musical lives, remembered in story & sound

Lella Todd -- 2. Neighborhood Mother


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The couple never had any children of their own; but, instead, adopted an entire neighborhood of them. One such child was Letha Sexton, now an old woman living just down the road from where she grew up. I met with her in the spring of 2009, and she told me what she remembered, with a striking fondness for the woman who had once lived and played music down the road.

“There was a lot of children round in the neighborhood,” she said, “and they took every child there in, played ‘em music, had ‘em dancing, fed ‘em popcorn.” Claude didn’t play music, but was an avid dancer, and was known to shake a leg while Lella fiddled, children dancing all around.

“She had a great big old morning stove,” said Letha, remembering, almost gleefully, time spent at Ms. Lella’s house. “She would… make cornbread, and drop little drops on the stove, and fry them—just on the stove, you know, not in the skillet or anything— and turn ‘em over, and we would eat ‘em like you eat popcorn.” Letha laughed.

She grew quiet for a moment, and remarked: “They were just wonderful, wonderful people… I always felt so close to her.” Lella was present at the birth of Letha, and nearly all of her seven siblings. “Mom had one child to die when it was three months old, and I know she was there…. She fixed a bouquet of flowers. Back then, there wasn’t too many flowers—it was in November.” But Lella had found some, little white ones, and brought the grieving mother a little bouquet.

“She was wonderful. I wouldn’t miss that life, just living by her, for nothing. That’s the reason I’ve always tried to be [like that]. … I knew what a good time I’d had when I was young and I wanted them [her nieces, children, and grandchildren] to have a good time, too,” said Letha.

Lella was a woman valued by her community, at least as Letha remembers it: “I never heard anyone say a mean word against Lella. She was just a precious person.” She was a woman who “was a friend of anyone that came along. She’d try to help everybody.” Serena, too, described a woman who “loved… doing things for people.”

And one of those things she did, was to provide entertainment. “Living now… is a lot different than when we were (young), cause there (was) no shows and no television, no radios. So you had to make your own entertainment. So, if you had somebody like Lella, you had it made. I think everyone in their neighborhood should have a Lella,” said Letha.

A testament to their love of Lella, Letha remembered a time that Lella grew quite ill. “We don’t know what made her sick,” Letha said. She remembers being “so scared she was going to die. She was laying on the front porch, you know, just heaving. So we all were crying, “Lella’s going to die! Lella’s going to die!” But, said Letha, with a laugh, “we got over it. We just didn’t want nothing to happen to our friend.”