Mama was a Choctaw and very seldom talked to us about anything, although occasionally she would nod her head to point us back towards the strait and narrow path we had strayed off of. I asked her once about her mother, and she just shook her head and turned away. For just a short second I thought there were tears in her eyes. But I knew that couldn’t be so because Mama never cried. After I was grown, I asked her again. “She died,” Mama said.
Well, I had supposed that much, and I shook my head because that really didn’t tell me anything. For the first time in my life I asked Mama for more information than she had offered to give. “What did she die of,” I asked.
“She starved to death,” Mama said.
That time I knew she was crying. “She starved to death so we could eat.”
Today when our every want is gratified instantly, it is hard for us to imagine how much the Great Depression hurt the poor people of this nation, how little they had, and how much it cost in labor to get it. All the time she was growing up the only time Mama had an ice cream cone was when she was almost dead from Scarlet Fever. Mama worked thirty days one time pulling (which is slightly different from picking) cotton so she could earn $5.00 She had to walk 20 miles twice down dirt roads to get paid in nickels, dimes and pennies counted slowly out of the egg money jar..
Not wanting to make Mama cry again, I asked her sister about Mama’s mother. “Mama said she starved to death.” .My Aunt Olla stopped for a second, then said yes, yes she did. Then she too turned her head away.
There was no other information about my grandmother available.
Another 20 years passed and I was living alone. I had an old Volkswagen van that my Primary class had decorated for me. Those kids could spot me 100 miles away and know it was me; that sure kept me out of trouble.
My landlady loved to ride with me in the old Volkswagen van because it brought back old memories. One day when I asked her where she would like to go that day she said: “I’d like to go find my mother’s grave.”
Where is it? I asked.
“Coleman’s Cemetery,” she said. “It’s somewhere around Hazen.”
That sounded vague enough to be exciting so I was immediately all for it. If there’s anything I like to do, it is to get lost, so off we went. As it so happened, Daddy’s house was between us and Hazen. And I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be wonderful to take Daddy and Mama riding around with us, just going nowhere in particular and hope and we could find our way out of any mess we got into.
After I explained what we were doing, Daddy and Mama said they would be glad to go with us, just for the fun of it. So, off we went – Daddy was talking up a storm, as usual and couldn’t nobody do that any better than him so we were talking and laughing and having a wonderful time.
Verna was in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease at that time. “I think it’s down this road,” she would say, squinting at memories that no longer matched the landscape. Daddy kept talking, one story right after another as we went up one rusty road and down another until we were definitely lost.
Strangers would scratch their heads when asked about Coleman’s Cemetery and then point us off in a new direction where it might be. “No, that isn’t it,” Verna would say to each cemetery we found. “I think it’s down that next road over there.” Off we would go to find another cemetery.
I wasn’t suspecting a thing when she exclaimed, “There it is!” “Coleman’s” wasn’t the name over the arch and maybe never had been for Verna had been still young when her mother died.
I pulled in and we started looking for her mother’s grave. It was a pleasant day and it didn’t matter to me even if we were on a wild goose chase into a yesterday that never was.
“Patterson, her name was Patterson,” Verna said. Daddy kept up his continuous stream of stories and we kept looking for the right tombstone in much the same pattern we had been looking for the right cemetery.
Finally we just about gave up and began wandering back towards the van with Daddy still going a mile a minute. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to hear all those stories over again. Verna stopped in front of a tombstone and said, “That’s her. We have found my mother’s grave.”
We were all so glad that we fell silent in reverence for a moment. Verna began taking down the information available and Daddy became aware of his surroundings for the first time that day.
He looked this way, then he looked that way. His head nodded and he said: “Edna, your mother’s grave is right over there.”
Mama looked around us too, then she began walking towards the far, distant corner of the graveyard. There were no monuments that way, and the tombstones ran out too. But Daddy kept walking confidently towards that distant corner and finally he stopped, knelt down and pulled the grass and weeds away as if 60 years had been but an hour gone past.
There it was at last, a small marker, of my grandmother’s grave, but it was big enough that it had her name, date of birth, date of death, and the name of her parents. I cried as I looked down at that marker, and Mama turned away from us. “Why is she buried way over here?” I asked Daddy.
“She was an Indian,” Daddy explained. “She was lucky they let her be buried here at all.”
I wrote all the information down then waited until they began walking back towards the van. Then I turned back to dedicate the grave and promise my grandmother that her work would be done for her, at all costs.
It was weeks, maybe even months later that I realized with a shock that if I hadn’t been doing my landlady a favor that day that might not ever be remembered for my landlady, if I hadn’t stopped along the way to pick up my parents, if Daddy hadn’t had almost a photographic memory for land levels, times and places, then I never would have found my grandmother’s grave.
Now I can see it as plain as day from anywhere in the world. She starved to death so Mama could eat. I am alive because Grandma paid the price of my mother’s life.