Mae Howell, mother, cook, servant. Mae Howell, the ample woman who moved through my grandmother’s home, transforming the environment, bringing order and cleanliness, creating those unbelievable smells that would gently tease my nose and cause my stomach to growl – “feed me now.” Mae Howell, African-American, black, that dignified “colored woman” with whom I would sit in the back of the bus as it rocked through the streets of Macon, Georgia.
She would take me with her everywhere and I was always glad to go. At four years old, with no dad, the world would always seem a pretty confusing place, but whenever I was with Mae, things always seemed alright – that was Mae. We would go and visit the butcher at the Piggly-Wiggly, who would somehow make candy magically appear from within that great white apron. With Mae, everybody was my friend.
After the market, we would come home and Mae would let me climb the step ladder right up to the top of the shelves, where I would deposit a can of this or a can of that. I could stand so far up there, I knew I could almost touch God, right up there next to the ceiling! Bigger than everything and everybody! With Mae, I was always bigger.
The best days included the park. She would sit with the other women and I would climb the big hill pulling an old cardboard box behind me. Then, as if on green snow, I would slide down that hill like a streak, crashing onto the soft grass at the bottom. My pants would be stained, my face muddy. Mae would just sit with her friends and point and laugh. She knew how to remove all the dirt on a little child’s life – the dirt of alcoholism, the dirt of violence, the dirt that no child should have to bear. The dirt of the horror that she bore every day of her life. The dirt and terror that she faced in a thousand different ways.
Mae died a few years ago. Mae, dignified, kind, loving. Mae, who never ate with my family, who always entered through the back door, and who always sat at the back of the bus. Mae, African-American, dismissed, diminished, violated. Mae, blessed. Mae, saint. Mae, Jesus.
And as they shouted, “Crucify him!” in his pain, in agony, he looked down upon them with love, and said, “Father forgive them, for they have no clue, no idea, who it is that they crucify.”
God, forgive us.