I remember Mary like the sun: warm and strong and unfailing. She came to be my baby nurse when I was five months old. She always hummed a quiet song while she worked, a green rubber band around her wrist. She was a regular part of my life in one way or another until I was 11. I don’t remember what we did together, or what our days were like. I mostly remember her: deep and rich as soil, twinkling like a dark star. She made the house feel calm. Somehow she and I were conspirators, making up stories and drawing on spirits together.
I know she taught me to ride a two-wheel bike when I was three, and I actually remember a bit of that: her round body running alongside me, then behind me as my pedaling took hold, then standing in the cul-de-sac laughing her sweet hee hee hee, which I will never forget, as I rode triumphant in a big circle back to her.
I know I was in her daughter’s wedding, dressed in white and wearing cowboy boots, a small, white child surrounded by very large, very stylish black men who smiled at me, laughed, picked me up. They treated me like a brother.
Some years we had Thanksgiving at Mary’s house in Hillsborough, with her husband Earl and her nine kids: Earl Jr, Melvin, Russell, Lash LaRue, David, Sharkita, Theresa, Teeny and Audrey. They grew all their own food in the lot behind their little house. Corn and yams, collards greens, turnips. They raised chickens. They hunted too and we ate small game.
On one of those visits my mom challenged Mary to a footrace through the cornfield. My mom and Mary were born one day apart and nearly the same size and shape. I remember the family gathering outside to watch, and Mary tearing through the corn stalks like a drag racer, hee hee hee the whole way. She left mom in the dust and they both loved every minute of it.
Years later Ash and I went to visit Mary, still in that same house, to tell her we were engaged. We sat in their kitchen, Mary in her Rascal – the motorized wheelchair she’d been consigned to – and told stories. Mary was just as I remembered her: twinkle in her eyes, slow drawl, and still funny. We told her about my proposal to Ash, at a hot spring near Joshua Tree. She told us about getting the Rascal’s front wheel stuck in a groundhog hole behind the house when no one was home. “I reckoned I’d just wait there to die, hee hee hee.” We all laughed.
I hugged Mary when we left. My second momma. Less than a year later she was dead. I wrote a letter to the Woods family to say how much I loved her and how much their family meant to me. They wrote me back:
“Jeb our little brother, remember that you are loved and have a big family here. Tell Ashley to make the harmonious sounds of a choir singing as momma did for you. That is a gift of love that she can give your child, as an honor to momma. You and Ashley are loved greatly and will be forever in our hearts. Love, your family, The Woods.”
Naming our child Woods was a surprise. But as soon as the name came out it conjured that forgotten space: the soul and the song, the gentle laugh, North Carolina, the softness of a family I chose, that chose me back. It felt right. Still does. Feels stronger every day.