Author’s note: Mary Somerville passed away just shy of her hundredth birthday, leaving me with sadness as well as some questions. We were friends for fifteen years. The nature of our friendship is the subject of this two-part essay (the first reflecting Mary’s voice, and the second mine). I wish I could have shared it with her. We would have had some good laughs, and maybe I could have learned even more.
Miss Mary and Merideth
WHEN MARY COATES AND JAMES SOMERVILLE WERE MARRIED, November 12, 1925, it was just a few friends and family there. Mary walked to the church for her wedding. She and her sisters- in-law, Rosetta and Mary, walked through the swamp to get to the church. She wore a blue satin dress, blue hat, and blue shoes. She almost slipped in the water, but Rosetta caught her before she got muddied up. Joe Winters was the best man. He was best man for their fiftieth, too, and he got so drunk her sister-in-law took his place. There were five or six hundred people at the Fiftieth Anniversary Wedding. Daughter Magdalene made Mary’s dress and the crown. The first time around, Joe Winters behaved himself.
The bride and groom were underage and were supposed to get permission, but Mary didn’t tell her people she was getting married. Her sister would have moved her back to Baltimore. They didn’t go on a honeymoon: they went right on home and went to bed.
They were married for fifty-three years when James died. Mary raised fifteen children, counting her son Lynwood’s oldest, her daughter Dorothy’s girls, and her own twelve. She was proud of that. The hardest times in her life were the deaths of her children. James Leo, he died at eighteen months. James had to carry James Leo about a half-mile to the road to take him to the car for the trip to St. Mary’s Hospital. He’d caught pneumonia. Francis Lynwood died in a car accident. He and some boys were playing “chicken” on the highway in their souped-up cars. James Alexander died when he was six years old. He was struck in the stomach and hung upside down by a big teenage boy at school. The doctor came out to the house, but he only lived for two or three days after he was struck. When people asked her to talk about her life, Mary liked to talk about the old days.
“When I was a child the times was good,” according to Mary. She worked hard all the time. But that was just how it should be. She milked the four cows and drove them to the woods every morning before school and went and brought them back to the barn every night. She had no end of chores. She liked feeling grown up and useful. Mary’s mama taught her how to cook and put up food for the winter. After she married, she won prizes for her preserves at the county fair. Won a blue ribbon one year for her peaches. She taught her girls to cook and bake and tried to make them and her boys into good hard workers like she was, but it didn’t necessarily “take” like it had with her. Times were different.
When Mary was little, before she started school, her papa taught her the alphabet from off the quick oatmeal box. He used to read to her from the Bible and, when her mom would be gone, he would sit down and read fairy tales to her. “He was good to me,” she said. “When Mama get ready to whoop me, he’d get between the switch and me, and he caught some of the licks. He’d say, ‘Don’t hit her no more, Mama.’ He used to call Mama ‘Mama.’ ‘Don’t hit her no more, Mama.’ [chuckle] He was old. Old fella’ had rheumatism. I used to put his shoes on, put his socks on in the mornin’. He couldn’t bend over to put his shoes on. Tie ‘em up, take ‘em off at nighttime.”
Mary started school at five years old. She loved her teachers, and she remembered everyone. Her mom boarded teachers like Miss Agnes Walton who weren’t from around there. Agnes Walton found a husband “right from Mechanicsville” and got married in their parlor. Then there was Janie Bowie, who “wasn’t tall as me, with legs bowed like pothooks. But she was just as nice as she could be. I was the littlest one in school, and everybody seemed to like me.”
Mary’s parents got the Afro newspaper out of Baltimore every week. They didn’t have a radio. But they had a Victrola. They got their news from the newspaper and word of mouth. They also got information from an “old lady” who would travel from house to house carrying news. In later years, Mary didn’t seem to care much for staying on top of the news. “Too much about all this drugs, rape, and murders.”
