It doesn’t take much. A comb, a slice of fruit cake, a book of poems, her favorite hymn: these are the things that throw me back in time, and I remember mama so vividly it’s almost as if I can reach out and hug her. I can see her now cooking over a hot stove at mid-day while all the others workers rested; being quiet – either out fear or respect – whenever daddy lost his temper; sawing all night to be sure to have made three beautiful dresses for her daughters to wear to Easter morning service; laughing and encouraging and sometimes daring me recite “Invictus” and joining in to help me say, “I think whatever God shall be from my unconquerable soul.” I can see her, too, in her autumn years not remembering simple things like feeding herself or bathing herself; but not forgetting to pray – this time not bowed with hands clasped together but standing slightly bent over because age or arthritis or both has robbed of her of the ability to stoop and the strength to rise again.
A Tribute to Daddy
Daddy was “Big Man” to everyone that knew him – maybe because he was a huge, rugged man who roared like a lion ever commanding his presence, making sure that he won the respect all his ten children. And respect we gave him. Daddy said it; we believed it. There was no questioning – never a hint of disbelief. In fact, we worshiped him; for, we were proud of him and proud to be called his children.
Daddy was a hard worker, too. He would get up early every morning at 5:00 o’clock sharp, put on his old raggedy, denim over-all, his worn brogans, his sweat stained hat and hurry out back to milked the cows and feed the pigs before arousing us from our beds to get ready for another day of chopping cotton, picking cotton, pulling corn, or picking up pecans, depending on the season. In the fields, he was tireless. He was always first to finish a row of cotton, and sometimes he led the rest of us by row. By eleven, he had hardly worked up a sweat, and he would never stop until jam-up-twelve. Sixty minutes is all we had off for lunch. But, he managed to gather us all up, drive a mile to the house, rush Mama to cook a meal of fried chicken, rice and gravy, and homemade biscuits and urged us to eat in a hurry just so he could get back to the field and get us to our work before 1:00 o’clock. Late in the evening, when we would tell him that it was time to go home, he would say, “Let’s just knock this little bit out here,” or “There is plenty of day left . It’s too early to quit.” Almost every day, Daddy ended our work day by match light.
Daddy was not a church-going man, but he was a devout Christian, ever true to his faith. He began every day with a prayer, and he ended everyday with a long prayer. He never told us the story of the Good Samaritan, but fed every hobo, a homeless vagrant, that wondered in from the train when it stopped in front of our house, and he always helped the neighbors by giving them a ham or some bacon from a freshly killed hog or by going over to help them finish their crops of cotton before the gin closed for the season. A sharecropper, he had little to give to the church. However, in the fall of every year, he gave Springville Baptist a cow or a hog to be sold at the auction. I guess in his own way he was paying his tithes. Sometimes, he would invite the neighbors over to have prayer service. It was during one of those times that I saw Daddy cry like a baby when Miss Annie Pugh sang “Soon I’ll be Done with the Troubles of the World.” “Why,” I asked him, “do you do all this and don’t go to church.”
“Your church is in your heart,” he said softly to me, without explaining.
Daddy won the respect of our neighbors, and as he said, his good white friends, too. Many a day, he entertained them with a cup of coffee on the front porch while swapping ghost stories or giving advice about planting some kind of crop. When his white friends would ask a favor of him, he would joke to us, “He’s been free all his life, he ought to have one or he ought to able to do that.” But, he would always give the favor and his friends would always leave well pleased. At times, he served as counselor to couples about to break up, and, at other times he lured the neighborhood kids over to play on a homemade “flying Ginny” as he called it. Really, the kids loved Daddy because he was fun, but the parents loved him because he was so kind and generous to their children.
One day Mrs. McLamore, the welfare representative, came to our house to sign us up for welfare – in those days social workers came to poor people’s houses to offer aid to them. Then, I didn’t know that we were poor. To me, we had a plenty food, enough clothes, and a roof over our heads. But, as I look back now, I realize that we were indeed welfare material. But, daddy was insulted by Mrs. McLamore’s offer. When she pleaded with him to let her sign him up, he told her, “M’am, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but will you kindly leave my house?” When she asked Mama to talk some sense into Daddy, Mama, out of fear or respect, simply said, “Thank you, M’am; but no thank you.” That was the time that Daddy taught us that it is a shame to take a handout from the government.
Yes, as I remember, Daddy was a saint. Through our eyes, he was a do-no-wrong father. He didn’t drink or smoke and wouldn’t let any of us, either. He didn’t go to the nearby Pawhatan to gamble and have a good time like many of the Blacks in Coushatta during the early sixties. And, he would not allow us to go the bar rooms. Even, when we were in our thirties, he warned us to stay away. I was thirty-five, married and with children when Daddy last warned me that he had better not see my car parked at the Blue Light Inn again. Maybe that’s why I was so hurt, so shocked, and so shattered when I learned – while I was writing a tribute to Daddy for his funeral program– that he had fathered a child with our next door neighbor, my mother’s friend.
Like a surrogate acting as God’s handmaiden, I brought him forth, not created him but carried him for nine months, labored with him for 12 hours, had my stomach ripped and laced again. I nurse him, fed him, diapered him, washed his snot and tears, and even doctored him. I saw him off to day care, off to kindergarten, off to grade school, off to high school; I even carried him off to college. For thirty years, I rushed first to summer camps, to little league games, to junior high football, to varsity football, and off to university plays.
Lately, I noticed that our relationship has flip-flopped. I no longer drive him; he drives me. I no longer urge him to be careful, he cautions me to look out. Our lives have come full circle; for I now am the child.