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Ruthie May


May 17, 2001|By AL KALIN, Special to this newspaper

My father passed away when I was 3. With my mother busy taking care of the family business, Ruthie Mae was hired to help grandma take care of my brother and me.

Many people shaped my life as a young boy but Ruthie Mae did more to nurture my love of fishing than any other person.

Besides fishing, Ruthie Mae had two vices, not counting unfiltered Lucky Strikes … husbands, funerals.

The number of husbands she went through was legendary. I think it was somewhere between five and seven when she quit. "Me and Johnnie ain't married," she finally told me one day. "We just lives together."

This didn't set well with Grandma, a rabid Methodist, but she came to Ruthie Mae's rescue when husband No. 4 showed up drunk and belligerent one night. He was banging on the front door, demanding Ruthie Mae come outside for a showdown.


Grandma wasn't too keen on what was happening and sounded general quarters. She had us push over the couch to block the front door while she broke in on the party line and asked the operator to send the police.

Then Grandma gave Ruthie Mae my father's revolver and told her, "Blast that blankety-blank if he comes through the front door." Ruthie Mae took the pistol, trading it for the straight- edge razor she kept in her purse. Fortunately the police arrived before shots were fired, and No. 4 was hauled off to the pokey.

Ruthie Mae loved funerals and Brawley had two funeral parlors. They were across the street from each other on the north side of the plaza. We only lived a few blocks away and attended the funeral of every black person who died, whether Ruthie Mae knew the person or not.

The ritual was always the same. She'd stuff her apron pocket with Lucky Strikes and a handful of kitchen matches, load my brother up in the baby buggy, and with me in tow, we'd head for one of the funeral homes on the plaza.

The thunderous words from the preacher would shake the rafters while the congregation echoed back approval in a praising chant. Then the singing would start. It was singing like you can't imagine, singing that made you want to join in and sway with the crowd even if you didn't know the words.

All this time the guests of honor would be resting peacefully in their casket, the center of attention. As soon as the casket was loaded in the hearse for the trip to the cemetery, we'd head for the relative's house where the food was set up. Ruthie Mae would help serve while I stuffed myself on mouth-watering fried chicken, barbecued ribs, potato salad and cornbread slathered with real butter and honey plus fresh baked apple pie and home-made ice cream. An ice-cold bottle of Delaware Punch helped wash everything down.

By the time I was 7, I had seen quite a few dead people and was already fat.

Ruthie Mae claimed to be a Southern Baptist, but deep in her purse was a small Bull Durham tobacco sack with some bones, a dried up chicken's foot, a gold- capped tooth, small rocks, a hank of woven hair and a broken piece of blue glass. Ruthie Mae was a student of voodoo.

Back from college and farming, I stopped by mom's house for lunch one day. Ruthie Mae had made my favorite peach cobbler. As we ate lunch I told her about being harassed by a zanjero. I explained how he would sit on the drain box and wait for the water from the first irrigation set to hit the end of the field, measure the wastewater at its peak and then write a wastewater ticket.

She didn't have much to say. A week later she handed me a handmade rag doll. Over the right chest were the letters IID. Embroidered on the left chest was a black heart. Ruthie Mae told me to hang it from my rear-view mirror and gave me a large hatpin with instructions to run it through the black heart the next time I had any trouble.

Within the week, the zanjero was jerking my chain again, so I followed Ruthie Mae's instructions. The next day someone else was on duty. Three weeks later I was getting worried. When I asked about the relief zanjero, he told me the regular zanjero had been on vacation, but when he returned it was only for a day before he disappeared again. This time they said he had suffered a heart attack. He retired and never worked again.

I asked Ruthie Mae about it a year later. She was ironing, a Lucky Strike hung from the corner of her mouth and her head was cocked to the side to keep the thick blue smoke out of her eyes. I told her I was spooked by what had happened. With her iron hissing and spitting steam, she looked up and said, "No evil man gonna mess with my li'l Al."

Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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