Growing Up Country
My family lived in the small village of Natchez, Louisiana, on Cane River. At the corner of Highway 1 and Main St, three white crosses sit next to the railroad track, marking the place where three of our cousins died. At the foot of the bridge, Morning Star Baptist Church guards the entrance to the Village. An old brick church where most of us were christened, Morning Star also guarded the cemetery where most of my ancestors were laid to rest.
My grandmother grew up near this small village in the country. Farmland and dirt trails. She picked cotton for a living. She kept a small garden for her own family. Her mother’s name was Viola but they called her Shang. My grandmother was called Minervy.
She was a tough, scrappy woman, who worked hard and loved harder. She raised one daughter. When her younger sister died, leaving 12 children, she raised them too. She was resourceful and crafty. She made clothes for her children, grew and preserved their food, and could make a meal out of anything. She was stern and just, wielding a switch with masterful strokes to fit the crime. She was loving and playful, speaking broken French and dancing with a quick step. She had an easy smile and a steady look.
My grandmother worked hard and worried about the kind of life her daughter and two young grandchildren would have in such a small place. She decided to move somewhere they would have a chance at a good education and job opportunities. A few years after my grandmother, mother, brother, and sister had been living in Shreveport, I came along.
The kitchen was my grandma’s domain. She ruled the kitchen with a creative and stern, nurturing hand. This was where she taught me how to scald tomatoes for freezing, how to mix jello with fruit and nuts, and how to quickly mold rice krispy treats. This was where she let me peel the biscuits from the can and place them in the sugary mix for the peach or berry cobbler. This was where she taught me to make sweet iced tea, adding a few ice cubes to melt and form those delightful pockets of hot and cold sensations. This was where she cooked Sunday Dinner, humming gospel songs and “Old 100’s” early in the morning.
I spent most of my leisure time reading and playing in the back yard or helping in our garden. My job was to pick up the weeds piled on the turnrow, place them in a galvanized bucket, and carry that bucket to be dumped in the ‘pile’, a large compost pile in the corner of the yard. This was a constant task I repeated for several hours until the sun started to set, then my grandma would send me into the house to bathe and watch TV until supper was ready. I’d put on my jammies and sit on the foot of the bed, at the dinner table, re-enacting Wonder Woman’s moves.
When my grandma came in, she’d prepare a quick meal for all of us, and we’d gather at the table, say grace and eat.
I was taught to always tell the truth no matter what. Being the youngest child, my playmate was often the dog. I loved playing in the yard, running figure 8’s around the two green patches of grass that broke up the monotony of tan dirt. One day I was enjoying a riotous race around the yard chased by the dog, amidst containers of flowers grouped around the old tree stump and hanging from the swing frame. The dog, an aging German shepherd, cut too close and over turned a square barbeque pit full of moss roses and petunias.
I carefully righted the pit and restored as much soil as possible. Then I sadly walked the length of the yard, up the concrete stairs, through the back porch, into the kitchen and stood there bracing myself and praying for courage. My grandma turned and noticed me standing there, probably covered in telltale dirt. She put her hand on her hip and waited. I finally burst into tears and mumbled my confession. “The dog knocked over your plant, but I tried to fix it.” She looked down at me a moment longer, before grabbing my shoulder to move me out of the way. She marched out to see the damage.
I came and stood on the top step, the screen door holding me up. I could see the pile of dirt on the ground at the foot of the tree stump, the BBQ pit sitting upright with lumps of soil and flowers arranged haphazardly in it. My grandma shook her head at the mess I’d made and tried to replace the flowers so the roots would survive.
Once she’d made it look a little more presentable until she could fully attend to it, she turned and walked back toward me. She told me to tell the truth. “You knocked over those flowers, didn’t you? And tried to blame it on the dog.” “No ma’am.” She looked at me with disapproving eyes. She even tried to negotiate. “If you tell the truth, I won’t whip you.”
I contemplated this new offer. If I told her what she wanted to hear, then I wouldn’t get a whippin’. But I would be lying to her. If I continued to tell the truth, then I’d still get a whippin’. That was a tough decision. Truth persevered. I denied this theory and reiterated the chain of events. She looked at me and finally resigned herself that I was either a crazy kid or else I was telling the truth. She came back into the house, walked past me, went to the kitchen and resumed doing whatever she was doing before I interrupted her. I realized I had dodged a bullet that day. Though I grew up in the city, I was raised with strong country morals that have guided me safely to this day.