Willie and Cap

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.

Willie

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.

* * * *

Cap

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.

Amen.

20 thoughts on “Willie and Cap

  1. Kim G

    Quite a retrospective of a very different time and place. Thanks.

    Hope you and Lady Z had a wonderful vacation. I certainly enjoyed my own time in Mexico.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where it’s finally about to get cold.

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    1. Felipe Zapata Post author

      Kim: We just got home last night. I was pleasantly surprised at the mildness of the temperature. One January there we woke up some mornings as icebergs.

      Colder here where I am now, but here we are better equipped.

      Yes, the rural Southland was a very different time and place indeed.

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  2. Carole

    Also born in ’44. My mother’s family came West from Alabammy. They wound up in TX where lots of ‘em are buried. I can tell a similar tale to yours of the acceptance, but not quite, of the Negros employed by the family and my confusion about where the bright line of distinction was drawn between them and us. When I asked about their skin color, things such as “Don’t say anything, it will hurt their feelings” was the answer. Sure didn’t want to do that.

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    1. Felipe Zapata Post author

      Carole: Didn’t want to hurt their feelings. That’s a good one. Looking back on it all now, I understand why Cap stayed half looped most of the time, and rarely said a word. I wonder what he was really like.

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    2. BeckyC

      Carole, my mom was born in ’34 in Eden, TX , and her family later migrated east to Alabama, ha!

      I was born and raised in small-town central Alabama. I grew up like you, Felipe, where white folk were quite often rubbing elbows with black folk–not as equals, no, but not with dogs and water hoses, either. I believe I was in the 6th grade when our schools were integrated. There were a few little skirmishes in the high school, but nothing big.

      But, my children have grown up completely integrated–they’ve never known anything else. My husband coached league baseball, first the older son and then younger son, so we’ve spent many hours with black kids, not to mention picking them up and driving them home from almost every practice or game (and yes, “home” was usually grandmom’s house). Heck, one of those boys was with me so much, I would refer to him as my “black child.”

      The thing that ticks me off, though, is that the Yanks still refer to US as the racists!

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      1. Felipe Zapata Post author

        Becky: You and I both know that racism in the U.S. these days is more of a problem up north than it is in the south.

        But racism is necessary because how would left-wingers end an argument they are losing without that verbal cudgel?

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  3. Carole

    Izanetta Tasby was the housekeeper until my grandmother died. She was always very nice but distant. She continued to work for an uncle until she died.

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    1. Felipe Zapata Post author

      Carole: Izanetta Tasby. Well, there’s a name for you. Willie was not distant in the slightest. It was almost as if she totally was not aware of the life the Goddess had tossed her way.

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  4. tancho

    Great chronicle. Too bad there could not have been a disconnect of sorts, where one new generation would let go of the distant baggage and start fresh without previous conflicts, prejudices and stereotypes.

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  5. Jackie Martinez

    Interesting post, Felipe. Made me think about my own upbringing. I was born in Chicago in 1951. All I saw were white people until we moved to California. My mother was shocked and very unhappy to see black kids in my school. I guess that’s when I started to learn what the word prejudice meant.

    When I married my husband, my mother’s comment to me was at least he’s not that dark. But then my husband’s family wasn’t too happy about me either.

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  6. Jan Smith

    Nice post, Felipe. I don’t know why the segregated cemeteries were left abandoned or not kept up. It is the same problem here in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. I’m not sure if these cemeteries are public or private but sad they haven’t been tended to. I don’t think these cemeteries are still being used. RIP Willie and Cap. You still live on in one man’s heart.

    Jan in Mississippi

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    1. Felipe Zapata Post author

      Jan: Unlike most cemeteries, the one in question here did not seem to be associated with a church. It is not near one. I would guess the black community was responsible for the one I saw, but who knows? I drove by it for decades and did not even know it was there just off the road. My mother directed me to it.

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  7. Francisco

    Excellent post, Señor Zapata. Although I was born and raised in Dearborn, Mich., which bordered Detroit, there were no African-Americans living in our city. Many worked in the factories.

    My parents were first-generation Americans, and I never, ever, heard them utter a racial slur in my whole life. I think being on the receiving end gave them a different perspective than most of our neighbors. My dad’s words on the subject were “Never think you are better or worse than anyone because of your skin color.”

    Saludos,
    Francisco

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