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Blues For Anna
5/7/2014 3:49:26 PM

By Jim French

The blues singers in the back alley joints of my Kansas boyhood were discreet entertainers on Mother’s Day. My brother-in-law, Seldom Seen, would gather his 8-string steel guitar and sit in the dark corner of a club called Odie Miller and croak his grieving blues in a personal concert that would have embarrassed him when he was sober. I miss those boozers when my thoughts run to them and remembrances are stirred up every time Mother's Day approaches. I can’t explain it.

It was during my salad days when the solvent would send me to Odie Miller’s joint to refill a Kayro Syrup container with draft beer. On this particular day, when my momma returned earlier-than-expected from work, that was the last time of earning small change as a beer courier.

Of course, this is about my mother, Anna French, yet it is about the Black mothers on my block whose lives bore the strains of disappointments, frustrations, and tragedies, the prejudices, that were as common as the wrinkles on their faces.

It is about Anna who was never a success at anything, whose years were depleted working as a domestic in the homes of the affluent, mean-years when she had to neglect her own own brood of six girls and four boys. She made up for what we didn't have by nourishing our hopes and dreams with love and understanding. My daddy, Tom French, was there, too, but it was Anna that kept us all together.

It offended me when Anna would leave our wood-shingled house with the outhouse in smelling range, and take the long walk in the snow or blistering heat to the “house on the hill” before daybreak and return at dusk with leftovers from the table of the able. We would race down the narrow alleyway to meet her and as weary as she was, there was that big hug as if we were something special. Such remembrances are precious.

It is noticed that those whom we feel have contributed to mankind have their heads and bodies etched in granite and their names on signposts for their remembered achievements. There are buildings around town and on college campuses, to remind us that a professor or scientist, often neglected in life, has not been allowed to disappear from the tongues of the living.

There is no statue or street named for Anna French, but she was as pure as the true artist and as courageous as an explorer toiling to improve the conditions of mankind. Nor will there be songs celebrating the perseverance of thousands of Black women peering from the windows of a CARTA bus, making their way from the homes of the affluent, bearing the testimonials of white paternalism. Anna French was proud of the work she did. I make no apologies for the work she performed and, in her words, as long as its honest.

So I’m not embarrassed to use the word bravery and courageous when I discuss her. Many children today accuse their parents of being selfish, demean them with disrespect. However, Anna didn’t taint us with pity and she believed in the ethnics of work.

Anna was pleased when I got my first job at 14-years in a cattle-processing plant across the Missouri River in a city built around a stock-yard economy that moved with cows and pigs victimized by sledge hammers and razor-sharp knives. I would stand knee-deep in blood all day removing tongues from the heads of cows as they moved along conveyor hooks, disgusted with what I was engaged in but made happy on payday.

Anna had a way of giving sage advice, saying that it makes no sense to get a free education and still be a dumb nigger. She didn’t use those exact words but the point was made. I had dropped out of high school in the 10th grade until my sister, Nan, in St. Louis persuaded me to return and at least to pursue my diploma, which I did. Being a dumb nigger made no sense. Thanks, Anna. Thanks Nan.

It pains me when I recall the classmates at the Catholic school I attended for eight-years, serving as an altar boy for four, never enduring the pangs of abuse now so prevalent in this modern society. Anna would worry herself into tears because what we had to wear wasn't the type of clothing needed for the cold winter days on my block when the kids saw me with rags tied around worn-out tennis shoes. In my senior year, I washed the same white shirt and pants in a bucket each night because that is all we had. The only defense against the ridicule was vested in the understanding between a mother and son. I cherish her memory for it.

On late nights in the summer heat when Anna, sitting on the front porch humming unremembered melodies and drawn weary from the labors in other folks mansions, she would dig among the items in her purse and find enough change to buy us ice cream. It was considered a treat and to this day I’m addicted to the stuff.

Nowadays, I sleep in a king-size bed, have a flushing toilet, a working cooling box, a cooker with push-button instant heat, and there is beer in the box. But I can't forget the summer nights when we all would sit outside at bedtime, reluctant to go inside, because the bed bugs held us ransom until daybreak. After awhile, poverty becomes a way of life and I would awake in the middle of night, half asleep and not caring, instinctly call out for my momma whose only defense was to turn on the one light in the room, such as it was. But she was there, she was there!

My mother had become used to walking, having to walk each working day to the place where she labored. One year, she decided to visit a daughter, Tillie, in Detroit. It was perhaps the only time that she ever left the home and we were glad to see her go. What we didn’t know was the tragedy that occurred.

One peaceful evening, she took a walk in the neighborhood when a lady learning to drive, lost control of the car, ran upon the sidewalk, pinning Anna against the building. The ensuing months she was encased in an ice-filled unit and the Catholic nurses called her their “Angel of Mercy” for her strong character and belief in God.

My sister, Nan, in St.Louis, whose husband was a highly-respected surgeon, chartered a plane to bring her back to Kansas. In the process, she lost the use of one eye, an arm, and both of her legs, but never her faith. She refused to leave the wood-shingled house where we were raised, saying this was home, and each morning the priest would stop in to say The Rosary.

So it is with me on this Mother’s Day and all the other days of the calendar, remembering Anna French for all she gave and never losing the belief in her children when we stumbled. In her own way she prepared me spiritually and mentally for the journey, I have set for myself to help free my people from the imposed shackles of bondage. She would have been proud, grateful for the blues I hum. Mercy!

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