Susan Nelson Myers – Mammy Liz

[photo added soon]

I drove my Daddy out today to catch a ride for a weekend deep-sea fishing trip – his first in about 30 years. Small talk with him has a way of turning into big talk – the kind that I’ll turn to over and again.

We passed a field where a man used to keep burros. For as long as I can remember the man had kept burros in that pasture and there wasn’t a one to be seen. I pondered aloud about it, and Daddy didn’t have an answer for me. I joked to him that I’d keep a burro if I had a field to put one in…thought it might give me reason to more frequently wonder about life from a perspective of short stature and a slow paced life, and I said so. And I’d name that burro John Henry, if I had one. Then my Daddy laughed in a way that he thought he was keeping to himself.

I reminded him of a family picture of his great-grandma, Mammy Liz, who, as family historians had it, served as a midwife in Stokes County, NC for a long time. She rode her big mule, John Henry, on such calls to help her laboring neighbors, and the picture caught both their images. Daddy didn’t rightly remember ever having seen that picture, and the conversation turned more into what he didn’t remember precisely than what he did – either through the fog of old age and underexercised memory or never having known the full truth. He said,

“You know, your Mammy Liz had six children – all illegitimate”…

and we let that statement hang in the air between us to ripen for a bit.

Late 19th century rural social and cultural norms would not have gone easy on Mammy Liz if that were the truth. To have had six illegitimate children, she evidently didn’t much care one way or another. She raised them all to raise their own.

I replied that it would explain a hell of a lot why I’d never been able to make sense out of how this one was related to that one when last names never quite matched up to the stories told and lineages recounted. And it certainly didn’t help matters when one child took his mother’s name when another took the name of his mother’s mother instead of rightfully making his real daddy a touch uncomfortable with the truth. But all of this was the small talk.

The big talk dripping like a leaking pack house roof from that exchange was that Mammy Liz did what she damn well pleased whether or not it suited another soul. And she had a mule named John Henry that took her wherever she needed to go.

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