The Re-Release of 'The Journey of Ruthie Belle' Coming Soon.
The Re-Release of 'The Journey of Ruthie Belle' Coming Soon.
It was June 1, 1927, and I was babysittin’ my five-year-old granddaughter, Georgia, while her parents attended a church meetin’. I was braidin’ her hair at the kitchen table when I got a knock on the door that changed my life. When I opened it, I found a note sittin’ on my porch, written as if someone tried to write it in the dark.
I hate to do this, but I can’t tell you this in person. Jacob and his buddies will have me killed if they saw me talking to you. Please meet me far back in the woods behind your barn. Please hurry!
Although I couldn’t make out what the note said, I understood bits and pieces of it: Jacob and his buddies and meetin’ her in the woods. I remember askin’ Mattie Jean, twenty-one at the time, to watch Georgia Raye.
I hurried through the woods, recallin’ ev’ry word Gladys’s childhood friend wrote. Walkin’ through that area was sometimes frightenin’. There were wild dogs and mean white folks that wouldn’t hesitate to hang a Colored person. I knocked down any hangin’ branches or ignored little rustlin’ sounds behind bushes. All I wanted to know was what was goin’ on with Mary Beth. But what made me burst through the woods was a feelin’ I had in the pit of my stomach. I knew somethin’ was wrong, terribly wrong!
I saw a petite, white woman surrounded by a bunch of huge trees. Mary Beth was holdin’ a shiny object close to her chest, and her eyes were blood shot red, as though she had been cryin’ non-stop.
“Miss Ruthie,” she sobbed. “I am so sorry.”
Although words were floatin’ from her mouth, I was fixated on that shiny object. It was the locket I’d givin’ to Gladys as a weddin’ present.
“Where did you get this from?” I yanked it from Mary Beth’s hand, further inspectin’ it to see if it was really Gladys’s, and it was. “This is Gladys’s locket. Where is she?”
With the moonlight sparklin’ on her rich black hair, Mary Beth kept cryin’. Her body language was enough to tell me somethin’ had happened to my daughter. She sobbed, as she stood stiff with her hands clasped together in front of her pelvis.
“Oh, Miss Ruthie, I am so—”
“Child, stop apologizin’ and tell me where’s Gladys!” I shouted.
She raised her head as though she was tryin’ to look at the moonlight, but her eyes looked into a particular direction. I followed her blue eyes and saw a sight that ripped my heart out. My legs buckled from the shock. All I saw was a man’s dress shoes suspended in the air. I looked up to see a shirtless and bloody man that was bounded and hanged. Ev’rytime I grabbed at his shoes to see his face, his body gently swung from one direction to another. I wrapped my arms around his ankle and glared straight up at the rope. It was Pastor George.
“OH SWEET JESUS! WHO DID THIS TO YOU?” I screamed.
I was heartbroken. A good man bein’ hanged like this was disgustin’. What could a man of God do to deserve this? What? Then my daughter rushed into my mind. Gladys, I thought. I gave a stiff and angry expression to Mary Beth, took her by the shoulders and shook her, tryin’ to shake the truth out of her.
“Where’s Gladys!” I yelled.
“There!” she cried, pointin’ to a freshly packed mound of dirt. Still holdin’ her shoulders, I took a moment to stare at the earthly grains, tryin’ not to believe Gladys was there. I finally let go of Mary Beth to come close to the pile of dirt.
“Lawd, no,” I mumbled, tryin’ to keep it together. But, my heart dropped to my feet when I saw a lifeless hand stickin’ out from the dirt. “GLADYS!” I cried.
I hysterically unburied my daughter from the cold, pile of dirt. Then with all of my might, I pulled her to my breast, where I used to nourish her. I was beyond speechless, but angry! My daughter was covered with bullet wounds on her chest and one on her face. I could barely recognize my baby. That bullet took off half her face. I hugged my daughter’s motionless body, hopin’ she could still feel my love. After that, I thought of Mary Beth. I glanced at her while she still looked pitiful.
“Did Jacob do this?” I wept.
“Miss Ruthie, I…” she sobbed.
