RED DIRT ROADS
My mother’s hometown of Jemison, Alabama never offered a sense of place but certainly a sense of safety, wonderment, and creativity. Positioned on a hill, my grandmother’s brick craftsman style house had a back full of art supplies, a sewing machine, and few rules. In the summers, my mother would ship me off, and I would be entranced and free with my grandmother for days at a time. In her “backroom,” which was a large bedroom, she would bring a folding table from church (a short walk from her house) and lay out fabrics, colors, paints, paper, and more. She let me cut tissue patterns from her use oeuvre and use her swing machine to make clothes for my dolls. My mother’s home was tidy and sparse; Nunnie’s was a treasure-trove of stuff, which my mother dubbed “pure junk.”
“Nunnie” was what we called our grandmother. She was “healthy,” which meant she was slightly overweight, with a quiet strength, dignity, and the strength of a true Southern woman. I remember her mostly at her stove, preparing homemade biscuits and frying up a lot of bacon, salted lard in a jar nearby for quick and easy prep. Her hands were plump and her nails long for stitching quilts—and also for good back scratching when her grandchildren couldn’t sleep. Nunnie was kind and independent and had the street smarts to raise five children after he husband died young on low paying wages and government assistance. A great woman of faith, it was noted at her funeral and upon her death that she had attended Oak Grove Baptist for ninety-four years, rarely missing a Sunday service. Do the math.
In her den, which blended into the kitchen, she always kept something crafty progressing: a cloth-covered paddle that read “Nunnie’s spanking stick” in puff paint or funky Christmas tree ornaments made out of safety pins and beads. Every season, she hosted a craft sale on her expansive lawn, holiday goods strewn across folding tables with prices hand-written on masking tape. A sign read, “If you brang (sic) a baked good for the church, purchase discounted.” If a friend missed the event, she would come by and let herself in the back screen door, leaving an appropriate amount on the dining table by the baked good.
But I think mostly about Nunnie’s quilts. Meticulously curating materials of various colors, prints, and textures, she would stitch tiny knots. She was so patient and astute at feeding the needle in and out—like a trained surgeon at work—that sometimes she could finish a whole section while watching an Auburn football game, eyes fixated on the television. Those quilts, in addition to their beautiful artistry have became even more meaningful over time. Their weight and warmth signaling security and safety, their scent triggering an immediate sense of connectedness to her home and to her. As I have traveled and moved in my art career, I have always kept a curated drawer of her quilts, wrapping in them on many nights until my eyes and body grew so heavy they felt like lead. And peacefully, I have rested.
The small, red brick church with double front doors and a conservative steeple marked the turn to Nunnie’s house, just down he blacktop road in Jemison. The small rural town of several thousand was a six-hour drive from Clarksdale to her house, exploring back, rural roads. My mother usually drove us alone, as my father did not like to leave his work. We would leave as the sun set in Mississippi, migrating at a descent speed to Alabama. Mama liked to drive at nights so my sister drifted to sleep and my mother pressed the pedal, she would sing to me. I would trace the patterns on the foggy windows, dreaming of travel and faraway places.
But in one early spring, the trip was different. Her brother Charlie drove her from Clarksdale to her childhood home, to die. Nunnie’s small brick home, once known as a place of solitude and creativity, as well as one of love and bustling family gatherings, morphed into a den of death and a sanctuary of grief. This is where my motor spent her last days.
It was a glorious day in Charleston, where I had been living for some time and had recently launched my company, Rebekah Jacob Modern. I received a phone call from Lee, an African American man who helped Mama around the house and delivered her paper, biscuit, and coffee every Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m., sharp. The car was in the driveway, and the light were flicking int he morning sun, but here was no answer at the door. Fearful of a “colored man” invading the house with predictable consequences, my friend Dina, broke a window and climbed through two find Mama disoriented, curled in bed with headaches amid a disastrous, unkempt house with medicine strewn all over the kitchen counters. I flew home to Mississippi immediately.
Doctors diagnosed her with melanoma, anther illness would be short-lived—four months or less. It was a painful and complicated death sentence, so she moved back to her Jemison home for her final days. Nunnie and my aunts would act as primary caregivers, facilitating doctor’s visits, medicine distribution, and trips to thrift stores speckled along the Alabama highways. I would remain in Charleston, attempting to keep my burgeoning art gallery growing—at least in tact.
If there is a gift of facing death head on, it's the art of conversation. Mama and I had conversations without constraints and edits, about life, family, future, expectations of my sister and me taking care of the other. (This is foreshadowing, see future chapters of life.). We bantered about funeral arrangements, laughed at warm memories, cried in the face of reality. I knew it was one of her final chapters one cold spring day at Nunnie’s. As vegetable soup simmered on the stove and the television streamed local news, Mama handed me all her jewelry and her wallet. The next day, her significant decline began; as so many cancer patients’ families experience, the stripping of her dignity would be at the saddest to watch. The final hours challenged our patience as my sister and I watched the monitor slow graph by graph. Mama hadn’t spoken or moved in many days, so we prayed she could hear us in the final hours. Upon her final breath, one tear inched down her cheek and stopped at her lip.
She was buried in the church cemetery adjacent to Nunnie’s land. Contrary to daddy’s burial of which the casket was elevated so that the damp, clay Delta soil could set. Otherwise, the casket would sink, in time. My mother gardened that plot late afternoons with the red bird circling at dusk. The casket was immediately lowered into the dry, sandy red soil, shoveled over, then a John Deer tractor cleaned up the top of the soil. She was gone and would be now separated from my father, buried in Delta of Mississippi.
On Nunnie’s porch, which spread across the front of the modest Craftsman-style house, her swing was her resting place, and now min. After my mother’s funeral, Nunnie sat in the swing, crying and prayin’ and making assumptions. “I know Jacque is happy that the casket is wide and comfortable. She hated to be cramped. And I sure am glad we bought her beautiful lace things. She would have never wanted anyone to judge her underwear as she floated through the sky on her way to the Holy Gates on Rapture Day.” “Beverly, did you iron them?” Nunnie beckoned. “Yes, mother. I DID,” she responded emphatically. I’m so glad her casket was covered with fresh flowers. She always hated faked (sic) magnolias.”
As I listened that night after the funeral, Nunnie’s quilt was my cocoon, catching tears, warming my heart, and comforting me from a pain that was otherwise unbearable. As the stars erupted in the night sky, I recognized so many patterns I had found in the car while driven to this place as a child. I felt as though that night sky was signed just for me. I finally felt like there was a map of some sort-some science and answer to a quagmired universe.
I knew that whatever happened I had my work, and Rebekah Jacob Gallery would continue as not only a personal venture, but as a tribute to my parents, now both gone.
By, Rebekah Jacob: Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery
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