Life and Death of a Guardian Angel
Last of three parts
TEVISTON, Calif.--The little white shack in a field of tumbleweeds was all set up for dying.
The living room--an old railroad boxcar--had been cleared to make way for a hospital bed. A pillow had been placed beside the one window that looked out to something other than broken earth. With her head propped up just right, Minnie Patterson could see the grapevine that her husband, Willie, had planted upon their coming West more than half a century ago.
She had raised two children and nurtured three generations of neighbor kids, and now the matriarch of Teviston was beginning another journey, this one to a land of no mores. No more tears, the preacher in cowboy boots assured her, no more sorrows.
Her casket had already been chosen--a military gray embroidered in silver, for she had done battle as surely as any soldier. And her daughter, Patricia, had written her obituary just the way she liked it, with a nod to her devoted church service and to her sweet potato pies, light on the nutmeg. Her million-dollar mansion stood waiting on the other side.
Only Minnie Pearl Patterson, a sharecropper’s daughter born May 28, 1913, in Carthage, Texas, wasn’t going anywhere just yet. If she had a say-so in such matters, she was staying put right here in her living room.
“You all fussin’ over me like something’s gonna happen,” she told her daughter and a nurse, fixing a glare that made people stammer. “A pack of turkey vultures got more couth than the two of you.”
She could still throw a zinger or two but it was at night--when the past took over the present and hallucinations replaced reality--that she couldn’t stop chattering. People long gone, her husband included, were rapping their bony knuckles on her windowpane, rattling to be let in.
She stared into the half-moon dark and saw a skinny figure scurrying straight toward her. Frankie Allen, that persistent neighbor boy, had come calling again. Only this time it wasn’t to sweet-talk her daughter.
Open up, Patricia. Frankie boy’s wailing like some poor hound. Says his daddy didn’t go to the cotton fields this morning. Says his daddy picked up a gun and tore a hole through his momma’s back. They found him lying in a little ravine behind the shack. His head right shot off. Now how’d he get that big long barrel pointed toward his self and still pull the trigger? They said they found his daddy barefooted. That he did it with his big toe.
Minnie Patterson had seen hard times and dreams come up dry like so many other Black Okies. But poverty and lost hope weren’t the whole of her life. Her Willie was a good man who didn’t drink or cheat or bide an idle day. He had the good sense to leave her a house and five acres paid for.
She had lived a contented life--quiet, solid, proud. Many of her neighbors had done the same. Amid all the despair of the land, it was easy to miss.
Theirs was the other story of the black migrants who left the rural South to start over again in the rural West, of fathers and mothers breaking their backs as field hands and domestics and raising children to know their history and church and a Southern way of doing things, whether it was cooking ribs over a slow fire or fishing for crappie in the ditches that passed for rivers. Now those children were returning home to help the old folks die.
Minnie Patterson came to this patch of brown surrounded by a sea of white cotton in the fall of 1945. She decided that first night she wouldn’t be staying. What kind of land have you brought me to? she asked her husband. Driving three miles to fetch water. Reading Scripture by kerosene lamp. You might as well have kept me hitched to the plantations of east Texas. She wanted a home, nothing fancy, in the civilized city. A tract house up the road in Fresno or Bakersfield would do.
But Willie Patterson kept pounding nails and boards onto that crooked hut in the middle of horned toad country, and the black people kept trickling in from Oklahoma and Arkansas and Texas and Louisiana. They had come looking for a place where the cotton grew a little taller and the white folks had been raised up a little nicer.
Over the years, Mrs. Patterson would progress from Sunday school teacher to church president to grande dame of her little country settlement on the outskirts of Tulare County. Now on her bed in the living room, as another night fell, she wasn’t going quietly.
Patricia Patterson, 55, could hear the voice hoarse with cancer from the next room. She shook her head at the way her mother’s mind leaped so graceful across time. One moment she was helping dig the well that brought drinking water to Teviston--1959--and the next moment it was 25 years later and she was burying her own mother again. Patricia began to think of her mother’s flights as lyrical riffs, funny and sad.
