The last sixty-odd years of my life I've lived in and around Mobile, Alabama. It straddles a river and a bay, sitting like a gangly boy smack-dab at the end of the G M & O Railroad line that first brought me here.
I came to Mobile straight off a farm deep in Wayne County, Mississippi. When I was a girl, night riders plagued the state. Their faces were hidden but their evil was plain, at least to colored people, who bore the brunt of it.
The harm they caused made my papa and others like him angry. It chipped away at their dignity by abridging their rights as Americans.
People endured years of insults, but they found ways to fight back.
"If I owned Mississippi, Alabama and hell, I'd rent out the other two and live in hell," Papa often said, and every time he'd spit. Papa was a great one for spitting when he was agitated or when he was glad. Sometimes he'd spit through his teeth just for the fun of it. Mother finally broke him from spitting in the house. But let him get outdoors and he'd spit up a storm.
Buccatunna, Mississippi, was the nearest town to our farm. It was little more than a single dusty street behind the train tracks. About all Buccatunna had going for it was two churches, a one-room schoolhouse and a blacksmith who worked under a shed without any walls.
Times he wasn't sweating over his anvil, the blacksmith ran the trading post and took care of the mail. Then he called himself the postmaster.
The train came through once a week, mostly on account of the mail. They delivered mail by throwing a sack out the window. When the postmaster had outgoing mail, he put the sack on a long hook that jutted out from an upright beam. That way the rail man could grab it when the train slowed down.
Once in a while the train actually stopped in Buccatunna. Not to say there were very many visitors coming through. It was usually people leaving, who wasted no time getting on the train.
I'm 80 years old now and a lot has changed from when I was a girl. For one thing, Mississippi has given up some of its wicked ways toward colored people. For another, Buccatunna now boasts a K-Mart, a few gas stations and a public library.
Papa has spit his last and our family farm has long since shrunk to just a few acres surrounding the old home place.
But when I was a girl, that farm, my family, the Methodist Episcopal church and school made up my whole world.
The Tyler family came by its land when the government granted each colored person forty acres, trying to make up for slavery. All the Tylers held on to their land and farmed it wisely. Unlike some, they never ruined the land by planting the same crop year after year.
My papa and his mother, Tyler Mama, were healers. Since the first Tyler set foot in Mississippi, there have been healers in the family.
Though there were other healers in Wayne County, Papa and Tyler Mama were at the top of the heap.
They were the closest folks got to a doctor in our neck of the woods. Anybody who sought their help got it and not one dime would they take for their troubles.
When there was an injured man who needed seeing to, my papa dropped everything. Sick men seemed to rest easier under Papa's care regardless of their troubles.
Papa could work wonders with livestock too. He raised cattle himself and he had a gentle way about him that settled even the most skittish creatures whether they stood on two legs or four.
Seemed like just about every woman in Wayne County sent her man to fetch Tyler Mama one time or the other, usually in the middle of the night. She had a sharp tongue that could make anyone quake in his boots, especially the hapless man who came for her at the wrong time, be it too soon or too late.
"You thoughtless, no account, son of a buck. Didn't I tell you to come for me straightaway when she first began to feel an ache in her back?"
Tyler Mama would go up one side and down the other until the poor man was too nervous to speak. But her tongue-lashings did not stop the flow of men asking Tyler Mama to help their wives.
They knew she was a wise woman learned in the cycles of the moon. For longer than most folks could remember Tyler Mama had aided women bearing babies. She never lost a mother or a baby in all her years of going about the county.
It was whispered that Tyler Mama knew how to help the ones ready to put an end to their childbearing days too. I never doubted that to be true.
Farm folks couldn't survive without healthy animals to do the plowing and hauling. Even dogs had to work. Farmers measured their wealth in milch cows and pigs, chickens and goats. Papa and Tyler Mama tended to them too.
Good-hearted as she was, Tyler Mama often complained there was no rest for the weary when it came to healing.
Despite her grumbling, she spent any free time she had tending nearly half an acre of herbs and flowers. Her shelves were lined with scores of neatly labeled compounds made by her own hand using her plants.
