By Judith Alexander Augustine
A stroll with my mother, Hermi, across the Chattahoochee River in the spring of 1971 brought us to the small, sleepy village of Vinings, all decked out in fragrant, delicate wisteria and bouncing dogwood blossoms. We encountered three girls, eager to be photographed and to tell us that there was one person we should meet - Miss Nellie. "She's kinda crazy," they said, "and she's real nice and friendly. You'll see her house - it's the one with all the things hanging from the trees." They scampered off to wherever they were headed, with smiling glances over their shoulders reminding me to bring them the photo I took.
Down the road a bit was the only place the girls could have meant - a small cabin surrounded by little things so colorful that from a distance, it looked like an irrepressible garden in bloom. I knocked on the door and was greeted warmly by the deep, gravely voice and generous spirit of Nellie Mae Rowe.
She welcomed us inside, where the sense of ebullience from outside continued without pause, and where she was busy arranging some newly acquired plastic roses and papier maché canaries and peppers, "placing" them (as she always said) precisely where she knew they should be. She invited me to look around, take all the pictures I pleased, and said it was fine for me to record her as she spoke, occasionally interrupting herself with the singing of a hymn.
And so I did take pictures. Lots of pictures.
"You jus' keep takin' me! Here let me take my glasses off. You know, glasses looks funny with 'em on ... wuh-huh. I'll stand right here ... you gonna have to get out in the road, ain't you? Now, I aint' gonna look straight at you ... I'm gonna look sideways."
"I like livin' on the side of the road. Don't get lonely even tho I ain't got no folks. You know, I jus' gain friends! I know how to to treat people ... but people's strange, white people! They stop here and talk with me ... I don't know why. They jus' ... come to see me! You know, once they - long time ago - they thought I was a fortune teller. Wuh-huh. They done me bad the first time. They come by here and knock all my window glasses out and so one time I was layin' down there, and hit was three - you couldn't tell the boys from the girls - and they long hair down to there - and I got up and they hollered and run and so the next time they come, I say, 'What's wrong', I say, 'what are ya runnin' from me for?' She say, 'Well, I thought you was a fortune teller and a who-doer.' I say, 'Well that wasn't the way to do me. You oughta find that out,' I say, 'cause I ain't no fortune teller ... naw. 'Cause I don't know a thing they do ... I don't know nothin' like that.' They didn't bother me again ... naw ... and they been back to see me again since then too."
Reflecting a moment, she said, "I tell you, I likes friends. I don't like to be mean. I like to do good cause you got to die one day and you cain't go to heaven bein' mean. Gotta do good." I glanced up on the wall at one of her drawings - a white hand within a black hand and the words, as if to stress her point: "What on Earth you are doing. For gooding Sake Be Good. For Gooding Sake."
Tossing a plastic green pepper from one wizened hand to the other, she mumbled to herself, "This here looks like a real pepper. I'm gonna keep that in the house cuz someone'll come on and git it ... they might think this is a real pepper." And then, in a stronger voice, "Yeah ... I'd rather have it in the house here with my little birds."
I wandered into another room, a tiny room with piled up mattresses and leavings of one sort or another and she heard the click of my camera. "You ain't took pictures in there in amongst all THAT tacky stuff! I got it all tore up out there. Reason I say I got it all tore up, see, peoples give me so much and I have to find somewhere to put it! Naw, don't you take out there, baby, that tacky !!! Take in the other room but not in there 'cause it's hellis' lookin! Folks don't ... you know, people don't like to see tacky stuff like that now. That-er is tore up a little too bad out there!"
The pile of mattresses had caught her attention and she wanted to clarify. " See how high my bed is here? Miz White at the Post Office, she give me that-er inner spring mattress; another white lady give me a good, good mattress and I jus' wouldn't throw 'em out you know. People's jus' givin' me sumthin' all the time. That the reason I jus' wouldn't throw 'em out an' I jus' pile 'em up on top o' one another. Now, when summer come, when it get hot weather, I cleans up out there and sleeps out there."
I lifted my camera again, when I saw her face absorbed, tilted at an interesting angle, bathed in a lovely light. She insisted it was fine for me to photograph anything - including her - but still she said, "Oh! You're takin' me! You little bugger you! I sho' would like to see your pictures you takin'." I assured her that would happen.
