Miss Ophelia

Coming of age stories have the power to attach themselves to our memory and live there forever.

This tender tale, set in 1948 rural Virginia, is just such a sweet reminisce, told in the first person, of Isabel "Belly" Anderson and the summer of her eleventh year.

Eleven is that right-on-the-cusp age between childhood frivolity and puberty angst.  That time of carefree wonder and innocent curiosity.  It is when one just wants to sleep past seven, drink lemonade, eat homemade chocolate cake, read books, and eavesdrop on the adults still acting like children -  especially in the slow moving, Jim Crow, quiet summer south.

The book brought an imagined scene between my daughters, ages ten and twelve, to our annual family cookout, also in July, and them listening to the last remaining matriarch talk about her childhood.  Children are mesmerized by elders talking about how they used to play, their friends, worrying about how they braid their hair.  My aunt, still wears her real hair in two long plaits that are wrapped around her head like a crown, just like Miss Ophelia.  She would have been a younger sister of the primary women in  woman, like Miss Ophelia, Isabel's mother, Lizzie, Miss Ella, Miss Myra, and Aunt Rachel. Her mother, my grandmother, would have held the quiet wisdom of Miss Mattie, my great-grandmother, the aging presence of peace like Miss Janie.  All the characters were as real as sweet tea in the summer time.

Mary Burnett Smith slowly drew me into the story.  Belly trying to understand what was happening with her two-years-older best friend Teeny.  Being right on that cusp of childhood, Belly was not interested in boys or spending time with anyone other than her friend, her books, and maybe, tolerating her bachelor Uncle Willie who never seemed to grow up.  In Belly, we feel the confusion, hurt, and anger she felt at events happening around her, like unwillingly being sent to spend the summer with Aunt Rachel who was having some mysterious surgery.  We could feel her only-child lonelieness consoled in the boxes and boxes of books that the rich white people gave Uncle Willie to give to her once they learned she loved literature.  Remembering how much a dime could buy and how childless Uncle Avery promised one for every book she purchased, visions of new ribbons and a piano dancing in my head right along with Belly.

The story's retelling also reminded me of the gentle friendship formed that summer when Isabel was taking piano lessons from Miss Ophelia and witnessed the blossoming of a forbidden love.  In her lessons, Miss Ophelia, down from New York after her father passed away, gently added refinement and a love for the humanities, to the still impressionable eleven year old.  Their friendship lasted throughout Belly's adult life and left such an indelible impression, that the retelling of it makes us feel the love that still remained in her heart for her beloved friend.

The story is set against the backdrop of small, segregated Southern town where everyone literally knew everyone and social structure centered around the Baptist church, the power of the Deacons and the Church Mothers, the sin of gossip, and the freedom of children to just run and play - as long as they stayed out of grown-folks-business.

Perhaps ended with more questions than answers, just like life, even as an adult coming back to her hometown to remember that special summer, we appreciate that sometimes the trees tell a tale, and every rosebud has a narrative.

I had my own Miss Ophelia when I was about the same age as Belly.  She was beautifully dark, like Miss Ophelia, and while married with children already, she gave me the attention my motherless heart desired.  She didn't correct like a mother or be stern like a teacher, she just gently guided through our Sunday School and BTU lessons, being a refined example of womanhood and love.  Reading this tale took me back to that summer of 1976 and Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the rural part of Columbia, MO.  For a moment, I remembered how much I just wanted to be around her and watch her every move, learn from her.

This tender tale can be shared with tweens and will be one, along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that belongs on the bookshelf forever.


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