“Her voice is barely a whisper during the day, but at night it’s loud and clear as a bell,” she said. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I’ll come outside and sit under the stars and take a deep breath. You can still breathe deep out here in the country. I’ll try to listen out for the old sounds when I was a kid, but they’re not here. Everything’s from Mexico now. The music, the traffic, the shouts in the night. So my mother’s voice is the one voice I still recognize. It’s the one voice that still comforts me.”
Patricia, why’s Mr. Batilla making such a fuss across the way? He’s been crowing like a rooster ever before the sun came up. Don’t tell me you kids moved his outhouse again in the middle of the night. Don’t tell me he went to go pee in the dark and fell in his mess hole again?
Minnie Patterson didn’t know she was already dying that spring day two years ago.
After enduring a winter of fog so thick that it blotted out horizons and shadows, she welcomed an invitation to take a drive through the orchards, pink and white with blossoms. She hopped into the car with Marge Karle, the white woman whose house she had been cleaning for 40 years.
From field hand to domestic, this was how things progressed in the San Joaquin Valley for a black woman of her era. Karle, who lived down the road in Pixley, treated her like something more than a maid. They gabbed over coffee and Swanson TV dinners, and each Christmas, Karle handed her a bonus that was more than fair. Minnie Patterson might have even considered her the first true white friend she ever had. But she had come through the service porch wearing her white uniform for so many years that she could never be sure where employment ended and friendship began.
They were driving to a Save Mart in Tulare when a small truck lost control and veered toward them. The collision knocked Karle’s car on its side and it skidded into the oleander bushes that divided Highway 99. A few more feet and they would have been crushed by the oncoming traffic. Mrs. Patterson suffered only cuts and cracked ribs, but the X-rays showed something worse. The thyroid cancer she had beaten in 1995 was back, and it had spread to her lungs.
She wanted no part of radiation treatments. She was curled up on her bed at home the day Patricia, the oldest of her two children, decided to move back. Her worst fear, dying in a convalescent hospital, wouldn’t come true.
But she wasn’t inclined to make it easy on her daughter. For years, she had called on Patricia to watch over her little brother, Kenneth, a college football star who made big money as a hospital administrator before cocaine and liquor took over his life. He was now living 170 miles to the north in Modesto, confined to a wheelchair after a car crash nearly killed him.
In her son’s absence, Mrs. Patterson leaned on Patricia even more. She fought over bath time and the way Patricia cooked salmon--baked, not fried--and the hours she spent at work as an administrator for a nursing facility.
Patrica had watched her mother take care of her grandmother, a pistol of a woman, in her last days. No matter how demanding Grandma Leana became, her mother always treated her like a queen. Now Patricia was determined to do the same.
She shared nursing duties with Garry Close, a down-on-his-luck welder who lived in the back trailer and cared for Mrs. Patterson with tender hands. They waited for the stages to play out, for denial to turn to anger and anger to turn to acceptance. But Mrs. Patterson, all 5-foot-4 and 90 pounds, seemed stuck on anger, and it had begun to do a funny thing.
She was no longer bent up in bed, waiting to die. She was polishing off whole meals of chicken fried steak and washing them down with Jerusalem Water, a mix of Mountain Dew and apple juice. Then one morning she awoke and told Patricia she’d had a change of heart. She wanted to be driven 40 miles to a clinic in Bakersfield to begin weekly cancer treatments.
After a month of radiation, she began to feel ornery enough to take a few steps. She announced one evening that she didn’t like sleeping in the living room. She wanted to be back in her bedroom amid her knitted afghans that won first prize in the Tulare County Fair.
She hated even more that her privacy was gone. A baby monitor kept a constant vigil on her sleep, eavesdropping on her dreams and hallucinations, her stashed-away tales. She wanted to be in control of her story, to tell it straight up and in the lucid light of day. “And don’t interpret for me,” she scolded her daughter.
