Adam and B. J. grew up in the turbulent 1960s. The Vietnam war, unsettling riots across college campuses and unrest in just about every corner of America filled them with gloom. Even at home, they faced prejudice and poverty, but their community never let any of them forget that in this place dwelled an unconditional love. Adam and B. J. knew they had to seek a better life away from family and friends. Together? Why not? Out of a sense of hopelessness, they entered into a marriage of convenience. Was it a crazy idea? At the time, it felt like the only solution. But did they do the unthinkable? You decide…
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In If Only for a Season by Bertha Connally Abraham, B.J. and Adam grow up in a poor Black neighborhood and enter into a marriage of convenience to escape their backgrounds and find a better life. The story follows them from 1967 to present day through their struggles to raise their children and give them more than they had themselves, and hopefully, give their children a better life than they had. They strive as a family to overcome the obstacles of poverty and prejudice, making friends of both Whites and Coloreds and expanding their horizons and their life goals, raising their expectations—until tragedy lays bare all their pretensions and exposes all their secrets.
A moving and poignant story, it shines a spotlight on the lives of minorities and what a lot of them go through, trying to succeed in a world that can often be hostile and unfriendly. It will open your eyes and make you think. A really good read.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: If Only for a Season by Bertha Connally Abraham is the story of two young Black people who grew up in a poor Black community and want a better life for themselves than their parents had. While their families provided all the essentials, including food, shelter, and clothing, and the community gave them unconditional love and encouragement, Adam and B.J. long for the one thing denied most everyone they know—financial success. Knowing the way to financial security comes through education, both teenagers become the first in their families to attend college. But even after they graduate and marry, they discover that they still face many obstacles, including prejudice and reduced opportunities because of the color of their skin. But they persevere, determined to succeed, until tragedy strikes and strips away the façade they have created, and they are reminded of the one thing that really counts—family.
Filled with both unconditional love and unbearable heartbreak, If Only for a Season is a story that will break your heart as it warms it. Eye-opening and thought-provoking, it is a book that everyone, young and old, should read.
Adam and I grew up in a rural community of sharecroppers. Our parents worked from sunrise until sunset day after day. Some cooked, some cleaned while others tilled the soil and brought in the crops. All week long they toiled, but on Sunday morning everyone dressed up and headed off to church. Our church and family instilled principles that shaped our self-worth and taught us that the color of our skin was a blessing and not a curse.
Adam and I attended Timothy Joseph, a Black segregated school in the heart of the South in Beauregard, Louisiana. The campus housed first through eighth and ninth through twelfth grades. Our proud community boasted a mighty allegiance to the school and to its sports activities, especially football and baseball. On Friday nights, like every red-blooded community in America, regardless of race, people lived and breathed sports. And although treated with disdain, the color of our skin didn’t diminish our love for our country. We belonged here.
Adam didn’t play any sports. We saw each other in school and only on those rare occasions when he attended a school function. His family needed his help. Therefore, he spent most of his time after school working. His parents made their living off the land. They raised hogs, chickens and produced a large vegetable garden. Sharing seemed second nature to his family. Whatever they could spare, they shared with their neighbors.
Our paths crossed year after year where students from all grade levels at some point walked through the same hallways. In third grade, a tall, lanky Adam, with big glasses and a square head, sat directly behind me. One day, he pulled my pig tails and made me cry. Mrs. Miller sent him to the principal’s office. “I hate you, Adam Mirabeau,” I whispered under my breath.
Now in sixth grade, this skinny kid had outgrown those big glasses, and a more stylish pair rested on the bridge of his nose. During recess one day, he kicked a football squarely into my forehead. A huge bump rose up and, with it, the worst headache. Mrs. Sims sent Adam to the principal’s office. Maybe his lack of coordination kept him from playing sports. I thought. By the eighth grade, my pig tails disappeared and, in their place, was a naturally curly Afro. Whenever I gazed into the mirror, I saw my mother’s milk-chocolate skin staring back at me. She moved like a beautiful swan, gliding gracefully across a wintery pond, with her shoulders pushed back and her head held high. Except for Adam and a few of the athletes, I towered over the boys in my class.
