2013-07-03 / Front Page


Girard woman recounts near-century of life in Burke County
By Elizabeth Billips

America celebrates her 237th birthday this week, and Miss Jessie Holmes has been around for 97 of them.

She pokes around the garden outside her tidy, white house near Girard, a lithe little woman with silvery hair throwing off glints of the morning light.

She thinks of her childhood home just a few miles down the road and parts the long-gone years like a curtain.

“Fourth of July was a special day. We only had to hoe cotton until eleven o’clock,” Miss Jessie says, picturing her daddy Edmond and mama Serah through eight-year-old eyes. “Daddy would fish all night on Brier Creek and come home in the morning with a mess of eel fish.”

She remembers his sharp knife cutting slits just below the eels’ heads and their skins peeling back like pantyhose.

She can still see her daddy working under the speckled shade of a pecan tree, slicing the eels into rounds and dredging them through cornmeal. While they fry in hot lard her mama sets out bowls of butterbeans, field peas, white potatoes, onions and corn. It’s a lucky summer, and the smells mingle with smoke and spice of a fattened pig that’s been cooking all night.

Miss Jessie still chops her own firewood. Miss Jessie still chops her own firewood. “Back in those days we grew everything we ate,” Miss Jessie explains. “We didn’t have much of anything but we always enjoyed what we had.”

After lunch she and her little sister Nina would get a handful of fire poppers and a tin can to light them in.

“We’d drop the match in and then run as fast as we could,” she says, remembering the split second that determined a doozie from a dud. “The good ones would shoot way, way up into the air.” Back in her garden, Miss Jessie bends her body in half to chop through a root ball beneath her Bleeding Hearts. She’s already separated a section of bright pink phlox and wraps it tight in newspaper to be transplanted in someone else’s yard. Most of her mammoth plants started as small sprigs pinched and dug from the gardens of friends and family.

Miss Jessie blows out the candles on her cake at her 97th birthday party. Miss Jessie blows out the candles on her cake at her 97th birthday party. She’s spent her whole life tending crops, gardens and children.

Like nearly everything set before her, the flora thrives in her energy.

Miss Jessie leans her axe against a tree trunk and scoffs at the suggestion that she shouldn’t be swinging it in the summer heat. When the mornings were still crisp she heaved it over her head again and again, splitting small branches to feed her woodstove.

“I’ve worked hard all my life,” she says, picturing herself as a young girl stooped between corn rows. “I’ve never stopped. I just like to stay in action.” She scootches her chair under the kitchen table and pans the room as if seeing it anew. “Whatever I want to do I try,” she explains, contemplating the ceiling she says is due for repainting. “And mostly I accomplish it. I’ve learned that most things really aren’t that hard at all if you just put your mind to it.”

But some things were hard, she admits as she brushes a wisp of silver from her smooth face. Her high cheekbones came from her grandmother Nicy, a half-Cherokee born into slavery a few miles away. Nicy never stopped toiling, even after freedom was hers. And she relentlessly worked her children and grandchildren alongside her. “It was too much for a child,” Miss Jessie says, remembering the heat of an open fire where she was stationed with her sister Nina. Sweat beaded her forehead and ran down her back as she fished her iron from the coals. It was suffocating in the deep of summer but there were heaps of sheets and shirts to be pressed. The cotton fields were waiting and so was the livestock.

While Miss Jessie’s four sons and daughter would be spared that childhood drudgery, much was still expected. At daybreak, the children planted, hoed and gathered until the bus fetched them for school.

“It was what we had to do as a farm family to make a living,” she says, connecting the lines between strong children and strong adults. “Every one of us had to do our part.” A smile plays across Miss Jessie’s face as she talks of love and laughter shared among the farm chores and across the dinner table. Her long life has been a fine one, she agrees, despite the sadness that shot to her core when she outlived her oldest and youngest sons.

Her voice rises with joy and softens with sorrow as she calls out their nicknames – Buck and Sherlock. “Burying them was hard but it was really afterwards that it hurt so much … the days when I’d look at their empty chairs and know my sons would never be back,” she says, remembering Sherlock’s easy way and mischievous Buck’s rolling laughter. “You never get over that. The Lord just helps you through it.”

Miss Jessie steps back into the yard and rakes clean stripes through the pecan strings that have settled in her sand driveway. Today’s pattern melds with yesterday’s to form an abstract of line upon line. She loses herself in the rhythm of metal on dirt and lets her mind wander to the old woods where she and Nina collected baskets of wild grass. Their mama would bind a generous handful to a sturdy stick, making a broom for each of her daughters.

“I wish we could go back to using them,” Miss Jessie says, recalling the muted brush marks of their swept yard. “But I’ve looked and looked and I don’t think that grass grows around here anymore.”

The grass may be gone but Miss Jessie still touches the roots of her girlhood each night as she lets her love-worn Bible fall open where it may. She takes whatever those pages offer then seeks out the scriptures that have always moved something deep within her.

“Fret not yourself because of evildoers, neither be you envious against the workers of iniquity,” she quotes from Psalms. “To me that means if someone does wrong against you, you shouldn’t try to get revenge. We can only be happy when we are peaceful with one another and that means turning it over to the Lord.”

Miss Jessie skips ahead to John and reads the words longcommitted to her memory.

The first time she read about the crucifixion she was a young girl who had just accepted Christ. Her mother pulled her close and asked her to read the verses aloud.

Nine decades later she recites the same words. She pictures the robe being ripped from Jesus’ battered body and understands what her mother meant about sacrifice.

She thinks about Mary, helpless and scared, and recognizes human frailty. She thinks of Pilate and knows how courage fails us.

But she also knows about hope and promise.

“People will always hurt each other and bad things will always happen to us. But that’s when we have to trust in the Lord,” Miss Jessie says. “Sometimes it’s like sitting through a terrible storm. You are so scared but eventually the rain ceases and the sun comes out. You don’t look back at the darkness. You look up at the sun and appreciate where you are.”

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