Visiting Willie’s simple wooden home as a boy, I was truly looking into a bygone age, how the South appeared for decades following the Civil War, when impoverished people had to tolerate and care for each other.
Nettie took after her father – she worked hard all her life, without many accolades. She was there every Saturday in my home, cleaning and helping my dear mother. She also worked at International Paper in Atlanta and, when that closed, for a manufacturer in Peachtree City. I believe I helped her with the application on the last job. My parents adored Nettie for her loyalty and gentle nature – she was a rock.
Today I reflect on how her attitudes, and her father’s, might be considered outdated, even offensive, to the modern thinking. She called my father “sir,” usually laughing respectfully. There was no arrogance in her manner, and no chip on her shoulder. She had her own mind, though, unafraid to offer her own observations, gently poking fun. I learned over my life from her what Black power is, and human power, the heroic ability to accept life as it comes at us. My mother and Nettie formed my first impressions of women, mothers, Black, Christian, so many archetypes – no wonder I would be disappointed later in life by lesser people.
When my mother passed from cancer in 1990, Nettie took her place, cooking for my father and sister in a moment of great loss. I believe Nettie’s presence held my family together as much as anything during that time.
Nettie did not always look after her health – she smoked for decades and enjoyed fried pork chops as much as I do – that’s a lot. She was single during my lifetime, and if she was lonely, I never knew it. She lived in a brick house she bought near where she grew up, and her daughter Cheryl stayed with her after Cheryl’s husband passed at a young age.
It is difficult to add anything to Nettie’s life story, because adornment would falsify who she truly was. I often think how Black and White in the devastation of the post-War South often had no alternative but to live together, grow up together, and care for each other. I think of the brave Black souls who marched during the Civil Rights Movement and made such a difference, but I also think of people like Nettie who never protested, whose anonymous fortitude carried them through. People without accolades.
I remember that distant sunny day when I showed my new cowboy boots at Willie’s house, the surprise and joy they showed – I must have been about 8. I remember the hearty laughter when I came into their family room wearing a Black woman’s wig when my parents were out of town. I remember Nettie, unchanging, present in my lightest and darkest moments but never judging or adding or taking away any of it. She radiated eternity.
Recently, a roomful of Black souls were treated to a white guy sobbing quietly beside Nettie Ruth’s coffin, where she lay in a beautiful spring outfit. I saw my own life lying before me there, and, in that moment, I had no great social or philosophical insights. I just wanted to be there in my home county by her side.
Douglas Ford is a commercial litigation and criminal defense attorney in Atlanta.