Touched by an Angel

Prelude: Mable Harris, the subject of a springtime CityBeat cover story (issue of March 2-8), died suddenly on Sept. 22. Harris was profiled in these pages because on Dec. 1, 1955 she was a 10th-gr

Sep 28, 2000 at 2:06 pm

Prelude: Mable Harris, the subject of a springtime CityBeat cover story (issue of March 2-8), died suddenly on Sept. 22.

Harris was profiled in these pages because on Dec. 1, 1955 she was a 10th-grader sitting in the rear colored section of the public bus in Montgomery, Ala., when Rosa Parks was arrested for not relinquishing her seat to a white passenger. Harris witnessed that historical event unfold and lived to talk about it, albeit much later and with much humility.

Even now as I think of Mable Harris and our brief, rambunctious time together, there's a rock at the base of my throat urging me to cry. It's simultaneously dissolved in laughter.

Beside me I can feel the spirit of Mable's presence, and I'm calmed by her saying, "Child, please! Honey, I got my flowers while I was livin.' Don't be cryin' over me 'cause I'm dead. It was time for me to go, so I went!"

Mable blew my mind.

She was just a cover story at first. Then she became my hip aunt, my sassy grandmother and, finally, on par with my own mother. Why did she remind me so much of my mother? It was her ability to laugh at the absurdities of life while keeping an eye focused on reality, blemishes and all.

But she never held anything against anyone, even those who disappointed her the most. That was the Christianity in her.

I spent some time with Mable, granted not nearly as much as I should have and, in retrospect, not as much as I could have. During our time together I tried in vain to maintain that professional veneer, but Mable wasn't having that.

In our initial phone conversation, she hemmed and hawed but finally caved in, allowing me to meet her. I could tell she was sizing me up, trying to see if she could trust me.

Mable must have been sold on the idea of telling her story, because she invited me back to K&T's Mini-Mart on Reading Road in Avondale, the shotgun neighborhood store she financed and ran with Gwen, her sister-in-law.

We laughed and laughed. Book-ended between were stories of life in Alabama. My favorite vignette was the one about her explosive tenure as a salad girl at a chicken joint there. When a patron called her a nigger for messing up his order, she dumped a salad in his lap, grabbed her coat and walked out.

When the cops showed up on her doorstep, her uncle smoothed things over with them but later told Mable she did the right thing. "You should have dumped it on his ass," her uncle said.

We laughed at the memory of that small early victory in the segregated South.

She paused her stories to chat and laugh with customers, some of whom she scolded for trying to buy cheap cigars without proper I.D.

She was that person you felt you'd known much longer, perhaps your entire lifetime. Ultimately that type of premature familiarity conspired against our relationship, because it caused me to take her for granted. I assumed Mable wasn't going anywhere.

I figured I could always drop in and see her at the Hamilton County Administration Building, where she worked, or at K&T's any night of the week. I thought I could always catch up but never did. Life happened.

Then one day my mother, the woman twinned by Mable's disposition and resilience, calls to say Mable is gone, that she just "dropped dead."

I lost my breath but ignored it, thinking that mindless activities would assuage my guilt and comfort my grief. It's not so, and neither happened.

It's the truth that Mable is dead. So I and every single person who ever knew her however briefly or profoundly must reconcile the fact that we didn't know her long or well enough, and nothing can be done now to change that.

But at least we knew her.

Postlude: A co-worker asked me about the topic of this week's column. "What's the fight?" he said. "There is no fight," I said. "No fight this week."

Just then I thought of Mable and what she'd seen and done. The fight had already been undertaken and won. There's little left to do but laugh at the shortcomings of the rest.