Which South?

(Guest Post by the Spouse)

Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King is a must-read–a disturbing but gripping non-fiction account of a series of horrific racial injustices (among many) that took place in central Florida in the 1940’s and 50’s. It also catalogs the work that Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP did in trying to remedy them. The book resonates deeply with me because I once lived in Gainesville, Florida, some 70 miles north of the incidents in the book. Furthermore, my aunt and uncle and three cousins lived within 2-5 miles of the occurrences. Until reading this book, I was completely unaware of these dreadful events. I was a child at the time they occurred, but never heard of them as I grew older. The book makes me ashamed of my southern roots.

But there is another South counterpoised to that one. This is a South that I like to remember–a South that is epitomized by my maternal grandmother. We called her “Mom.” Mom lived in a postage-stamp-sized town in Alabama called Ashland. Small though it was, it was the county seat of Clay County, complete with an antique courthouse centered in what was euphemistically called “downtown.”

My most vivid childhood memories of Mom are linked to warm summer days in Ashland when my sister and I would most often come to visit. My grandfather was a livestock trader and managed always to have a horse in between trades when we arrived. My sister became quite a horsewoman as a result. I, on the other hand, was too small and besides, I was afraid of those big beasts. So while my sister went riding, I had those lazy summer mornings alone. I often spent them doing nothing in Mom’s front yard. In her front yard was the first time I investigated the mysteries of green moss. Out in front was also a set of mysterious concrete steps that lead down to the curb and stopped. I often puzzled over the existence of those steps leading nowhere. But I used to sit on them and watch the Ashland of seventy years ago go by. Somebody on horseback or in a mule-drawn wagon might come along – quite a spectacle for a little girl coming from a northern city. Often when people would come to visit Mom, they would drive their cars – or more usually their trucks – right up onto the front yard. Sometimes it seemed their vehicles would go right up onto her wrap-around front porch.

You could crawl under Mom’s front porch and under her house, too, if you dared. One day somebody drove up in one of those pick-up trucks, crawled under the porch and killed a snake. Much of the exotic trivia of my youth comes from Ashland.

Mom was a staunch Baptist, and the First Baptist Church of Ashland was right across the street from her house. Because of Mom’s love and concern for her church, it isn’t surprising that many of my Ashland memories are of that church. Sometimes on those long summer days I would go across the street to the old church building and play the piano. I was about ten or eleven then and not a very good piano player, but the church was naturally cool on hot summer days, and I would play “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” and sing along.

And on Sundays, we’d go to church wearing white elastic mesh gloves, black patent-leather shoes, and crinolines that we had brought along for the occasion. I had a little straw hat with daisies around the brim that I thought was quite fetching. And I would sing the hymns and, before air conditioning, examine carefully the peaceful scenes on the hand-held fans.

Late on those summer afternoons we would come home to Mom’s from a day at the swimming pool or an afternoon at the twenty-five-cent movie (air conditioned!), and Mom would be there feeding the chickens or bustling around the kitchen making fried chicken, biscuits, lemon meringue pie. Mom’s lemon meringue pie! She kept on making it until she was in her 80’s because she knew we loved it so. And then we’d have the chicken and the biscuits and sip pink lemonade through silver straws that my father had brought from Mexico.

I remember the warm – no, hot – summer nights. Mom’s magic porch held a magic bench swing. We would sit out there on that swing and do nothing. Tell ghost stories maybe. Play jacks by the light of the door. When my sister got older, boys would come by.

Mom was like those warm summer nights: tranquil, accepting, at peace. Mom had a rare capacity for acceptance. She never railed against the fates, even when she lost a brother to typhus, a son to war (see ajsdad.blog, November 11, 2020), and then a husband to cancer. She accepted what life in God’s wisdom had offered her. I know that she didn’t always approve of what we did or how we ran our lives. But she never criticized. She accepted us and loved us for what we gave and what we were. She never rejected us for what we didn’t give or what we weren’t.

Mom knew and was disturbed by the treatment of Blacks in her town. She knew that their schools were inferior, that Blacks were not welcomed into her church, that they had segregated seating upstairs in the movie theater, that their swimming pool was a clay-contaminated water hole in a culvert, that they lived under oppressive Jim Crow “laws.” She was horrified by Alabama’s Governor George Wallace and his segregationist vitriol. To offset some of these injustices, she went out of her way to treat black people whom she encountered in Ashland with dignity and respect. In 1950’s Ashland, that was more than others did.

I sort of lost touch with Mom as I busied through college and graduate school. After my grandfather died, she was always part of my life, always part of my Christmas, always part of my school vacations, but I was too busy to notice. And then I finally grew up and married and was fortunate enough to marry a man who realized, and helped me realize again, the treasure that our family had living with us, sitting quietly in her room reading. It was Mom in her 80’s who knew when Henry Aaron was trying to beat Babe Ruth’s home-run record. Mom who read Oliver Twist before we went to see the movie. Mom who read things that would dismay or rattle a less accepting human being. Mom who read all of the richness and brutality of life, took it in, and accepted it for its window to the world.

After she died, I was going through her papers and found a quotation she had cut out of the newspaper. I see why she cut it out. It’s the way she lived her life: “I still find each day too short for all the thoughts I want to think, all the walks I want to take, all the books I want to read, and all the friends I want to see. The longer I live the more my mind dwells upon the beauty and the wonder of the world.”

Mom gave to my life a living model of peace in a hectic and brutish world. She believed in and lived in “the peace of God that passeth all understanding.” Her legacy to me was her quiet goodness and the fundamental decency of her life. I cherish her memory for being a calm and loving presence in my life, and continue to wish for her all the peace and tranquility of those warm summer nights.