Bessie Henderson is the fulcrum. Or Bessie’s death anyway. The point at which my Hendersons diverged from the line, left Dudley’s track, frayed the thread that bound to them to their people. Her death launched my grandmother out of Wayne County and away from what could have been. Given all that happened later, the ways things turned out, it is not hard not to see why my grandmother cast the first few months of her life as the glory days. She was with her own mother and surely cherished.
Let’s look at her. At the only photo we have. Probably the only one there ever was.
She is a broad-faced, heavy-lidded beauty, the barest hint of a smile playing on her lips, a high-yellow Mona Lisa. Thick dark hair pulled up a la Gibson Girl; a hint of widow’s peak; a straight-bridged nose; a full bottom lip. The fat lobes of her ears depend from the nest of her hair. I recognize them as my grandmother’s.
What was the occasion? Why the first photograph of her life? It was surely taken in Goldsboro, or maybe Mount Olive, the small town and smaller town that bracketed Dudley, the crossroads at which she passed her entire short life. There are no props. The painted backdrop is mottled and indistinct, save a white bird swooping downward, a wingtip brushing her left hand. The portrait is three-quarter length, and it is hard to gauge her size. She was surely of no great height, perhaps an inch or two over five feet, and slim, but with a hint of hippiness. Her daughter and nieces were narrow-shouldered, but she seems not to have been so.
One arm, folded behind, rests on her hip. The other hangs loosely at her side, a slender hand brushing her thigh. I do not recognize the fingers; they are not my grandmother’s. Her arms, exposed below the elbows of her ruffled white blouse, are much, much browner than her face, evidence of her time in her grandfather’s fields, straw hat shielding her brow. There is a ring on her left middle finger. There are also two lockets hanging from her neck. She barely knew her mother; her father was a kind but distant white man; she never married. Who then gave her these trinkets? What became of them? What tiny images hid in the clefts of the lockets? Who loved her?
Like her own mother before her, Bessie was just nineteen when she died. She looks older here. A little weary maybe. A little sad. A second child born out of wedlock would get her drummed out of the church that her grandfather had helped found. The baby’s daddy joined church weeks later. Within months, Bessie was cold in her grave.
My grandmother tells it this way:
I thought of many times I wondered what my mama looked like. Bessie. And how old was she, or whatever. See, she was helping Grandpa Lewis. The pig got out of the pasture and, instead of going all the way down to where the gate opened, she run him back in there, to try to coax him in there. And when they picked him up and put him over the fence, she had the heavy part, I reckon, or something, and she felt a pain, a sharp pain, and so then she started spitting blood. Down in the country, they ain’t had no doctor or nothing, they just thought she was gon be all right. And I don’t think they even took her to the doctor. Well, she would have had to go to Goldsboro or Mount Olive, one, and doctors was scarce at that time, too, even if it was where you had to go a long ways to get them. And so she died. She didn’t never get over it. I don’t remember ever staying down there. ‘Cause they brought me up to Wilson to live with Mama and Papa. I stayed with them after Bessie died. My sister says she does, but I don’t remember Bessie. You never know what you’ll come to.
Photo in the collection of Lisa Y. Henderson. Interview of Hattie Henderson Ricks by Lisa Y. Henderson, all rights reserved.