Remembering Ada Jean (May-Jun 1998)

By Matt Dabbs

by R. Scott Brunner
May – June, 1998

I loved Ada Jean.

I loved her from the first time I saw her dip snuff, when I was five years old.

She would stand at the ironing board, taking a rest from the work shirts of my father’s she was pressing. Beads of sweat would glisten on her forehead and upper lip as her big, fleshy fingers would twist the top of a small tin container that held the dark, strange-smelling powder. She’d pull open her bottom lip with her thumb and forefinger, lift the tin to the dark cavity of her mouth, and pour a modicum of the stuff into the waiting receptacle she’d created between her yellowed bottom teeth and lower lip. Then she’d return the top to the tin.

I was fascinated. No one else I knew dipped snuff.

Deposited in Ada Jean’s lip, saliva oozed into the snuff, making a brown goo from which with a deadly aim she discharged excess liquid into an old cup. in her mouth, the dip made a lump in her lower lip, making her chin seem larger than it was. Her tongue wagged out over her bottom teeth and tucked down between teeth and lip, to hold the deposit in place.

It distorted her speech. S sounds became F’s, and R’s became practically impossible, so that when she said “Listen here,” it sounded more like “Liffen heeyuh.” It often was difficult for me to understand her when she spoke.

Ada Jean spoke quite a bit, but mostly to herself as she watched her stories on the TV. “Stories” that’s what she called the soap operas, and she was especially fond of As the World Turns, In the late 1960s, if it was noontime in Bessemer, Alabama, you could always bet that the television in our house would be tuned to WBMG Channel 42, where Ada Jean was transfixed by the lives of characters so different from herself, or me, or anyone else either of us knew.

“That Mif Lifa, she sho’ do keep huhseff in twubble,” Ada Jean would say as the closing credits rolled, referring to the perils of her particular As the World Turns favorite, a character named Lisa – “Miss Lisa” to Ada Jean. Miss Lisa was rather irresponsible, it seemed to me, but then, I was only five years old. What did I know?

In retrospect, I’m surprised at how little I knew – or know now – about Ada Jean. She came to work for us shortly after my younger sister was born and my mother went back to her school teaching job. The turnip greens she cooked were to die for. She stayed with us for about five years.

Ada Jean was of inestimable age, the mother of two high school-age girls, and she lived in what my father called – without malice as far as I knew – “the colored section” over in Raimund Heights. She was a church-going woman. And she worked hard, sometimes too hard, as in the time my father had to ask her to stop starching and ironing his boxer shorts because the starch chafed.

I remember the first time I saw her. She stepped meekly into our kitchen, a black patent leather purse on her arm, knee-high hose rolled down around her ankles, her feet bulging in sensible shoes. She wore cotton blouses and simple skirts, mostly-plain, slightly faded and worn.

She smelled faintly of snuff and hair oil and perspiration. It was an exotic, lusty aroma to a child more accustomed to the light, airy scent of White Shoulders and hairspray that trailed after my mother. Ada Jean’s was something darker, more exotic, unfamiliar to me, yet not at all unpleasant.

Ada Jean neither looked nor acted like anyone else in my little world. For one thing, she was colored. That’s what she called herself – a colored woman – even as her daughters were urging her to say she was black, and to stop using what they viewed as another repressive, pejorative expression of a passing era.

I didn’t think she was black at all. Her skin was the color of cinnamon, of rich, swirling sorghum, of fresh pecans, of warm Alabama topsoil. I was drawn to the deep, electric warmth of it, and I wished I was colored, too. Any old body could be white.

What’s more, Ada Jean couldn’t drive, or didn’t. She certainly didn’t own a car, and I’ve always assumed she’d never been taught to drive. So early on weekday mornings, my father would leave home, retrieve Ada Jean from her tiny, ramshackle, clapboard house on Bullard Street and deposit her at our door before heading for work himself. It was a funny sight to see the two of them speeding down our street wedged inside Dad’s little sardine-tin of a Volkswagen Beetle.

To this day, I don’t know how my parents afforded a maid. Although I wouldn’t realize it until years later, we certainly weren’t well-off. When my father’s commissions from the insurance policies he sold were combined with my mother’s salary, there couldn’t have been much left in the till at the end of the month. But there was enough for Ada Jean – not just her wages and withholding taxes, which my mother dutifully paid, but also vegetables from the garden and day-lily bulbs and hand-me-downs and all the other things that friends and neighbors give and take. Ada Jean was family.

I remember her laughing. Often. Heartily.

One afternoon, when my mother had made an appointment for my two-year-old sister and me to have our portrait made at Olan Mills, Ada Jean was charged with getting us dressed for the occasion. Mother hurried home after school, loaded us in the car and off we went to the studio, Ada Jean riding in the back seat to watch after my sister and me.

When we reached Olan Mills, Mother eased the car into a parking space and was opening her car door when suddenly Ada Jean let fly a whoop from the back seat.

“What, Ada Jean? What is it?” my mother asked, a look of shocked concern on her face.

“Lawd have mercy, Miz Brunner, dis baby don’t have on no unduh-drawers!” Ada Jean shrieked, then convulsed into deep belly laughs that left her gasping for air. Not even my mother could keep a straight face in light of Ada Jean’s apparent oversight. In my recollection, it’s the only time a member of ourfamily has ever had her portrait made without her underpants.

It wasn’t long after that that Ada Jean left us. I was never sure why. Something about her daughters wanting her to do better for herself.

Awhile back I saw Ada Jean again for the first time in more than 20 years. She came to my sister’s wedding. Older, of course, a bit stooped, not quite as plump as she once was – she seemed careworn, but grinned broadly when she recognized me.

“It’s so good to see my baby,” she whispered. “It’s so good to see my baby.”

We embraced, and I was struck by how small she seemed, by how much had changed since those days when, as a small boy, I’d admired her snuff-dipping technique, and I was reminded of a line from a Langston Hughes poem I’d read in college: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

As she released me, a tear rolled down her cheek.

Mine, too.

This essay was broadcast nationally on NPR’s All Things Considered, June 9, 1998.Wineskins Magazine

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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