This I Believe
“Hambone!”, Hambone!”…the call would echo among the bungalow style houses on Spruce Street and work it’s way up to the Vance and James Streets intersection…”Hambone!, Hambone!”
That was the signal to take cover. I would duck down behind the ancient azalea bushes in front of my grandmother’s screened-in front porch and await the silent, shuffling, staff-holding figure of Hambone to appear. Our neighborhood provided the shortest trek for the African-Americans living in the segregated Washington Park area to go “up-town” for shopping. I was accustomed to black people silently walking to and fro but Hambone was different. At seven years old I was old enough to remember all the stories I had heard about her. Older kids said she was a witch…an evil woman who “worked the roots”. One direct look into her eyes and you would die! Maybe not right away, but soon. She was hunched-back so her head was facing her feet and she seemed to be perpetually peering over eyeglasses….only she did not wear eyeglasses. How she came to be called Hambone is a mystery to me. After she would pass we would resume our play and await her signaled return from town.
One hot, humid August afternoon in 1962 I was learning to roller-skate on the newly resurfaced Spruce Street. My sister, four years my senior, had a new blue bicycle with a blue metal seat over her back tire. She loved to take me for a ride on that seat. I would place my bare feet with my big toes clinging to the nuts that held the back tire in place and hold on for dear life. She liked to go fast. I was a more cautious child so always envisioned a bad fall. This particular day she decided I could skate faster if I just grabbed hold of that blue metal seat and let her provide the forward motion by pedaling her bicycle. All I had to do she said was “hold on”. As soon as we started down Spruce Street I realized this was not a good idea but for some reason I could not let go of the seat. Halfway down the hill my skates went out from under me and I came down hard on my bare knees on the asphalt pavement. I was relieved at first to be stopped but when I peered down at the bleeding knees I burst into tears of terror. When my sister appeared she immediately registered shock and rode off to get help. I tried to stand as still as I could and since no one was around to hear me I stopped crying and began to sob softly, staring at the injury site until I became aware that someone was standing in front of me. The long, dust-trimmed brown dress and wooden staff alerted me to the fact that Hambone was in front of me. She removed a clean white handkerchief from her bosom and wiped beads of sweat from her forehead. Grasping her staff tightly and with obvious great effort she gently dabbed my knees. The cool cloth and focused attention brought immediate relief. When she finished she handed me the handkerchief and said, “there chile, hold this on your knees, you gonna be alright”.
Having been taught to look someone in the eyes who speaks to you, I automatically looked into Hambone’s brown eyes. What I saw there captivated my spirit and melted any residual fear I may have had. She turned and shuffled away in silence.
I never hid again when “Hambone” echoed through the neighborhood. I would run to the curbing and watch her as she slowly made her way past. I could never tell if she looked my way. I would never forget her random act of kindness that crossed cultural barriers of which she was bound to be all too keenly aware.
Years later as a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington I attended the first presentations of the Albert Schweitzer Awards. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India was a recipient. Somehow I ended-up along a stretch of folks through which she was passing. Suddenly she reached over and took both my hands in both of hers. This diminutive , stooped and wrinkled woman looked into my eyes …..and there it was! That same look I had seen in Hambone’s eyes that hot and humid August afternoon. I truly believe that random acts of kindness can change the world.
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