Adam lived on the outskirts of town with his parents and younger sister in a tiny weathered farmhouse decorated with a tin roof. The special attention his mother gave to the inside clearly showed, and, although the rooms were small, everyone had a comfortable place to sleep. Compared to the cluttered space I shared with my mother, some of the rooms in his house looked quite appealing.
In the early 1960s, like every southern town in America, our community maintained “separate but equal” businesses, housing, and schools, but they weren’t equal. Blacks in every small town understood that the railroad track, its demarcation line, upheld separatism. Blacks had a place, as long as they stayed on their side of the tracks. Teenagers had trouble finding fun events to fill their weekends. Sometimes, the school hosted sock hops, a school -sponsored dance on Friday nights. Almost everybody came. A few minutes before the magic hour of ten-thirty, the lights mysteriously went out, and the boys stole that forbidden kiss. The chaperones fumed, but Maggie and I found it amusing.
Warm memories still lingered of those late evening fun-filled hay rides with my friends. Adam, Maggie and a few of my other friends lived on farms. They always included me in their special outings and, especially, the late October hay ride. Somebody’s father hitched up an old mule to a long flatbed trailer filled with bales of hay and drove down a bumpy dirt road, over the hill past the Johnsons’ abandoned farmhouse, and through the woods. We ended up crouched around a campfire, listening to ghost stories. How fitting! After all, we grew up in the South, where campfires and hair-raising ghost stories were born. The rural South didn’t offer much in the way of entertainment. The juke joint proudly symbolized the only place in town where we could purchase a hamburger. With the owner’s permission, we entered, placed our order, and then waited across the street. He feared that if minors got caught on the premises, he’d lose his liquor license and his living.
Inside, thick smoke hung in the air like a threatening storm cloud. The stale smell of alcohol filled my nostrils, and an ever-present, caustic odor burned my eyes. It took every ounce of strength to keep from gagging. The smell clung to me, as if I’d welcomed it in. People drank and danced to the loud, bellowing sounds of the blues. One song after another told the same sad tale of hard times. The piercing sadness of the music filled me with gloom. When old Bubba Mac finished our order, he came to the door, gave us his toothless grin, and yelled, “Adam, B.J., you ordur readee.”
We didn’t need affirmation from anyone of our separate and unequal lives. We saw it play out every day in the faces of the people we knew and loved.
A Black owned corner store partially sustained our community. Whites owned the other two grocery stores where Blacks bought food on credit. The more they paid, the more they owed. These commissary stores allowed the sharecropper to buy supplies on credit and pay off his debt with crops from the next season. Quite often, the sharecropper couldn’t catch a break when the next season’s poor weather conditions destroyed all hope of profitability. These commissaries created another way for White farmers to keep their sharecroppers on the farms. Many Blacks gave up the dream of a better life.
The post office, bank, and general store looked like replicas from the old West, with their weather-worn store fronts. Our town had an earthy smell like fresh-plowed dirt on a rainy day. Stores sat on both sides of the street. In the middle of the square sat a pecan house where everyone came to pedal their wares. Though the town was not much to look at, we proudly came back on most weekends because of the homespun comfort it provided. I often wondered if a few open-minded city councilmen willing to embrace change could’ve shifted the tide and ushered in a new period of trust and united the community. What would’ve happened to our closely woven community had they welcomed big businesses rather than slamming the door in their faces? Perhaps better paid job opportunities for both Whites and Blacks would’ve made the search for an improved life away from home less attractive. But, certainly, the welfare of Black folks didn’t concern them. Sadly, they forgot about the White folks who needed help, too. They protected their investments and continued lining their pockets. Slowly, our quiet little community died, and only vague reminders of her heritage remained behind.
