Posted by: Bill Tracy | September 28, 2016

A Washerwoman Among Us

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

1 Corinthians 13:11

 

Mess with a Bruja, and it will mess with your life. “Bruja” is a word from the Spanish, generally it means witch. Brujo is a man and Bruja is a woman. In some tribal cultures it means healer, sort of a “witch doctor.” Their medicine can be strong, believe me. I know.

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Bessie Daisy was (is?) a Bruja. When I knew her she was probably the only black woman living in the suburban borough of Bellmawr, New Jersey. Her mother, Abagail Daisy, was born in June, 1852, perhaps into slavery. There were slaves kept in what is now Bellmawr by a Quaker man, but his religious pals told him slavery was wrong and so he quit the ugly business. History suggests most of those freed blacks moved a few miles east to what is now Lawnside. As far back as the 1700s, that was a colony of freed and escaped slaves freely making their own way in the world. Abagail and Bessie, for whatever reason, stayed in Bellmawr. By the time I had my encounter with Bessie, she was living alone in a “tar paper shack” a hundred yards or so from what is now Exit 3 of the New Jersey Turnpike.

I was around 10 years old. It was the mid-to-late fifties, and I lived in Runnemede, next town down the Black Horse Pike from Bellmawr. My newly built, modern and comfortable Cape Cod house was half a mile from Bessie’s shack. Bessie was known to the local kids as a witch, someone you could tease and torment from afar, but you didn’t get close as you never knew what she might do — or what she could do. Not only was she black, but she was said to also be American Indian. She was in her sixties then. Her real name is Bessie, but everyone knew her as “Betsy Daisy.” Kids who trotted across her property as a shortcut to a swimming hole or the highway got yelled at and chased. Best to just stay away. On a particular springtime morning however, two or three pals and I didn’t stay away.

On a warm Saturday morning we were bored and decided to go to Betsy Daisy’s house and see what we could provoke. Her shack was set up on a hill. Below was a large open area that had been a sand and gravel pit. We got within a stone’s throw and began tossing rocks at her house. We expected she would come out and yell at us, but after 10 minutes or so nothing happened. We got more bored than we had been before and left. Just under the Turnpike exit ramp is a small bridge where the Black Horse Pike passes over Beaver Brook. We stopped on the bridge and looked for a while wondering what trouble to stir up next. We probably threw a few rocks into the water but decided not to go down and get wet. We started up the hill back to Runnemede.

Beaver Brook from the Black Horse Pike bridge. Site of our encounter with "Betsy Daisy" in the 1950s.

Beaver Brook from the Black Horse Pike bridge. Site of our encounter with “Betsy Daisy” in the 1950s.

We had not gone more than 10 yards when I felt something. I turned around — and I was face-to-face with Betsy Daisy. Inches from that gaunt, fierce, black face of the witch in my darkest imagination. She reached out for me. I think I shrieked. Like startled starlings my pals and I took flight. A woman in her sixties is not going to catch 10 year-old boys, but we believed we were dealing with the supernatural. We didn’t stop running until we were at a hideout back in the woods off Central Avenue in Runnemede. We were frightened to the core. It’s one thing to talk about a witch, but to have one simply appear next to you…! She was nowhere in sight when we turned away from Beaver Brook, and 30 seconds later there she was right behind us — close enough to touch! And she had almost touched me. We spent most of the rest of that day in the woods. We felt safe from adults back there, but a witch, well anything could happen. We looked around constantly never knowing when she might just suddenly appear again.

Hunger eventually called, and I went home for supper. I felt okay in the house as long as the family was around. But I was scared to go into the bathroom alone. What if I were in there, and Betsy Daisy appeared and grabbed me! It was Saturday, and that was bath night, so there was no avoiding the bathroom. I put it off as long as a 10-year-old could, and then I simply forgot to close the bathroom door. And no kid in history ever “got ready for bed” faster than I did that night. I slept with a brother in my bedroom so at least I didn’t have that terror to contend with. Thank God for brothers!