Her favorite times as a child were at school and church when they put on pageants and she got to perform. “See, Mama Coates and all the society ladies always give a Christmas play. Three plays a year in the church hall, and they had me in every one of them. That’s how I come to like to be up on that stage. In one play—the last play that had me in at the Mechanicsville Hall— was this song. [singing] ‘Can you show me the way the city?’ Now, my father and some other men made crosses, made a whole lot of crosses. So, we had to kneel down at these crosses. ‘Can you show me the way the city? To the city where the angels dwell? And the prince that we see on the mountain steep, he strayed to a cross of God.’ And we all was kneelin’ at these crosses. That was a beautiful play. The cross was white—some red and some white. We all had a cross to kneel at. That was a Christmas play. The last one I was at before Mama died. And, yes, [singing:] ‘We show the way to the city. To the city where the angels dwell. And the prince with his feet on the’—That was Jesus. [sings:] ‘On a mountain steep, please stray to the house of God.’ Real pretty.”
“We had to study these dialogues, speeches, you know. I had to get it right. Mama made me say those pieces over and over. She would walk down to school with me and I said my part all the way to school. She right behind me. Come back at night, same thing. I had to get it right. When rehearsal come, Mama sat up, right up at the front. Right on the front seat. She had real big, full eyes, and I mean she could throw ‘em on me—‘Speak up there, Sister!’ I was on stage! [chuckle] I just cracked! [laughter] I got surprised. ‘Speak up there, Sister.’ I mean, she wasn’t smilin’. That little short fat woman was strong! [chuckle] Yeah, it was fun. ‘Deed it was.”
When people from the college came and asked Mary to talk about what life was like growing up in St. Mary’s County, she loved telling them stories like that. She liked to make people laugh. She made fun of herself, too. Like why she didn’t drive. She said she got registered to vote but never voted because she had no transportation.
She had folks in stitches when she acted out trying to learn how to drive and almost killing herself and James, who was sitting beside her in the old truck trying to teach her. The basic problem was that she was too short to see over the hood and she’d go barreling forward ‘till he’d yell “Stop!” When she got out of the truck, she saw that she was headed directly into a building. That scared her so bad, she never wanted to try again.
Mary liked to talk about the families whose homes she worked in and how they were pleased with her and showed their appreciation. Especially the family she worked for who took her along with them on a trip to the Holy Land. It was the first time she had traveled farther than Baltimore. She loved to bring out her souvenirs and tell visitors about her trip.
Her favorite stories, though, were about being on the stage. And, at the age of 85, Miss Mary had a chance to relive the joy of performing when she was cast in a play called In My Time at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She played a character who was a real person and was a lot like her. The character was a hard worker who worked in the homes of white people. Mary enjoyed getting to know the young people in the cast, and they and the audiences loved her. She was, once again, a star, and it was fun, ‘deed it was.
I MET MARY AGATHA COATES SOMERVILLE IN 1993. I was casting for In My Time, an original play I had written and was going to be directing at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. The play was based on oral histories collected and published by the Southern Maryland Documentary Project, a project spearheaded by St. Mary’s College of Maryland professor Andrea Hammer. I had received a call informing me that there was an eighty-five-year- old African American woman who wanted to join the cast and was hoping there was a part for her. She lived quite a ways from campus, but the friend who called was willing to provide transportation. Naturally, I was intrigued. I drove to Oakville, MD about twenty-five minutes from campus, to meet her.
I knocked on the door of her small, neat cinderblock house. When the door opened, I had to adjust my gaze downward to take in the smiling face that topped her four feet, nine inches of kinetic energy. She welcomed me inside, and we conducted a most unusual audition, which included an impromptu recitation and stories, rather than the script reading I had planned. These were accompanied by various spontaneous dance moves Mary provided to show she was ready for anything. She became the eldest member of the large cast, which ranged from five years old to eighty-five. Thus, began a friendship that lasted until her passing in 2008, at the age of ninety-nine.
Over the years, we never went long without speaking. She performed again in The Bigger Picture, another original play, at the College in 1995. Aside from that, our activities typically included me picking her up and taking her to community, social, or church events. We visited fairs and festivals and attended oral history workshops together. As her health declined and she became bedridden, I would come and visit with her at her home.
