Back then your kin could lean down on you with the weight of the world and still not quite say, “Get yourself up here to see Mary Greet; she’s dying fast, and it’s your plain duty.” So in mid-February of 1960, on the floor of my own despair, I got a postcard from my cousin Anna Palmer. It said “Aunt Mary is sinking fast and speaks of you.” I changed my plans for the next Sunday and made the two-hour drive to see her through clear warm weather that lifted a corner at least of my spirits.
When I’d seen her last in August ‘58, Mary claimed to be “somewhere way past my eighties.” And though she’d picked 60 pounds of cotton the day before—a great deal of cotton—the pictures of her I took on that visit show a balding head, eyes opalescent with the film of age, and the fixed stance of an ancient sybil, senior to God. So if she was, say, more than 90 in the pictures, then she might very well have been born a slave. Even in those years of frank segregation, I’d never been able to ask her the truth. My older kin never mentioned slavery, as if it were some much-cherished dead loved one, too painful to summon. And I’d hesitated with Mary Greet from a vague, maybe misplaced courtesy—you seldom ask men if they’ve been in prison. The time had come though. I had a need now, to understand pain, that licensed the probe. I’d ask her today.
When I pulled up by her match-box house, she was out in the yard in a straight-backed chair, apparently searching an old hound for ticks. I knew she couldn’t see me till I got much closer; so I stood by the car and raised my voice, “Aunt Mary, dogs don’t have ticks in the winter.”
She didn’t look up, and I thought “Now she’s deaf.” But then she spoke to the dog clearly, “White man claiming it’s winter, Saul.” And when I walked closer, there in her lap was a rusty can with fat ticks swimming in kerosene. I said “Can you tell who I am?”
Still picking at Saul, Mary said “You who you been every day I knowed you.”
I admired her skill at staving me off, but I had to keep teasing. “Am I Sam House?” Sam was my younger brother, then 26.
She finally turned her long face toward me and shaded her eyes, “Fool, you used to be Hilman. Sit down.” That far, she was right—the summer loss of my wife and daughter had cored me out at 34; but could her eyes really see that well? She pointed to the sandy ground beneath us. It was good enough for Saul; who was I to decline, on a warm dry day?
I sat and, since she’d called me a fool, I thought “All right, I’ll ask her right off.” When Saul’s next tick hit the bottom of the can, I said “Aunt Mary, were you born a slave?” For the next still minute, I thought I’d struck her.
But next she let out a dry chuckle. She lifted Saul’s droopy right ear and leaned down, “Tell him, Saul. You know.” She faced me again and said “Hilman, you feeling good as you look?”
I said “No ma’am” but I felt some ease; and for nearly two hours, we sat in the last of that midwinter spring and asked each other aimless questions about our safe past, both dodging the traps of here and now.
This much came clear, from her answers and my memory. Mary cooked for my mother’s parents from the week they settled here in 1882. And though she retired before I was born, she was in and out of my grandmother’s house all through my childhood. She took the rights accorded her age and always came in through the front door—no knock, just a statement, “It’s nothing but me.” Then she’d head for the kitchen and sit by the sink, a new addition since her days there. Most of my kin ignored her politely. They thought they knew all she had to tell. But early she won my affectionate awe. She treated me like the full-grown man I meant to be, that tart and dead-level, that unforgiving whenever I failed.
One morning when I was maybe ten, she asked me a thing no black person had, “Hil, what you meaning to be, down the road?” I said “Aunt Mary, I’m busy right now” and pounded off to start some game. She said “Here, sir!” Then in sight of my mother, she said “You turn your back on this old a soul, and you’ll see a heap of backs turned on you.” Mother nodded, and I stayed in place to say I planned to be a doctor; by then it was already my great goal. She said “No sir, you waited too late.” Mother smiled behind her, and we mutely agreed—Mary was cracked. But of course she was right; and many more times, when she sounded wild to other bystanders, she thrust straight fingers deep into my quick.
Even this afternoon in 1960, as I stood to leave, having said nothing about my loss, Mary finally said “When you setting up house and making your young uns?”
I said “I’m trying to learn from you—you thriving out here with nothing but a hound and doing grand.” I’d yet to see any sign of poor health.
Saul had loped off an hour ago, but Mary looked for him as though he mattered. Then she found my face again and tried to smile, but her eyes wouldn’t light. “Us mean old women, we free-standing trees—don’t need no trellis to help us climb. I estimate you ain’t that free.” She tried again at the smile, and it worked. There were four good teeth.
I gave her five dollars and drove back home, thinking she’d likely be standing free when I’d thinned down from loneliness and vanished.
But late the next August, Anna Palmer phoned me. Calls from Anna were rare as blizzards; and before she finished expressing her delicate worries for me—I was known, in the family, to be still “blue”—I thought “Mary’s dead.” Strictly speaking, I was wrong. Anna said Aunt Mary was on her deathbed and refused to rise. I thought “By the time I drive up there, she’ll rise and be out pulling more cotton.”
No, Mary was in the same one-room shack she inhabited alone, long before I knew her. All the windows were covered with old cardboard; but there’d never been a lock on the door, so I’d tapped loudly and then stepped into punishing heat. You could have baked bricks in the palms of your hands, but you couldn’t have seen an inch ahead till you stood in the heat and let your eyes open. The one oil lamp was full but not lit. And as ever, in all my visits here, there was no human with her. Today there was even no trace of Saul. She was in the far corner on a narrow cot, under three wool blankets; and she seemed asleep or already dead. But as I stepped toward her, her head tried to find me.
Anna had said that she cooked Aunt Mary two meals a day and spoon-fed them to her and that June, Mary’s great-great-nephew, turned up to watch her every few nights and give her milk; she craved buttermilk. So maybe she weighed a scant 80 pounds, but her scalp was bald as any old man’s. And when her mouth gapped open to breathe, I could see that the last four teeth had dissolved. I drew up the chair, “Aunt Mary, it’s Hilman.” She didn’t look up, so I said “Hilman House. You resting easy?”
Then the huge eyes ransacked my face and found nothing. But she found the strength to say a fierce “No.”
I thought she meant she didn’t recognize me, so I said “—Rosella Hilman’s son, that you used to like.”
She said “Not so” and waved a spider hand, as if to cancel my presence.
I leaned back. But the hand came on, took the edge of my coat and pulled me down, eight inches from her face.
She whispered “They working me to death, Mr. Phipps.”
I thought she said Phipps, though later I recalled a long-dead kinsman named Brownlee Fitts, But I said “No, I’m Hilman.”
If she’d had her old power, she’d have snapped my neck. But she only nagged at my coat again, “You hear what I say and help me, else I be laid out dead at your feet by dark today.”
So I said “Mary, where would you rather be?”
She was eager as any child to tell me, “Lord Jesus, in bed. I’m tired, man. This last piece of work bout broke my mind—my back broke sometime yesterday.” Both hands were out of the cover now, busy with the work old doctors called “picking,” a reflex act of failing nerves.
I drew off the blankets, smoothed her bunched nightgown, settled her flat. She was light to move as a locust shell, though the only woman I’d touched in months. I smoothed her pillow, a cast-off towel of Anna’s but clean in a linen case. Then I bent and said “Is that any help at all?”
She thought a long time and said “No” again but not as hard. And when I’d sat another half hour, trying to think of anything under the sun but me and the two I’d lost, I gradually saw that Mary Greet had also gone, from this nearby, with no further plea, command or moan. No one alive had made me the gift of so much trust, though I knew she’d left both me and the world as a girl again, in pain more hopeless than any of mine.