Her parents never married, she said, and she saw her father only when he could tiptoe past the women in her family. He had left their Texas cotton patch and gone off to work for the railroad. He would show up out of nowhere waving a new pair of shoes for her. She’d barely tie the laces and he’d be gone again.
She never got past the sixth grade in a two-room schoolhouse in segregated Carthage. She’d walk home through the fields and see her mother with a cotton sack slung over her shoulders. If she didn’t jump in and snatch a few hundred pounds of her own before dark, there’d be hell to pay. Her mother could fashion a switch out of anything, and her backside knew the sting of every kind of tree branch in east Texas.
“I’d cry when I’d see that switch. She’d tell me, ‘Well, you know you didn’t come up with your quota of cotton today,’ and then she’d whip me eight or nine times and say, ‘I guess tomorrow you’ll do better.’ ”
Her mother, Leana, could never choose the right man. After three children by different fathers, she gave up trying. Minnie Patterson, though, wasn’t the kind to settle for less.
She had come west as an Army bride in 1945, and her beloved Willie Patterson wasn’t your run-of-the-mill man. From the top of his felt hat to the tips of his polished shoes, he knew how to dress on Sundays. No canary yellow or electric blue suits for him. “He was some man. Easy to get along with and handsome, too. Look at that picture of him. Don’t it all look good to you?”
Her sister’s husband, a sweet man known as Uncle Lucky, had arrived in California first. He was picking potatoes in Kern County and made it sound so good. The Pattersons didn’t come out by way of school bus or flatbed truck like so many other Black Okies. They took the train from Dallas to Los Angeles, where Uncle Lucky met them.
He drove them up the Tejon Pass, the gorge that separated the lights of Hollywood from the farm fields of the San Joaquin Valley, California’s Mason-Dixon line. An hour north of Los Angeles, the mountain suddenly opened and revealed a big-mouthed flatland below. Cotton beside grapes beside peaches beside pomegranates beside dairies, everything three times bigger than it was in the South.
Because local real estate covenants barred them from living in the cities, they turned on to a sandy road full of chuckholes and settled among families living in tents and boxcars and little stoop houses made of cardboard and grape stakes. One gypsy family had taken up in an abandoned bus that read destination “Guam.”
“It was worse than Carthage,” Mrs. Patterson said. “I told my husband that I had come too far to settle for this.”
He found a job as a maintenance man at Schenley Winery and signed over all his paychecks to her. With throwaway lumber, he built a two-room house on their five acres. He got drinking water from a spigot in Pixley, storing it in 50-gallon oil drums so it would last a week.
For 15 years, this was their life. Then Teviston, with a good push from Minnie Patterson, decided to form its own water district and deliver drinking water to the 150 shacks.
The day the water gushed through the plumbing that Willie Patterson pieced together was the day their house became a home. No more bathing out of buckets. No more walks in the middle of the freezing night to go to the bathroom in an outhouse.
“I shouted, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” she said.
We Pattersons got our own church. Have had for 50 years. But that don’t stop these full-of-the-Lord folks from knocking on our door. Tell ‘em we got our own way of worshipping. We may not holler or roll funny in no aisles, but that don’t mean our Holy Ghost is meek.
Patricia Patterson supervised the care of 40 patients with cerebral palsy and autism at a state nursing facility in nearby Porterville. Now, her mother had become an extension of her job.
One of the first promises she made to herself was that she would try to deal with her as another patient. Depersonalize, the psychologist at work admonished her. The second promise was all about the care she would provide. It would be first-rate, right down to the vow that no matter how bedridden her mother became, she wasn’t going to suffer from a single bedsore.
Patricia had pulled some strings to get a special mattress with a pump that kept a constant flow of air around her mother’s body. She thought her mother would love the sensation of sleeping on bubble wrap. But another reaction greeted her that summer day when she pulled into the long dirt driveway and opened the door.
