Her home, her heritage
Mable Sims wants people to know her Florida, where a medicine man was called to cast spells and a strong woman held sway with a shotgun.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published February 8, 2007
TWIN LAKES -- Lord have mercy! For Mable Sims, everyday matters trigger astonishing memories. Her favorite ones are about her great-grandmother, Precious, and the house Precious occupied for seven decades. Just now Miss Mable - that's what they call her here in Hernando County - looks at the ceiling and notices the web of an ordinary house spider. Her impulse is not to grab a broom and knock it down, but to tell a story about what happened in the old house.
"I'm remembering the time I was a little girl, and I walked out of the house, and my grandfather, he didn't see me, he didn't hear me, and he was chopping wood, and I walked in front of him just as he came down with the ax."
It's an overcast day, just dark enough in the house to hide the expression on Miss Mable's face.
"The ax come down and split my head. Now my great-grandmother, Precious, and my great-aunt, Estella, they come running. Now there was no doctors in those days for black folks, so they done what they had learned from my great-great-grandfather, who was a Seminole medicine man."
Precious, the matriarch who smoked a pipe and toted a shotgun, this time chose a spider web as her weaponry. She placed the web on the little girl's head and stopped the bleeding.
A house full of life
Mable Sims' great-grandfathers built the old homestead in 1891. They harvested cedar trees for the lumber and bought tin for the roof. They cooked over wood. For lights they burned kerosene. The outhouse was in back. The only book was the Bible. The old folks told stories for entertainment.
Living happened in the house. Babies were born and old people died in the bedrooms, Precious among them.
For many of us, the past is what happened last week or something we saw on the History Channel. Some of us are fortunate if we remember our grandparents, and even if we do, we might know little about their trials and tribulations. Lucky families often have someone like Miss Mable, the relentlessly curious one, the memory for everyone else.
"Will you tell me what it was like when you grew up?" she once asked her great-grandmother.
Precious said, "Hush, child, you're going to wear me out."
The little girl never stopped asking. She grew up, married, raised her own children, did good work in the community, preached on Sunday, dealt with middle-aged aches and pains. All that time she never lost her curiosity, never stopped following the threads that connect her to the past and to her great-grandmother, Precious O'Neal St. Clair.
When Miss Mable looks at the house, uninhabited for more than a decade, she knows who she is. "I'm a strong backboned woman," she says, "because I was raised by strong backboned women."
She is 60 years old. She is married and has four grown children, 13 grandchildren and is expecting a great-grandchild soon. She is a nighttime security guard in a hospital in Brooksville and a former Head Start teacher who for two decades prepared little children to go to school. On Sundays, she preaches at the New Beginnings Christian Ministry.
She has curly reddish hair and wears glasses. She has an infectious laugh, and when she is pondering she says, "Hmmm. Hmmm," puts her hands on those high cheekbones and gazes at the heavens.
Hear her roar
She is confident that Precious' new house includes pearly gates.
Precious was born in 1873 in Hernando County on the same property where she died on the last day of 1964. Her 91 years spanned presidencies from Ulysses S. Grant to Lyndon Johnson, ox and wagon to space travel, KKK lynchings to Martin Luther King.
Her parents were emancipated by Abraham Lincoln. Her daddy, Hampton St. Clair, founded one of the first African-American communities in Hernando County and the Missionary Baptist Church that serves the black residents today. He was also a practicing medicine man, having spent much of his early life with the Seminoles. Among other things he knew how to use was a magic stone to cast out devils.
The Klan murdered Precious' uncle Arthur and hanged her nephew Carl. Miss Mable has memories of Precious sitting on the front porch, smoking her pipe, clutching her shotgun, watching the road. If bad men showed, she would be ready.
Precious was a black woman with pale skin, straight hair, blue eyes and freckles. She didn't talk about genetics, but she could quote chapter and verse from the Bible.
Precious raised chickens and cows. She grew corn, tomatoes, collards and peas. She never ventured to town except on Saturdays to Dade City, where she dressed up and sold her vegetables.
"Girl, even if you're going to a dog fight, look good," she told Mable. Miss Mable never attended a dog fight, but she tries to look her best even now. She credits the Precious treatment for her "baby-butt skin."
Each morning Miss Mable bathes her coffee-colored skin, flawless except for that ax scar, with fresh urine.
"That surprises people, Lord have mercy," she says with a delighted laugh. "But it's how I was brought up. My great-aunt Isabella had the most beautiful skin you ever saw because of that urine treatment. She lived to be 107 years old!"