She pointed to one of her hand-made dolls. "You can take the face of that doll, yeah, he's ugly - he looks like he's got his mouth too big." Toward another one she points and says, "I made this doll too and I can make 'em with fingers and the one I made with fingers, I burnt it up - it done got old. I can make 'em with fingers and paint the finger nails. I made one two years ago and hit done rained on it and it got old. I take this one in, but I ruint her and made her mouth too big. The next one I make, I'm gonna make her with fingers and paint her fingernails."
" I didn't make that big dog there though. A white lady give hit to me and she had a little old girl too. And she taken it and give it to me!"
"I gots to chew gum at night, on account of a fly flew in my mouth and now I have that jumpin' in my head. So I chews gum - a lot of gum - and it keeps the jumpin' down. Doctor say its from my ears. My head jus' jump, jump. So I keep the chewing gum in the frigidaire and when I have aplenty, I make somethin' with it. I only use my own gum, though. Won't use no gum nobody else done chewed!"
"Over there, that's my Inyun (Indian). The chewing gum's done melted down on him. See, that's chewing gum what I've chewed up and that ain't even all of it. I jus' chew chewing gum and I save it and its an Inyun and see - that's the lips. I put that stick in his mouth for a pipe. That's his eyes - those seashells. I got a big ball of chewing gum in the frigidaire and I made a dog out of it. But his legs done come off ... wuh-huh ... lemme go get it.
She padded back in from the kitchen holding a chewing gum dog with a tin foil collar and lamented, "Now, this here was bright and purty when I first put it up, you know, but I put it in the frigidaire and its done come aloose now. I think I'm gonna throw it away now. I mean when I first made it, it was so purty. It's made out of chewing gum." A little jostling and suddenly she was holding two chunks of chewing gum. And a coil of tin foil. "Uh, see? Now his head done come off!"
"And see this? This here was his tail, but it's done come off too and I am tired of keeping it in the frigidaire."
"But that was so purty when I first made it. It was bright and purty but it's done ... you know ... turnt. I'll lay it outside and when it get warm I can stick this tail back on, but I ain't gonna stick it back in the frigidaire 'cause I got others in there. But when I first got it, it was so purty - but it's done turnt ugly now."
"And this here's a man! Ya see? I added a little worm!!!", she said with a deep laugh. "But it won't stay on outside the frigidaire. Hit got melted. Hits feet done come off too." She paused and laughed again and mumbled, "But I had that little thing that stick out ... I wouldn't let no mens see that you know!" ... more laughter... "and I stickin' on those little titties ... but it stay out here and it get hot and I have to glue it back together. I'll glue it and then I'll keep it in the frigidaire."
Surveying the area in front of her house, she said, "Sometimes I go down to Food Town when they be unloadin' stuff and I gets egg cartons and bread things ... whu-huh ... they loses stuff and I gets it! Reason I tell you ... I picked up everything you see - everything -- jus' pick it up. Other than what people's give me."
"That 'er carton hangin' yonder on the tree ... I drew it with lipstick, but it done melted too. Used to be those colors was bright."
"But I like it that things keep on changin' ... keeps me busy!"
It was time for reluctant goodbyes. For us, that is, it was hard to leave. Not that she minded our going so much. "I never gets lonesome ... always got somthin' to do! You have to do that 'cause when you get old, you got to keep life in you."
She turned to a big doll with eyeglasses and a striped shirt. Tucking red plastic roses into his belt she said, "I think I'll get me a red bow tie for this one - ugly varmit."
And then, with a wry smile, she declared, " You know, if anything is ugly, it's more nicer than anything that's purty."
AFTERWORD: With her permission, I recorded Nellie Mae Rowe's words as we explored her world together. I transcribed her conversation, keeping as close as I could to her dialect, as it was a big part of the story. She spoke in a way that very few people still speak and I felt it was important to preserve, to hear Nellie Mae Rowe's story the way she told it.
I am grateful to the late American folklorist and writer, Zora Neale Hurston, for taking a stance in her novels and her anthropological interviews, despite resistance from some American thinkers who argued that writing in dialect played to black caricatures. As a consequence, her book, Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo", written in the 1930s, wasn't published until 2018. See and hear Lynn Neary's story on NPR about language being the key to understanding in Herston's work.
All images and text © Judith Alexander Augustine