“How dare you,” the old lady snarled, sitting in a chair in her bedroom, nostrils flaring. “Who says I need another mattress? You out driving your big fancy car and screwing around and making decisions affecting this household. And never telling me about ‘em.”
“Screwing around? You’re impossible, you know that woman?”
Patricia would later recall the look on her mother’s face--the meanest, nastiest look she had ever seen her wear. Depersonalize, she kept repeating the mantra. This is not my mother. This is another patient. She took a step to leave the room and began crying.
It was a beautiful full moon night and every impulse told her to get in the car and take off. Let the highway decide. Los Angeles, the Central Coast, anywhere but this crummy little shack in the middle of the desert. “There have been times in my life where my mother drove me to get in the car and take off, and I might be in San Jose before I stopped shaking. But fate gives you only so many of those trips.”
So Patricia went outside and took a deep breath and then went to sleep. That week, Mrs. Patterson began breathing for hours at a time without the oxygen machine. The tumor in her lungs was shrinking. The radiation had done its job.
“Radiation, hell,” Mrs. Patterson said. “That’s God.”
That Sunday, she put on a new pink dress that Patricia bought her for Mother’s Day. She was going to church to watch her pastor, the Rev. Jesse James Freeman, deliver one final sermon. After 40 years at the First Baptist Church of Pixley, the old preacher was retiring.
Taking Mrs. Patterson anywhere was a chore and Patricia usually showed great patience. But it was a hot day and the sweat was pouring off her brow as she moved her mother and all her accouterments--wheelchair, canister of oxygen and long plastic air hose--from car to church.
“Come on Mom, you’re fiddling. You know that? You’re fiddling.”
“The devil trusted the turkey and the turkey put his eye out,” Mrs. Patterson deadpanned.
“That’s a new one. Am I the turkey or the devil?”
“You the devil.”
“OK, then, I guess I’m at the right place,” Patricia said, laughing. “Your hands look dry, Momma. Let’s put some lotion on them.”
As they entered the sanctuary, the ushers in white gloves and captain’s patches cracked big smiles. “Hello, Sister Patterson. So good to see you.” With one arm bent at a 90-degree angle behind the back, they moved like robots, right to left in square corners.
They had Minnie Patterson to thank for their military sharpness. She had been appalled the first time she stepped foot in the church in the mid-1940s. The ushers were sloppy, not at all the way she remembered ushers in black churches in the South. She decided to teach them by example, becoming the snappiest and most erect usher of them all. The only tilt to Sister Patterson, they joked, was the crooked way her Sunday hat sat on her head.
It took only a moment for the Rev. Freeman to make a nod to her presence. “Sister Patterson is with us this morning. I’m so happy to see her. Amen. God can work a wonder. Don’t ever forget that. God can and God will.”
He stepped back from the pulpit, and the man with the electric guitar began strumming the sound of business. This was a church that tended to its bottom line first. Whether a dime or a dollar, the giving took place front and center on an oak table--before God and 85 parishioners. They gave to the Sunday school and the Po’ Saints, a fund for those behind in their water and light bills.
Two deacons behind the table, one in a purple suit and the other wearing a dashiki, counted the money right there. The final tally was written down in a thick ledger book. Sister Taylor waddled up front to announce the news.
“Sunday school and Po’ Saint offering $79.92. Tithes $125. The grand total for today is $204.92.”
Only then did the reverend, a little man with alligator cowboy boots and his head shaved clean, return to the pulpit. He looked out to the congregation and paused for a second, his big eyes fixing on Patricia. She had grown up playing piano and singing in the church, and he signaled her to the altar to perform one last time for him.
“I guess you all know that my heart is real full this morning,” she said, taking a seat behind the keys. She began playing and singing an old gospel number about a God who piled on the troubles but knew in the end “just how much we can bear.”
The mother who had always picked apart her performances--"Why can’t you smile up there a little more? ... You need to slow down and feel the music"--had her head down the whole time, wiping tears from her eyes.
