Mama’s mama was told girls don’t have time for school. They cook, clean,
pick cotton, marry and give birth. Daddy’s daddy was told to check white
in the race box when he enlisted. The Cherokee don’t matter anyway.
Both barely survived that glorious era, that wondrous age of WW2.
Mattie, given years before to a stranger, a sharecropper, bore her 7th
child in ’45. JD sweated out nightmares and cheap beer on the voyage
west, leaving Europe in ruin. He had a uniform, medals and papers
to prove he’d served old Uncle Sam. Surely, he could get a job somewhere.
Mattie’s 10th came into the world while Korea still smoldered. By then,
JD was drinking his dinners in North Memphis bars before walking home
to the wife and kids. About the time Vietnam set afire, Mattie’s elderly
husband fell ill. They would never own that poor patch of land farmed
for forty years. She was tired anyway, tired of her daughters asking why
the colored folks got paid for field work, but not them. She got cheap rent
in North Memphis, and doctors close by, not to mention a growing list
of sons-in-law that didn’t have to depend on hateful old cotton.
Soon after Mattie and JD became neighbors, he was publicly declared
a white man—in a chorus of riot voices as shots rang out. The streets
were turning to war, more and more. He had to get away. Black and white,
let the devil take ‘em all, he said, then headed east to McNairy where the land
sloped and sold cheap. Just a while after I came along, Mattie and JD became
neighbors again—ten country miles apart. By then, her belly was perpetually
swollen, her legs bent. She told stories about a childhood that made me cry,
and had little patience for questions. I had thousands of questions.
JD’s stooped shoulders did not straighten when he faced his grown children,
nor when he walked his own land. That time killing Germans afforded him
a small pension, and a year-round garden never quite fenced-off from
the chickens. He sang in a different language when he thought no one
was listening. I was always listening. They were my first loves, my favorite
storytellers and historical figures. Both cared enough to notice I’d do anything,
swear anything, just for them: Mattie made me promise to get good grades
and never trust a man. JD dared me to stay fearless.