With his death approaching, I asked him, “John, who was Martha Jones?”
My friend John Dickerson composed himself higher in the bed and smiled at my wife Jan and me. “Did you find her grave in the woods near my mother?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “We were checking the cemetery at the homestead and stumbled across a strange memorial. We went back later and found more things had been added.”
John was the son of Mahala Ashley Dickerson, a Quaker, an Alaska homesteader from the 1950s, and the state’s first African American attorney. Jan grew up down the road from Mahala’s homestead and played there in the lake and fields as a child. Mahala died in 2007. Not long before our visit with John, I had scattered my own mother’s ashes in a mountain stream.
I continued my questioning, “Near the cemetery and under the spruce trees, we found a handmade grave marker scratched with the words, ‘Martha Jones, 1933 – 1992.’ Nearby, we found drawings of angels, food packages, cigarettes, and flowers. Somebody had laid round stones to mark a path. We know all the Quakers in the cemetery, but not a Martha Jones. How did her grave get there?”
John replied, “Well, one winter long ago, I came up from New York to visit my mother on the homestead. I was driving the truck toward Big Lake and on the way, I saw somebody walking in the same direction, on the snowy shoulder of the road, and I slowed down. It was a Native woman. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have stopped. But this time I did, and I gave her a ride. She was going to the grocery in Big Lake. It was very cold and dark.
“I dropped her off at the grocery and for some reason, I waited for her. When she came out, I said, ‘Hop in. I want you to meet my mother.’
“The two of them really hit it off right away, sitting there in the kitchen, laughing and telling stories,” said John. “Eventually, Martha said she was trying to find work, but had no skills. After a while, my mother said, ‘Well, I need some help around this big house. Would you want to do that?’”
John continued, “So Martha worked off and on in my mother’s home for several years, and my mother eventually offered her a place in our family cemetery. The grave you found in the nearby woods was made by Martha’s son. I think he visits when no one is around and quietly fixes it up.”
On a cold December day a few weeks after this visit, we lowered John’s pinewood coffin into his own grave. He lies a few yards from his mother and not far from Martha Jones’s place in the woods. ~~~
Mike Bronson is “support staff” for his wife Jan, occasional Presiding Clerk of the Alaska Friends Conference. He was born in Watsonville and got a PhD degree from Cal Berkeley. When not on a river, Mike volunteers with the NAACP.