Sunday, September 02, 2001

Friendship subdues race, state line

By Denise Smith Amos
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was an unlucky day on the gambling boat, but a lucky day just the same.

        Five years ago, Gwen Jones-Bonner, a Mount Healthy woman who recruits for Head Start, struck up a conversation with a woman who, like her, was waiting to board the Grand Victoria Casino. The line was long enough to get acquainted. Once inside, Gwen and her husband, Jake, were introduced to the woman's large family, including the woman's sister, Mary Rose Little.

        A friendship took root.

        To hear them tell it, the two women and their companions lost their shirts that day - “We all lost everything but our bloomers, and if somebody was willing to buy them, we would've sold them,” Mary Rose recalls.

        But they gained something more precious — a friendship that transcends cultures, race differences and even state lines.

        In the five years since, Gwen and Mary Rose, both 57, have shared each other's lives through lengthy, multipaged letters and cheerful weekly phone calls. They've mourned each other's family deaths and celebrated births.

        Once Gwen got over her apprehensions about being one of the few blacks driving Kentucky back roads, both sets of families have gotten together for dinner — feasts full of generous gift-giving and plates overladen with homemade goodies such as pork chops, mashed 'taters, cornbread and chocolate cake.

        “The Booneville hills were just simply gorgeous,” Gwen says. “Her whole family treated us like royalty. They all brought gifts. We were driving a Jeep, and that Jeep was going sideways down the mountain, we had so much stuff in it — homemade canned goods, pillows, homemade gourds.

        “They don't have a lot of material things, but what they have, they give, and they give from the heart,” she said.

        Gwen, an African-American city person whose family comes from the hills in North Carolina, says Mary Rose and her family have awakened the Appalachian in her. As part of

        her job helping young mothers fill out enrollment applications for Head Start, Gwen said she notices that Appalachian moms don't want to disclose that because of stereotypes about Appalachians.

        But her friendship with Mary Rose pushes Gwen to encourage these women to be proud of their heritage, a culture rich in generosity to strangers, sharing through rough times, and arriving at life's treasures through working with your hands.

        “If you have an Appalachian friend, you have a really good friend,” Gwen says.

        Mary Rose has similar things to say about Gwen, who she addresses as "My dear sister...” in her letters.

        “She's just such a nice person; she's good inside and out,” said Mary Rose, a former tobacco farmer who works with senior citizens and shut-ins.

        “I'm a widowed lady. She encourages me when I get down, when I'm depressed,” she says.

        “She tells me "You've got so many talents — you can sew and cook and have patience and can take care of old people.' I tell her those ain't talents — they're just gifts from God.”

        Both women agree about Cincinnati's racial unrest.

        “I wish there'd be peace everywhere and not all this fussin' and cussin',” Mary Rose says. “I wish everybody would be neighbors, like they ought to be. They're living life too fast. They don't help anybody anymore.”

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