Mary Lee Bendolph is one of Gee’s Bend’s community memory keepers. In 1999 she was the subject of “Crossing Over,” the Los Angeles Times’s Pulitzer Prize–winning article about the effort to reestablish ferry service across the Alabama River.
Families down here, they like to do together. See, we farm together, and the ladies in the family get together for quilting. In them days, they farm three months, then when the lay-by time come—’round the last of May, June—they go to piecing quilts. August, go back to the field. October and November, up into December—and then after Christmas and New Year over with—back to piecing and quilting. Piece by yourself; quilt together.
When you go to quilt, you beat the cotton out on the floor, first thing, to get the dust out. Then sweep the floor—collect the cotton—spread the lining out and put the cotton back on the lining, beat it out, put the top on there, get your thread and needles and hook it in the quilting frame.
Most of the families down here did the same thing—piece by theirselves and come together to quilt. On my side, my family, we go fast, don’t follow no patterns so close. Other families take more time, do slow work. They don’t get out in the road much like us did. We just try to put it together and get it through with. We don’t try to style it or nothing. Folks call some of this kind of stuff “crazy quilts”—don’t know which-a-way it going. I never did go by a pattern. Didn’t none us. I mostly take after my aunt Louella, but I never make a quilt altogether like anybody. I watched Mama back when she could work, but she was slow and careful more than me.
We got a big family spread out down here making quilts: Mama and her sister Louella Pettway; Mama’s sister Virginia, her daughter Linda Pettway, and Linda’s daughters, Lucy Witherspoon and Gloria Hoppins; my mother-in-law, Indiana Bendolph Pettway. My sister Lillie Mae, she made real pretty quilts before she passed. Mama’s first cousin Deborah Young could make beautiful quilts, and her daughter Arcola. My daughter, Essie, always been doing good work since she was little. She a very strong-minded person. Determination. She like to make things like I make, but she look at it and go home and do it better.
My daddy was Wisdom Mosely and my mama was Aolar Mosely. She was good at healing peoples. She was a lovely, caring person. She go down in the woods and pick some stuff—I missed out on that part, can’t do none of that—and mix it up and give it to us, make us well. Only time we go to the doctor was with toothache—she couldn’t pull teeth—or if something was broke. She couldn’t do that.
My mother rubbed a lot of people and stopped they hurting. She always would be there for you. I don’t care who need her. She say the Lord tell you to give. The more you give, the more you get. She say you got to always say you have it even if you didn’t have it. Don’t ever say you ain’t got something. If folks think you ain’t got nothing, you can’t get nothing from them. If they think you got it, they give you some more.
Back then mamas didn’t never tell they children about having babies. If she told me, I about wouldn’t have had them. We didn’t know nothing about how it happen. We just think the mid-doctor come and give the baby to the parents. Mama would go to the doctor and come back with a baby. We think the doctor had give it to her.
One day, I got ready to go to school and Mama wouldn’t let me go. I ask her why I couldn’t go. She say, “You don’t want to go.” I kept asking her why I don’t go. She say, “You big.” That meant I was with a baby. I cried and prayed all day for the Lord to take it away from me, but he didn’t. Nothing but made me big and fat. The first time I had sex, my period came along. The next time I had sex, I got pregnant. I learnt the hard way.
I got to the sixth grade. When I got pregnant I had to quit. Mama knew the school wouldn’t take you when you pregnant. They made you quit, and after you had the baby you couldn’t go back to school. Soon as the school see you pregnant, you had to go home and stay. They say it was against the law for a lady to go to school and be pregnant, ’cause that influence the other children to get pregnant. Soon as you have a baby, you couldn’t never go to the school again.
When Essie—she my only daughter—when she turn fourteen, I sat down and talk with her and the boys, the three that was older than Essie, and Beaver, he was right under her. And I told them I prayed to the Lord that he could let me know things so I can tell them, so they wouldn’t go and grow up as stupid as I did. Some people not a breeding woman, but I was one. I was a fast breeder. I was little, but I got grown ’fore time. I got a baby when I didn’t need him. Dropped out of school. Fourteen years old. Didn’t even finish the middle school. Just moved through life too fast. Even now I could sit down and relax, but I still moving too fast.
I prayed a whole lot during that time for the Lord to help show me. One night in my rest, I had this big dream the airplane and the helicopter was riding over our head—a lot of people on the ground—and when they lit down, peoples started to running—but I didn’t run. Some white peoples and colored peoples, all mixed together, got off the plane and looked like they was having a meeting. I woke up and that dream wouldn’t get off my mind. I told Mama, “Something coming here to this place.”
I kept dreaming that dream about a helicopter—I always tell Mama ’cause she was good at telling me what the dreams mean, and she’d tell me to keep on praying, and the Lord will tell me things. And what I dreamed come to pass: Martin Luther King came to that big old church here in Gee’s Bend, up on the hill, Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. He stood up and talked. I didn’t miss nothing.
And when he went to Camden, I had to beg my husband to let me go—but I went. We rode on Monroe Pettway’s truck, Bootnie’s husband. I was in the group with Martin Luther King when he went up to drink the “white” water. He wanted us to know that the water wasn’t no different and to let the white people know that we could all drink the same water. So, I went up to drink me some of it, and Lillie Mae, my oldest sister, caught hold to my coat. I put my arms back behind me and let that coat be pulled right off. I was on my way to that fountain to drink. I was going to drink the white water. I got to it, but she pulled me away, so I didn’t get none of the white water that day. She thought they was going to hurt me. She was supposed to take care of me. She was so humble and sweet. I was the bad guy in the family. I always could be more straight out, didn’t like holding back nothing. When I finally did get to drink that white water, it wasn’t no different. I wondered what all the fussing was about. I couldn’t see why they wanted to keep us from that water, unless they just thought we was dirty.
We have a good community. I thank the Lord for the peoples here. We hardly have a killing here. You don’t have to worry about locking up things. When I first married and I locked up the doors, my husband say, “We don’t have to lock up things here.” We left the key in the truck all the time. Ain’t nobody bothered it, year after year. I’m satisfied right here where I’m at. I’ll go visit some place. But to live there? No.
I don’t know enough to live in a city. I can’t hear good enough to live in a city. Cars go too fast in a city. When I went to Connecticut, they was pretty good in the part I was in, but they don’t do for each other. My son and I watched this white man trying to move a big old rock, and he had done dig around it until noon, and I told my son, “Go help that white man.” And he say, “I ain’t going nowhere help that man. Mama, you don’t help nobody here; you ain’t in the country.” I went out there and say to the white man, “You want me to move that block?” And he say, “Naw, I can’t let you do that.” So I say, “You want me to show you how?” And he say, “How you know about that?” And I say, “My mama taught me.”