Miss Mable lives about a football field and a lot of pine trees away from I-75. But you can't get to the 15-acre farm so directly. You have to drive 7 miles through pastures and orange groves and down lonely two-lane highways and up dirt roads to reach her.
"Child," she says when you ask for her address, "I live in the country."
It takes three phone calls and a lot of patience to find her. "You call me when you get off the interstate, honey," she says in the first call. Call No. 2 yields more details. During the third phone consult she surrenders the remaining piece of the finding-Miss-Mable puzzle.
"You're going to come up on a hill. Now look for a trailer on the right. Make your turn there. Hmmm. Hmmm. Okay. You'll be on the dirt road, but don't you worry, it's fine. Go through the trees, but DON'T TAKE THE FORK, stay straight. You'll see the house I live in on the left. You'll see Precious' old house on the right. I'll be watching for you, baby."
Miss Mable and her husband, Ernest Sims, live in a fine double-wide backed against the trees. Every inch of wall space, and every counter and chair and table, has something on it, a book, an African mask, a Seminole Indian quilt, an old family photograph.
Miss Mable digs out a picture. Hampton St. Clair, the great-great-Seminole-grandfather, stares back. Known as "the Root Man," he treated illnesses with potions and with chants while rubbing an arrow-shaped bone said to have magical properties. In a pouch around his neck he carried an African-American totem, his "John the Conqueror" root, handy for casting spells.
Miss Mable still has her great-great-grandfather's possessions. Historians and archaeologists from the University of South Florida, Florida A&M and the University of Florida visit Miss Mable to study the old things and ask her questions. Dr. Rosalyn Howard, director of North American Indian Studies at the University of Central Florida, calls her "the information woman."
Miss Mable talks about her family history in lectures throughout Central Florida. She did one at USF last month called "Look Where He Brought Me From."
Lessons to pass down
Miss Mable was born in 1946 on the same land where she lives today. In 1951, after the home owned by her parents burned down, Mable moved in with Precious.
Precious taught Mable the alphabet using fruit from the grocery. "A" was for apple, "B" was for biting the apple, "C" was for cutting the apple and so on. Miss Mable taught her own children the alphabet according to the Precious method.
Mable attended segregated schools and remembers "colored" and "white only" washrooms in Brooksville. "In town you knew about racism. In the country you didn't."
Her family had white neighbors.
"When their well went dry, they used our well. And Mr. Hatcher, he'd come by later and say, 'Here's you a mess of fish for your supper, here's you a coon, here's you a possum.' When his wife was ready to give birth, she stayed with us so Precious could help bring the baby into the world."
A talented cook, Precious liked fried fish and grits. She liked greens. Miss Mable remembers watching her preparing the peas. "First she whistled for the wind." The peas dropped straight into the pot between her legs while the breeze carried the husks off the porch.
"When I had the pinkeye, she treated me with the first-in-the-morning urine, and my eyes was clear the next day. If you stepped on a nail, she'd hit the wound with a flat board until the blood spurted out, then pour urine on it, then burn it closed."
Miss Mable, who has diabetes and a bad back, hobbles across the lawn toward the old house in a misty rain. She climbs onto the porch and is careful to avoid the most rotten floorboards.
The roof leaks. Mud daubers build nests on the crossbeams. Yellow jackets fly through broken windows and escape just as quickly. Lady, Miss Mable's dog, hops through gaps in the front-door screen to avoid the wet.
Miss Mable doesn't care. It's home. It's where she communes with the spirits. Her memories will last as long as the house.
Her dream is to preserve the house.
She and her husband have been putting aside a few dollars for repairs, but they end up using their modest incomes for day-to-day expenses. She prays for a kindly benefactor who cares about history and will fund the restoration.
She envisions schoolchildren, black and white, getting off the bus in her yard and taking a tour. She will tell the children about how things used to be. She'll talk about churning butter and medicine men and watching Precious whistle for the wind.
She bursts into tears.
"I'm sorry. I get emotional about my house, baby."
A strong backboned woman doesn't like to cry. Wiping away the tears, she stands, smooths her slacks and shuffles across the bad floor toward the front door, pausing on the porch where Precious used to sit with her shotgun.
Out in the yard, a crisp breeze rustles the Spanish moss in the live oaks. The TV weather forecasters have been promising a cold front. It has arrived in the breeze.
Of course, Miss Mable can offer an alternative explanation.
Precious must have whistled up the wind.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727 .