From his father, Wendell Mitchell inherited high cheekbones, an engaging smile, a lanky frame, and determination. From his mother, an optimistic outlook, the confidence to go with it, and a penetrating stare. His father, Horace, was a schoolteacher; his mother, Adele, a stay-at-home mom who took in washing and ironing. Horace was thirty-four when Wendell was born; Adele was twenty-six. At the age of forty-six Horace Mitchell had a fatal heart attack. Her husband’s death threw Adele Mitchell into a cycle of depression from which she would never emerge.
* * *
“Is this some sort of … colored thing?”
That’s the question posed to Wendell Mitchell on a late summer afternoon in July of 1966. His mother, aged 47, was once more witnessed talking to herself on the front porch of their home, waving to passers-by, striding across the porch, descending the steps hesitantly, then returning to the porch swing and singing. She was naked and barefoot. Wendell, working the summer job he held while a student at University of Illinois, was called away from work by police.
Arriving home – standing on the front porch – he was informed by Reverend Raphael Harrison, pastor at Wainwright’s A.M.E. church, that the reverend’s wife and another female member of the church had coaxed his mother indoors, soothed her and got her to lie down; she was sleeping when Wendell arrived. Wendell listened to the reverend, nodding all the while, then turned and watched Wainwright Chief of Police Nolan Hillberry exit his car. The officer waited for Wendell to descend the stairs, placing one hand on the roof of the car and scratching his forehead with the other.
“Is this some sort of … colored thing?” Hillberry asked. He winced when the words slipped from his tongue. He knew they were precisely incorrect, exactly what he should not have said. He knew Wendell Mitchell, knew his mother and had known his father. His choice of words embarrassed him; he said “I’m sorry, Wendell, I know … I know …” Hillberry hung his head and it was quiet for a moment, and in that moment there were two embarrassed, uncomfortable men in the Mitchell driveway.
When Wendell spoke he used the exact words he’d used on at least one other similar occasion. “Chief,” he said, “it’s her mind. You know her … she struggles.” When the words slipped from his tongue he wanted to weep.
The Reverend descended the front steps and joined the two men in the driveway. “Chief,” he said, “this is a situation we’ve been in before, and I know you can find some kind of law that’s been broke … more than one I suppose … but we all know Wendell’s mother is …” and at this point the preacher stopped, nodded, looked at the Chief and looked at Wendell and kept nodding.
Nolan Hillberry sighed. At one point in time, Adele Mitchell had done washing and ironing for his family. His mother, dead for years, had adored Adele Mitchell. His late father had always referred to Horace Mitchell as the kind of man Wainwright, Illinois, needed more of. Horace had taught science at the colored school.
“I’m in a bind here,” the chief said. He knew people in town would talk. There would be rumors and insinuations and worst of all, advice from people he’d rather not hear from. In his mind this was not a legal matter.
A month later Adele Michelle Mitchell was committed to the Alton Mental Health facility, in Alton, Illinois. She would never leave. Her son would never stop visiting her, even when she was no longer sure who he was, when she became incommunicado, frail and distant.
* * *
“Do the tough things first.”
That’s what Horace Mitchell taught his son. He said those words to Wendell any number of times. That advice was the reason Wendell Mitchell took six years to achieve his degree in Education. It was the financing that slowed him down. Wendell paid for every cent of his education himself. Between his junior and senior years he took a year off and stayed at King Dairy; he needed the money. Tough things first, that was the rule. Returning to school after that year, he’d taken lighter class loads and filled the remaining hours with work. His father had warned him about debt; he was heeding that warning.
After six years Wendell graduated with a degree in secondary education. He’d attended every class faithfully, worked two jobs, studied eagerly – mostly in the inconvenient hours – and graduated in the top ten-percent of his class, all the while relying on lessons taught by his parents. He’d never been late for a class or for work, had never missed a class or work due to illness.
