A House No More
I drove down my old street today and noticed a vacant lot where my childhood home used to be. It had long ago lost its right to be called home, but the sight conjured good memories and usually made me smile as I passed by. It was a simple small white house when I was growing up. I remember the small two bedrooms, one tiny bathroom, an awkward backwards z shaped kitchen and an enclosed back porch. My grandmother slept in the first room which doubled as a living room complete with love seat, couch, and recliner, and a full size bed. My older brother slept in the next room, which also had a sofa and chair, with a TV on top the dresser. I vaguely remember the window in the kitchen that became the doorway to the new back room. This is where I shared a full sized bed with my mother. There was also a metal framed twin bed where my older sister slept. Between these two beds sat a recliner. My toybox of hand me down toys and old cameras was hidden behind the recliner. A long dresser sat wedged between the heads of the beds. Above it sat the air conditioner in a window that faced the back yard. For the five of us, this was home. It is not there anymore.
At some point in these last few years, the house turned completely unapologetically green. Not a shade of or a hint of, but a full blown dare-you-to-say-something green. When it lost it’s charm_and started to show its age, it was torn down. The garden in the back was long gone. Too much plant growth surrounded and consumed it. Most people think it is too hot to be in the yard anyway. They are certainly not about to kill themselves trying to grow food when they can just go to the quickie mart down the street and shop in air conditioned comfort. Who needs a garden? It is not there anymore either.
In the 1960s, my grandmother decided to move to Shreveport. More opportunities, for work, for school. For her and her family. A tattered black and white photo, taken soon after they moved, showed her holding a hoe mid-chop. Her husband stood beside her and my sister toddled in the foreground, while my brother lay peeping his bright face between Papa Levy’s long legs. The small house could be seen in the background and the land on which they stood was lumpy and hard, hardly the fertile ground it would soon become.
My grandmother, “Cutten’ Minervey” , had the power to transform things. She made hard sticky dusty clay and dirt turn into rich black soil with nourishing minerals that grew bountiful vegetables. She could transform unruly nappy headed children into properly dressed angels with combed and parted hair. She even had the power to transform drunkards into model citizens. Some times with nothing more than Listerine and a peppermint. I saw it myself one night when a young man drove his car through the intersection half a block away, up the hill in our front yard, his fender inches from my grandmother’s sleeping head. That night, she transformed faith into belief that the Lord watches over His children.
My grandmother grew up near a small village called Natchez on a plantation in the Cane River region. Back in 1932, black people were free from slavery but the question was "free to go where?” She picked cotton for a living and grew food for her family. She was most likely a share cropper, paying for her place to stay by giving a portion of the money she earned back to the landowner. She lived on Simon Cohn’s plantation. Generations of her family lived and toiled there until they died or they got lucky enough to move to the city. The city would be Natchitoches or Alexandria. Some just moved closer to the village of Natchez.
Located near the Cane River Region Lake, Natchez village is 1.1 square miles and boasts a population of 594. My cousin has been the Mayor several times through the years. She and her nine siblings were reared by my grandmother after their mother, her younger sister, died. Cutten Minervey took those children on and raised them along with her own daughter. She worked and cooked and cleaned until they were old enough to fend for themselves in Natchez. Then she set her eyes on Shreveport. But she almost didn’t move. Her daughter wanted to stay in Natchez where everything was familiar and she could raise her two kids. Papa Levy stepped in and said he could not separate mother from daughter, so either both agree to move or they all stay put. Finally an agreement was made and Cutten Minervey’s family of five moved to Shreveport.
In this metropolis, my grandmother did what most black women in the south did, house work. She wore her white dress and walked or rode the bus to her white ‘family’s’ house, where she cleaned, cooked and served according to their daily needs. She was known by her first name in the city. Everyone on the bus got excited and welcomed Mary on the Hollywood bus line. Every morning they called out to her just like a scene from Cheers. She would sashay to the back of the bus, take her seat facing the group and start entertaining with her southern drawl and popping gum. When she reached her stop, they would all call out next time. She would exit the bus by the back door then walk the rest of the way to the house where she would give another type of performance until the day’s end.
She loved her ‘family’ as much as she could and accepted or ignored the slights they made with her. Things that her children would never be allowed to do. We were taught to say Mr and Mrs to our elders. But in this white world, the children called her by her first name just like their parents did, though they all were younger than her. She kept their secrets and made the two brothers sound like the perfect angels their parents hoped they would be. I recall vicious pinches on the thigh for answering truthfully one evening when the father drove us home and he asked if the boys had behaved themselves. I quickly learned that whatever happened in that house stayed in that house, kept safely even from other members of the household. You told them what they wanted to hear, which was not always the truth. They lived the American Dream and we maintained its image.
Shreveport had an image to maintain too. It was and is called Sportsman’s Paradise. There are no worries in paradise. During the civil rights movement, Shreveport remained a calm, beautiful destination, complete with a rushing river, river boat ferries, well placed deciduous trees and tree lined streets. Crepe Myrtles lined the down town streets, with the main drag, Texas St ending at the big steepled Baptist church. What went on in the red light district behind that church, in its shadows, would not be discussed for many decades.
On a quiet street far from downtown, my family settled on this little white house in Hollywood Heights. It was on the bus route, the rent was affordable, the neighborhood was safe, and there was room to grow a garden. Simple requirements my grandmother demanded. So began a new life for Mary Beaudion.