There was this woman that everyone in my neighborhood knew — but really didn’t know.
Day after blistering hot summer day or cold winter day, she would walk down the sidewalk on her way to somewhere we didn’t know. About 4:30 each afternoon, this whip-thin woman, with beautiful black hair, would appear lugging a purse and a bag of something.
Sometimes dogs would bark and nose up to her, but she would ignore them, always keeping a pleasant look on her face.
There were times when she would walk near the field where my friends and I would be playing and someone would say, “There’s that woman again.” My dad remarked one day that if he and his best friend “ever come into some money, we’re going to buy her a car.”
When I was in the ninth grade, I met a classmate named Dianne Neal. I also noticed she had moved near my street. Interestingly, that’s when I saw the walking woman heading into the same house.
She was Dianne’s mom.
(I would become lifelong friends with Dianne, her family and especially her mom.)
They lived in a two-bedroom apartment above the main house of the owner. Dianne and two sisters and a brother lived in the apartment. An older sister, Rita, a beautian, had married. (Rita’s real name is Bertha, but who wants to be called Bertha?)
I discovered that Dianne’s mother waited tables at restaurants and cafeterias from Government Street to downtown. If there was anyone who qualified for food stamps it was Larnette Neal.
But she wouldn’t take them. “She was way too proud,” Rita said.
She walked so much because wouldn’t ask for a ride. Other times she would forego a bus ride and walk several miles home so that she could save the fare. Raising four children being paid below minimum wage and a few dollars in tips is tough sledding.
She and her children moved from one low-income house to the next. “We hated almost all of those houses,” said her daughter, Shirley.
As her children got older, their expenses increased, but their mom’s salary didn’t. Rita would pinch in to help. But, as Dianne said, “Sometimes someone would say to one of us ‘Didn’t I see your sister wear that dress earlier this week?’ It didn’t faze us though.”
That Larnette was a tough woman is not surprising. Growing up in Woodville, Miss., as one of 10 children, nothing was easy. She went to a schoolhouse where first through eighth grades were taught in the same room.
When she reached the eighth grade, and being the oldest child, she had to quit her education to work in the fields to help her parents raise her younger siblings.
She got married once, but the husband left after their child (Rita) was two years old. “He just left and we never saw or heard from him,” Rita said, until she saw him at a funeral some 56 years later.
Eventually, Larnette raised all of her children. None of them caused trouble or as they used to say, “Got a record downtown.” Three daughters earned college degrees. One of the daughters married one of my cousins.
Larnette, who reached 90 years old, will be buried today. She is one of those marginal people, folks like most of us see — and don’t see. They don’t write books about them or do movies about their lives. They live out their days quietly but strongly. They make a statement without saying word.
When I attend her funeral today, I think I can say I am one of people who finally got to know her.
Edward Pratt is a former Advocate editor. He is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.