LESLIE CRISS: Vicksburg flower bed becomes root of remarkable friendship

By Leslie Criss

“We all should know that diversity makes for a rich tapestry, and we must understand that all the threads of the tapestry are equal in value no matter what their color.”
– Maya Angelou

“I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.”
– Ani DiFranco

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.
– A.A. Milne, “Winnie-the-Pooh”

Nearly 15 years ago, a 3-by-4 long-untended flower bed became the foundation for a phenomenal friendship.
I met Velma Woodson when I was interviewing her and a few other women who seemed to be the backbone of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Vicksburg.
As we were leaving the parish hall, Velma mentioned her advancing years had rendered her unable to do much yard work.
Loving to do outside work, I quickly volunteered my services, but she declined.
A week later, I called her and told her I really would love to do some digging and planting in her flower bed.
Finally, either to shut me up or because she realized I was sincere, Velma said yes.
In the weeks that followed, I’d show up when I could and do what I could to get that old, neglected bed back up to speed. And Velma would sit nearby on her porch and keep me company.
As the perennials I planted began to take root, so did our friendship.
That our skin coloring was vastly different mattered not one whit. Nor did the age difference – I was in my early 40s; she was in her 70s. She told folks I was her other daughter – “she just didn’t stay in the oven long enough.”
On the afternoons I’d stop by to check on our diminutive flower garden, Velma would insist I come in for a cold drink and some air conditioning. It was those visits when she’d weave a rich and colorful tapestry that was her life story, filled with laughter and tears, teaching and touching lives too many to count.
In the weeks and months that followed, I weeded and watered and watched new life shoot through the long-untended ground. And in return, my soul and spirit were cultivated.
I learned how it was for Velma and her husband to be the first African-Americans to move into an all-white neighborhood and be greeted not by neighbors bearing pies or cakes, but hate-filled threats.
I’d hear how it was for her to be the first African-American employed by one of Vicksburg’s major banks and be ignored when lunch invitations were issued.
Because she was my friend, I was angered knowing such a kind and compassionate person had been treated so badly. She exuded no anger, and implored me to forgive. “Life’s too good to be angry,” she told me.
I learned several days ago last rites had been administered to my friend. Her family in Vicksburg keep watch, as those of us who love her wait for her to head on home.
Rest well, dear friend.

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