michelle). She got out of her car waving her hand over the scenery, “This is where it all began.” I did not understand what she meant until she invited us to get into her car and then explained we were actually sitting on the entranceway of the old Hill Plantation. The Hill Plantation sits on the border of Baldwin County and Jones County.
I was captivated as my husband and I piled into Michelle’s car. Here I sat on historic land. Yes, this was where it all began. Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever thought something probably so insignificant to others would hit me so profoundly.
Suddenly a large white house with stately columns appeared at the small building of Hill’s Towing Service. I blinked and realized it was just a mirage. My imagination had wound-up to full speed. I was back in the 1800s.
We drove back toward the road where we had made the right hand turn, and Michelle made another right-hand turn down a dirt road, she explained this is the old plantation that after the owner Master Hill died passed onto his slaves. It was sectioned off to different families and has remained in those families for generations. The stipulation from the master was that the property could never be sold or coveted by outsiders, but was to remain with the slave decendents.
Cruising like tourists, I saw lovely homes of African-American Hill decendents on the right side of the road.
The lovely homes temporarily became old slave quarters and then flashed back to the modern brick houses.
I had to keep blinking to keep it real. Was I going crazy? I decided that I was quite sane and I was enjoying every minute of this imaginary repertoire. Some residents were out riding lawnmowers or puttering around their property.
Their lawn mowers became obsolete plows with mules and the men sweated under the intense summer heat.
On the opposite side of the road was farmland, but ….
and all I could see was endless miles of corn that suddenly became endless rows of cotton with miles and miles of black people bent over diligently picking the tiny white clouds.
We must have driven for about 3 or 4 miles and Ed, my husband estimated a good 40 acres or more from what we could see.
Words cannot explain my elation as we drove this dirt road and my head went from side-to-side taking all of it in. I wanted to get out of the car and stop the few people I saw and say to them, “We are related.” I am so and so. Please, please tell me what you know about my grandfather, my great grandfather Mr. Hill and my ancestors, your ancestors, our history. One day I will return and do just that.
After we left the plantation, Michelle said we were going to a town called Toomsboro, located in Wilkinson County, about 40 to 45 miles away. Wilkinson County is where my mother was born and lived until about age 7. We were going to visit the Parker-Hill Church that her family attended. The place where grandpa Alex met all 3 of his wives.
We drove for a little ways and stopped at a cemetery where mom’s younger brother was buried with his wife and his wife’s family. It was a neat well-manicured plot and an interesting beginning to what was ahead for me.
When we left the graveyard, we drove about 35 more miles until the city street turned back in time as Michelle said we are about to go down a dirt road. The road was actually red clay and she explained how grandpa would gather up the family and pass through this road on Sunday meeting day. She explained that in those days people did not have church every Sunday because of the travel constraints even though everyone lived in close proximity to the church of perhaps 5 to 10 miles total. A short jaunt these days by car, but in the 20s and 30s, horse and buggy was still the mode of transportation for a family unable to afford a car or truck.
Just ahead of us, I saw a horse drawn wagon. A little girl about 5 years old turned around and smiled. “Momma,” I thought. No one saw her but me. I was in another zone. She was a precious little girl, tight long braids, blue and white polka dot dress that tied in the back with a matching bonnet.
We followed the horse-drawn buggy down that red clay road for about 5 or 10 minutes with the little girl who occasionally turned around, smiling as if to make sure we were still behind them. Her eyes would gleam as she zoomed on me and I could see traces of my siblings and myself on her lovely round face.
Ed and Michelle exchanged stories about how the old wives tales explained how this rich red clay would cure aches and pains.
Finally we turned left onto the Parker-Hill Church property. There was a small sign at the entrance and behind the sign to the left were 2 large trees. Michelle later told us that those 2 trees were the focal point for many church picnics back in my mother’s day. Directly behind all of that and yet visible was the church. The left side of the church was white and probably the old structure that momma used to attend. On the right was a red brick structure that was newer.
Behind the church were the cemetery and family plots. We drove up the hill and decided mutually to leave inspection of the church on the way back down from the cemetery.
When I saw my grandfather Alex’s grave and Anna Ruth’s, one of my mother’s sisters who had died at the tender age of five, it was like the first time I had visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. I had the same fluttery feeling looking on these grave plots as I did at the hotel room of Martin Luther King, and the balcony where he was murdered. There were other graves, grandpa’s second wife, Michelle’s grandmother, Michelle’s grandfather and a fresh grave of about 4 months of one of Michelle’s aunts.
To the right of the plots a huge ancient tree caught my eye. It was as though it had a soul and was peering through mine trying to get my attention. The old tree seemed to holler “Come here if you dare.” I chose not to get any closer, but I thought, “If you could really talk, I would cradle at your exposed roots and listen to your tales.”
Michelle bent over and picked up something. “Blackberries,” she said. I could not resist, so I bent down to pick a few berries myself.
There she was again, the little girl picking berries and storing them in a small napkin. She smiled again and I smiled back.
I walked down the hill and envisioned that little girl playing at the picnics, but she was still picking blackberries and when I glanced back, she looked up briefly and continued gathering her berries.
My imagination took on more than visual, now I could smell the chicken, apple pies and chocolate cakes. I could see blankets spread on the ground with mothers and babies; children playing hide and seek; young lovers sneaking behind a tree to steal a kiss.
I glanced back behind me again to see Ed and Michelle driving down the dirt road and I saw the vision of the little girl who this time stood crying at the grave plots of her little sister Anna Ruth, and her father, grandpa Alex.
When we got to the bottom of the hill, we took more pictures of the church grounds and headed back to the plantation. Our journey was over.
The little girl was coming down the hill as we were leaving with her napkin and pockets filled with berries. She was also carrying some wild flowers. Mom always loved plants and flowers. Her eyes were saddened, as she looked my way as if not wanting to see me leave. I turned away wanting to remember the smile instead of the sad eyes. I did not want to say goodbye again to my mother.
Excerpt from Colorless Soul – Part II. To be released summer of 2006.
@ Mary Wilson 2006