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A dad's 'mother wit' and gentle touch

Booker T. Murray at 19 in South Carolina,

Booker T. Murray at 19 in South Carolina, where he was born to sharecroppers in 1908. Photo Credit: Elizabeth T. Contreras

My father, Booker T. Murray, was second to none. He was born in 1908, in a little one-horse country town, in South Carolina.

Dad came from a family of hardworking sharecroppers. He and his five brothers worked with their parents, farming the land. There was very little time to attend the small schoolhouse that was "for coloreds only."

During the cold winter months, the little pine-logged schoolhouse was heated by a potbellied stove. My father was only able to complete the second grade. Nevertheless, Dad took pride in having God-given "mother wit" (wisdom). He was not against getting a good education. However, Dad often said, "Some educated folks didn't have enough common sense to get out of a shower of rain."

My father left South Carolina in his late teens. He briefly lived in Riverhead before moving to Hempstead. Upon his arrival, his love for horses led him to obtain a job as a groom at the Belmont Park Racetrack.

He and my mother, Bessie, were married while he worked as a member of a labor union, doing heavy construction work.

I clearly remember my father returning home after a hard day's work at a Queens war plant. There, he diligently worked to support our military during World War II. Despite being a hardworking father, he always had time for me, his only child.

Although my name is Elizabeth, mostly everyone call me, "Thelma," including my mother. However, Dad always called me "Baby." Long-legged, tall, skinny and shy -- but I was still his beloved "Baby."

True, I was quiet and shy, but my father was also quiet, and not a talker. Early in his childhood years, he developed a stuttering problem. He was teased a lot by his peers and as a result, he was ashamed to do a lot of talking to others outside of his immediate family. Our neighbors had no problem communicating with my dad. They admired and respected him. They often called him "Partner" or "Deke."

He was known for having the best vegetable garden this side of heaven. The cabbage, collard greens, tomatoes, okra, sweet potatoes, corn and cucumbers beckoned the folks to come. Dad, bursting with pride, often shared his prizewinning vegetables with our neighbors.

I remember one Easter Sunday when I was around 9 years old. I had a speech to recite for the children's Easter program at church. Dad did not attend church on a regular basis. However, on this beautiful, bright Sunday, he took me to the program. Dad proudly sat in the audience and listened as my peers and I recited our little speeches.

Later, as he and I were walking home, Dad spied a shiny new penny lying on the sidewalk. During my childhood, a penny was a treasure and it went pretty far at our neighborhood candy store. Now, I was a little clumsy when I was that age. Excitedly, I bent down and picked up my new treasure. However, as I stood up, I bumped my forehead on a metal pole nearby. My dad loudly groaned and said, "Oh Jesus, Bessie is going to have a fit." He gently patted my head with his nice white handkerchief.

My pretty new Easter dress and Dad's handkerchief had red blood spots on them. I shall never forget the little egg-shaped lump I had on my head that Sunday. I survived the lump and the skinned knee; Dad and Mom did, too.

My dad is no longer with me, but the memory of that wonderful Easter Sunday that I spent with him lives on.

Elizabeth T. Contreras,

LET US HEAR FROM YOU Letters and essays for MY TURN are original works by readers that have never appeared in print or online. Share special memories, traditions, friendships, life-changing decisions, observations of life, or unforgettable moments for possible publication. Email, or write to Act 2 Editor, Newsday Newsroom, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747. Include name, address and phone numbers. Edited stories may be republished in any format.

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