Part 2 (see below for a link to part one)
I cannot tell you Celestine’s story without including her husband. Celestine had married very young, in her early teens. Prince “Tut” Marsh was, in certain ways, so much like my daddy that we sometimes said they could have been twins if only their skin had been the same color.
He was one of the hardest working men I had ever encountered. While working for my grandfather in his youth, Tut lost one of his arms in a sawmill accident. As soon as it was healed enough that he could manage it, Tut was back at work at Grandfather’s saw mill. Although my grandfather helped with the medical expenses, there was no workman’s compensation in those days. If you wanted to eat and keep a roof over your head, you worked.
A sawmill from the 1930s, not unlike the one in which Celestine’s husband worked.
He’s never lost that strong work ethic, either. I remember several years ago when I did a newspaper interview with Tut and Celestine to mark their 60th wedding anniversary. Poor Tut could barely keep still long enough in their trailer to answer the questions.
“If-if you are done, Miss, I need to ge-get back out there and finish planting the garden,” he said politely with his familiar stammer.
Like my daddy, Tut was a good man but a very quick-tempered one. He drank in his younger years, and when he was intoxicated, Tut—a big, strapping and very strong fellow who could do serious damage even if he did have only one arm–could be pretty terrifying. Mama said that on more than one occasion, Celestine would flee their house in the dead of night and run through the woods to turn up at our farmhouse’s door. And there she would stay in her safe haven until Tut sobered up.
Daddy knew he couldn’t hold liquor well and rarely drank. But he was volatile and it didn’t take a lot to make that temper flare at times. More than once, Mama sought out Celestine when Tut’s “brother” was misbehaving. You could say they were in the same boat at times, and it was comforting to share the ride with someone else who understood where you were coming from.
I remember seeing Celestine in her preachin’ robes, topped off by the jauntiest of satin berets. On Sunday afternoons, I would sometimes sit on the back porch of the farmhouse and listen to Celestine’s congregation in the little church on the hill, singing to the rhythm of that big bass drum. I loved how spirited those voices were as they rose and fell and the drum thumped away. There was so much more life and energy in their singing compared to our church’s congregation, or so I thought.
In addition to serving as a minister, rearing her own children and later, some of her grandchildren, Celestine was also a foster mother for the county, helping raise children in need of homes. In addition, she worked for a couple of families in town, helping to cook and clean and care for their children.
In the black community, Celestine was fondly referred to as “Mama Teen.” She was a mother figure to many people, black and white.
She provided me with comfort and encouragement during those difficult adolescent years, when I was certain I was one of the ugliest people to walk the face of the earth and that no one would ever want ME. Years later, when the ugly duckling blossomed, I remember her beaming smiles and those hugs. “See, baby, I told you so!”
Celestine often referred to me as her white baby. And I thought of her as one of my second mothers. I loved her more than I did or do some of my own flesh and blood relatives, as did my two older sisters. After all, Celestine took an active interest in our lives. She sincerely cared. And when we accomplished some milestone in life, I don’t think anyone outside of our parents could have been any more proud of us.
In the last portion of her life, Celestine suffered many health problems, losing her customary plumpness and shrinking even shorter. At five foot six inches, I felt like an Amazon when I stood beside her. It gave me a pang when I realized the indestructible Celestine Marsh was getting old and ever more frail.
She had to endure long hours of kidney dialysis, but she didn’t complain.
“Actually, it’s kind of nice to just have some time to read my Bible and to think things over,” she used to say. Still, Celestine would find the energy to whip up goodies for the holidays, presenting tins of her trademark cheese straws to Benny because she knew he loved her straws better than anybody else’s. Sharing good food is a way to show love here in the South, and like so many other people, Celestine loved my husband. She loved that he was so good to her baby.
Celestine had a handy little gadget she used to make fancy cheese straws that were also crisp and tangy.
When she passed away several years ago, the church could barely hold all the attendees. Mama and I were the only two white people there, but we were given seats in the front of the sanctuary. It wasn’t because we were white, you see; it was because we were family.
Sometimes, when I am down at the old farmhouse, I close my eyes and listen and I can almost hear the boom of the big bass drum and the sound of voices praising God, echoing from the hilltop church. I can see her, white apron flapping, wielding that hoe as she killed the rattler. Smell the delicious scent of her homemade yeast rolls and fried chicken.
Celestine’s homemade butterhorn rolls put the Pillsbury Doughboy’s to shame.
I can feel her arms wrap around me in a warm hug and hear her say, “It’s good to see my baby. You’re lookin’ good.”
I am so glad and so blessed that I had someone like Celestine Marsh, a strong and compassionate and wise woman, in my life.
Watching The Help brought back a flood of memories, and quite a few tears. It is highly recommended.
I just wish she and Mama could have seen it. I think they would have enjoyed it, too.