فصل 04

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Chapter four

Momma

“You shall not be dirty” and “You shall not be impudent” were the two commandments of Grandmother Henderson by which we lived.

Each night in the bitterest winter we were forced to wash faces, arms, necks, legs, and feet before going to bed. We would go to the well and wash in the ice-cold, clear water, grease our legs, then walk carefully into the house. We wiped the dust from our toes and settled down for schoolwork, cornbread, milk, prayers, and bed, always in that order. Momma was famous for pulling the blankets off after we had fallen asleep to examine our feet. If they weren’t clean enough for her, she took the stick (she kept one behind the door for emergencies) and woke up the offender with a few well-placed burning reminders. She made sure we learned the importance of cleanliness.

Politeness was also important. The impudent child was hated by God and a shame to its parents and could bring ruin to its house and family. All adults had to be addressed as Mister, Missus, or Miss. Everyone I knew respected these customary laws, except for the poor-white-trash children.

Some families of “poor white trash” lived on Momma’s farm land behind the school. Sometimes a group of them came to the Store. They called my uncle by his first name and ordered him around the Store. He, to my shame, obeyed them.

My grandmother, too, followed their orders, except that she didn’t seem like a servant because she anticipated their needs.

“Here’s sugar, Miss Potter, and here’s baking powder. You didn’t buy baking soda last month, you’ll probably be needing some.”

Momma always directed her statements to the adults, but sometimes the dirty girls would answer her.

“No, Annie…” they said. To Momma, who owned the land they lived on? Who forgot more than they would ever learn? “Just give us some extra crackers, and some more fish.”

At least they never looked her in the face, or I never caught them doing so. Nobody with any training at all would look right in a grown person’s face. It meant the person was trying to take the words out before they were formed. The dirty little children didn’t do that, but they threw their orders around the Store like strikes of a whip.

When I was around ten years old, those children caused me the most painful and confusing experience I had ever had with my grandmother.

One summer morning, after I had swept the dirt yard of leaves, gum wrappers, and Vienna-sausage can labels, I swept the yellow dirt, and made half-moons carefully, so that the design was clear. Then I went behind the Store, came through the back of the house, and found Grandmother on the front porch in her big, white apron. Momma was admiring the yard, so I joined her. She didn’t say anything, but I knew she liked it. She looked over toward the school principal’s house and to the right at Mr. McElroy’s. She was hoping one of those important people would see the design before the day’s business wiped it out. Then she looked upward to the school. My head had swung with hers, so at just about the same time we saw a group of poor-white-trash kids marching over the hill and down by the side of the school.

I looked at Momma for direction. She stood straight and began to sing quietly. She didn’t look at me again. When the children reached halfway down the hill, halfway to the Store, she said without turning, “Sister, go on inside.”

I wanted to beg her, “Momma, don’t wait for them. Come on inside with me. If they come in the Store, you go to the bedroom and let me serve them. They only frighten me if you’re around. Alone, I know how to handle them.” But of course I couldn’t say anything, so I went in and stood behind the screen door.

Before the girls got to the porch I heard their laughter. I suppose my life-long distrust was born in those cold, slow minutes. They finally came to stand on the ground in front of Momma. One of them folded her arms, pushed out her mouth, and started to sing quietly. I realized that she was imitating my grandmother. Another said, “No, Helen, you ain’t standing like her. This is it.” Then she lifted her chest and folded her arms, copying that strange way of standing that was Annie Henderson. Another laughed, “No, you can’t do it. Your mouth ain’t pushed out enough. It’s like this.”

I thought about the rifle behind the door, but I knew I’d never be able to hold it straight, and our other gun was locked in the trunk, and Uncle Willie had the key on his chain. Through the screen door, I could see that the arms of Momma’s apron shook with her singing. But her knees seemed to have locked as if they would never bend again.

She sang on. No louder than before, but no softer either. No slower or faster.

The girls had tired of imitating Momma and turned to other ways to make her respond. One crossed her eyes, stuck her thumbs in both sides of her mouth, and said, “Look here, Annie.” Grandmother sang on, and the apron strings trembled. I wanted to throw a handful of black pepper in their faces, to scream that they were dirty, but I knew I couldn’t do anything.

One of the smaller girls did a kind of dance while the others laughed at her. But the tall one, who was almost a woman, said something very quietly, which I couldn’t hear. They all moved backward from the porch, still watching Momma. For an awful second I thought they were going to throw a rock at Momma, who seemed (except for the apron strings) to have turned into stone herself. But the big girl turned her back, bent down, and put her hands flat on the ground. She didn’t pick up anything- she just did a handstand.