The stage now was set for Freeman’s farewell. “I’m ready to go and I go with this question: What are we? Who are we? Where we are traveling to?”
“If you had a lot of money, you can’t wear but one suit at a time, drive one car at a time, sleep in one bed at a time, eat one meal at a time. I’m afraid if I had a lot of money, I might go crazy worrying about who was going to take it away. Since I don’t have any, I can go to bed and sleep good every night. Don’t you know that? Say Amen, laddie.”
It’s a poor bird who won’t go pinning feathers on itself. So I’ll say it like it is. I made a fine sweet potato pie. And my Million-Dollar Pound cake was light and moist and just the right sugar. But you should have tasted my lemon meringue. The secret? Wish I could remember to tell you.
On a crisp winter evening, Patricia Patterson grabbed her lawn chair and headed to the eucalyptus tree at the side of their house. She was feeling tired and melancholy. The ghosts that were visiting her Mom had begun to rattle on her window, too.
“When I sit here and I’m chilling out, I can see all their faces,” Patricia said. “I see Joanne Morris, my best friend, and the playhouse we had right there. I can see the Jordan family in their little rundown shack, and I can hear Mr. Jordan drunk and abusing his wife. There’s my mom and grandma and Aunt Molly chasing chickens and wringing their necks and just letting them flop. Flop till they die. I can see the basketball court that my father carved in the dirt right over there and all the kids coming over to our place to shoot hoops.
“You might not believe it, but this was a community once. It was poor, no way around it. And there was lots of stuff going down. But we were a community.”
If someone needed a lift, spiritual or financial, they came knocking on the Pattersons’ door. The little white house with fluorescent green trim might have sagged three feet in the middle but the people of Teviston had never seen a shack look so fine. The Pattersons sat on good furniture and watched Ed Sullivan on a good TV, and there was a piano, of all things, sitting upright in the corner.
It all looked so perfect to Frankie Allen, the poor boy who lived a dirt clod’s throw away. He and Patricia fell in love, as much as 16-year-olds could, and she got pregnant. Everything her mother had done was aimed at raising children different than the rest. And now her daughter had become her worst nightmare, a teenage mother forced into marriage.
The marriage lasted barely a year. They separated even before Frankie’s depressed father shot his mother and turned the rifle on himself in a ravine behind their shack. Patricia, with the help of her mother, raised baby Phyllis at home.
Now, it was 35 years later, and Patricia was back home again, watching her mother--and an entire culture--fade. The cancer that had retreated in summer was now growing into the brain. Mrs. Patterson was lucid one moment and out there the next. She would start sobbing for no apparent reason and then Patricia would figure it out: her mind had floated back to 1990 and she was burying her husband.
“She’s in that bed, she can’t walk and she can’t breathe,” Patricia said. “But she just doesn’t go, she won’t let go. She knows no other way.”
I was a little too hard. Tell Patricia I’m sorry. Tell her it’s getting dark outside and I want to go home. Get ready to leave this place but can’t find nobody to come get me. Don’t have a car anymore.
Patricia knew this was the weekend--Memorial Day--when all the children she grew up with would gather at the little park in Pixley to reunite with brothers and sisters and friends long ago lost. She wished she could go but tending to her mother had become an all-day and all-night watch.
The old gang had driven in from Los Angeles, South Pasadena, San Diego, Oakland, Palo Alto, Sacramento and Klamath Falls. They came back in shiny new cars, motor homes and even a limousine. The Wrights, the Gorees, the Taylors, the Rodgers, the Hickses, the Browns, the Barkuses and the Beavers. They were slow-cooking ribs and chicken under big shade trees, drinking beers and telling on the past.
“Who’s that getting out of that big machine?” asked Richard Hicks, who had moved away to become a longshoreman in San Francisco.
“Why, that’s my old squeeze, Barbara,” Marvin Daniels said.
“Barbara Crawford? Man, she was always full of fun. Lively and very mischievous.”
