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No strangers to me

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A long, long time ago, when I was a child, my grandfather took me to visit his orchard.

“It’s the last bit of land I’ve had since I came to live in the city,” he told me as he greeted everyone.

– Grandpa, how do you know so many people? I asked him as I ran to keep up.

He stopped to wait for me.

“I don’t know them by name, I know them by heart.” You know, Honey, there are no strangers to me.

– Because? I asked, giving her his hand.

He smiled happily and answered:

– Because me and my heart are free.

After walking a little, he said:

“My dear, did you know that in the sad times of slavery I used to carry apple seeds in my pocket, and I believed that when I was free, I would plant them on my own piece of land?”

– No, I didn’t know.

“One day I realized that this would only happen when we fought for freedom ourselves. Then one night we ran away.

– Who is “us”?

“Me, your grandmother Polly, and your mother, who was a baby then,” she said, stroking my curls. “We were afraid, of course, but we were careful.”

He stopped talking while remembering those times…

“By the time we reached the north, we had been through many strangers and dangers. We were by the Ohio River and were almost free when we realized that hunger and tiredness were too great to continue walking. So we hid in a barn nearby. We slept all night, as we had not done for a long time. At dawn a man came to mow the cows, and our baby cried. We were petrified. Our despair was such that we felt able to swim across the river just to be free! We would never go back!

After all these years, my grandfather still trembled just thinking about those times. I took her hand tightly.

The man realized he was not alone. But it did not look at our color; looked at our affliction. It was white, but it helped us. He never asked me his name, although he told me his. His name was James Stanton and he was a member of the Clandestine Railway.

– Oh! I exclaimed. “Those people who helped the slaves travel north?”

“Those who helped us when we needed them most.” James and his wife, Sarah, didn’t see your mother as a black girl, just a hungry baby. They fed us and helped us cross the river the following night.

– That’s luck, grandpa! I rejoiced, gripping her hand tightly.

“I don’t know if it was luck, Honey.” We had to trust God. We had taken a correct resolution and we never missed the help. And we did it. I know what it is like to need help and receive it. For me, no stranger will fall to the ground without my reaching out.

We walked in silence and the spring air brought us the fresh, sweet smell of blossoming apple trees.

“When we got to the north, your grandmother and I worked hard for anyone who wanted to hire us. We plowed the land, we picked fruit, we mung cows, we sewed, we rode horses until we had enough money to buy a piece of land. This one!

And he showed me a beautiful orchard full of apple trees in bloom.

“Do you remember the seeds I always had in my pocket?” I took them and planted them in our little piece of land. Each time I planted one, I remembered one person who had helped me. Look at all these flowers!

My grandfather took an apple from each pocket.

“Did those come from your basement, grandfather?”

– They came. I saved them to eat together.

We sat down to eat.

“Grandfather, can I ever plant a memory seed here?”

My grandfather smiled, moved:

– You can do it right now.

I planted the seeds of the apple I had eaten. Meanwhile, my grandfather watched my gestures, no doubt recalling what he had done many years ago.

“I won’t forget what you did today,” my grandfather said, putting a hand to his chest.

“And I won’t forget what you told me, Grandfather.”

And never forgot.

“So now you understand why there are no strangers to me,” said his grandfather, with immense joy on his face as he waved to the sky. Ann Grifalconi; Jerry Pinkney Ain’t Nobody Stranger to Me New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 2007 (translation and adaptation)

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