Margaret Ballard

The following story is told by Margaret Ballard, therapist in Warrick County, Indiana.

In May, 1967, my friends had a graduation luncheon for me when I finally got my driver’s license after passing of my third road test. The timing was close, but I was ready to drive a large, new van with ACTION, INC printed on the side which was waiting for me in Athens, Georgia. I had learned on an automatic shift and this was a stick shift. With the many hills in that area, it was a challenge to think of so many things at once, especially at night.

For most of my years on earth, I’ve been an activist, and my assignment this time was to be the director of a new government program for the poor which was bi-racial. There were five adult women aides, and 18 teen-agers, one white and 17 black. We taught sewing and cooking and a local school department helped with dried milk, cheese and other government food. Various fabric companies gave free material for projects. The library lent many books for those who needed help in reading.

The white teen-ager collected bottles of milk from white women who lived there, but who kept their volunteering secret for fear of reprisals. Every evening there was a community meeting to talk about the needs of the community and the plans to handle these. The first night meeting, the community agreed they wanted their black graveyard cleaned. I asked where it was and we were sitting next to it! The area was so overgrown that I had not seen it. They worked together on that project and it was a huge success. That gave much energy to the new program.

My religious community required that I live with nuns. The closest location was 25 miles at a hospital in Athens. There were prayers at 6:00 AM and a bit of breakfast. I had to pick up one of the teenagers from a different county. He had been in jail in his own county so he had to work in our county. Charley was always with me. I would arrive back at 10:00 PM with supper waiting in a warm drawer in the hospital. I hardly saw any of the nuns, but they were very kind. On a special day for me, I came home to find barrels of cookies and candy for the children and some gifts for me.

Each Sunday I would go to a different church to tell about our program. People were very friendly. Our program was going well. I was unaware of some things that were going on

in the background. The priest that was helping us was very aware of the difficulties with the Ku Klux Klan. He had some of his men disguised at their meetings so they could protect us.

One Saturday night the priest said I had to move the next day because the KKK was planning to burn our house down Sunday night. It seems they had gotten signatures from the neighbors to get rid of us. My stubbornness arose. Father said there was no choice. The staff could be hurt.

I did not tell any staff member since I did not want to hurt them. At first light that morning I started carrying out bags of flour, sugar, books, boxes of food and many other items. l had parked my van in reverse up to the backdoor steps. Every time I was out between the car and the house, I sang as loudly as I could to wake up the neighbors and show how I felt about this move. I was incensed about their cruelty. I sang love-your-neighbor songs, “Kumbaya,” “This Little Light,” and other spiritual songs. I went my 25 miles to the hospital to wait during the day. Most of the day rain poured.

Giving myself enough time to get there, I drove the van toward a woman’s home who had promised to help us in our move. I heard a pop; a back tire had a blow-out. My van was swerving all over the road. People coming from the opposite direction had fear in their eyes. I had no control. Suddenly, the van landed completely on the driver’s side. A man came and helped pull me out. Shortly, men, it seemed, came from everywhere. There had been a seminar for ministers close by which had just ended.

I called my boss in Athens and he came up to get me. He thought he was going to take me home, but I told him I needed to see the owner of the factory who had promised to help our program with our move. He took me there and the gracious woman said, “If you could come from an accident, I certainly can let you use my factory.”

All of the materials were transferred to the new building. The next day the program continued. I had driven 10,000 miles in 10 weeks. I needed to go back to finish my schooling. The people had a little farewell party for me, giving gifts they could not even afford themselves. They gave me a small CD of “Georgia on My Mind,” which was played many times after that. One of my precious reminders of this happening is a brochure passed out at the KKK meeting which said to get rid of the nun. In the brochure were the names of all the people who helped me get all of my supplies.

So many things happened in those ten weeks that helped me understand the power of moral ascendency and the power of mysterious intervention. Though our country finds itself in the middle of a time not so different from 1967, I have hope, as Theodore Parker and Martin Luther King Jr. both expressed, that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.

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This short story features the gift of capturing the profound within the ordinary. In “Provenance,” Brandy Wilkinson reflects the precision and mastery of storytellers like  Alice Munro and Flannery O’Connor. Wilkinson lives in Fishers, Indiana. She reads and writes at brandywilkinson.com.

Provenance

The day after Irene’s doctor tells her she’s dying, she walks down to the Family Dollar and buys three packages of neon yard sale tags and a king-size Snickers bar.

“You having a sale, Miss Irene?” the cashier asks, a wad of bright green gum between her teeth. A small photo of a pigtailed girl hangs from her name tag.

“Nope,” Irene answers, taking her bag. On the way home she peels open the candy, chocolate liquefying in the July sun, and eats it in five huge mouthfuls. She whispers a few words of farewell to the diet she has been on for fifty-seven years.

At home, she washes her hands and spreads the colorful tags across the kitchen table. With a felt-tip pen and faintly trembling script, she begins to label and price everything she owns. Her son will appreciate her efforts when he flies in from Virginia to sell off her estate. Nothing is worth much, not to anyone else, and she smirks a little, imagining her daughter-in-law, Marjorie, fresh off the plane and picking through Irene’s double-wide for antiques to hock.

Brass mantel clock: Wedding gift from Bud and Trudy Taylor, 1961, $3.

Kodak Brownie camera: Doesn’t work, still cute, $1.

Wooden chess set, each piece a different farm animal: Belonged to my sister Clarice, $2.

Drawer full of cheap costume jewelry – a few sparkling brooches and strand after strand of chunky plastic beads: Help yourself, Marjorie! Sell what you don’t want!

She opens a cabinet under the small kitchen island, removes a cardboard box and lifts out thirteen newspaper-wrapped dishes. She unswaddles each, slowly revealing a child’s tea set, her own: Blue Willow pattern, Made in Occupied Japan printed across the bottom of each piece. Irene has watched enough Antiques Roadshow to know that this is the most expensive item she owns. She imagines Marjorie’s hands unwrapping each dish, her long pink nails and Irene’s mother’s wedding ring.

“Nope,” she says.

The cashier at the Family Dollar greets her when she enters. Irene walks straight to checkout and places the box on the counter. “A tea set,” she says. “For your little girl.” She buys another Snickers bar and walks home. She eats it on the couch with Wheel of Fortune on the television, her feet on the coffee table, and the roomful of tags waving gently like wildflowers in the ceiling fan’s breeze.



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