"To treat the ills that flesh is heir to," she'd explain.
She made a special draught to clear the lungs, and she had remedies for just about every kind of stomach ailment there was.
Papa said Tyler Mama could brew up tisanes that would let even a guilty man sleep soundly through the night before his execution. Folks all over Wayne County swore by her skill.
Men being the way they are, they drew the line at letting even an elderly woman like Tyler Mama tend to their bodies.
Many's the man who hobbled, limped or was carried to our door seeking Papa's attention. Some came walking on two good legs but broken inside.
No matter, my papa knew just what to do. He even had a secret remedy that cured men unable to do their husbandly duties anymore.
"I don't see why in the world you help them get more babies when they can't feed the ones they've got," Tyler Mama said. "All you're doing is making more work for me."
"Poor men don't have much joy in life, Mama, leastways they can have love. Don't begrudge them that."
She'd give an exasperated snort at Papa's remark. Sometimes, she'd stand on her tippy toes to pull Papa's ears.
He could easily lift Tyler Mama like a rolled-up rug. Sometimes he'd do just that, which tickled her though she pretended to be angry.
Growing up around two such powerful healers, you'd think I might have seen my gift for what it was early in life and welcomed it. Especially since healing seemed to run in our family like being left-handed, which I am.
But I ignored that fact and all the other signs staring me right in the face. I wanted no part of being a healer. It seemed like nothing but a world of trouble to me.
People in need coming at all hours of the day or night to get Papa or Tyler Mama was bad enough.
But then the ones who'd been healed would show up at the most inconvenient times to say thank you.
Whether it was to bring a bushel of sweet corn, a mess of fresh fish or jars of homemade jam, the thankful ones came trudging up to our gate whenever they took a notion.
The only decent thing to do was invite them to sit for a spell in the shade of our porch. Folks lived so far apart, whenever visitors came it ranked as a special occasion.
Mother felt duty bound to offer them a glass of cold tea in the summertime or hot cider if the weather was chilly. Most times I was the one Mother called on to prepare the refreshments.
Unexpected guests thought nothing of staying half the day. Hospitality required Mother to stretch whatever meal she was preparing to feed extra mouths when it came time to eat.
It never failed that our worrisome visitors ate like the butcher's dog, gobbling up everything in sight. Most times I'd be wolf cub hungry myself.
Only fear that some celestial hand--or Tyler--might slap the taste right out of my mouth kept me silent. Otherwise I would have raised the hymn, "Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, feed me 'til I want no more," to shame our guests into eating less.
Instead, I made do by filling my plate with an extra helping of rice so our company could dine sufficiently.
To my way of thinking, being a healer was more trouble than it was worth. All it meant was a lot of extra work and worry and giving up your sleep and your supper whether you felt like it or not. I never could see the sense in that.
Especially since a lot of folks were of two minds about healers. People who would only trust Tyler Mama and Papa to care for them weren't the problem. Poor, misguided souls who tried to pick and choose among the other healers were the ones who caused trouble.
Papa based his healing in faith and the knowledge that most sickness came from the way people lived and worked and what they ate. Before he did a single thing, he listened to what the men who came to him had to say about what had happened to them and how they felt. Papa made notes in his little tablet to keep a record.
But he never took any credit for his gift.
"Healing doesn't come from me. It works through me plain and simple. After I've done all I know to do, I lay hands on the sick, bow my head and pray the gift will take over and do the rest. God does it, not me."
Bogus healers blamed illness on spells and curses. They relied on superstition, offering messy charms and foolishness like walking around the graveyard holding a lighted candle as remedies. Men who went to them were lucky if they lived to regret their mistake.
When sick men realized the false healers could not help them, they turned to Papa, but the damage was done. They came angry and suspicious, more hurt and frightened than they'd been in the first place.
Honest healers and jackleg healers in the same county caused a lot of confusion. It was enough to make people distrust all healers.
I was certain that healing was not for me.
Excerpted from The Laying on of Hands by Brenda Rhodes Miller. Copyright © 2004 by Brenda Rhodes Miller. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.