In many ways, my relationship with Mary fit common friendship patterns, pathways, and progressions and was unremarkable. However, there were crucial ways that this relationship, in which there was a genuine mutual fondness, was far from typical and was often challenging, frustrating, and enlightening for me. It was an attempt at true friendship across difference. As I look back on the relationship, I am still tussling with important questions.
The overarching question I ask myself is: What did the role of racial, class, and generational difference, real and imagined, play in our relationship? It is one thing to know how a relationship feels from the inside, and another to look back and try to gain an objective understanding. During our years together, I had opportunities to learn about Mary in formal as well as informal ways. As a member of the Unified Committee for Afro- American Contributions of St. Mary’s County, I spent hours interviewing her as a participant in an oral history project. I took my role as listener very seriously and understood the importance of withholding comment and judgment. Even outside the interview situation, I was reluctant to challenge or question too deeply the attitudes that surprised or distressed me. Maybe I should have been more open about my own reactions. I might have learned more.
There are things I would like to ask her if I could reach back into the past. For example, why did she go on sitting quietly in the back of the church long after the practice of sending African Americans to sit in the back rows was no longer considered acceptable? And was that still common practice in Southern Maryland? Did other African Americans her age follow suit?
And why, even in relating the tragedies of her children’s death, did she show little or no anger toward the system that had discriminated against her and let her down in so many ways? She was very happy to be the subject of an oral history interview and enjoyed sharing her stories. But would the stories have been different if I had been a black interviewer asking her about her life, and, if so, how? I had already gained her trust by the time we sat down to do the interviews, so that may have lessened any reluctance she may have had to be frank.
For much of her life, Mary provided domestic labor for white employers. The fact that she showed neither embarrassment nor resentment when relating stories of accepting charity in the way of clothes, foods, and household goods from the white folks she worked for surprised me. Some even took her on trips, including a trip to Israel, which was, understandably, a high point in her life. She clearly seemed to feel proud of, and not at all demeaned by, her relationships with her white employers and happy to be given valuable things. Like most of us, I’m sure, she enjoyed being in good favor and pleasing people. And, after all, she gained very beneficial experiences like travel, as well as useful material goods that she would not have been able to afford for herself or her family. It is hard for someone like me, who did not experience living in a segregated system, to understand the feelings involved in the exchanges between patrons and the patronized. These gifts or “handouts” were valued commodities as well as signs of her success in winning over her employers. It seems, to me, she had learned to “work the rigged system” to her advantage as best she could with hard work, intelligence, wit, and charm. I have no doubt that her employers were genuinely fond of her.
In our interactions, there were very few moments that felt awkward. It generally felt natural that I would take the lead in making decisions. I was her director after all. And it felt natural that I would be “treating” her. She was an elder and deserving of extra care and respect on that grounds as well. I think we politely refrained from acknowledging any sense of discomfort we may have had. When invited to a meal at my house, she offered to do the dishes and clean up as if, maybe, that was part of the “admission price.” It was not like the casual offer of a friend. How did that make me feel? Uncomfortable for sure, like being cast in a role I didn’t want to play.
I noticed that Mary showed no reluctance or discomfort in receiving unreciprocated gifts from me. I bought her many gifts on our outings and became aware over time of what seemed to me to be strategies meant to encourage my gift-giving. Was I forever the white benefactor rather than the white friend? Does one preclude the other? I started to see her skills at manipulating her family members and me to vie for her appreciation or to feel guilty. I worried that the family would come to resent me. And I believe they did, at least to some extent. Once she was bedridden, they sometimes made it difficult for me to see her, and that was frustrating.
I’ve thought about Mary a lot over the years since she passed away, puzzling over the complications and contradictions of our relationship. I’ve learned that, embedded in my sense of privilege, no matter how unconscious, there may have been the belief that I would have resisted, that I would not have accepted so quietly the discriminatory treatment that she endured. Since I’ve never been put to the test, of course, this is a fantasy. How do I know how I might have reacted to the kinds of everyday insults or micro-aggressions and the much larger injustices she experienced? Was I judging her for her “failure” to be outraged and to resist more demonstratively? Was I asking her to see herself as a victim?
