I was nervous the first time I met Miss Alberta. Did I have the right to intrude upon her privacy just because I once lived in the same house in which her great-grandmother was born a slave? I had a little talk with myself to make sure my interest in her was ignited by a genuine quest to make some sense of why and how our paths crossed.
We first met on neutral territory – a library. Books ease all things. With her was Clara, a lady who had been Miss Alberta’s caregiver, friend and protector for well over twenty years. At the time, Miss Alberta was 94 years old and as bright, intelligent and clear-headed as a woman twenty years younger. As we began to get a sense of each other, I noticed her long, elegant fingers clutched a plastic bag.
“If you want to know who I am, what I feel, it’s all in the book.”
She produced a volume of self-published poetry that she’d spent most of her life writing.
Then Miss Alberta invited me into her world. On a stifling August morning, so hot that the air quickly dampened my skin and curled my hair, I drove along the gravel road that was Bibbtown, although Bibbtown was not a town, not even a village. It was named after Major Richard Bibb, the Revolutionary war hero who, in 1820, owned over one hundred slaves in Kentucky and built his antebellum mansion in a small town, a few miles away.
This farmland acreage on the outskirts of town, deeded to Bibb’s former slaves, was barely touched by modernity except for a few telephone lines and even those disappeared as I approached Miss Alberta’s home. Her one room trailer sat a few yards from the church. Her farmhouse and all of her possessions were destroyed by fire in 1977. It was then that Clara first came to her aid. Miss Alberta lived without electricity, a telephone, or running water. Clara rigged up a generator and a gas contraption of which I never understood the workings. Miss Alberta was a pack rat, so reams of paper, books, and odd items were stacked to the ceiling. This fire hazard often caused Clara sleepless nights.
Miss Alberta was no longer able to work the fields of her ancestors on which she had raised tobacco and gardened, but she still cared for the 150 year old Bibbtown African Methodist Zion Church, also called Arnold’s Chapel, that her relatives helped build. There were only three members left, but as long as she was able, she cleaned it and readied it for monthly services. We approached the simple white clapboard building to the tune of Miss Alberta’s big set of keys that dangled in her hands. Its solitary decoration, an unassuming cross on the roof’s peak represented the only clue that it was a church.
I was not prepared for the beauty inside. The hand crafted hardwood floor supported solid wooden pews the color of molasses, shiny and smooth with wear. The mint green walls were cool and a respite from the sun. An old upright sat against a wall and Miss Alberta asked me to play. She was a deeply religious woman, but a non-believer in denominations. She fancied singing a hymn. I hadn’t played a hymn since I’d lost my baby fat and the F key and it’s cousin F sharp failed to produce a sound, but we muddled through two verses and it made her happy.
She then chose a pew and we sat quietly together until she was ready to speak.
“My great-great grandmother worked in the big house. And my great grandmother Catherine was born there. Major Bibb, his reputation was supposed to have been spotless, was Catherine’s father. Against her will. That’s why my family’s so light skinned. That happened a lot back then.”
Catherine Bibb Arnold
She looked away from me when she said, “I didn’t know my father, either. I know today that kind of thing is accepted, but back then it was deeply shameful.”
The “big house” eventually ended up in the hands of an eccentric, but business sharp elderly lady who wore no other color but red. I visited her frequently as a young girl. She bequeathed the house to my father. We moved out of the funeral home where we’d spent most of our lives and into the antique-filled antebellum home. Then we lost it, but that’s another story.
Before I left her that day Miss Alberta told me that many years ago a lady in red came to see her. She too sought to unravel the tangled threads of the history of her house.
When Miss Alberta celebrated her ninety-ninth birthday, Clara was her biggest cheerleader. She tried to positive-talk Miss Alberta into staying for another year, to hang around for the big one. But Miss Alberta was tired and ready to go. We lost her that year.