I had pneumonia twice. The first day I went down to Graded School, that day it rained. I come back – there was a hole in my shoe, and I slopped in all the water and got my feet wet. That’s what Mama said, anyhow, and I taken with a fever.
If I got wet – when I went to Graded School, it rained, and I slopped in all the water coming back from there. Had a hole in my shoe. Had pasteboard in there. And then I’d go to sneezing and coughing. And so Mama said, “You know you oughtn not to got wet!” Well, how was I gon help from getting wet? Had to come from school! So that was the first year I went to school. I remember that. And I was sick that whole rest of the year. I mean, wasn’t strong enough to go down to Graded School – she wouldn’t let me go down there. So I stayed home, and Mama put all them old rags, that old flannel cloth, and she’d put it in red onions and hog lard. And I had pneumonia. And they was sitting up with me. Said I hadn’t spoken in three days. And so that old clock where Annie Bell took, it was up there on the mantel, it struck two o’clock. Mama was sitting on one side of the stove, and Papa on the other. So I said, when the clock struck, I said, “It’s two o’clock, ain’t it, Mama?” And they thought I was dying. So they had been sitting up with me. So I think didn’t think nothing ‘bout it. I went on back to sleep. I didn’t know nothing ‘bout it. Said I had double pneumonia. So Mama got – honey, I had to wear a piece of cloth up here on my chest, one on the back, with Vick’s salve and hog grease or whatever that stuff was, mixed all up together and pinned it to my undershirt.
And I thought about it, with Bessie dead — she died when I was eight months old. And Mama Sarah took me as a baby and brought me to Wilson. And I was the only child there. Well, that’s how come, look like Papa, he felt sorry for me, I reckon. Her husband did, and I called him the only Papa I knew. So they all – I was always sickly and puny and: “Give her anything she wanted,” that’s what Dr. Williams – white doctor – so he said, “She can’t live nohow.” And that’s when I had the pneumonia. And so I didn’t want nothing but water. So, “Well, give her all the water she want ‘cause she can’t live nohow.” But I fooled ‘em! Dr. Williams’ gone, Mama’s gone, all of ‘em, and I’m sitting right here!”
The mantel at 303 Elba Street, 2014.
And for most of my life, she was right there indeed. Every summer, when we drove up from North Carolina to spend a week with her in Philadelphia. Every winter, when she came down to spend the holidays with us and my aunt’s family and her sister. Later, when I was in law school and grad school, I spent my breaks with her, and I even lived with her a short bit when I moved to Philadelphia. I will regret till I’m gone that I did not visit her more often after I left, but when I did I had the good sense to record her stories. Her death was my first real loss, the one that broke the spell, and it pangs me almost as much now as it ever did. I miss this woman.
Remembering Hattie Mae Henderson Ricks (6 June 1910-15 January 2001), my Mother Dear.