“It’s spelled ‘Rossie’ not ‘Rosie’,” said my brother. He was talking about my recent post in which I mentioned that as a young boy, when I was sick, I spent time reading books, and one of the stories that stuck in my mind was “Our Miss Rosie.” The story was about a white lady who takes a pair of African-American twins under her wing and makes a significant difference in their lives. “In fact,” continued my brother, “weren’t their names Mingie and Veanie?”
I’ve been told that I have a good memory for recollecting incidents and trivia from my youth. Still, my brother never fails to surprise me with his uncanny ability to recall names of literary characters and acquaintances from the distant past. “Hang on,” I said, “let me search for the book.”
I’ve mentioned “Our Miss Rossie,” in my blog on Reader’s Digest as well as the recent one on Nikhil. When I was growing up, we had a few copies of the American edition of the Readers Digests from the 1950s. This story was featured as an excerpt from a book in an edition from 1958 or so. I remember reading it when I was about twelve years old and the story made a deep impression on me. I’ve read a few books over my lifetime, I’ve enjoyed most of them and a select few have stayed in my mind. “Our Miss Rossie,” is one of them. While writing the blog on Readers Digest, I searched for the book online but I was searching with the string “Rosie” instead of “Rossie” and the results returned were for the poem “Miss Rosie” by Lucille Clifton, a poignant poem in itself.
Armed with this new information, I searched for “Our Miss Rossie Mingie” and the search algorithm gods smiled at me. The first result was for a book called “White Mother”. I looked up Amazon and sure enough, the first review spoke of the reviewer having read an excerpt from the book in a Readers Digest from the 1950s! “Found it!” I exclaimed to my brother. After I hung up with him, I looked for the book in my local library system. No copies in any branches. I then searched the usual suspects, Amazon, Abebooks, Thriftbooks, and eBay for a copy. The prices ranged from $20 to $74 depending on the edition. I settled for the Kindle edition which was priced reasonably at $5. I might have wavered if it had been a copy of the Readers Digest, but the book itself held no sentimental value for me.
I downloaded the book intending to read it leisurely over a couple of weeks. That evening, I decided to take a peek and I read a couple of pages, the next thing I knew, it was 11:30 pm and I had read the entire book! I must confess that it was an emotional read and tears welled in my eyes as I read through some sections of the book. It chronicles the story of a pair of twins, Mingie and Veanie who grow up in abject poverty. Their mother dies when they are a day old and their stepmother is abusive. When their father suffers a stroke and is paralyzed, the stepmother moves out leaving the two young girls, seven years old to fend for themselves and their father.
They forage for food, stealing from fields or a neighbor’s house when none can be found. Driven to desperation one day, Mingie, the more daring twin, ventures to the white side of town looking for work. She faces hostility from some people but her persistence pays off and a kindly white lady Ms. Rossie Lee agrees to let her work at home. Ms. Lee is moved by the sight of Mingie gulping her food down and drives her home to take stock of the family’s condition where she is confronted by a ramshackle house and a bedridden paralyzed man. Over the years, Miss Rossie as the girls call her employs the girls, encourages them to attend school, molds their character, and helps them financially through college. The girls take different paths but eventually both graduate from college and move out to Los Angeles where they settle down. The book starts with Veanie receiving a telegram bearing the news that Miss Rossie is very ill and the entire book is about her reminiscences on the flight across the country. The book ends with Veanie making it home just before Miss Rossie breathes her last.
As I read the book, I realized that the excerpt I had read in Readers Digest was a very condensed version of the book but it nevertheless captured the highlights. There were however several facts that were either not mentioned in the book or I had overlooked them. I had assumed that the book was set in Georgia or Alabama. It was set in Fort Myers in Florida. I had lived in South Florida for 16 years on the other coast but had never paid a visit to Fort Myers. The incidents mentioned in the book were set roughly between 1916 and 1924. I had assumed it was set in the early 1950s. As I wrote this blog I found other snippets on the web. A Facebook page called “True Tours” advertises tours of Fort Myers and speaks about Ms. Rossie Lee and her impact on the girls. It also mentions her untimely demise in 1953 at the young age of 49. That tour is now on my list when I visit Florida next.
“White Mother” was authored by Jessie Bennet Sams, who refers to herself as “Veanie” in the book (as shall I in this blog). A search on the internet reveals a sparse biography. She was born in 1909 in Alachua, Florida. She went on to graduate from Florida A&M College and then study further at USC and the University of Colorado. She settled down as a teacher in LA. She was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1958 for her book. The website for the awards states that these awards are “given to books that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.”
I’m not sure how this book was received when it was published. The civil rights movement came to the fore in the mid-1950s and this book would have been published after the Brown vs the Board of Education ruling that paved the way for the desegregation of schools. Veanie herself attended segregated schools. Veanie writes that she did not mean the book to be an autobiographical account but there was no other way to write about Miss Rossie without telling her life story. I wonder if the book provided a spark of hope and reason in a charged and turbulent time. I wonder if the girls’ experiences were aberrations or if others were extended the same courtesy and kindness at least by a handful of people.
There is racism in the book but there are also nuances. The folk on the white side of town refer to them with the “N” word and young boys try to hurt them. At the same time, they are also subjected to taunts and vicious gossip by their own folk who resent their relationship with Miss Rossie. Miss Rossie’s children become fast friends with Mingie’s children, adults are scandalized when they see the children playing together. When Veanie makes it to college, she is shocked by the hazing she endures. She knows that every student there has struggled against tremendous odds to make it to college and it pains her that the seniors seem to trivialize that effort.