“Child, don’t Miss Ruthie me, did your husband and his heathen friends do this?”
Mary Beth looked away from me to answer, “Yes, ma’am.”
Oh dear Lord, I thought, my daughter’s best friend’s husband, brutally killed my daughter and her husband. And for what?
Back in the 1920s, there was no justice for white folks killin’ a Colored. To them, that was one less nigger to worry about. But why my child? Gladys wouldn’t hurt anybody. She even got along with ev’ry white folk in town. So I didn’t understand this, not at all!
As tears streamed down my face, Mary Beth’s tiny voice said, “Miss Ruthie, I’m really sorry. I loved Gladys, she was my—”
“Please go!” I said calmly, as I rocked and held my dead baby girl to my chest. “Leave me and my family be. I love you like a daughter, Miss Mary Beth, but you have to keep your distance from now on. Now go!” That poor child’s feet seemed to have been stuck to the ground. She didn’t want to move. I had to raise my voice, as if she was one of my chil’ren. “You hear me? I said go and leave us be!”
She heeded my angry words and quickly ran through the woods. That was the last time I saw her alive. She died of Cancer a few years later.
If there's one favorite thing I can say about Sunnybrook, Alabama, is spending Saturday afternoons with the strongest Negro women in town, the Missionary Club from St. Paul AME Church. These women make up all ages and personalities, and some with status and others with none. But it's beautiful to watch the fellowship and laughter, even under the harshest of circumstances. Not long ago, a church member's daughter died from a high fever. So, the ladies met at Sister Bernice's house for a patch quilting event.
Yet, these four women prove quality can defy quantity and depth over the bells and whistles. Even their attire conveys the persona of the club's mission: bright, cheery, and always warm. And the hats. It's a trademark I envy. The ladies wear them for every meeting and visiting the sick and shut-in. Folks say whenever they see them together, that means something of significance.
Among these members is my momma, Mabel Lee Baston. She's a tiny thing like me. At four feet ten, she's fiery and has a sharp tongue when need be. It's what Daddy loved about her; that dynamic spirit that turns heads, as well as her beauty. Then, one day, Daddy parted ways from Momma's vibrancy and found another skirt. She doesn't talk about his departure. I reckon my older sister's pregnancy keeps her mind occupied. But it wasn't why Daddy left; he left 'cause she wouldn't sweep the truth under the rug from the likes of his brother.
I pause from my sewing duties to look at Momma's unyielding concentration with the patchwork. She says all the time when she sees me, it's like looking in the mirror. I hear it from our kin and church folks, as well. With our dueling heights and shared features, I'm a couple of shades darker with a thicker grade of hair.
And folks say I have just as much fire in my belly as she. Well, no lie there.
She catches me looking at her and smiles. "You okay, baby?" Momma asks in her deep Southern drawl.
I nod. "Yes, ma'am."
I return to sewing to realize the stillness of a cloudless fall day makes the perfect backdrop for good conversation. In the yard, we gather around a picnic table with patches of cloths cut into squares. An array of food displays a gorgeous presentation of autumn flavors: apple and sweet potato pie, and souse and crackers, to name a few.
At fifteen, I gain wisdom and insight by listening to Mother Self. She's the founder of the club and church elder. She also shares stories about the church's inception, starting from an oak tree on a plantation as a slave. And how that heathen slave master sold her only son with no warning. Folks can see her pain within every wrinkle of her face and tired eyes.
She sighs while patching the quilt and nods. "I thank de Lord Massa ain't put me in de family way," she says, reminiscing about those days. "But I saw dem women folk, bellies big in de fields. And some pray after havin' dem young’uns, they hopin' to see 'em grow up."
Holding a section of the quilt, I look across the table and smile at the eighty-five-year-old as she gives a toothless sentiment back.
"Sister Self, since being free, have you tried looking for your son?" I ask.
"Oh no, baby, I's too old and feeble now. I's gon' have to see 'em again in heaven."
"That's so sad. But what about—"
"Charmaine Lee, that's enough," Momma says without looking up from quilting. "Stop worrying Sister Self and get to patching."