I was born in 1944. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo were still alive. I did not care, however. I was interested only in getting my fingers and toes into my mouth.
Generals Lee, Grant, Forrest and Sherman were dead, but flesh was still on their conflicted bones.
Though I sprung forth in Atlanta, our family moved soon after to the red dirt of southwest Georgia where my mama’s parents had a big farm.
We stayed there in the rural Deep South for almost seven years while my father tried to become a writer.
When I was born, the Civil War had ended less than 80 years before. When my father was born, the war was only 50 years gone, and quite a few people from 1865 were still milling about.
My father did not care for Yankees. And my mother wasn’t overly fond of them either. General Sherman left some very pissed-off people in Georgia, and the mood lasted for generations.
When we did leave the farm, in 1950, we didn’t go far, just 180 miles southeast to Jacksonville, Florida, and we frequently returned to Georgia in our Plymouth four-door sedan with tail fins.
My mother was an only child, very tight with her parents.
The rural south in mid-century was hidebound, especially where it concerned race relations. I grew up in a strange environment in many ways. There was the broad, segregated Southern world around me, and then there were my parents.
Though they weren’t too keen on Yankees, they were rare ultra-liberals in that long-ago Confederate countryside. Pro-union, pro-FDR, pro-New Deal, pro-Harry Truman, “progressive,” irreligious, pro-civil rights and socialist.
Not a segregationist bone in either of them, though the same could not be said about mama’s parents who loved “their Negroes” like family but would have been horrified at the thought of a relative marrying one.
Horrified, I tell you. I asked Granny once.
Better to have her daughter dead than marry a Nigra. She said that.
I never heard my grandparents say the word nigger, not once. They were either Negroes or Nigras, which was a common compromise term.
Black and African-American had not been invented yet even though Negro is simply Spanish for black.
Once when I was about 10, my father misunderstood something I said, thinking he heard the word nigger coming out of my mouth. He slapped me so hard across the face I remember it to this day.
I have never said nigger in my life, and I believe this is the first time I have even written it. Makes you squirm, doesn’t it? Interesting phenomenon. But it’s said daily in the ghetto both in anger and in love.
Though Southern rural blacks were not slaves in mid-century, I doubt they lived much different than they had lived before Lincoln liberated them.
* * * *
As mentioned above, my grandparents had “their Negroes,” and the two principal ones were Willie and Cap with whom I grew up. The rest were farmhands.
Willie was the housekeeper and cook, and Cap was the gardener and handyman.
He was often mildly but quietly drunk. Cap rarely said anything at all.
They lived as man and wife, but never actually made it legal. They had no children.
They lived free in a falling-down shack up the dirt road. The owners of the shack were my grandparents. Willie and Cap ate at our farmhouse, also free.
For breakfast, they would eat in the farmhouse kitchen after we had eaten. For lunch, the routine was repeated. They had their evening meal in the shack.
They never ate directly with us at the farmhouse table because that was not done in those distant days.
Even so, I loved Willie, and was delighted to see her on every visit. She was very outgoing and seemed equally pleased to see us arrive for our frequent stays. Cap had only one expression.
They likely got a small, weekly allowance instead of an actual salary.
If Granny had to drive Cap into town on an errand, he sat in the backseat of the Ford even though nobody was sitting on the passenger side in the front. It was like buses. They sat in the rear.
Willie and Cap were a presence throughout my entire youth. They were like family, though Cap was like a quiet uncle with a half pint in his hip pocket and who rarely stepped into the house.
In the early 1960s, Granny (a widow by then) built a far better home for Willie and Cap that was kitty-cornered across the dirt road from the farmhouse.
It was a simple, well-built, wood-plank edifice, but it must have seemed a palace to Willie and Cap.
When Granny died in the mid-1960s, my parents moved to the farm. Willie died not long after and, a few years later, my father found Cap sprawled dead on the bathroom floor of that simple, wood-plank home across the dirt road, which was paved by then.
* * * *
This is their only memorial, such as it is, likely the sole remaining record of their existence in the red clay of long-ago backwoods Georgia, which is the only place they ever walked here on God’s troubled Earth.
The “Negro cemetery” where they are buried is long abandoned. I stopped by there in the 1990s and paced through the pine forest, pushing aside high weeds, brush and black-widow webs, hunting their graves.
I found nothing of them. Just a few overturned stones with other names.
In a righteous Heaven, Willie is well supplied with the grits, butter and red-eye gravy she loved.
And Cap’s bottle of Jim Beam is a fountain that never stops flowing.