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Our home was always full of people coming and going. I was the only child but never felt like the only child because our house was full of people. The daily conversation throughout the house was, how can we feed the world?
My nickname is Tee, legal name Thomas Ace Hart, III, named after my father Thomas Jack Hart, Jr., my deceased grandfather Thomas King Hart, Sr. The Hart family sticks together like a deck of cards.
Next comes my sidekick—the woman who looked after me when I was a child. As long as I can remember, my nanny Ms. Willy May Bell Parker was there for me. She’d pull my ear and say, listen up boy, or there will be T-time to pay. Life needs a time-out now and then. After school, Ms. Willy May would meet me outside at the front door of our home at Plantation Hill with a smile and warm cookies inside her white apron pocket. Then we’d go to the kitchen, catch-up on our day, and talk for hours. Ms. Willy May loved telling stories. She told stories as if she were reading them from a book, but I never saw Ms. Willy May read a book, not even a cookbook or newspaper or magazine. But she was full of fascinating facts about life. I called her the nanny word whisperer. I asked her why she whispered; her answer was, her stories were secrets.
My father said nobody can fiddle-fart in the kitchen as much as Ms. Willy May. She knew her way around the kitchen and was an excellent cook. Ms. Willy May is not a cracker. In our area, that implies she’s not from our neck of the woods, and she’s not white. I never did like classifying Ms. Willy May by color. She’s more like the coloring book, full of fun, the character we all dream to be, and she taught me it was OK to color outside the lines because it builds character to question the rules.
After doodling and connecting the dots on all the characters in my coloring book, she’d examine it and approve my artwork. And say, that’s as good as fried chicken and mash taters and gravy, alongside all those edible veggies and my delicious Jell-O fruit marshmallow salad. Ms. Willy May compared everything to food. Ms. Willy May, by all means, is a southerner. Born just south of the Mason-Dixon Line. She’s from North Carolina, but she never would admit her place of birth. She told me she was from another planet. I thought she was just one of us.
Ms. Willy May told stories about this liquored-up woman she called Sugar. She drew a picture in my mind of all these kids and her mean-spirited mother beating them with a large switch until they curled up in a ball. Forced them to work on a hot summer day picking cotton and tobacco until their hands bled.
They lived in the middle of the state in a place called Raleigh. Raleigh, what a funny name. I asked Ms. Willy May, don’t the letter i come before e except after c? With the look on her face, I realized Ms. Willy May could not read.
When Ms. Willy May lived in North Carolina, her siblings from six to nineteen years old traveled to the coast. A place called the flatland’s down east in the back of an old Wilcox Motor pickup truck with wooden slats on the side. They stood in one spot for hours, packed in like sardines. Ms. Willy May held in her arms the youngest so he wouldn’t get crushed. The children worked all day, so Sugar could buy cigarettes and liquor. A total of fourteen dollars a day, a dollar per kid, so Sugar could stay home in bed smoking and drinking.
Ms. Willy May would smile and close her eyes and express with deep emotion with her garbled southern lip chomping slang; I stand on my tiptoes in that old rickety truck, praying I see the ocean. The wind in my face almost uncurled all my hair. I could smell the ocean. We were that close to Carolina Beach. First time I ever saw a seagull.
At the end of each story, she would shake her finger at me and state the facts; You need to grow up to be like your daddy. Cuz he’s a fine man. There ain’t no finer gentleman than your daddy. When I was little, Ms. Willy May and I would play this game. We’d hold our hands out flat and pretend to read each other’s palms. Her hands were soft—her fingernail’s snow white. The palms of her hands were a carnation pink color that always smelled of bleach, and the top of her hands was licorice black and glittered with sparkles of gold. I thought her hands were magical. My hands were pale white and small next to hers. I told Ms. Willy May her hands were as colorful and as unique as her.
Ms. Willy May would examine my hands. I remember she’d get serious and point to a line on my palm. She’d say, right there is your fortune to do great things with your hands. God made hands for loving and should never cause pain. The hands and eyes can tell a fortune about a person.
Ms. Willy May would rub the palm of my hand carefully. She’d explain that Jupiter is just above my index finger, and under that is the Ring of Solomon. This spot determines if a person can serve others for the better good of mankind, live wealthy lives, and reveals the portrayal of your character. And if you have the power to give up your worldly riches for the greater good. All those tiny lines crisscrossed have purposes. I told her, her hand’s fortune is for cooking and fiddle-farting. Then she’d say, boy, go wash your hands.
I’ve lived all my life here in this white mansion on Plantation Hill. I’m not a traveling man. I’m just an ordinary man who loves to grow the gift of Mother Nature from my hands. I love where God put me. Right here in sunny Florida, in the middle of an orange grove where money grows on trees.
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