The Summer of 1960 When I Was 7... chapter 2... the small town I lived in.
The small town that I lived in was the county seat so it had a town square with the big courthouse and clock tower sitting in the middle. The townspeople took great pride in the town with swept sidewalks and window boxes of flowers. Cars parked all around the square in front of the courthouse and they parked on the other side of the street where glass fronted stores showed their goods. Roads rolled out of town in each direction. We lived on one of the two roads that headed east. The other east road, that paralleled ours, headed to the Negro part of town. We say black now….we said “negro” or “colored” then.
We lived in a small house on the road near the very edge of town with white painted houses where the white people lived. Those two parallel roads were connected by a little dirt road, a small road caught between lives; black and white. There was only one house on that little dirt road. A colored family lived there. All that separated our house from theirs was a small, rusty, broken down wire fence and over a hundred years of inequity.
There was an entire community behind our house that was not a part of our lives. There were stores, churches, schools, homes, and hearts. A little girl named Carolyn lived in that house on the dirt road, just across the fence from me. She was my age but with chocolate colored skin and black hair, a marked difference from my fair skin and blond curls. I’d see her out playing and I’d wave. We weren’t allowed to play together. But, we did…. sometimes.
There were five in our family, my father, mother and 3 daughters. I was the middle one. Nobody called me by my real name of Marilyn. They just shortened it and called me Melly. My big sister, Marva Rose, was 10, I called her Moonrose, I was always making up names. And, my baby sister, Patty was only 4. My mother was expecting another child that summer.
My earliest memory is of my father knocking down the outhouse out back, and putting in a brand new indoor toilet. My father could fix just about anything. He built a screened-in porch on the back of the house where he put a used clothes washer that he’d gotten in exchange for a lawnmower repair. One summer Daddy put white tin siding on the house, tore out the old wood porch off the front of the house and poured a concrete porch. He asked what color we wanted and I hollered red! We got a red porch. I spent a lot of time on the porch swing rocking, swinging, happy and contented with my life.My father was a strong man. He worked hard to make a good life for us. He had worked hard all of his life. He told us many stories of when he was a boy. He had lived in an old house built from scraps from the sawmill, slabs of wood, sawed on one side, the bark still on the other. His father was a sharecropper, that means he worked another man’s land for part of the crop. My father had to drop out of school in the eighth grade to help his father grow food, cotton, and tobacco. He plowed the fields with a mule and rode it home when the long day was done. He loved working the deep, rich land but his real interest was motors and engines. He “piddled around” with lawnmower engines and considered himself a “shade tree mechanic”….self-taught. He joined the Air Force during World War II and since he was a car mechanic, his job was to help the aircraft mechanics. He was always grateful for that training that he received but he said the best thing he got from the service was my mother. They met in California while he was stationed there. He was 19 and she was16, when they got married. He brought her home to Georgia and he returned to being a small engine mechanic. Last summer when my father got laid off his job at the shop, I remember a long conversation way into the night when my parents talked about whether he should follow his dream and go to Aircraft Mechanic School. They discussed the cost as well as he would have to go to school full time and not be able to earn any money. He would also have to move away from us to live in another town for two years.
I had always thought of my mother as a fragile flower wilting in the harsh heat of the south but she had a deep strength that came from growing up on a farm. Never fully comfortable in the south, she found it difficult to understand the superstitions and long held beliefs that were part of daily lives of people in South Georgia. She ratted her hair and sprayed it with hairspray. She was smart, young and pretty, but life was not easy for her. She got two jobs to help provide for us while my father was in school. She taught herself how to type to get a job and also cleaned the health department on the weekends. When she went to work she wore earrings and her pretty dresses with her nylons. The seams running straight up the back. But at home, she wore shorts and sleeveless tops which was frowned upon by all the older ladies especially since she was pregnant. Here in the south people spoke differently, their manners were different, there were many superstitions, and the biggest difference was that there were a vast number of unwritten rules regarding how the two races were supposed to relate to each other. Everyone was expected to know these rules and to follow them. My mother had been raised in a place where there were few black people and she had not grown up with the heavy segregation and the deeply rooted society mores regarding class and race relations. And, at times, she had trouble understanding these long held southern customs.
I asked her why I couldn’t play with Carolyn, the little girl who lived behind us. She said, “It’s just not done. She has her own sisters to play with, just like you do.” I didn’t understand the dilemma that my mother had. Her own beliefs dueled with the long held beliefs and traditions of the south; one of those being that a little white girl could not play with a black girl. It just was not done. Occasionally, when my mother saw us sitting together at the fence with our heads together, I know she ignored it for a while, and then she would call me in. “Marilyn, come in. Carolyn, I think your momma’s calling you.”
To be continued…..