“She wrote for your paper,” the caller said last week. “I thought you’d like to know.”
I had been thinking about Ariana Mangum just that morning. Funny how that works.
I hadn’t seen her in a while. No phone call. None of her handwritten letters, in cursive like your grandmother would write on small sheets of paper folded in half. Before that there had been long, single-spaced typed letters – from a real typewriter.
We first met in the old building. She was driving then. She parked in front of the newspaper office on Franklin Street and asked to speak to the editor. Or maybe I was already in the lobby. I sat with her.
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She was a small woman, with white, neatly combed hair and a purse, and she looked in your eyes when she spoke to you.
Was she wearing pink? She liked yellow too. Spring colors she coordinated down to to the socks. I’d compliment her, and she’d smile, her eyes crinkling like she was embarrassed. But you knew she’d taken time on that day’s outfit.
One day she wished me a Happy Easter. When I told her I was Jewish, she became flustered, upset at having assumed. I reassured her I took no offense. The misstep opened a door.
The News & Observer wrote about Ariana in 2002 in a story about school volunteers. Staff writer Jonnelle Davis caught up with her at Glenwood Elementary as Ariana, 74, was wrapping up her weekly reading session with 5-year-old Ke’Asia Craig. “Now we’ll have a little poem and then we’ll go,” she said, as she picked up “A Child’s Garden of Verses” and begins to read a poem to Ke’Asia.
“I love to see them progress, and I like to see them achieve,” she said. “Each (child) is different and you try to tailor each lesson to the child and not make them feel that they’re behind or anything, but that this is just for them. Each Wednesday I look forward to it.”
I started at the paper three years later, and some time after that started handling her letters.
She wrote about war, politics, social mores – each short essay as fixed as her gaze.
▪ On the Colonial Inn (2010): When a private citizen buys a landmark he or she also buys a piece of our heritage. ... Mr. Henry seems to do as he wishes and continues to get away with destroying our heritage. The laws need to be more strict and more specific for the preservation of listed buildings.
▪ On the growing income gap (2014): The rich are getting richer, but the poor are losing out. It really hit me how desperate some people are when I offered four slightly damaged cooking pots to a thrift shop. They had been salvaged from trash, and I had used them to feed my dogs. An elderly Hispanic woman tugged at my sleeve.
“I’d like those, “ she whispered. “They are still good. I’ll scrub them clean and use them.”
I gave them to her. She considered my damaged cooking pots a great prize. Her big smile told me how delighted she felt.
▪ On the Chapel Hill Cemetery Committee’s first attempt to honor those buried in unmarked graves (2016): My husband’s family is buried in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery. His aunts, his uncles, grandfather, grandmother, his parents and younger brother. My husband is also there. The old white families are there and also the black folks who took care of these families. Young men who fought and died in the Civil War and in both world wars. It’s a cemetery full of both recent history and that of two centuries ago. Judge Peele tried to see that no one was forgotten. ... Put the marker back up, and Chapel Hill don’t be forever criticizing and protesting against kind and thoughtful gifts. Be grateful for Judge Peele’s sense of history. No one else ever thought of having a marker in the cemetery for those forgotten.
By the time we moved to our current office by the mall, Ariana had started taking a taxi to deliver her letters. And sometimes there were no letters, just a visit as she sat inside our front door, sharing something in the news that concerned her.
And then some time after that, the knock from her driver, asking if I would come visit Ariana in the parking lot. I’d open the passenger door, squint against the sun and hold her hand as she spoke. Somewhere I read old people don’t get touched enough. Not just old people, I bet.
I don’t remember what brought her the last time; she seemed more frail; she had bounced back from several hospital visits in the last couple of years, though, and I was sure I would see her again.
And then a moment ago, the phone rang and a second person – this time her daughter, also named Ariana – called to say her mother had died on Thursday and she thought I’d like to know.
I told her I had just started writing this column. Funny how that works.
Mark Schultz is the editor of The Chapel Hill News. You can reach him at 919-829-8950 and firstname.lastname@example.org