In the Sweet By and By
Until then, the dance of life continues
By Jim Dodson
The Great Pandemic Summer of 2020 is drawing to a close.
How have you coped?
As you read this, I am coping by being thigh-deep in a tumbling stream at the base of Mount Mitchell, deep in a national forest, amusing a few sleepy rainbow trout with my rusty fly-casting skills.
If ever there was a summer to get away to the wild, this is it. For me, fly fishing has long provided relaxation and unexpected answers to questions that seem to resist easy answers.
Twenty-five summers ago, during an unexpected family crisis, my daughter Maggie and I spent a glorious summer camping and fly-fishing our way across America. Maggie was 7 years old. Our old dog Amos was pushing 13. It was a summer to remember chasing trout in some of the West’s most iconic rivers.
This summer, Maggie and her fiancé, Nate, and their two rescued pups are retracing portions of our route through the West as they head for new jobs in Los Angeles, camping and hiking. The other night, Maggie phoned from the banks of Shoshone River in Wyoming just to hear her old man rhapsodize about the summer night we spent camped by the swift blue river beneath a quilt of glittering stars. Such nights stay with you.
Throughout this devastating pandemic and summer of social discontent, many of us have faithfully sheltered in place and adopted wearing face coverings in public. We have placed our trust in science, avoided crowds, dutifully washed hands and learned new phrases like “safe distancing” and “community spread.” We’ve also marveled at the human capacity for finding meaning, change and creativity in the midst of a crisis our children will probably tell their grandchildren about in tones of wonder and solemnity, and maybe even gratitude.
Change and history move in halting steps, stumbling before we who are living through them finally come to terms with the truth. To many in America, a racial awakening in the midst of a worldwide pandemic either seems like a cosmic piling on or a clear message from the universe that it’s time for America to face up to the sins of our collective past and finally take steps to end systemic racism, a reckoning long overdue.
One man’s awakening, I suppose, is another’s End of Days.
For what it’s worth, a different metric on this time of trials comes from leading astrologers who point out that for the first time in thousands of years, half a dozen planets are simultaneously in retrograde and the rare success of three consecutive eclipses, two lunar, one solar, combined with the planet Pluto — the diminutive power broker of darkness and chaos — passing through America’s chart in almost the exact location at the time of our country’s founding, indicates a period of feeling “stuck” in a protracted time of intense disruption and bitter division. As the planets move forward, or so we are told, we may experience a vast spiritual awakening, possibly even a new age of enlightenment springing from lessons of the past.
Whether the problem lies in our stars or ourselves remains an open question.
In the meantime, lacking the gift of celestial prophecy, I stand in tumbling waters thinking how this year of chaos and change reminds me of valuable lessons learned early in life in the racially bifurcated world where I grew up.
My father was a newspaperman with a poet’s heart who lost his dream in 1958 when his partner cleaned out the operating funds of their thriving weekly newspaper in coastal Mississippi, disappearing without a trace.
One day later, his only sister died in a car wreck on an icy road outside Washington, D.C., and my mother suffered her second late-term miscarriage in three years.
We left Mississippi with everything we owned in a Pontiac Star Chief and drove all night to Wilmington, where my dad worked for several months at the Star News before moving on to a better job in South Carolina.
I started first grade in Florence, a pretty Southern town of old houses and shady streets. I was the only kid in my class who could read chapter books and had perfect attendance at school. At year’s end, Miss Patillo presented me with a small brass pin shaped like an open book with Perfect Attendance inscribed on its pages. I still have the pin.
For my parents, however — something I learned many years later — Florence was like a silent ordeal, a twilight world between the unyielding values of the Old South and a brave new world of tomorrow.
The summer before second grade, a lovely African-American woman named Miss Jesse came to help my mother get back on her feet. She was said to be a natural healer and a woman who knew how to take care of families like ours. My mother held strong views about race and resisted the notion of having a maid like other women in town. But her health was dangerously frail. So Miss Jesse came.
It is no longer the fashion to speak of having someone like Miss Jesse in your privileged white life. I get that. But for one summer this kind woman took me everywhere with her to keep me out from under my mother’s feet — to the public library, to the Piggly Wiggly, to and from vacation Bible school at the Lutheran Church. I adored riding around town with Miss Jesse. The radio of her blue Dodge Dart was always tuned to a Southern gospel station. I can almost hear her singing “In the Sweet By and By” and “I’ll Fly Away.” I sang along, too.
She and my mom quickly became friends. Among other things, Miss Jesse introduced my mother-a former Maryland beauty queen-to flower gardening and turned her into quite a respectable Southern cook. Her beauty and vitality returned.
One evening while the two of them were cooking supper, a lively gospel tune came on the transistor radio and Miss Jesse invited me to hop on her strong feet, sashaying us both around the kitchen floor. She called this “feet dancing.”
One night that autumn of 1959, my father’s boss came to supper. He was a thin old man with loose change jingling in his pants pockets. Miss Jesse was cooking supper. The adults were all standing in the kitchen talking about “protests” that were suddenly happening across the Deep South. My father’s boss jingled his change and declared, “Fortunately, we don’t have that kind of trouble around here, do we Jesse? That’s because we have good nigras round these parts.”
“Jimmy,” my mother chimed instantly, “could you come with me, please?”
I was barely into the hallway when she took hold of my ear and perp-walked me to the bathroom, leading me in and shutting the door. Over my protest, she ordered me to sit and hush up.
As I watched, she calmly opened a new bar of Ivory soap and held it inches from my face.
“If I ever hear that word come out of your mouth,” she said, restraining her Germanic fury, “you’ll be sitting on this toilet with this new bar of soap in your mouth for an hour. Is that clear?”
I knew exactly the word she meant. She explained that “nigra” was the way “supposedly educated white people in the South” said the word my brother and I were forbidden to ever use, though I heard it often used in those days.
For what it’s worth, I can’t stomach the smell of Ivory soap to this day.
Weeks later, shockingly, Miss Jesse went into the hospital and we went to visit her in its “colored wing.” She passed a few days later. We went to her funeral service at the little brick church she attended. The place was full of flowers and people, including a few white women who’d benefited from Miss Jesse’s healing presence. The music was pure gospel. My mother cried. I remember meeting Miss Jesse’s daughter, her pride and joy whom she called “Babygirl,” an art teacher from Atlanta.
A few weeks later, my dad took a new job and we finally moved home to Greensboro, where I started mid-way through the second grade.
Just days after my brother and I got our new library cards, our history-mad father mysteriously turned up at school to spring us for the afternoon. He drove us downtown to stand near the “colored” entrance of the Center Theater and watch as four brave students from A&T attempted to integrate the Woolworth’s lunch counter across Elm Street.
“Boys,” he said to us. “This isn’t just going to change life in Greensboro. It’s going to change America.”
That event is considered a watershed moment of the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement of America.
It was my 7th birthday, February 2, 1960.
Sixty years later, as statues of Confederate generals and segregationists topple and sweeping racial reckoning has finally commenced, I’ve been playing a lot of Southern gospel in my car, thinking about Miss Jesse and the first music I ever learned to sing. Embarrassing to admit, I’m having trouble remembering her last name. To me she was always Miss Jesse.
As I cast after slumbering trout in a gorgeous mountain stream, far away from that strained and vanishing South, I find myself humming “In the Sweet By and By” and wishing I could properly thank Miss Jesse for saving my mother’s life and unexpectedly shaping mine.
Maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to feet dance with her again. And learn her whole name. PS
Contact Editor Jim Dodson at email@example.com.