Nothing happened overnight, or the next day. Soon the weeks were passing, and Betsy Daisy faded into just a recurring little PTSD episode. Find yourself alone and feel a mild panic, looking around for Betsy Daisy. Wake up in the night and wonder if a draft was moving that closet door. And then the years went by, and we moved away from Runnnemede, and Betsy Daisy became only an occasional memory.

Over the years I’d think once in awhile about Betsy Daisy. I’d wonder how a person so different had come to live where I did when I was a child. She was an old, black woman living alone in the midst of nothing but white people. We lived in nice houses, and she lived in a little black shack. Given it was the fifties, I guess she probably had none of the utilities we took for granted — electricity, running water, heat in winter. She raised chickens, that we knew.

As I got older, I’d feel more guilt each time I thought of her. I imagined how hard her life must have been. Being so poor and different and old in the midst of exploding affluence all around her. If that wasn’t bad enough she had to be tormented by thoughtless and uncaring children — and probably some adults too. We should have shown her love, but we showed her the hate so deeply ingrained in fear of the “other.” The guilt got especially bad after I moved back here (less than two miles from the old Betsy Daisy shack site) five years ago.

Daisy lived in a small shack, probably built in the nineteenth century. She is now gone 50 years, and the land has been reclaimed by vegetation.

To the right of the blue house on the hill is where Bessie Daisy lived in a shack probably built in the nineteenth century. She is now gone 50 years, and the land has been reclaimed by vegetation.

There was a Bellmawr group on the Facebook site. I joined and started talking Betsy Daisy. I confessed my sins, hoping I guess for a forgiveness that could never be given. Others from the time told their stories. Men told of being chased away from her house as boys. Women recalled being with their mothers and timidly saying hello to her on the street, mostly overcome with anxiety. One man told a story of harassing Betsy and of a quick visit to his house by the police. Turned out the police chief in Bellmawr at the time had become very protective of her. If she told him about an encounter with some child, the chief would go after the child — and be no doubt scarier than Betsy Daisy ever could. That’s when I started doing research about her.

I found out her real name was Bessie. I don’t know if Betsy was a nickname that was commonly used or if it was just a misnomer used by those of us who were ignorant. She spent her life as a “washerwoman,” as her occupation is listed on older U.S. Census forms — washing the clothes of other people. And she was the daughter of a washerwoman. From what I’ve learned she generally did domestic work of any sort. At one point, I think she was on the payroll at Bell Farms in Bellmawr. The land around Bell and Browning Roads today is all houses and retail stores. Back when I lived in that area (early fifties) that was all farmland owned by the Bell family. She had a couple of children, and on one Census form she has a grandchild living with her. On most Census forms she is listed as “Negro,” but on one she is listed as “Indian.” Her father was born in Delaware and is said to have been a Delaware Indian, perhaps a Munsee.

While I learned some of her history I never was able to find out what became of her. I found no living family members. I located the site where her shack had been — now a lot overgrown with small trees and dense vegetation. From time to time, I’d go to Cook’s Florists in Runnemede, buy a little bouquet of flowers, always with some daisies, and place them at the site of her shack. I wanted her to know how sorry I am for the pain I caused her so many years ago.

The 1930 U.S. Census showing Bessie Daisy and her 18-year-old daughter, Florence, living on Sandy Lane (now Browning Road) in Bellmawr, NJ.

The 1930 U.S. Census showing Bessie Daisy and her 18-year-old daughter, Florence, living on Sandy Lane (now Browning Road) in Bellmawr, NJ. Her father was born in Delaware, and she is a “laundress.”

Recently I saw a post on one of the Bellmawr groups in Facebook where a man was looking for information about Betsy Daisy. He said he was going to write and publish something about her. Before we got together I reviewed my research, and I came across a new fact. I found that she was buried in a cemetery in Berlin, NJ.