Her dirty bare feet and long legs went straight for the sky. Her dress fell down around her shoulders, and she had on no underpants. She hung like that for only a few seconds, then fell.

Momma changed her song to a religious song. I found that I was praying too. How long could Momma continue? What would they think of to do to her next? Would I be able to stay out of it? What would Momma really like me to do?

Then they were moving out of the yard, on their way to town. They nodded their heads and shook their thin behinds and turned, one at a time.

“Bye, Annie.”

“Bye, Annie.”

“Bye, Annie.”

Momma never turned her head or unfolded her arms, but she stopped singing and said, “Bye, Miss Helen, bye, Miss Ruth, bye, Miss Eloise.”

I burst. How could Momma call them Miss? The mean nasty things. Why couldn’t she have come inside the sweet, cool store when we saw them coming over the hill? What did she prove? And then, if they were dirty, mean, and impudent, why did Momma have to call them Miss?

She stood there for another whole song and then opened the screen door to look down on me crying in anger. She looked until I looked up. Her face was a brown moon that shone on me. She was beautiful. Something had happened out there, which I couldn’t completely understand, but I could see that she was happy. Then she bent down and touched me, and I grew quiet.

“Go wash your face, Sister.” And she went behind the candy counter and sang, “Glory, glory, praise the Lord.”

I threw the well water on my face and used the weekly handkerchief to blow my nose. Whatever the contest had been, I knew Momma had won.

I went back to the front yard. The footprints were easy to sweep away. I worked for a long time on my new design. When I came back in the Store, I took Mommas hand and we both walked outside to look at the new pattern.

It was a large heart with lots of hearts growing smaller inside, and going from the outside edge to the smallest heart was an arrow. Momma said, “Sister, that’s very pretty.” Then she turned back to the Store and continued, “Glory, glory, praise the Lord, when I lay my burden down.”

People spoke of Momma as a good-looking woman, and some, who remembered her youth, said she used to be very pretty. I saw only her power and strength. She was taller than any woman in my personal world, and her hands were so large they could reach around my head from ear to ear. Her voice was soft only because she chose to keep it so. In church, when she was asked to lead the singing, the sound would pour over the listeners and fill the air.

Momma intended to teach Bailey and me to use the paths of life that she and people of her age and all the Negroes gone before had found, and found to be safe ones. She didn’t agree with the idea that whitefolks could be talked to at all without risking one’s life. And certainly they couldn’t be spoken to impudently. In fact, even in their absence they could not be spoken of too badly unless we used the reference “They.” If she had been asked and had chosen to answer the question of whether she was cowardly or not, she would have said that she believed in reality. Didn’t she stand up to “them” year after year? Wasn’t she the only Negro woman in Stamps referred to once as Mrs.?

Some years before Bailey and I arrived in town, a man was hunted for assaulting a white woman. In trying to escape he ran to the Store. Momma and Uncle Willie hid him behind the dresser until night, gave him supplies for an overland journey, and sent him on his way. He was, however, caught, and in court when he was questioned about his movements on the day of the crime, he replied that after he heard that he was being sought he hid in Mrs. Henderson’s Store.

The judge asked that Mrs. Henderson appear in court, and when Momma arrived and said she was Mrs. Henderson, the judge and other whites in the audience laughed. The judge had really made a mistake calling a Negro woman “Mrs,” but he was from Pine Bluff and couldn’t have been expected to know that a woman who owned a store in the village would also be colored. The whites laughed about the incident for a long time, and the Negroes thought it proved the worth and honor of my grandmother.

People in Stamps used to say that the whites in our town were so prejudiced that a Negro couldn’t buy white ice cream. Except on July Fourth. Other days he had to be satisfied with chocolate.

A curtain had been drawn between the Black community and all things white, but one could see through it enough to develop fear, admiration, and contempt for the white “things”-whitefolks’ cars and white houses and their children and their women. But above all, their wealth that allowed them to waste was the most enviable. They had so many clothes that they were able to give away perfectly good dresses, faded just under the arms, to the sewing class at our school for the larger girls to practice on.

I couldn’t understand whites and where they got the right to spend money so freely. Of course, I knew God was white too, but no one could have made me believe he was prejudiced. My grandmother had more money than all the poor white trash. We owned land and houses, but each day Bailey and I were reminded, “Waste not, want not.”

Momma bought two rolls of cloth each year for winter and summer clothes. She made my school dresses and handkerchiefs, Bailey’s shirts and shorts, her aprons and house dresses from these. Uncle Willie was the only person in the family who wore ready- to-wear clothes all the time. Each day he wore fresh white shirts, and his special shoes cost twenty dollars. I thought Uncle Willie was sinfully proud, especially when I had to iron seven shirts.

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