When Senator John F. Kennedy took the office of president, uttering those now famous words, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” Blacks had hope that real change was on the way. But with his assassination on that warm sunny day in Dallas in 1963, hope died along with him. Our town and our nation went into mourning that day. When the news reached my home economics class, students and teachers wept openly. Tears stung my eyes, and a sick feeling rose from the pit of my stomach. Black people had fallen in love with the Kennedys, and now one of their favorite sons lay dead. That evening filled with total disbelief, everyone gathered around an open fire and talked.
The fear now that nothing would change caused more resentment and continued mistrust of Whites. And then, the signing of the Civil rights Act of 1964 sparked a small glimmer of renewed hope. I actually believed change would happen overnight and that White people would finally accept us as God created equals. Foolishly, I thought this Act would instantly erase the shame of going to the back door of the White restaurant or the humiliation of climbing the stairs at the local theater. A big surprise awaited those naive enough to think like me. Change came slowly and, along with it, came much resistance.
In the summer of 1969, we graduated from high school. Adam and I, along with some of our classmates, got accepted into the same college only a few miles from home. Grant College sat on the banks of the Mississippi River in La Racine, Louisiana. When the wind blew, the big old southern magnolia trees filled the air with a heavenly fragrance. Huge oak trees stood majestically. For hundreds of years, those old trees waited patiently, as if they knew their place. On the banks of the Mississippi River, we relaxed and watched barges and ships pass by.
The money earned from various jobs back home made an enormous difference in the quality of our lives at school. We spent most Saturdays from September to December picking up pecans and sold them for extra money. In one whole day, I couldn’t pick enough cotton to pay for my lunch. With that realization, someone always needed some ironing and housekeeping in town. Often, babysitting jobs presented themselves.
With heightened excitement, I looked forward to the beginning of my first college semester. The summer started out busier than normal with little time for anything other than work. Chores took up most of my time. My mother did her best. I applauded her effort, but the work study program and my partial scholarship covered the shortage. I took work and school in stride then settled into a routine. After a while, it was hard to determine which demanded more of my time.
Throughout high school, we shared lots of classes. From the moment he walked into my high school algebra class and our eyes locked, I knew my life would change. I understood from my mother’s constant reminders that commitment to family meant more than good looks, although Adam certainly had both. My mother learned that lesson too late in life. It made her sad. Adam sat on a stool facing the open doorway of the biology class. Lucky for me, I took the seat right next to him. The thought of dissecting a frog made me more than a little uncomfortable, but not Adam. After the professor gave a brief demonstration in the art of dissecting frogs, Adam waved his assigned weapon of choice in the air. Armed, dangerous, and ready, he took aim. I closed my eyes. Finally, it was over. Then I breathed a sigh of relief.
Adam and I became best friends. He walked me to and from some of my classes or stopped over at my dorm sometimes on the pretense of saying hello. As always, he played it very cool. I knew he liked me, and I liked him, but he also hung out with Melissa Tate. The extent of their relationship seemed unclear. Besides, we were just friends. Of course, that’s the lie I told myself. My classes demanded discipline. Thank goodness high school prepared me.
The semester ended right on schedule. Winter break for me only meant more work without any free time. Like always, we headed back to our place of refuge, the place where we felt most connected—home. Several of our high school classmates attended the same college. Therefore, transportation was never a problem. I slept late. The next morning, I rode my bicycle into town to get a few items my mother needed from the local grocery store.
I had my head down rummaging through my purse when I bumped into Adam. “Hello, what’s up?” he asked.
Flustered, I think I said something strange along the lines of “Uh huh,” which made no sense. I felt really foolish. My face turned a bruised red. Adam smiled. He’d changed over the years from a lanky little boy into a really cool, 6’ guy with broad shoulders. His looks first attracted me to him, but later his confidence and optimism captivated me. I’d never met anyone who knew exactly what they wanted and how they planned to achieve that goal. He understood that hard work paid off.
However, my mother’s advice kept me focused. “Beatrice Johanna, family comes first.”
“Yes, Anna.” Growing up under the scrutiny of my mother, I understood that life brought with it uncertainty. Still, I dreamed.
