By Carole McReynolds Davis
It was a very cold, sunny, and beautiful early Sunday morning in 1970, some 40 years ago, that I spotted an old worn out and crumbling farm worker’s tenant house on the Oktoc Road, Oktibbeha County.
I first noticed smoke rising up into the beginning of a blue sky day ahead as I turned the curve on the left side of the road in an old peach orchard. If I had kept going I would have been at our Noxubee National Wildlife Refuge, but instead I suddenly decided to stop. I made my way through the grass path to the little door and gently knocked. There stood Ella, and there sat Suzy. “Hello” I’m Carole McReynolds Davis, and I’m an artist from just down the road, may I come in?” They both were smiling and said, “Yes Mam, come on inside out of the cold.”
Immediately I saw Naomi and Ruth from the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament of my Bible...
“Wherever you go I will go
Wherever you live, I will live
Your people will be my people
And Your God will be my God”
I smelled breakfast cooking, and I smelled the smells of this very old tenant house. Suzy (Naomi) the older of the two said, “Want to have breakfast with us?” Ella (Ruth) the younger of the two, grabbed the big black skillet and said, “we will be so happy to have you join us on this cold early Sunday morning.”
“This is so nice of y’all, and sure, I‘ll be happy to have breakfast with you two ladies...thank you for inviting me. May I paint your portraits this morning, won’t take too long?”
“You want to paint us?” said Suzy. “Now we ain’t much to paint? But you sure can trys if you want to,” said Ella.
My own heart skipped a beat because I knew immediately that I had accidently... or was it by predestination... on my journey that day... discovered not only a painting but an experience that I would treasure the rest of my life! Suzy and Ella...(Naomi and Ruth) were struggling for their own existence in what we simply call, living.
Just take a peep at this painting with me now. Feel the cold winter’s wind blowing through the large cracks in the front door that I had just entered. Look around the one room tenant house. Is it not “stark naked” with its bare walls and old wooden floor that cracked with each step we took across the old planks. Ella had hung her warm black woolen coat up on a single nail on the wall by that front door. See it!
There is an very old tin bucket on an a shelf on the other side of the door way, and see the tiny snuff can on the ledge of the bottom of the wall. Let your eyes go to the top of the left hand side, and find the one lonely slightly crooked coat hanger, just hanging there on another nail. There seems to be something piled up on a chest like table top near Suzy’s head. Do you see this too? This is where Suzy lives.
Ella is her very best friend from down the road who walks about two miles every day to see about Suzy and fix her a bite or two to eat. I would call this truly a real and lasting friendship, and from the beginning of the first pencil mark I put on my stretched piece of canvas...Suzy became Naomi and Ella became Ruth.
It was after all Sunday morning, and I was about to worship with them in their home which became a church that cold winter’s early morning on a little hillside on the Oktoc Road. Who says, church has to be in a big old church in downtown Starkville, but a church sanctuary could be in a worn out, crumbling old tenant house out on the Oktoc Road,way out in the country, agree?
Suzy had arthritis in her hands and body, and she really just sat in her old rocking chair all day long. Look at her hands and see how the arthritis has bent and twisted her tiny hands. She is sitting on a soft, fluffy old pillow. With extra cloth blankets to put over her knees later to keep her warm. There is an extra one over the bottom wooden part of her chair too. The only color in this entire painting are the two old very heavy and warm wrapped scarf-like hats wrapped and fitting snuggly around their heads.
See the faded red scarf hat on Suzy’s head, and the faded pink scarf hat on Ella’s head? They both have on grey heavy sweaters, plus dresses both in shades of blue and warm and heavy knee socks on their feet and knees. Suzy’s, are light brown, and I suppose that Ella was in a hurry, and she could only find one black knee sock and one white knee sock to put on to start walking those two miles towards Suzy’s home that day.
Look at the old apron Suzy has on with the ruffle around the bottom of it, and her heavy sweater has a tint of purple in it as it if use to be light purple but has aged to look more like grey now. You can see the two old shoes that Ella has on...they look like she has put “many a mile” on those shoes just walking up and down Oktoc Road getting to Suzy’s house where she stays all day and night long.
It is breakfast time —time to eat. See the old black skillet handle in Ella’s hand with a greasy “fried twice over light egg” waiting to be eaten! See the old cheap plastic plate from Fred’s in Suzy’s lap with a hot big fat biscuit and sausage begging to be eaten! If we don’t eat soon breakfast will get cold! Think how little they had that morning, but they shared what they had with me, as we broke bread together on that cold winter’s Sunday morning.
The very one room house was stark, and had a bareness of existence. The house seemed so empty, unfurnished and undecorated. This crumbling down old house showed the poverty that Suzy lived in day after day. Her one great joy was her best friend, Ella, who came walking down the road to see about her day after day.
In 1970, we had so many old broken down, “holding on” crumbling down farm tenement houses that dotted our landscapes in this part of northeast Mississippi, and way down in the Mississippi Delta land where my husband, Frank, grew up in the tiny town of Money. Many of these have now disappeared these 40 years later and “thank goodness!” We lost the character of these old home places, but we improved our housing by getting federal housing for many of our American citizens who needed better living conditions.
As I could hear my brush as it made a slight noise on my canvas like as drum as I would dip into my palette of many colors, and then the brush filled with paint would beat down on the canvas which gives rhythm to the process of painting. I could hear that drum beating in the silence of the room.
Here I stood in front of my easel in a shell of a piece of an old weathered grey and brown house. The cold wind was blowing in and through those old cracks in the wall and especially that front door. I too, kept pulling my coat over my arms and tightening up my warm colorful artist cap/hat over my ears just to keep warm that day. I even had on my half-fingered gloves to keep my fingers from freezing.
I looked into their eyes and saw happiness and a special warm glow in each of their eyes. I looked into their hearts and saw a special warm glow of love. I looked into their souls saw one of the greatest friendships I have ever seen in my life time on this earth. I saw and it seemed Biblical just like the story or Naomi and Ruth in the Old Testament and the book of Ruth. They were just best friends, but they seemed more like family, a connected family of a mother-in-law and a daughter-in-law.
There was an extra special hope in their eyes and smiles. Instead of despair about their “stark naked” bareness of their life, there was the greatest feeling of hopefulness and living each day to its fullest. HOPE AND JOY seemed to be present in this crumbling down, worn out old tenant house.
The fire was about to go out, and Ella added a log or two to keep us warm, and I saw the sparkle of the fire as it began to glow again.
Ella did this unselfish act of checking on Suzy day after day and thought not of herself first, but she thought of Suzy and her needs first. Both ladies depended and needed each other to exist.
‘When you were hungry, I fed you”...
“When you have done it to the least of mine, you have done it to ME!”
The glow of caring, loving, and deep friendship is still glowing all these 40 years later. There was no wallpaper or sheet rock on the bare brown walls, the floors creaked and squeaked when your footsteps walked across them, the cold winter’s wind blew through the cracks in the walls and front door, but the GLOW in this old one room tenant house which was on “its last leg” about to crumble on down, and the GLOW was seen in their eyes, hearts, and souls.
“Wherever you go, I will go
Wherever you live, I will live
Your people will be my people
And your God will be my God.”