(Chuckling). Well, not swiss exactly, but thank you. I feel especially privileged to have you and your friends here with us today. We met you before, in Patti's other book, The Irishwoman's Tale, but had no idea of the tragedies and secrets in your past. You spent most of your life burying the past and all its ugly memories. When the tragedy occurred with your student Shamika, did it occur to you that you might be forced to dredge up your own past by becoming involved with her?
Heavens to Betsy, no! It all started with that spark on the first day of school—well, I’d better back up. Have you taught, Naomi? Been a student? You know how that gray matter just swells in some students until it oozes outta their brains? That’s the way it was with Shamika. I just saw the possibilities! And then when that awful thing happened to her, well, I just HAD to go visit her at the hospital, and then when her aunt was so sassy, well I don’t know what happened! I just opened my mouth, and things started spillin’ out!
That day as a little girl on your way to school when you encountered Rufus and then the black boy, you seemed to come the conclusion that the adult world couldn't be trusted, isn't that so?
Well, I was soooo confused. I mean, I trusted my parents and my Sunday school teachers, but then Rufus and the mean new teacher just messed with my mind. I really didn’t know WHAT to think!
Is that what made it easy to lie about what happened, rather than to tell someone?
Well…yes! You know, I just couldn’t keep QUIET! That just wouldn’t be ME! So…I kinda fibbed. I mean, I did tell about losing my lunch money and being late, can’t you see? A kinda sorta lie!
Oh, dear. This is what Sam and I have been working on with the counselor.
Can you tell us about the progression of lying in your life, how it took hold, or what you learned from it?
Well, see, it’s kinda hard to explain to a regular person. I lied about Rufus and didn’t have to go the wholly nasty thing again—I mean that incident on the way to school. Then when the President got killed and I got—well, the bayou thing happened, well, I could just NEVER tell anyone about that! It’s just so personal. And it just got easier to avoid personal things and tell little white lies.
Sometimes people really do like it when you giggle and steer away from problems.
I hope that helps you understand, Naomi. I really want us to be friends.
Sure I do. That's sometimes part of human nature. On the other side of things, you love to teach. Where do you think that came from?
Well, Momma and Daddy, of course!
It took so much courage (that you didn't seem to know you had) to finally tell everyone the truth -- your family, your old friends, Shamika and her aunt -- what made you decide to tell the story to Patti so that she could share it with the world?
Oh, Naomi, my son adopted my habit of lying. I just couldn’t let it continue. Kinda like if you sneaked food all the time and then realized your daughter started having issues with food. Uh, well, you know what I mean, don’t you? I mean, that’s just an example. I mean, I don’t have problems with food.
Telling the story to Patti is something I’d rather not talk about. She didn’t get my permission, and I’m really not that happy about it.
I'm sorry to hear that. Can you also tell us how you two met?
Well, we both taught at Heartland, and we met in the Teachers’ Lounge. Then I saw her one day in the coffee bar at Barnes & Noble, and she’s just so—well, you know, kinda pushy and kept bugging me about things, and I was going through counseling and was being encouraged to open up around people, and it all kinda blurted out. Kinda like Mary’s story did with me. But I asked Mary if I could write her story, and Patti didn’t do any such thing!
Hey, Naomi, you’re not gonna mention this to Patti, are you? Hold on. I’ve gotta go get something to eat.
Okay. I’m back. Uh, Naomi, I really need to be getting home. Are you about done? I mean, I want to be helpful and all…
What things do you and Patti have in common; and how are you different from one another?
Well, we both teach and from what I saw in the teachers’ lounge, that woman sure likes to eat. I heard she’s from the South, but she sure doesn’t have much of her accent left. As far as I can tell, that’s about it.
When you and Ella met again in the unsegregated high school, despite your deep friendship, and the horrible secret you shared, you pulled away from her. Now that time, truth, and years have changed you, can you tell us why you think it happened that way at the time?
Naomi, can you BELIEVE that the counselor asked me that VERY QUESTION? I just wanted to fit in. You know, I’d finally gotten to be a part of something, and believe you me, the Bengal Belles were a VERY BIG DEAL down in Monroe, Louisiana, and since I wasn’t old friends with all those gals, I just figured they’d drop me like a hot yeast roll if I made friends with a colored—with a black girl.
At the end of the story, your own daughter Suzi presents you with quite a shock. How are you handling that now?
Oh, Naomi, haven’t you HEARD? Suzi and Joseph are EXPECTING! They are both in grad school and just doing sooo well. Joseph just couldn’t be any better of a hubbie to Suzi Q.
Me and Sam and Ed are flyin’ in Mama, and we’re gonna spend Christmas at their little rent house! And Joseph’s family is SOOO nice, you just wouldn’t believe it! We’ll probably get together and play Apples to Apples. They are that down to earth!
Well that’s wonderful to hear. Thanks so much for dropping by Sally. It’s been wonderful to talk to you.
Bye-bye, Naomi! Now don’t be tellin’ this to Patti, okay?
I’ll try and keep mum.
Hello Ella. Thanks for coming from such a long way to talk to us.
