It has been 20 years since the infamous heat wave of 1995 where over 800 Chicagoans died over a 4 – 5-day period of extreme temperatures and humidity. Mostly the marginalized: the homeless and the elderly succumbed.
It was also during this same time that Marie James and I sat down to record her sad life story. Here is an excerpt from Orphan Girl: The Memoir of a Chicago Bag Lady.
Nineteen ninety-five was the hottest summer on record in the city of Chicago; nearly eight hundred people died in July. The air was heavy, foul with the stench of rotting garbage coming in from the alley. You couldn’t find relief anywhere.
Into the lobby of the inner-city mission where I live and work came Marie James—white haired, with blue sparkling eyes set in the midst of a wrinkled and dirt-tanned face. She had been coming to the mission for twenty years, looking for food and friendship. The mercury was already past 105 degrees, and I had no energy for giving. I wanted to be left alone and not have to face a promise I had made; I told Marie I would record her life story. I regretted that promise when I saw her pull into the lobby, her cart packed full of sour milk jugs and old newspapers. As we sat and chatted for a minute I saw cockroaches crawl in and out of old food stuff on her cart. It was all I could do not to abandon the project then and there.
Despite the extreme heat, the bugs, and the smell, I turned the tape recorder on . . . and it was magic. I began a journey in the cool Sand Hills of Nebraska. Marie’s story transported me out of my present discomfort into another life, another time. It was a story that changed me.
The Sand Hills
I was born in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, near a small town called Spalding.
I grew up during the Depression. Many, many days went by when there was no food, just milk from the cows. In that part of the country a lot of people died of starvation.
I know as sure as I’m sitting on this chair that God had His hand on me before I was even born. There were eleven children in our family. I was my mother’s ninth child. One day my mother woke up, she smelled the coffee boiling and got sick to her stomach. She ran out onto the back porch and vomited green.
This is how my sister Faith told me the story. My father was gone, but that was nothing; he was gone most of the time. My oldest sister, Chloe, who was about nineteen then, was making cornmeal mush in a big pan, stirring it with a wooden spoon. Mother said, “Chloe, I’m pregnant. I’m not going to have this baby. You know what I’m going to do? The woman down the road had a miscarriage; she fell down. I’m going to go upstairs and jump out of the window.” My sister dropped the spoon into the pan, “Mother, you’re going to kill yourself.”
“Well, so be it.”
She went upstairs, sat on the windowsill, and let herself fall to the ground. She got the wind knocked out of her. She came in the house laughing, “I guess when I’m pregnant I’m pregnant clear up to my neck. I’m as pregnant now as when I jumped out the window. I don’t know how we’re going to feed this baby, but we’re going to have to find a way.”
I was born on a Saturday, May 6, 1926. Once my sister said to me, “Marie, you are going to shed a lot of tears in your life.” I asked, “Why do you say that?” “Because it was misting outside when you were born. All the time Mom was giving birth it was misting.” I laughed at her, “Oh, come on. I don’t believe that crazy stuff.” But it did happen. All my life I’ve been shedding tears.