The family was scattered in a half-moon circle on the grounds of the cemetery. Spring and roses filled the air along with weeping. Two hundred people stood looking down at a pink and gold casket. One by one, people dropped to their knees, or had to be held up by someone else, or they just plain fainted as Reverend Lorenzo Alexander spoke the words of goodbye to our departed Zula Mae Alexander McCrary, Cousin Zula, a woman who gave love to so many people through out her life.
She was my aunt, but everyone called her Cousin Zula Mae. She was the oldest matriarch of the family and now she was gone. At 97, old age had taken her. The elders before her lived to be 100 or more, but she had lived a good life of love.
Zula Mae was made in Mississippi. Her ‘sippie roots made her tough for hard times. She taught the family what it meant to love unconditionally and not be afraid to do so. She was born to sharecroppers. Her parents where a mix of Cherokee Indians, whites and African slaves. Her granddaddy had been a slave as a boy, and could never talk about his experience during slavery without crying. At 10, he lied about his age to enlist in the northern Army to fight in the Civil War. Slavery had taken his mother from the children she bore with a white man. The horror traumatized him until his death. Zula Mae said that Granddaddy would say that he would never allow his children to be put in such a life and told her and the rest of the family to love and look after one another, to stay close so they would not be separated. He also told the whites in the neighborhood that he would kill every one of them if they touched any of his kids.
Zula Mae was never a slave but she was forced into marriage. Her Granddaddy told her that a good man was asking about her in the community. His wife had died in childbirth and he was in need of being married again. The men folk in the family made the decisions and they gave her hand to him. There was a lone dissenter among the men – an uncle who thought otherwise. She was told one day that she was to marry him and that she now had to go live with him. It was a quick marriage, without any witnesses except the men folk. The man she was given to was much older than she.
He beat her the night of the marriage to make her do as he commanded. He would come home drunk or upset, wanting food and sex. After two weeks, on a day her sister came by to visit, he hit Zula in the face. A lump swelled under her eye. That day she had enough of him and cards she was dealt by the men folk in the family. She sent her sister home, and pretended to him as if nothing was wrong. He went on with his usual commands and then sat down in a chair with his back to Zula Mae. She picked up a big heavy log and hit him in the head as hard as she could. He fell over as if dead, and she thought he was. She ran to the house of the uncle who fought for her right to make her own decisions. He told the other menfolk in the family that they would not make her go back and that they ought not step on his property.
Soon, Zula Mae rode out of the South to Chicago. She worked as a domestic and then for a museum taking coats. Two more marriages ended when the husbands died.
Then a cousin who had left Chicago and was making good in California called her. Zula Mae rode the Greyhound bus and arrived in California three days later.
Zula Mae never had children of her own but she took on the children of a cousin who had way too many. She became a housekeeper for some of the wealthiest white families in Los Angeles. One family was in the record industry and through them she met some of the great recording artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Her employer would pull her out of the kitchen and introduce her to his guests. One of her employers helped her out of many jams including legal ones because, she told me, she had no clue “bout no law.” She built relationships of mutual respect with her employers and this was the reason she loved them all dearly. Being in service to others, she said, was all she ever knew.
Zula Mae Alexander McCrary was the last bastion of the old world for our family in Los Angeles and was one of the few people left who could tell the stories of family members, history and how two generations back our peoples worked hard and bought land so that the next could have a place to lay their heads. Her accounts gave me a glimpse into a world far from mine of today. More importantly, Zula Mae Alexander McCrary could tell how a generation of relatives lived and loved each other in times of hardship and misery.
One day a terrible earthquake rocked Los Angeles. Our phone went out and Cousin Zula Mae did not drive. Yet she came from way across town, on the bus, to see about us. When my parents didn’t care enough to save money for my school pictures, it was Cousin Zula Mae who paid for them.
Once, her first cousin that she grew up with on the farm was sick in Chicago. Zula Mae rode a Greyhound to go see after her. As she picked out a faded 1970 suitcase from the closet and threw clothes in it, she turned to me. “Me and this child we was raised on the farm together by granddaddy and mamma. I got to get to her,” she said. “We is all we got.”
The love she received while living during the farm life puzzled and amazed me, as I knew that life was hard. Yet it also felt good to me, as I did not receive this type of love in my family before she arrived. In the depth of my soul, I was learning to love watching Cousin Zula Mae managing to show love in ways foreign to me. Zula Mae taught me the importance of showing love when you have the chance to do so. Once, my cousin was leaving for a long journey and everybody gathered to say goodbye. I lingered and watched. Zula Mae kept pushing me to say goodbye. Instead, I waved at him and flashed a smile. Finally, and before I could speak to him, he got in his car and left. Zula Mae asked me to sit next to her. She told me of how important it was for us as a family to love each other and say goodbye. I guess it was the teaching from Granddaddy that was embedded in her.
I faded in and out of her conversation and turned and twisted in my seat. I was uncomfortable with people leaving me. I could not cry because the word “goodbye” sulked my spirit.
That day of her funeral, at the cemetery, surrounded by family and friends, I found myself unable again to say goodbye. I could not utter the words. The warmth of love I received from her was too much to lose. Instead, as I stood at her gravesite, I looked down and said, “I will see you again.”