Essie Mae Laveau Jenkins is a 78-year-old sweetgrass basket weaver who sits on the side of Hwy. 17 in the company of her dead husband, Daddy Jim. Inspired by her Auntie Leona, Essie Mae finally discovers her calling in life and weaves powerful “love baskets,” praying fervently over them to affect the lives of those who visit her roadside stand. When she’s faced with losing her home, her stand, and being put into a nursing home, Daddy Jim talks her into coming on up to Heaven to meet sweet Jesus, something she’s always wanted to do. Once there, she reunites with Gullahs and African ancestors; but soon, her heavenly peace is disrupted. Now Essie Mae, who once felt powerless and invisible, must find the strength within her to keep her South Carolina family from falling apart.
Nicole gives an overview of the book:
This is what I remember about that night—my last night alive.
After having me a fine meal of crispy cornbread and dipping it
in buttermilk just like Daddy used to do, I headed on back to the
bathroom. I turned on the water in the tub, not too hot, but
good enough to get my blood moving. I wanted to feel the
life tingling through my veins.
For being seventy-eight years old, I can’t say as I ever felt more
alive than I did that very night. It’s a funny thing knowing you
gonna die soon. I felt the air kiss my skin. The sound of water
rushed in my ears like a river. And I seen colors like I was seeing
‘em for the very first time—like I’d been blind up ’til then. I wanted
to look back on my life and taste every speck of it, the good and
the bad. It had been a good life, sure ’nough. I’d had me a fine
mama and daddy, a sweet husband, and a beautiful grandbaby. My
daughter had been my only real grief, seeing as she ain’t loved me
too much, but I done the best I could with her, and I had peace
I lay there in the water feeling it tickle down over my shoulders. I
remembered when Jim would touch me like that. Oh, Jim, it won’t be
long now, I thought. I was getting right excited about what I was gonna
do. My blood was a-boiling and my fingers was itching to weave. By
the grace of God, this was gonna be the finest basket I ever made. And
everything that was bothering me—my house I was getting ready to
lose, and the nursing home I was fixing to get stuck into, the stretch
of highway I was gonna get kicked off of, and the tension ’tween my
daughter and me—it was all gonna be over soon. Hallelujah, praise
Jesus! Jim’d told me if I made one of my love baskets just one last time,
that we’ll be together forever—and I could touch his sweet face again
and meet Jesus just like I always wanted.
I reached down and pulled the plug by my feet and watched as the
water and bubbles and all the dirt that was on me just a-washed down
the drain. My body sure ain’t looked like it used to, no sir. My black
skin was loose and not so pretty no more—not like it was when I met
Jim and ’fore I had Henrietta. I was a good-looking woman back then
if I do say so myself.
I grabbed on to the white porcelain and tried to pull myself up real
slow. With all the water gone, my big ol’ body was dead weight and
not so easy to lift. I wrapped my towel around me and looked in the
mirror above the sink—at my gray hair still in them cornrows I been
wearing forever and my shoulders all drooped from carrying this extra
weight. But my eyes was what struck me the most. It sure is a strange
thing looking into your own eyes and seeing the life in there, knowing
it’ll all be gone soon.
I turned real quick and headed ’cross the hall to the bedroom,
changing into my most comfortable nightgown, the one with the
white lace ’round the hem like my wedding dress had. I stuck the
cloth up close to my nose and breathed in real deep. I’ll always
remember that. I been using the same washing powder since
forever, so it’s the same smell Jim used to have when I’d hug him
tight ’round the neck.
I’d already pulled my sweetgrass up onto the bed. I reached over
and grabbed the picture frames propped up next to me and traced
each and every face. There was Mama, God rest her soul. And
Daddy right beside her. I guessed I’d be seeing ’em again real soon.
I looked at the one of Henrietta and my sweet grandbaby, EJ. I sure
was gonna be sad to leave my EJ, but he’d be all right without me.
He was a fine young man and had his future to look after—ain’t no
need to waste time looking after me no more.
The last picture I seen was of my Auntie Leona with her hair
pulled up tight. She looked back at me, and I swear I could hear
her say, “You can do it, Essie Mae. You got a strong head and an
even stronger heart. Girl, you can do anything you set your mind
to.” So I pulled out my big-print Bible and grabbed Jim’s hair I’d
stuck down in there. Then I used my free hand to reach ’round and
pull one of my own hairs out my head. After twisting ’em up real
tight, I closed my eyes and prayed, “I love You, sweet Jesus. Help
me out now, Lord. Let this one work, please, and bring me on
home. Sweet Jesus, go ’head and bring me on home.”
I weaved all night long ’til my fingers and my back was sore. My
mind was racing so much, I ain’t felt it none ’til I was just about
done. Once I realized it was almost finished, I said, “Whoa, now.”
Not sure what was gonna happen to me. I’d asked God not to hit me
with a Mack truck, but ain’t thought about what else might happen.
Was it gonna hurt? Great God in heaven, all a sudden I was getting
kinda scared. I decided to set my basket down and wait to finish it
while sitting with Jim at my stand next morning. That way, I wouldn’t
be alone when the good Lord called me to heaven, however He decided
to take me there.
Nicole Seitz grew up on Hilton Head Island, a small town off the coast of South Carolina, where she was surrounded by palmetto trees, marsh grass, sandy beaches and unique Southern characters. As an author, artist and speaker, Nicole's work is deeply influenced by her faith...