Ella, you are an incredibly brave woman; and you were an incredibly brave little girl. Thank you for being my guest as well. How did you manage to hold your secrets inside for so many years, especially while your brother was in prison?
I had made not only a promise but a blood oath. In the Ward family, a promise is not to be broken. Plus no one would’a believed my word against a white woman’s.
What was there about the new white girl living on the other side of the fence that drew you to want to become friends when you knew how both your families would feel about that? Were there times you ever tried to forget her?
Lawd, you neva seen such a cute face! All freckly and pale. And she had these blue eyes that jus’ danced! At that time books was her best friends—just like me. Course now you might say we’s best friends, the way everything’s worked out. Last year I helped Sally with the decorations for Suzi’s and Joseph’s wedding. (That Sally, you know, she can barely tie a bow.)
The day that changed you and Sally's lives forever -- is there anything about what the two of you did that day or about how you handled it after, that you regret?
Shoot, girl, don’t YOU have regrets? I know I sho’ do. Should’a tole Momma and Daddy, that’s fo sho’. But I don’t know that anything would’a been any different. You know, folks jes’ didn’t listen to blacks back then. Sometimes they don’t listen now.
Can you tell us, personally, about the role that the Holy Spirit has played in your life through that time, and in the years since?
That Spirit always blowin’ fresh wind, fresh fire into my soul ever since I be a little girl. Now sometimes I’ve ignored Him, that’s fo’ sho’, but He always been there helpin’ me along. He counseled me through Willie’s troubles, counseled me through college and nursin’ school. Counselin’ me now on how to be a doctor’s wife and a nurse at the same time!
What an encouraging reminder. Thanks, Ella.
Welcome to Secret Lives of Characters, Shamika. Thank you for coming as well.
Well, I got a hair appointment in ten minutes, so you better make ’em quick.
You didn't trust Sally for a long time. What finally made you realize that she genuinely wanted to help you and be your friend?
After what dem cops did to Daddy, there’s always a part of me that don’t trust no whites. But Sally, she kinda prove herself, you know? That woman, she shore is crazy, but she tryin’ to get there. Ain’t that what we all doin’?
How difficult is it, to come here today, or how hard was it for you to tell your part of the story to Patti?
Tell you the truth, I only came ’cause Ruby say I have to. Say it’ll be good practice for my student teaching.
What was it like, working with Patti?
That woman be one royal pain. She just won’t let up. Aunt Ruby say kinda like me.
Things happened to you that set your life on course; things you had no control over. If another tragedy came your way, how might the things you've gone through make you respond differently now?
Me and lyin’ have parted ways. It jes’ ain’t no good for me. Detective Price done convinced me of that.
Are you and Sally still friends? Have you had the chance to become acquainted her family?
Well, prob’ly not friends, but she like my great-aunt or something. She even invite me to her daughter’s weddin’. Boy, you should’a seen them folks try and dance. Look like chickens out there flappin’ around on the dance floor!
Sally was your teacher, but do you think she might have learned anything from you?
Oh, I think prob’ly everyone learns something from me.
You're probably right about that. Thank you, again Shamika. I hope you're not late for your appointment.
Willie, I'm sure you, as much as anyone, would like to leave the past behind you. You spent many years in prison, an innocent man; you laid down your life, in essence for those you cared about and loved. What kept you from becoming bitter, or did you struggle with that?
Naomi, you been on crack? Yep, that’s what I thought. Since that Spirit conked me in de head, I ain’t struggled with no bitterness, I just so grateful to be free. And I ain’t talkin’ those cell bars. I’m talking about mind and body and soul free. No dope. No nuttin’! Ain’t nuttin’ like it!
What were your dreams and hopes as a young man before events took hold and changed the course of your life?
Ain’t never wanna do nothin’ but toot that silly horn.
What kinds of things did you often think about during those turbulent days, but not say?
How unfair it was that they think I’d mess with those girls just cause my skin be darker than theirs. How dey hated me though they didn’t know the first thing ’bout me.
If you could have one wish or one prayer answered right now, what would it be?
That I find a nice woman who love the Lord.
(Smiling) Well, I'll be praying for you on that score then. I have a couple of more questions that anyone can feel free to answer.
Well, Sally and Shamika have skipped outta here, jes’ leavin’ me and Willie. I guess we’ll take turns.
I'd like to ask either of you, what do you (or did you at that time in the past) believe in so strongly, that it might (or did) affect your actions?
Ella here. Lovin’ someone through their pain. I jes’ never give up on my Willie.
What are your dreams today?
Willie on board. Pretty much that nice godly woman.
Do any of you think that you'll work with Patti again sometime, or do you know anyone who might be willing to share their stories with her?
Uh, I think I can speak for my brother and me. She ’bout wore the both of us out. Always pushin’ and pryin’. But I hear she found some woman down in N’Awlins and she’s done written a book about her! Some woman named Sheba. Can you believe that? And Sally tole me she’s plannin’ to go to all the way to China to get some woman’s story. Now don’t that jes’ beat all?
Do either of you have anything else you'd like to share or comment upon?
Thank you all for coming. Thank you, Patti, for taking down their stories so wonderfully.