During his last year at Illinois, Wendell developed a schoolboy crush on a girl he did not know. They viewed each other from afar and when they passed each other smiles erupted, smiles that meant something like “I recognize you, I don’t know you but I would like to.” She was brown-skinned, with coal black hair and coal black eyes and he’d see her on campus, whizzing around, books stacked in her arms. He’d seen her working in the school cafeteria – net in her hair, and seen her at the country club where he worked in the kitchen, working special occasions as a waitress.
One night, after an event at the country club, everyone working took a breather and stood around outside, by the loading dock, waiting for the place to clear. It was one of those beautiful early spring nights, cool and crystal clear, and even though they’d never shared more than a ‘hello,’ the girl he’d been smiling at approached Wendell Mitchell, looked right in his eyes and said “I got a friend says you’re the most handsome man on campus. What do you think about that?” She broke into laughter and it made him blush. “My name is Louisa, she told him, “Louisa Escarone. From Joliet.” She shrugged and laughed more after that and when he told her his name she said “Oh, you are so just like aWendell,” and she laughed after that, too. She’d slapped his arm when she said that and he lowered his chin and raised his eyebrows and reached over and poked her shoulder with an index finger, saying “Louisa and Wendell, sitting in a tree …” and she laughed hard, and waved a hand at him. He would think about his response later. That was about as bold as he ever got.
After he graduated they never saw each other again.
* * *
His first teaching job was in Charleston, Illinois. Wendell Mitchell wasn’t in Charleston very long.
His first year of teaching was rough. He lamented that students didn’t share his enthusiasm for education. He wondered why their work was – as he succinctly explained to his department chair – half-ass. His students did okay, but Wendell Mitchell had been taught from a very young age that okay was the starting point, and was some distance from the finish line. Teenagers … didn’t they want to learn?
Then this happened close to the end of the school year:
A group of high school boys, savoring their sour moods, replaying imagined slights – all adolescent mutterings – were complaining about adults, and teachers, and Wendell Mitchell’s name came up. This happened while the boys were sitting in cars at a drive-in hamburger stand, and next to that hamburger stand was a gas station, and standing next to his car at that gas station was Wendell Mitchell, talking with the attendant who was pumping gas into his car.
Spying him, the boys piled out of their cars at the hamburger stand – led by the biggest boy with the biggest mouth – and approached Mitchell at the gas station.
Teenage boys are desperate to prove they’re men. Why do they do the foolish things that prove they are not?
Wendell recognized them as they approached, nodded to them, and one of them – a big farm boy – approached him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Mitchell … you think you’re hot shit, don’t you?”
“That’s enough,” the attendant said to the boy. He was a grown man, in coveralls and a ball cap. He shut off the gas pump, stood quietly, glared at the boy who spoken to Wendell, surveyed the other boys, then finished filling the tank, took the bills Mitchell was handing him, and said, “I’ll be right back with your change.” He scanned the group of boys again, shook his head and said, “you boys go on home.”
Wendell Mitchell looked up into the face of a tall farm boy, baby-fat on him everywhere, and remembered one of his father’s lessons. “Panic obstructs the senses,” his father had told him. “When panic arrives, take deep breaths. Close your eyes, take a second and clear your mind.”
Mitchell shrugged the hand from his shoulder, stepped back, took a deep breath and then stared at the boy who’d put a hand on him. The boy blinked. Wendell understood the situation he was in and immediately framed it two ways: a race thing and a young boy thing. He didn’t know which one mattered most.
The boy put his hand back on Mitchell’s shoulder, stepped even closer so he loomed over the teacher and said the one word he should never have used.
“All right,” the attendant said, returning with Mitchell’s change. He’d heard the word. “That’s it. Get your asses out of here …”
The farm boy edged in closer, put a hand on the side of Wendell Mitchell’s head, moved it behind his neck, trying to draw him forward, and that’s when Wendell Mitchell took a deep breath, dropped his head to decide, then edged even closer to the boy, grabbed him by the shoulders, yanked him down and drove a knee into the boy’s groin. The boy groaned and collapsed.
