Only Believe

My grandmother was born January 9th, 1911.

She was born black and woman in South Carolina during Jim Crow’s heyday.

She had a middle school education because cultivating her mind wasn’t more important than cultivating cotton or tobacco.

Irene Harvin McCray was a smart woman.

She was one of the few literate people in her neighborhood.

She was the one people brought their letters to for them to be read and she was the one who wrote the responses back.

She was a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.

She could read the Bible well into her 90s without the need of reading glasses.

She sewed clothes with her big black Singer sewing machine with the gold letters.

She stitched quilts made from old clothes, sheets, tablecloths, anything that could stand the piercing of a needle and thread.

She was the granddaughter of a woman born during slavery.

She made the best deer hash you ever set your lips to.

She made the best biscuits, not them thick ones they sell at those chicken joints.

She gave you the best advice: just what you needed to hear when you needed to hear it.

She was fiercely in love with her grandchildren and wanted the best for them.

She would have been 108 years old today. And although she died in 2013 at the age of 102, her legacy is alive in me.

She cleaned white folk’s homes for the price of a hoghead; she cropped tobacco and picked cotton so that I wouldn’t have to, so that one I could become the poet and teacher I am today. She knew I would be a bearer of the story before I did, and nurtured it by telling me her life story.

I’ve been thinking about her much lately, especially after I was named Teacher of the Year (TOY) of Spring Valley High School about two months ago. My granny, who didn’t finish middle school and had dreams of being a teacher herself, would let up a holler to the Lord if she were still living! Look at my grandbaby! she would say. All things are possible if you only believe! she would say.

My tenure as TOY won’t begin officially until the 2019-20 school year, and I dedicate it to her. This honor is her honor.

And in honor of her memory and the life she lived, I am sharing here a story I wrote about her for her 95th Birthday Celebration. It’s written in her voice, in her beautiful, Geechee voice. Happy Birthday, Grandma!


January 2006

We used to play all the time and make mud pies when I was little. I learned to plait on a grass dolly. We used to wash it hair too. We used to have a good time playing.

I went to school at Battery Park. It was a rotten-down two-story building. We had one book with a green back on it. I wore old shoes to school. I didn’t talk much as a girl. I stopped going to school in the 6th grade. Sometimes I would go one day to school but when April come and tobacco come, I didn’t go to school none.

When I was little we would help the white folks sweep up the yard, pick up the sticks and we would get a piece of hogmeat, rice or flour for pay. They would give us clothes sometimes, good clothes.

I been sewing ever since I was big. I was sewing with two fingers and I had holes in my fingers and black spots right now from that.

My Ma learn me how to quilt. I only gave my quilts away never sold ‘em. I give them away to me and my family and my kin folk. But I tell you who could make a quilt. My ma could make a quilt.

We used to sleep on the quilts on the floor. We cover with the quilts—we had a time, hear?

I been cooking ever since I was big enough to cook. I learn myself to cook. The first thing I cook was flourbread. “Moonsie can cook,” is what my sisters say. My sisters started calling me Moonsie but I don’t know who learn them that.

We used to make brooms out of straw and sell them to white and black folks for 25 cents.

These two little legs here were the only way we used to get around. We used to be so tired.

We had it hard, hear? But I made it through, thank God for that.

Mama always kept clothes and decent shoes on us. My ma would make our clothes but one day I say, “Ma, let me make my own dress.” And I did.

Some people ain’ had no shoe and went barefoot.

Sometimes we had grits and peas and fried meat for breakfast. For dinner we had rice and peas. Daddy would buy meat sometimes. My Pa was a sharecropper.

It been a time when I was coming up. I’m glad you didn’t come then.

We got paid 40 or 50 cents a day to work all day long. Jesus, I don’t know how the people made it. Stuff was cheap then. I work so hard for 50 cents a day! Until the sun go down. Great daddy! I hope it never come back to dat.

I started picking cotton when I was 10 and doing ‘bacco too.

We went to church every Sunday and we walked there. People don’t go all the time now and they got something to ride in.

I would take care of myself real good. Black and white ointment at night and I put some cream or Vaseline on my face in the morning.

I met Sonny when he came by the house one Sunday. A man had told Sonny about me and he came to see about me. He came to the kitchen door and talked to me.

Two weeks later we went to the courthouse in Kingstree to get married.

I felt good at the birth of my children. Aunt Blanche helped me with all of ‘em except Bobbie. Being a mom means to me taking care of my children, keeping them warm, putting clothes on ‘em, keeping their bellies full.

I don’t remember how I felt when Sonny died in ‘76. I don’t remember nothing about no Civil Rights Movement.

In all I lived on the Huggins place, Roy Stuckey place, Oddell Stuckey place, little white house in Muddy Creek, Johnsonville projects, Lola house, and Helen house.

I was scared when I got into the car accident in ’98. I had slowly forgotten about it. I thought I was going to die. I pray nobody never get in a wreck.

I’m happy and glad that the Lord thought good to spare my life. Back then folks didn’t have no time to tell us stories, all they had time for was work. Now everything is much better.

I’m going and you coming, honey. You coming everyday of your life

I want for all my grands and great grands to go to school and get a nice education and a good job. What can you do without an education? You don’t get too much education. You can use something everyday. If I could go to school I woulda been a 1st grade teacher.

Thank the old people for what they do for you. You don’t know what you come into.

3 responses to “Only Believe”

  1. Katella Avatar

    Thank God yuu had the wisdom to sit down and record in writing some of Mrs. Irene’s life experience. I get so much joy thinking of my grandparents. They were a blessing on so many levels. We are extremely blessed to have the benefit of their knowledge of the struggle. If we are wise, we should marry that with the knowledge of today’s advancement to do what they did for the kids under our influence. Perseverance and gratefulness can make a world of difference in how life unfolds. I’m plenty grateful as my granny would say!

    I enjoyed this piece so much!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. jenniferbartellpoet Avatar

      I am blessed to carry her story. I agree with everything you wrote! My life is so much better because of the short 30 years I had with her.


  2. grace813 Avatar

    Totally enjoyed your post. I had the privilege of knowing my great-grandmother, who reminds me of your grandmother. Her birthday was January 3, she would have been 127. I treasure in my heart much of her wisdom- you inspire me to put it to paper.


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