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Bridges of Cloth
by Shirley A. Blair Keller

Fred Davis took his son Sam and me to Arkansas to see his mother after Fred and I had dated a couple of years. He assured me that even though his mother was a bigot she would behave.

Evelyn showed us around the studio with one swing of her arm, and sighed an apology for the smallness. City living was not for her but the retirement community in Fort Smith eased her children’s minds.

“Come here,” she ordered. “See the yellow roses?” We leaned out the window.

“The grounds keeper let me plant the flowers and vegetables.” She smiled, proud of the square yard of garden. “This old body can barely do that much anymore."

Evelyn asked to see pictures of my children.

“Oh, aren’t they beautiful?” she exclaimed, seeming not to notice that my two sons are brown.

Left on the porch of an orphanage, Evelyn Davis was a thrown away child. When old enough, she moved to the home of Fred’s grandparents. Mrs. Davis had ten children and needed help with cleaning and cooking.

Fred’s father was in his early twenties, a tall man, over six feet. Evelyn’s 16 year old, slim frame fit his. She recognized his attraction to her, but she was practical. “If you want me,” she said, “first, buy a house. Second, marry me.”

He bought the house next door, married her, and they raised six children.

Fred wanted to show Sam and me the “Home Place,” Altus, Arkansas. We followed a country road until it joined the Arkansas River. A small train station, the center of the hamlet, gathered dust.

Fred found his father’s grave in the graveyard, a flat stone in the grass. We kept our distance, while a flow of tears fell on the dusty grave at Fred’s feet.

“Should we go over?” asked Sam. The wind blew Sam’s hair, white blond at birth, now turned dark. He brushed the hair out of his brown eyes. His father’s tears made him uneasy.

“Leave him be. He needs to be with his Daddy,” Evelyn assured as she reached across me and patted Sam’s arm.

She said, “I should have held him. Poor Fred. I was an orphan and thought work was what I was to do. I never sat at his bed to read. Now I know I should have. But I didn’t know then.” I took her hand and squeezed. She smiled. We turned, walked arm in arm, to give Fred privacy.

“There’s much I didn’t know,” Mrs. Davis said. “Like race. I thought segregation natural, never questioned it. I knew colored people, had nothing against them. God made us different. We should live separate."

“The 60th year of my life, I’m in church. The new minister says that racial prejudice is morally wrong.” All 5’10” of her blocked out the sun. Her thin brown hair, streaked with gray, flew in the breeze, and crinkled skin framed brown eyes wide opened with surprise. She looked at the blue sky with its puffy white clouds, as if she were conversing with God.

“If racial prejudice is morally wrong, then my total acceptance of the southern way of life had been morally wrong.” She shook her head, looked down at the ground. I waited. She walked. I followed.

“I realized that differences between people did not justify segregation,” she said. Evelyn faced Sam and me. “I stopped my bigoted thinking right then and there.” Fred did not know about this change in his mother.

The day we were leaving, Evelyn said, “Wait. I have something for you. Stand right there at the door and don’t move.” She rushed to the kitchen. Cupboards opened and slammed. I felt sad that we were about to return to California and I probably would never see her again.

“I want you to have these tea towels,” she said, and placed cloth into my hands. “I wish it was more. I can’t rightly remember when I did these, maybe forty or fifty years ago,” she said. “I crocheted the edges and did the embroidery myself.” Stains of age discolored the white linen yellow.

I had washed the pieces of cloth, bleached out the stains, and stored them upon returning. Fred and I went our separate ways and soon after I heard Evelyn Davis died.

I remember her as I iron and lay out the embroidered cloth to decorate the holidays, and feel grateful I had the opportunity to meet a woman who was not afraid to change and who built bridges to cross old divides. When I fold the cloth to be stored until the next holiday, I feel Evelyn’s presence -- and it gives me hope for the New Year.


Shirley A. Blair Keller and her husband live in Three Rivers, California. She is in search of publishers at this time for two projects, a memoir and a children's picture book. Keller writes fiction, nonfiction and poetry.

"But What About The Children?" is the grandfather's question as the writer's Russian Jewish Californian mother was about to marry an African American Christian Texan gentleman. The story is the writer's answer half a century later, "Grandpa, we are richer for the experience." The short story Bridges of Cloth is an excerpt from this book. The children's picture book, Two Owls In Search of a Meal, is about a family of owls and a family of humans, drawn together, who are forced to communicate.

Read another of Shirley's stories here: SOUTHERN COOKING MAKES A DIFFERENCE

Write Shirley Keller at SpiritHill.

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