Barbara Crawford was now Barbara George. She left Pixley after high school and settled in San Diego, where she married a postal worker and got a job managing a hot dog stand at Qualcomm Stadium. She hadn’t been home in 10 years.
“Who did you think I was?” she chided them. “We’re the last of the Mohicans.”
“We’re all exiles,” Hicks said, laughing. “After driving down to where I used to live, I don’t think I could handle it now. But back then, I never second-guessed the old folks. We never knew a hungry day. It wasn’t steaks but my stomach was full.”
Frankie Allen and all his brothers and sisters were sprawled around a concrete picnic table a few trees down.
There was James who worked for Pac Bell and lived in Bakersfield; Harry who went off to war in 1965 and came back a Muslim; Oletha who lived in Tulare and never married the father of her four children. She had become a Jehovah’s Witness.
There was Alfredia who lived in Los Angeles and married at 16 and somehow made it work. Now she had a tumor in her brain; Betty who survived a jealous boyfriend tracking her down in a cotton field and shooting her in the head with a .38-caliber pistol. They put a plate in her skull and she married, only to find herself falling back in love with the man who shot her. They’ve been together now for almost 40 years.
There was Evetta, whose husband had died at age 46 from sickle cell anemia; Donnell, who drove a truck for Budweiser and had a hip replacement; Harriese who was a single mother with four children, three doing fine and one in Soledad; and Francine, the delicate, beautiful one who retired from the gas company and just finished her third marriage.
Her twin brother, Frankie, who worked for the state and never moved far from the old homestead, was standing off to the side, a belly full of beer.
“I guess you know that we lived across the street from the Pattersons,” he said. “They were the richest people in town. They drove the best of cars and had only two kids. Mrs. Patterson ruled with an iron fist. But I have to say that the woman had class. A big, fat lady would come and give Patricia piano lessons. Who knew anything about piano lessons in the alkali?
“After Patricia got pregnant and I moved in, I remember reaching into a loaf of bread one day and making a sandwich out of the end piece. And her brother, Ken, came along behind me and asked what I was doing. He said the end piece wasn’t for eating. It was for keeping the other pieces fresh. ‘Man,’ I thought, ‘that’s living.’ In my house it didn’t matter whether you kept it fresh or not. Once it was opened, the whole loaf, heel and all, was going to be eaten.”
Lord, what you waiting on? I fought the good fight and finished the race. Ain’t you got my place ready for me yet?
She died at 4 in the morning on a Sunday in late September, a few minutes after Patricia had gone into her room and swabbed her mouth with cotton. She told her that she loved her and that it was time to let go. “Just think, Momma, you’ll be wearing a long white robe and a crown, and if I know you, you’re going to cock that crown just a little acey-deucy to the right.” The old lady smiled and then let go.
In that moment, Patricia said she felt everything pass to her--the crooked little house, the feckless five acres, the broken-down community and the proud family name. Tulare didn’t feel like home anymore. Teviston did. And she was going to stay and straighten out the house and maybe even try to straighten out the community. She wasn’t alone. A handful of other blacks--single mothers and families, too, who had grown up and left here only to sour on the city--were moving back.
“I’m finding more and more that I just can’t walk away and never look back. This little piece of property belongs to the Pattersons and enough of the old place remains that I’m willing to put up a fight.”
The First Baptist Church of Pixley was packed for the funeral, friends and relatives from all over the state and six preachers representing four churches. They talked about all the right things, how her life had been an example, how her example had touched them all. The preacher told them to make the same choices she did. It’s all right to cry, he said. But don’t cry as those without hope. Because Minnie Pearl Patterson is going on home now. To a land of no mores.
About This Series
Times staff writer Mark Arax and photographer Matt Black spent nearly two years chronicling the lives of the Black Okies of California’s Tulare Lake Basin.
To see additional photos of these forgotten migrants and read all three parts of the series, visit www.latimes.com/blackokies.