The Little Girl on the Swing BY: TOM GABRIELSEN
Even though we lived so differently in two places, we had one thing in common. We were both poor, but that did not keep us from being happy. Both our parents taught us the good values in life that would be an inspiration to others, which would last a life time. Unknown to both of us, we would someday cross paths on the east end of Long Island.
In 1896 a little baby girl was born in Bennettsville, South Carolina. Slavery was abolished long before, however her mama stayed on and still worked very hard in the cotton fields. She would pick cotton from early in the morning, until late in the day. The little girl would play on the swing, which was made with two ropes fastened with an old worn out short plank, hanging from a big arched branch in a mature mossy oak tree. She would wait hours for her mama to come home. There were chickens walking in the yard, looking down and pecking at anything that looked like feed. Birds were singing from the branches above. Finally, she would spot her mama walking down the narrow dirt driveway, dressed with a light colored cotton skirt down to her ankles, a white blouse that reached to her wrists and leather shoes that were worn from the many miles of walking. She would jump off the swing and run to her mama and give her a loving hug. As she walked with mama, holding hands, they would enter into their small, wooden, one room cabin, which they called home.
When I became six years old, my mom taught us how to help other people in need even though we were very poor ourselves. We used to get boxes of bread, pies and bent food cans which did not sell at the market. The bread and pies were free, but they charged 10 cents each for the bent cans. Even though we did not have much, mom would pack a large box of food and send me to the poor family down the road, across from Mrs. Fox’s old brown house. After knocking on the door, the mother would answer and always tell me, “thank you.” As I walked away, this would always give me a good feeling inside. Thirty years later after moving to the east end, where both the rich and poor live, I was doing what I was taught; and this is how I met Thelma.
I picked her house at random and knocked on the front door. Looking around, I noticed the roof needed repairs. The siding on the little bungalow looked like it was not painted for years. The grass was not cut and there were some old clay flower pots leaning against the foundation. In the side yard I could hear the birds singing in a maple tree on this calm and sunny day. “Who is it?,” I heard someone ask from inside, taking my attention from the yard. “I’m here with vegetables if you need any,” I answered. After a moment the door slowly opened, as it dragged on the carpet inside. There stood this elderly lady with a long dress and colorful blouse with sleeves down to her elbows, leaning on a cane. She had such a lovely smile on her face. She invited me in and I brought her potatoes, broccoli, greens, and an assortment of other vegetables. We talked for awhile, and later as I left, she thanked me and watched from the front porch. She sat down in the rocking chair and waved as I drove off. I knew then, I’d come back.
Many years passed by and I would bring her food and she would share her wisdom with me. Somehow, I felt more blessed in what she gave me, because it was more than I could give to her. She would talk for hours about her life. Sometimes she would stare at the opposite wall and look as if watching something that was afar off. Her gaze was fixed and it seemed that I was actually there as she described in detail what she was thinking. She talked about her childhood and later as she grew up. Thelma described how she met her husband and the many happy years with him. Later though, he started drinking and would not come home for many days. Then she found out that he was not faithful, and had cheated on her. She paused for a moment, and I could see the pain she was feeling, as I looked at her face. As I listened, she shared many other stories about her vivacious life.
One day I went to her home and she was not there. A neighbor said she was very ill and I rushed to the hospital and saw her lying there. She had a mini stoke and could not talk. I went over and held her weak, frail hand. Looking up at me, she smiled. It made her happy that I was there. Later, as she recovered, Thelma could talk again. After returning home, one night she told me the most beautiful thing that anyone ever said to me. “I prayed to the good Lord last night and asked if he would take any remaining years that I had and give them to you.” I was so touched when she told me this, because she was sincere and meant it, showing how sweet and unselfish she was. What a genuine love Thelma had for me.
About a month later, I found out that Thelma was dying. I went to the hospital hoping to see her one more time. Walking into her room it was calm and the lights were dim. She was asleep, laying quietly without moving and looked very peaceful. Ninety seven years with all of life’s ups and downs, here she lay all alone. It seemed so sad that she was dying and no one else was there to spend time with her, for she had nobody. Sitting down next to her, I looked at her frail body and gray hair. I studied her face and as I watched, a tear came down my face, then another. How I loved and missed talking with her. I thought about all the time we spent together and the wisdom she taught me. I was there until the late hours of the night and it was long past visiting hours. Never knew if a nurse or someone had looked in the room and seen me there. If they did, they didn’t say anything and let me be with her.
I looked at her in a different way now. Not the elderly lady that was lying there, but the young child in her youth. I started to remember some of the stories she would tell me through the years and could see her playing as a little child. I could see the little girl on the swing, with her hair tied back in pony tails, looking towards the old dirt driveway that led to their home, swinging back and forth, back and forth, waiting for her mama. I could see her spotting her mama and running up to her and giving her a hug, with a smile on her face and saying, “Hi Mammy, I missed you.”
Finally, I stood up to go and knew that this would be the last time I would see her. We were friends, a black widow and a white man. At least she had her best friend with her now. I had difficulty leaving and struggled with the thought because I did not want her to be there alone. It seemed so unfair. After walking to the door, I turned and looked back. As I watched, it occurred to me that somewhere her mama was the one who was waiting this time. Waiting to tell her, “Hi Thelma, I missed you.” Then they could hug, hold hands, and go home together one last time.