Adam asked me out on a date that day. Word spread quickly that Melissa dumped him for her old high school boyfriend. Suddenly, Adam and I became an item. On our first date, we went to the movies in a neighboring town a few miles away and sat holding hands while eating buttered popcorn. We participated in a few worthwhile causes, volunteered at food and clothing drives for a nearby makeshift church shelter and once even marched in a peace rally.
Adam and I both understood the language of sacrifice and that our circumstances would only change when we embraced education. Clearly, success didn’t happen just because we dreamed about it. Rather, it happened through persistence and hard work. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, it convinced me that education played a significant role in paving the way for his great honor. Every time Dr. King marched, my spirit marched, too while holding up the banner for peace. A couple of my classmates felt so strongly about his nonviolent approach to freedom that they left school to attend his marches. I knew my mother wouldn’t approve, so I stayed in school. All too well she understood the fight for freedom. However, she opposed the idea of my leaving school. She’d seen the beatings, the hosing, and the arrests on television. These scenes alarmed her. “B.J., them Whites angry, and they’ll do just about anything to keep us right where we at. I don’t want you going near them marches, you hear?”
“Yes, Anna.” I obeyed, but my spirit attended every march, despite the fact, that my mother had absolutely forbidden me from going.
Maybe it was hard to see or feel the difference in our small, isolated community, but change had spread like an unattended wildfire. Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Chief Justice, took office in the United States Supreme Court. A Black man now occupied a seat in the highest court in the land. None of us fully understood the importance of the office of Justice, but it made us proud that he’d sit in the same room with Whites and make important decisions. We’d come a long way, but not far enough.
In Beauregard, people continued to work on the farms for small wages and the word “equality” carried with it a certain element of hypocrisy, verging on a cruel joke. The Nobel Peace Prize held at best only a diluted meaning for us. We couldn’t wrap our heads around how such a prestigious award could change our immediate circumstances. We’d already gleaned that education meant a much greater chance of finding a better job and establishing a decent life for ourselves. But, in our community, good jobs didn’t come easy, and education had nothing to do with it. The good jobs never crossed over the tracks. Of course, someone always needed a sharecropper or a domestic worker, but never anything more than that.
I resented working all the time while some of my friends enjoyed their weekends and holidays. It didn’t seem fair. Sometimes my resentment and anger spilled over into my comments to my mother. She lashed out at me. “Beatrice Johanna,” she said in a stern voice as she raised her hand to me, “grow up. Life sho ’nuff ain’t fair. I’d done work hard all my life, and for what? To see you act like an ungrateful little brat?” With my pride deflated, I cried and shuffled off to my room. My mother never came to console me.
Tough times knocked at everyone’s door. Life seemed gloomy for the entire community. Sometimes, Adam worked on the road, digging ditches, but when he wasn’t in a ditch, he helped his parents bring in the crop for the next season. In between endless days of chores on the farm, Adam financed his schooling with odd jobs. He took honest work as long as it paid a decent wage. Keenly aware of his sacrifices, my mother said, “Beatrice Johanna, that boy knows responsibility.”
The White city councilmen owned large farms in our parish. Unanimously, they voted to keep businesses and industry out. In many ways, our “separate but equal” apartness resembled apartheid in South Africa. Maybe not truly institutionalized, but many endorsed it. These councilmen worked against the community they represented for their own financial gain. At least with an education, we hoped to find teaching or secretarial jobs in the larger towns surrounding our small community. I hadn’t planned on spending the rest of my life picking up and cleaning after strangers.
My mother spent countless hours washing and ironing for the smallest of wages. Many times, as a young girl, I tagged along with her. She let me sort the clothes and dust the expensive furniture that filled the oversized rooms. I don’t ever remember hearing one person say to my mother how much they appreciated her. From that experience, I promised to carve out a better life for myself. Despite having to scrape by with meager wages, her dignity remained intact. She felt ensnared in her circumstances, but she honored her responsibility as a single parent. By observing, I learned from her that choices brought consequences. I feared I’d end up in an unappreciated job working for pennies, like my mother, for people who would never appreciate me and avoid any issue that forced them to recognize me as their equal.