To what extent did she speak and behave differently with me because I was white? After a relationship of almost twenty years, did she suppress expressions of resentment and hurt because I was white? Did our class differences have an even more dominant effect on our relationship? She had less wealth, fewer material goods, less education, and less standing in the community. It was easy for us both to assume that I would be the one footing any bills. We were friends, but we weren’t. How could we be true friends in an uncomplicated way when our social capital and economic resources were so unequal? When our mutual heritage was one of racial, gender, and class hierarchy and segregation? It was a lot to navigate. But we did care for each other. We genuinely liked each other and enjoyed our time together. She was a live wire with great stories to tell and a good sense of humor. I was interested in learning about local cultures. We both liked to laugh. We clicked.
Mary Somerville seemed to me to be a happy woman. Was she wearing the “mask” of double consciousness so powerfully alluded to by writers from Paul Laurence Dunbar to W.E.B. DuBois to Ntozake Shange? Or was it because she was, above all, a survivor and a woman who wanted to be happy in the world as it was? Had she taken our friendship at face value and chosen not to question the gifts of material goods or friendship and been the happier for it?
One spring day, Mary and I attended a strawberry festival at a local historic plantation. Mary had dressed up in the way that a proper eighty-five-year-old lady of very limited means could. In other words, she had dressed as she would for church. I remember she had a white Peter Pan collar with lace trimming that contrasted with her dark skin. A tiny bit of face powder had spilled onto the collar. A hostess met us as we came into the mansion. She was not outwardly hostile as she greeted us—I think she may have smiled stiffly—yet I felt a sudden drop in the room’s temperature. I don’t know how else to describe it. It was different from the welcome that, as a friendly-looking, middle- class white woman, I normally expect and get. It seemed so clear that we did not belong there. We stayed and did our best to enjoy the occasion, saying nothing to each other about the chilly reception. Mary showed no sign of feeling hurt, and I was afraid to hurt her feelings by remarking on it.
Our long, close relationship helped me to learn uncomfortable truths and to better understand her, myself, and the wider society. Our relationship provided benefits for both of us. I enjoyed making Mary happy, and her appreciation of my efforts was gratifying. I greatly benefited from her participation in my theater productions and believe that the oral history she provided is of value to the community as well as inspiring to me as a writer. On several occasions, I attended church services with Mary. This was a real cross-cultural experience for me. I, a lapsed Unitarian, was new to the Southern Maryland African American church experience. Mary was open to any denomination and especially liked the “homecoming” services, where all were welcome. We attended AME, United Methodist, and Catholic churches, including her home church, St. Joseph’s. I never pretended to believe, and she never held it against me. She probably hoped it was doing some good for my soul. It probably was.
The specious old canard of the “happy darkies” was a concept and expression devised and utilized to rationalize the inhuman practices of slavery and Jim Crow. I wonder if there exists a bitter irony in the unaccountable ability of some people who, subjected to lifelong unjust and often brutal treatment, manage through their own devices to survive, develop resilience, and even find joy.
Mary Somerville, dark-skinned, economically disadvantaged, and hard-working woman that she was, made “a way out of no way,” as they say. She chose to squeeze every drop of enjoyment and love out of the life that she saw as something that she was given and had little power to change.
# # #
Merideth M. Taylor is Professor Emerita of Theater and Dance at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. Including two Individual Artist Awards from the Maryland State Arts Council (2003 and 2007), she has received numerous awards in directing, playwriting, screenwriting, historical documentation, and a lifetime achievement award for using the performing arts to produce social change. Her plays have been produced in Washington, DC, New York, and Valdez, Alaska. Listening In: Echoes and Artifacts of Maryland’s Mother County, her book of photos and stories, was published in June 2018.
Delmarva Review is a national literary journal with strong regional roots. It encourages authors to aspire to their highest standards by providing an independent, respected publishing venue at a time when many commercial publications are reducing content or shutting their doors. With thousands of submissions annually, selection is competitive for the best of creative nonfiction, poetry, and short fiction in each edition. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, it receives partial support from the Talbot County Arts Council with funds from the Maryland State Arts Council. For submissions, author and sales information, see the website: DelmarvaReview.org.