Why do these things have to happen? That’s what Wendell Mitchell was thinking. He was trying to calm his breathing and he very slowly and very deliberately looked into the faces of the other boys. They could not meet his eyes. Time seemed to stand still … no one moved … no one seemed to know just what to do and minutes later a squad car entered the gravel lot. Soon after that, the boy’s father arrived, parked at a vacant pump, walked over to where his son sat – on a concrete block on the side of the station – pulled him to his feet and led him to his car.
That event – that’s why Wendell Mitchell terminated employment in Charleston, Illinois. It’s not that the school board didn’t back him up; they did. Maybe reluctantly, but they did. The attendant backed up Wendell’s story, as well. The police interviewed the boys and had no choice but to declare that Wendell Mitchell had acted in his own defense, but Wendell Mitchell was not a fool. His time in Charleston was over. He finished the year under a cloud and departed Charleston the day after handing in grades and his resignation.
* * *
At that point, Wendell Mitchell decided he must see the country. It was not difficult to find work as a teacher, and if he couldn’t find work as a teacher, he’d work doing something else. He moved to Boston and spent one year teaching, after which he spent that summer in Dover, Delaware, washing dishes in a restaurant – then secured a job teaching there for a year before moving to Augusta, Georgia. A year there, then to Jackson, Mississippi, which he found not to his liking. He left almost immediately, landing in Tempe, Arizona, where he held multiple jobs. From there he went to California, where he taught school for two years.
Those years were – and he has used these words when asked about those years – those years were his due diligence. Leaving Charleston, leaving Illinois, he needed to see the country he lived in. He wanted to see it and be in it and see how it fit him. All the cities and states, regions, mountains and rivers and forests and farmland … he wanted to see it all, stand in it and look around.
An aunt contacted him, told him about an opening in his hometown, at Wainwright High School, his alma mater. Having seen what he wanted to see he was ready to move home, which he did. He got the position in his hometown and began methodically formulating the life he would live for the remainder of his years.
* * *
Angela Mason was a Kansas City native, an RN educated at the University of Missouri, and she was introduced to Wendell in the basement of the Wainwright A.M.E. church, after service, on a Sunday morning. “Have you met Angela Mason?” That’s what Reverend Harrison’s wife said when she brought them together. It was clear to both of them – immediately – that the reverend’s wife was playing matchmaker.
Angela was slender and pretty, from a well-to-do family, and she worked at a hospital in north St Louis. She’d noticed Wendell on her first visit to the church; they’d exchanged glances and nodded. After the formal introduction they stood looking at each other in semi-discomfort, while the reverend’s wife slipped away.
“You’re a Wainwright native?” she asked. It was the best she could do; she was thinking fast.
“I am,” he said.
She wanted him to go on; how could she prolong the conversation?
“I suspect,” Wendell said after a moment of silence, “that this is some form of a setup.” He looked around the church basement, wearing a sheepish grin. The grin faded, was replaced by a genuine smile, and he leaned toward her and said “I’m sorry if this makes you uncomfortable.” He leaned back and looked at her carefully. She was pretty and well dressed and yes, he thought she was attractive and he decidedly instantly, he was attracted.
She blinked, touched her blouse, and was thinking of a proper response when Wendell leaned forward once more and said, “What’s a little discomfort, huh?”
They became an item, just like that.
He was a gentleman and she liked that. Their courtship started slow and picked up steam a week or two at a time. There was a goodnight handshake, then a goodnight kiss, then goodnight kisses, kisses in her apartment, then kisses in his. Petting, both places. Then, increased petting. Advanced petting. And then one night, after a party or a movie or something else – doesn’t matter – one night, in Wendell’s home, after dark, Wendell was in his kitchen, looking in the refrigerator for a drink he might offer, and when he turned around Angela Mason was in the doorway to the kitchen. She had unbuttoned her blouse, and when he turned to her she said “Wendell.” She looked a bit nervous, then embarrassed, then, panic-stricken.
She took a step toward him, hesitated, stopped, stepped back and said “I’m … I am …”
He couldn’t fathom the expression her face.
She closed the blouse and held her hands to her chest. “I don’t know … this is … I’m sorry … this is me being way too forward.”
Wendell crossed his kitchen, took her hand and led her into the living room and sat her on his couch, then sat next to her. “You and me,” he said, “let’s not ever go backwards.”