Miss Rossie is portrayed as extremely caring and generous. She must’ve been daring too to buck the trend and take the girls under her wing. She visits them often and also drives them in her car. She pays for their house to be rebuilt after it is damaged by a hurricane. While she has no qualms about associating herself with the sisters, she has to pull off a balancing act when she has visitors at home who are less charitable to the girls. She is there for the girls when their father dies, cares for Veanie when she has pneumonia, cajoles and goads her to complete school and go to college, and helps defray the tuition fees. She teaches her to sketch and encourages her to learn and play the piano. While she is willing to talk to the girls about their problems and guide them, she knows the limits of her abilities to help them. When the girls go through a harrowing experience of witnessing the aftermath of a horrific lynching, she comforts them but she does not get drawn into a discussion about the lynching.
There were facets of the story that I appreciated when I read them now. The helplessness of the father who is paralyzed and unable to care for his family and has to be looked after by his young daughters. His reluctance to eat the food they bring to him when he suspects they have stolen it. His futile efforts to convey his thoughts in his dying moments. The sense of loss that Veanie experiences when Mingie marries and moves to another town leaving Veanie alone at home at the age of fifteen. The willingness of the community to pitch in and take up a collection during the Sunday service to help pay for their rent. The old and infirm neighbor, Aunt Tiller knows that the girls are stealing from her and yet tells them that she is willing to share whatever she has without accusing them of stealing from her.
Most impressive of all is the tenacity and grit of the girls who manage to shake off their poverty and excel in school and go on to attend college. Veanie is the studious one who has her sights set on college and turns down a suitor she loves so she can continue studying. Mingie, the adventurous one, marries at the age of fifteen, has two children, and then ends the marriage when her husband can’t take care of her and the children. She goes back to school years later, in fact enrolling in school when Veanie is a teacher. She graduates top of her class and goes on to nursing school.
In all honesty, if I had not read the story in the Readers Digest all those years ago, I don’t think I would have read this book now if I came across it. It left an impression on me at that age because it was radically different from the other books I was reading then. Very different from the Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, and other such books. I would have noticed the poverty depicted in the book but that was not alien to me. Sadly, growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, one witnessed the effects of poverty from a young age. The young ragpickers, waifs really, paused to watch me and my friends play cricket and shyly return the ball to us when it rolled towards them. Our domestic helper’s son played with me in clothes that were too large for him or in clothes that I had passed on to him. Bangalore was comparatively genteel, there was no escaping it during my trips to Bombay. The naked children ran around on the pavements that they called home. The beggars fought with the dogs for the food thrown in the trash bin outside wedding halls. And sadly we were inured to these sights.
No, it wasn’t the poverty, it was something else that I discussed with my brother after I read the book. Soon after I read “Our Miss Rossie,” we shifted to the house my dad built in 1981. It was a sparsely populated area. My mother needed some help with chores at home and a friend brought over two young girls, probably my age, and requested my mother to employ them. Their dad worked as a watchman at a construction site and he had a large family of six to feed with more likely on the way. The girls had to work to help support the family. If you are a reader in the Western Hemisphere, you will consider this child abuse. In an ideal world, these girls would have been attending school or the state would have assisted their family. However, that is not how life played out in India. It was fairly common for families to employ young children who were pushed to work by destitute and desperate parents.
My mother employed them. They chattered away like magpies as they washed dishes and mopped the floor. The work should’ve taken them an hour but they came in the morning and spent 3 hours doing their work slowly, chatting with my mother and listening to the radio. They returned later in the evening for a second shift. They were well-fed in the morning as well as in the evening and some food was packed for them to take home. Along the way, my mother started teaching them the alphabet and numerals. At that age, I could never fathom how they could look happy, performing what I considered as tedious, dreary jobs. But given where they came from, I think the work at our house was an escape for them. They worked with us for a couple of years until their father decided that they could earn more money rolling beedis, the thin cigars that are smoked by millions in India. Small hands are prized for the dexterity needed to roll the tobacco in a leaf. Working ten hours a day paid a lot more than working a couple of hours. My mother could not match the pay and they left tearfully on the last day. They stopped by occasionally and then they disappeared from our lives.
No, I’m not comparing my mother to Miss Rossie. My mother was generous in her own way but not to the extent of Miss Rossie. However, at that time I could not help but notice the parallels between the story I read in the book and the lives of the two girls who worked in our house. Their pigtails and profiles morphed into the sketches depicted in the yellowing copy of the Readers Digest. That was a long time ago, over forty years ago. Now, I’m struck by the two girls very similar to Mingie and Veanie who were relatively better off than them but could never go to school and had to work from a very young age. If they were to tell their story, I wonder what they would have to say.
And so this brings me back to the conversation with my brother. On the face of it, “Our Miss Rossie” is a story that we both read in an old edition of Readers Digest. There are several such stories that we’ve read. It is another thread in the tapestry of our shared memories. Having an older brother who read voraciously meant that I was never short of recommendations for books and stories to read. As we discuss these stories occasionally today, our minds are often taken back to those halcyon days of our childhood. We don’t remember everything but each one of us remembers a snippet that fills the lacunae in the other’s memory. It was good to read “Our Miss Rossie” again but it was more enjoyable to discuss the book with my brother after that!
The featured image is that of the hardcover version of the book (source: anisfield-wolf.org