Finding a grave for Bessie Daisy became the final chapter in this tale of crime and reconciliation. I went out to the cemetery in Berlin. There was no one in the office, and it’s a big cemetery. An enormous worker saw me and asked if he could help. He looked like a football lineman and made me think immediately of Digby “Digger” O’Dell, the grave digger in the old time radio show, “The Life of Riley.” He had keys to the office, and he knew how to use the computer. He found some Daisy graves and made printouts for me. Then he took me out to find her grave. I don’t think the printouts were very helpful; we walked halfway to Bellmawr wandering around that cemetery. But we did eventually find where Bessie Daisy is buried, finally at rest. Digger went back to his work, and I spent a few minutes with Bessie. She was born in 1891. She died 1966, 10 years or so after our meeting, after she had reached out to me. So, I now had a more fitting place to leave flowers, if nothing else. And I knew “what became of her.”

The cemetery is across the street from the Berlin Farmers Market. I decided to stop in and see my old friend, Joe DiPietro. He owns the record store there. We’ve been friends for 50 years, having met strangely enough in Vietnam. Halfway around the world in 1967 I discover one day I’m collecting combat pay alongside a guy who grew up in South Jersey. There wasn’t much business at the record store that day. I began telling Joe the Bessie Daisy story, and that’s when she showed up. Yes, Bessie Daisy suddenly just appeared. You don’t mess with a Bruja.

As I was talking with Joe I saw an old, black woman walk into the store. She walked up to Joe and presented him with a cup of fresh fruit pieces — a lot of grapes and large chunks of watermelon. She handed each of us a white, plastic fork, and when she looked at me I told her she was an angel. Joe introduced us as he’s known her for years. Her name is Virginia and she’s a minister of some sort living and working in Egg Harbor City. Minister Virginia said she had to do another errand, but she would be back. I had a wonderfully sweet chunk of watermelon and went off to do an errand of my own.

Back at the record shop I was talking with Joe when Minister Virginia came in again. By now I knew exactly who she was, and I wanted her to know that. I told her I recognized her as the spirit surrogate of Bessie Daisy. I told her of my troubles with Bessie Daisy, my guilt and feeble attempts at atonement and desire for forgiveness. Virginia nearly passed out from the excitement. After listening, she took my hand, and she said a prayer out loud. She explained to her God what had happened and asked him to assure me that Bessie forgives — that “she knows you have put away childish things and are a man now.” Joe stood and watched in some disbelief. But I knew it was real, and I know the healing power of a true Bruja.

In a grave adjacent to a Robert Daisy is a woman named Virginia Minister.

In a grave adjacent to Robert Daisey is a woman named Virginia Minister.

When I had returned home that night I browsed the cemetery forms the grave digger had printed out for me. In a grave adjacent to a Robert Daisy is buried a woman named Virginia Minister. You don’t mess with a Bruja.

Thanks, Bessie Daisy. I am sorry for failing to love you in life. Even as a child I could have been a help to you, been kind. This day I’m pleased our spirits may now mingle in loving forgiveness. Thank you.

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Responses

  1. A delight as always!!!! I am so glad you write. Beautiful!

  2. This was such a fascinating story. What do you think brought *her* back into your life at that time?

  3. I don’t think we can speculate on that, Mary Ann. I’m simply an advocate of being open to the messages and messengers as they come to us.

  4. I think that more than would admit have had similar experiences and regrets most of us do not find the solace that you have found. Thank you for writing.

  5. “BRILLIANT” Bill……………

  6. Great story and nicely written. Amazingly, I too have a memory of Bessie Daisy. My Grandfather was the 3rd full-time police officer hired in Bellmawr. For some reason he took an interest in Bessie and would often either take her to the store or just go pick a few necessities up for her and drop them off to her especially when the weather was bad. He was often “teased” about it and said to be Bessie’s secret boyfriend, yet he still continued to do so until she passed.

  7. Thanks. Makes me happy to know someone showed her kindness.


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