I’m delighted to welcome back my cousin Ronnie Salters, whom I’ve discovered is not only a fantastic writer, but has many vivid experiences to share.
Today’s column takes us back some five decades for a poignant life lesson from Ronnie’s childhood on the Gulf Coast, around Biloxi MS.
The Woman at the Grocery
By Ronnie Salters
It was one of those easy-going days before I started elementary school, when I would take the regular ride with my parents into Biloxi to shop at Brothers Grocery — owned by my mother’s cousin, Floyd, who was also the butcher. Our route was over the ‘old’ Biloxi Highway 90 Bridge (which, at that time, had been in use for only a few years). Making our way along Highway 90 we would turn onto Main Street as we headed toward Brothers Grocery, located on the east side of the street just before crossing over the L&N Railroad tracks. The north side of the tracks was a predominantly black neighborhood at a time when race relations were still distinguished by signs that read Coloreds Only or Whites Only. At that time race differences didn’t mean as much when you were poor as it apparently did among the more affluent. Poor was poor.
My father — who always stayed in the car in the oyster-shell paved parking lot on the side of the grocery — would doze, people-watch, or read the latest Crime Detective magazine. I strode alongside of my mother inside the store picking up the latest and greatest cereal, begging her to get it. The highlight of the trip was always visiting with her cousin Floyd, the butcher.
My mother would negotiate the price and selection of the meat based on its freshness and cut. I would stand with my face mashed against the curved glass of the display case salivating over the select cuts of meats. My favorite was the large meat tube of bologna which I pronounced as “baloney” — then and now. It was like watching a master as Floyd cut the different meats to the proper size and weight and then neatly rap them in the freezer paper and slap them down on the counter top. No sooner than it had hit, he would ask the same old question, “What else can I get you?” The bloody smell of the beef and chicken was only surpassed by the spice filled aroma of the bologna. But steak would not be on our plates that night or most others, as we were relegated to the freshly ground hamburger meat and cooked liver. Liver! The meat that looked like steak but had the unsavory taste and texture that evaded our taste buds and ended up stuffed under mashed potatoes in attempt to hide it from the judgmental eyes of my mother. But as long as I had my bologna, I was happy.
As we rounded the last corner and headed toward the produce section, something occurred that would change my life forever. As we neared the apples and oranges stacked in precarious piles in their bins, a silhouette appeared in the bright light of the exit doors — a figure of a woman. As the woman neared us, I felt my mother tug at my arm trying to pull me behind her skirt. But my curiosity was insatiable. I peered around her defiantly looking at the ghostly figure of an older black woman carrying a grocery basket. As the brightness of the sunlight diminished and the fluorescent lights began to give form to the woman’s scarf-covered head, it revealed a face that was grotesquely covered in growths and protuberances. Now my mother’s pull met no resistance, as I cringed in horror behind her. My frightened eyes struggled to comprehend that the woman’s arms and exposed legs were covered with these incomprehensible growths.
The woman’s eyes caught mine and I realized she could easily see I was completely terrified at her appearance. My thoughts raced wildly, trying to comprehend what my eyes were witnessing. As much as the sight repulsed every part of my being, I could not bring myself to look away. My brain absorbed all of this, imprinting on my conscious and subconscious in a way that would remain until this day.
Then this inhuman-looking monster standing before me, spoke: “I won't hurt you… you don’t need to be scared.” It spoke! And in the background of the buzz going on in my brain, I heard my mother softly tell her it was okay and that she was sorry for how I was responding. I watched as the woman handled the apples, picking them up and placing them in her basket. I knew I would never touch those apples, let alone eat any.
The questions ran through my brain as it tried to rationalize what I had just witnessed. Was this an infectious disease that I could catch? Would I become a tumor-covered shell of a person? I had a wart — would it spread like this? It was overwhelming to my small mind and I internalized it and began converting my sense of horror to one of pity. Later, it would become compassion… and eventually empathy. It was that moment in that time which could be defined as “from that day forward.”
In retrospect, there would be many such events, as there are in everyone’s life. But that moment changed me in a profound way.
And I vividly remembered that encounter again when a disfigured man approached Pope Frances last year. Without the slightest hesitation, the Pope embraced the disfigured man most people would have felt repulsed by. Visions of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, came to mind… along with my very personal memory of the woman at the grocery. A vivid memory from an age when I had very little understanding of such things.
Watching Pope Francis unhesitatingly embrace and kiss that disfigured man, I shed a tear and realized what wonderful human being he is. It is those feelings of compassion and empathy that let us understand people who are less fortunate than ourselves… and move us to reach out to make their lives better. And so it is paid forward.
The time, the place, the memory connected an infinite thread that has reached from that moment to a teenager who volunteered to help those students with special needs. To reach out to others in the form of a youth group that saw other youth to reach out beyond themselves and to those less fortunate than themselves. So many who would be moved to careers of service to humanity. And whether it be an old disfigured woman in a grocery store touching a frightened little boy or the Pope in an act of selfless compassion, that thread connects us and changes us in the most profound ways.