Very few Whites saw the world through our lens. Those who understood assisted our family and provided good recommendations that brought my mother work. One summer, she became ill and was unable to work for about a month. Some of her employers made sure we had sufficient food and even loaned her enough money for our essentials. My proud mother wouldn’t accept charity. She paid back every dime and showed her gratitude by working longer hours some days without extra compensation. “Beatrice Johanna, don’t accept no charity. You poor; you ain’t desperate.” She gave me everything that she thought mattered. I had food, clothing, and shelter. My mother had seen to that.
Our tiny wooden, three-room shotgun shack sat on a small lot buried among rows of similar houses. I stood on the front porch and looked all the way through the back door without altering my position left or right. My mother’s bed sat at one end of the living room, along with the sofa, chair, and all sorts of mismatched furniture that she’d acquired for a small price over the years.
This hard-working woman didn’t believe in accepting anything that she couldn’t pay for. Old newspapers, magazines, and books cluttered her room, sprawled against the backdrop of the rain-streaked wallpaper. The middle room was my retreat. A curtain separated my bed from the makeshift closet used to store extra pots and pans. My mother, the packrat kept everything. Too many things filled our already compact house. Regardless, I worked within the constraints of her world and with her things. When we first moved there, we had an outhouse like everyone else. Fortunately for us, the landlord decided we needed a proper bathroom, unlike the accommodations of many of our neighbors. Although we had an indoor toilet, we carried water for bathing. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it was still better than most. My mother longed for a traditional family in every sense of the word. She wanted a husband who would share the responsibility of parenting and providing for the family. No doubt, she would’ve gladly relinquished her role as head of household if she’d found the right person. Instead, she had Aunt Eva and me. Even though she found it troubling to say the words, “I love you,” she tried hard to show me how she felt.
Finally, the day I’d waited for came. My mother had been the driving force behind everything I’d done in life. She’d missed out on so much that I wanted in some small way to please her, but it grew into much more. Deep down inside, I feared that, without an education, I’d end up like her—tired, miserable, and alone. Whenever I looked at her, I saw sadness. That scared me to death. I knew, upon graduating, my education would provide more. For that, I had my mother to thank.
On that day, our parents beamed with pride. Mama Joe and Mr. Mirabeau stood proudly next to Adam as his sister took pictures. By far, this day topped my mother’s list of her happiest moments. For the first time that I could remember, she had a smile on her face and a gleam in eyes. The distance stare was gone. Sometimes parents live vicariously through their children. Perhaps, this day really belonged to her. That made me extremely happy. She’d earned it.
Shortly after graduation, Adam proposed without any romantic fanfare. The ring wasn’t hidden in my dessert, nor did it arrive accompanied by a poem confessing his undying love for me. It followed a simple and honest question spoken from his heart. “B.J.,” he said nervously, “will you marry me?” Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a ring with a diamond so tiny it seemed almost invisible. Without thinking, I quickly grabbed his arm in an effort to steady his hand while he placed the ring on my finger.
My answer came back to him as simple as his question: “Yes, I’ll marry you.” Adam and I loved each other without falling in love. Our relationship resembled an arranged marriage, an agreement of convenience that suited our combined goals. I’d lived my whole life observing my mother mourn the loss of her youth and unable to establish the family life she dreamed of for herself. I decided I’d accomplish what my mother sought in her many efforts and failed.
Unlike me, Adam lived a coveted life with both his parents lovingly at his side. For him, the freedom of becoming his own person and making his own choices fueled the marriage proposal to someone he thought most like him.
I’d known Adam all my life and hadn’t expected anything different than what he offered. In his no-nonsense sort of way, he viewed the world simply. The idea of falling in love with that “fireworks drama” seemed unimportant at the time. Only that he’d ask me to marry him mattered. We developed a very close friendship while playing a game of cat and mouse. Perhaps destiny presided over our births, but on the day that Adam proposed, it took charge of our lives, too.
© 2011 by Bertha Connally Abraham