MAXWELL:  A woman due all respect

10/15/1995 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


After our mother’s left leg was amputated last November, my siblings and I thought that she, a 72-year-old former farm laborer and maid, finally had met a Geechee force that she could not defeat.

We learned, however, that we did not know very much about the essence of the woman who had brought us into the world.

Throughout the years, no hardships or tragedies had fazed her: not our father’s beatings; not having to support six children alone (my father deserted us when I was 11); not the violent death of her 9-year-old daughter; not open-heart surgery; not even the racism and sexism that smothered many of her dreams.

But would she survive the removal of her leg? After the doctor described the impending procedure, I lay awake most nights wondering if she would feel pain. If her old heart would hold up. If she would survive the loss of her independence.

Jeanette Maxwell Wise, born and reared in Stuckey, a Cracker burg in southern Lake County, always has been a hard worker. Self-reliance is in her blood. Wherever she has lived, in urban tenements, in migrant shacks or on the family homestead, she has planted flowers and she has raised her own vegetables. When young, she would ride to the fields each morning and pick as many crates of beans, peas, okra, tomatoes, squash and bell peppers as the men did.

I knew that she was physically strong and stubborn, but as I stared at her lying motionless in a bed at Holy Cross Hospital, I lost hope. For the first time, I actually believed that my mother would die. But I was wrong.

Not only has she survived the loss of her leg, but she is thriving. She is happier than ever, and I am convinced that, because of circumstances the amputation has created, she literally has turned what could have been the endgame into a new beginning.

In addition to her children and a handful of friends, two other people are enriching my mother’s life.

Shortly after she came home to convalesce, an acquaintance, 75-year-old Wilbert Sippio, visited. My mother used to be a regular customer at the cafe that Sippio and his late wife had owned. Since that first visit, he and my mother have become devoted companions and are speaking of marriage.

I did not grasp the uniqueness of their relationship until I visited her during the Columbus Day weekend. Sippio and I sat in the living room, I reading the newspaper, he staring at the television screen.

My mother yelled from the bedroom: “Here, Sippio, put this on for me. I got to iron a blouse.”

Through the doorway, she handed him her prosthesis and a white sneaker. He put the sneaker on the artificial foot, drew the halves of lace even and neatly tied the bow.

“I hope you didn’t tie it too tight,” I said.

“Don’t worry.”

“You don’t want to cut off her circulation.”

“I tie mine too tight sometimes,” he said, pointing to his left shoe.

His shoe, like my mother’s, was strapped to a prosthesis. His leg had been amputated about four years earlier. He and I laughed until tears came to our eyes.

My mother wheeled into the room. “What’s so funny?” she asked.

“Stop being nosy,” Sippio said.

“Gimme my leg,” she replied.

Sippio and I laughed harder. My mother laughed, too. After we calmed down, Sippio encouraged my mother to get dressed. They were going to Tatter Town to buy, among other things, collard greens and smoked neck bones, lima beans, sweet potatoes and chitlins for supper.

About 30 minutes later, my mother reappeared, balancing herself with a four-point walker. I was proud of her. Less than a year after losing her leg, she had found the man of her dreams and, of course, she had regained much of her old independence.

Sippio opened the door for her and gently held her elbow, making sure that she did not stumble on the doorstep. I watched the two of them limp and bump along the breezeway and struggle to get into his car.

Although their bodies are incomplete, their affection for each other is whole, I thought as the car disappeared.

The other significant person in my mother’s life is Sister Mary Gibbs, a 76-year-old ordained evangelist. She is the only white person in the federally subsidized facility where my mother lives. After moving into the complex last November, she, as part of her mission, went door-to-door searching for those in need of prayer.

She discovered my mother and promised to drive her when Sippio is not around. The only catch is that my mother has to use the wheelchair whenever Sister Gibbs drives her. “Jeanette and I take my old 1981 Chevette everywhere,” she said. “We go to the Social Security office, to Winn-Dixie and other places. Oh, we both love the Dollar Stores. I push her up and down those aisles. We have fun.”

My mother laughs at the irony of her relationship with Sister Gibbs. “When we go into the stores, you should see the white people staring at us,” she said. “They’re probably thinking: “What’s that white woman doing pushing that old black woman around?’ ”

Sister Gibbs also laughs at the reversal of roles. “If anybody ever says anything, I’m going to tell them, “Shut up! This is Jeanette, and she is my friend. Now mind your own business!’ ”

When I telephoned my mother to wish her happy birthday on Oct. 13, she and Sippio were sitting down to a meal of fried mullet, grits, corn bread and baked sweet potatoes.

“I’m the happiest one-legged woman in Fort Lauderdale,” she said. “I got successful children, nice friends and a good one-legged man.”

“You all aren’t planning on adding to the family, are you?” I teased.

“Child, please,” my mother said, laughing. “Ain’t no more days like that.”

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.