Averyell A. Kessler
Two women stood on a small patch of grass edging the driveway by the side of our house in Avery Gardens. They’d known each other for many years, celebrating joyous moments together as well as crying in each other’s arms. One was white, one black. That didn’t matter; it never had. This time it was bad. Trouble appeared, wearing the devil’s horns and a mask of hate. Bad days had arrived in Jackson and weren’t going away.
The white woman, Paula, was my mother. The black woman, my other mother, was Ella our housekeeper. There had been happy events for them both. For my mother, the birth of her only child, me, as well as quiet days in slow, puttering Belhaven. For Ella, the adoption of her niece, Beverly. Also, Ella’s only child. She’d suffered mistreatment in her young years and was unable to have children. As a result, Beverly was a gift from God. Ella lived in a pleasant spot too, over an acre of garden friendly land within walking distance to her church, Greater Fairview Baptist Church.
As always, bad times came also, often as abundant and unwelcome as mosquitos on a summer night. For Ella, the death of a young neighbor child she planned to adopt. For Mama, the loss of her sister, from undiagnosed lung cancer. Somehow, they shouldered on, each supporting the other. While we lived on Laurel Street, Ella came to our house every weekday morning stepping off a lumbering city bus that stopped directly in front of our house. When we moved to Avery Gardens, she learned to drive and purchased a Ford Fairlane, heavily weighted with chrome, a wide front bumper, and unblinking double headlights. It was turquoise blue. My mother, has also learned to drive later in life, carefully steering her way down County Line Road in a Chevy coupe. Both women adopted a slow, careful style of driving that earned them no speeding tickets but frustrated other drivers.
Then lightening stuck. In the summer of 1961, Freedom Riders stepped off buses in downtown Jackson, and entered a world of boiling heat and exploding tempers. I was a child and not fully aware of everything that unfolded but our tranquil city stepped into a blazing spotlight of anger and division. Worse things would come, but we didn’t know yet. Children heard words no child should ever hear, and saw things, fearful things, that brought terror and nightmares. Somehow, we lost sight of each other, and friends became strangers. Two friends did not. Instead they made a pact.
Mama was outside in the garage lifting groceries out of her car when Ella met her halfway between her open trunk and the backdoor.
“We need to talk,” Ella said.
“What is it, Ella?” Mama asked. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” she answered. I stood by the backdoor so I could hear their conversation. It was short, only a few brief words spoken in trust.
“It’s quiet out here in the country,” Ella said. “ but the city’s not safe anymore. Lots of people talking. I hear things.”
“I hear things too,” Mama replied. Her eyes fell.
“At church sometimes,” Ella continued.
“Yes, many times at church.”
“If you hear anything that might be a danger to Beverly, will you tell me?”
“Of course,” Mama answered. “And if you hear anything that might be a danger to Averyell will you tell me?”
“Yes,” Ella answered.
The conversation ended quickly because there was nothing else to say. It was agreement of the heart, no handshake required, and stronger than anything written on paper. A simple pledge, each woman promising to protect the child of the other as she would her own. That came first, as it always had. Mama and Ella continued emptying the trunk and carried the groceries inside. Each went back to the daily chores at hand, as though nothing unusual had happened. But I knew that it did. I heard their voices and saw their eyes. Both were extraordinary women I was fortunate to love.
“A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for a time of adversity.”* I guess sisters are too.