The next year – the year preceding their wedding – was spent dutifully and carefully revealing themselves to each other. He started it; he said it out loud. “I want you to know everything about me. I want you to know who it is you’re going to marry.” He was smiling when he said those words and she thought those words were (one) curious, and (two) captivating. Perhaps it was the way he said them … she didn’t know, but she was, indeed, captivated by the way Wendell Mitchell lived, planned, scheduled, worked.
She discovered that Wendell Mitchell loved to drive in the country. He loved to drive on the humpbacked, one-and-a-half lane chipped farm roads that blanketed southern Illinois. And the first time he took her on a drive over those farm roads, going further south in southern Illinois, he’d stop every so often and get out of the car to stare – that’s what he did, he stared – at the wildflowers growing roadside, growing in bunches in drainage ditches, next to corn and soybean and wheat.
“My mother knows the names of all these flowers,” he told her. His mother was still alive. He’d told her the story of his mother. “The one thing … I will never forget this … when she was getting sicker, the one thing she loved to do was go for a drive, and she’d ask me to stop when she saw a big cluster of flowers. She knew the names of all the flowers. Black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, Drummond Asters, Purple Coneflowers and Oxeye Daisies. She’d touch those flowers – she wouldn’t pick them – she’d touch those flowers and she would be herself again. Her real self again, happy.”
She introduced him to her parents, in Kansas City. They drove there on a Friday, and that evening they were featured guests in the Mason home. Angela’s aunt and uncle were there, as was her first cousin, to whom she was very close, and her first cousin’s boyfriend. Saturday the group visited the art museum together, went for lunch, went out for dinner. Saturday evening they talked on the patio until dark. Angela Mason’s father – a doctor – spent the visit observing Wendell Mitchell as if he were a specimen. His wife asked him to stop. His daughter asked him to stop. He didn’t stop, and Sunday morning, as Wendell and Angela were pulling away from her family’s home, she asked her him what he thought of her father, wondering if she needed to apologize.
“My father is a bit stiff, don’t you think?” He did not reply, kept eyes on the road. She asked “Are you upset?”
She watched a smile spread across his face as he maneuvered through traffic. “No,” he said. Then he reached across to her, tapped her hand and said “You know, a man who has a beautiful wife and a beautiful daughter … there’s bound to be some concern.”
* * *
Several years after they were married, Wendell came home from school and there was a car parked in front of the house and the front door was open and and when he walked into his kitchen he was surprised to see his wife leaning against the sink, clearly upset, and Reverend Harrison sitting ramrod straight on a chair, hands clasped and stuck between his knees.
He didn’t need to ask and he didn’t. He walked into and through the living room, walked out onto the porch and sat on the porch swing and when Reverend Harrison stood to follow, Angela Mitchell grabbed his arm, pursed her lips and shook her head ‘no.’ Wendell Mitchell sat on the swing for over an hour and never made a move to wipe away tears. He sought to control his breathing – keep it regular and not breath too shallow or breath too deep. He could not hold a thought of any kind, and when he went back into the house he stared at Pastor Harrison, looked at his wife, and the tears came again.
Three days later he buried his mother next to his father, at the cemetery the church had on Wichita Street. The day after the funeral he and his wife drove out into the country where they collected armfuls of Black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace, and drove back to the cemetery where they carefully laid them out on the graves of Wendell’s parents. He talked to his parents the whole time, as if they were alive, as if they could converse. He talked about the cities he’d visited and the jobs he’d taken along the way. He talked about staring out into the Atlantic Ocean, about driving across a desert, about staring out into the Pacific Ocean. He reminded his mother that he’d married, and re-introduced Angela, and then he told his father all about his wife, their courtship, their wedding.
On the way home he told his wife, “Black-eyed Susans are flowers, but Queen Anne’s lace is a weed … my mother told me that every time she stood roadside and held Queen Anne’s lace in her hands. She always wondered who decided what was a flower and what was a weed.”
Victor Kreuiter lives and writes in the Midwest.
© 2021, Victor Kreuiter