My mother's younger sister, Aunt Vivian Allen-Jernigan, adored her grandmother, and loved to tell about how -- once the chores were completed in the fields, and at the end of the day,
"When I was a small child "Mammå" would sink into the living-room rocking chair and with an ever-so-slight motion with her hand would send me to a secret place beside the fireplace to bring forth a little corncob pipe and tobacco pouch from behind a loose brick. She made me feel as if this was a secret shared between us. She would then send me to bed while she remained seated -- silently drawing on her pipe until the house of many people would settle down for the night. It was only then that she would climb under the mosquito netting of the big bed -- until the first morning light."
By far the most intriguing story had to do with the critical role Mammå played in the little community of St. James. She was the town "medical assistant," serving as "intern" for the circuit-rider doctor who came through on horseback about every 3 months. She also served as the town's midwife and delivered not only family babies, but for most of the women in their village. I suspect that this would have been for African Americans, only, though I'm not sure about this. After visiting the African American Historical National Park in Anacostia -- and seeing the exhibits of those women who served as midwives -- it wasn't made clear.
During the few days before the doctor's visit it was she who rode her horse through St. James calling on all those who may need medical attention. The routine was that she'd place a white towel on the gate posts of each home where help was needed, and that this determined just where he would stop. According to Vivian's account, the doctor would confer with Mammå on patient's aftercare, and that it was she who would be accountable for their health issues until his return months later.
Those stories made her one of my personal heroes early in life, and during the 1995 honoring ceremonies -- being named one of ten outstanding women by the National Women's History Project I had cause to wonder ... one never feels worthy, I suppose, but I came to terms with the proceedings upon realizing that I'd spent my whole life -- never seeking public office or acclaim (though surely was courted from time to time) but that, instead, I'd been completely satisfied to find fulfillment in draping symbolic "white towels" over imaginary gateposts anywhere help might be needed throughout not only my community, but as a field representative for the 14th Assembly District in later life, and, now in my role with the National Park Service.
"Children will listen,"
It is her work that provides shape and form to mine to this day, and she is cited in my commentaries at the twice-weekly theater presentations -- and with great pride and humility. She and I are players in the great American narrative, as are so many extraordinary ordinary people.