Commentary by William Carter: Mama recalls tales from Georgia summers past
By William Carter, columnist
“It was me and your Aunt Lila Ruth and Mama and Daddy and Aunt Aggie and Daddy Sewell all in those four little rooms,” Mama says, describing life as a five-year-old girl living poor in that old shotgun-type house outside the city limits of the tiny south Georgia town where I was born twenty-something years later.
She’s reclined in her easy chair, dressed in her robe and ready for bed, flicking the cardboard fan from Hancock Funeral Home with one hand and sipping from a glass of iced tea with the other as me and my brother lean forward in our seats across the room from her, hanging on to her every word.
A box fan, aimed her way, hums on the floor while another fan, oscillating, stands duty beside the sofa and whispers the promise of intermittent relief from the deep southern Georgia summertime with every turn of its head.
Mama doesn’t use air conditioning.
Sound-tracked by the strident call of cicadas, humid night seeps through the screen door and perfumes the room with the smells of day-old heat, damp earth and cut grass, crepe myrtle and the honeysuckle draping the fence across the road from Mama’s house.
We’d buried one of our own that day—Aunt Lila Ruth’s husband, Mama’s brother-in-law, my Uncle Billy. We were sapped of all the strength saying goodbye requires and Mama was tired and spent from sharing her sister’s grief but not so tired as to deny my brother and me the stories that should be told on days like this day, stories that keep alive those times that should never, ever, die.
“Mama used to work at Mr. Dennis Turner’s grocery store and came home one day with a paper sack full of Popsicles and a cardboard tub of vanilla ice cream,” she says, settling in and almost visibly time-traveling back to seventy years before. “And I remember me and Lila Ruth thinking ‘Good Lord! We must be the richest people in the world! Where did Mama ever get so much money?’ and she’d open that freezer up on Saturday afternoons and let us pick something out. And the best part was when she’d lift that lid and the cold air would hit our faces, and it was like Heaven.”
Mama closes her eyes and smiles the smile of the richest five-year-old girl in the world re-living Heaven made real by the taste of a cherry Popsicle and the kiss of cold upon her cheek.
“Sometimes,” Mama told us, “Aunt Aggie would let me help her fluff up her feather mattress in the morning and we’d knead and knead those feathers toward the center until it was perfect and Aunt Aggie would put the quilt on and tuck it in and all I wanted to do was jump in the middle of it, but knew I’d get a whippin’. So I never did, but I still wanted to so bad.”
My brother and I share a glance and shake our heads, enamored by Mama’s memories.
During the week, Mama and Aunt Lila Ruth were expected to work like everybody else and walked side-by-side down the rows of cotton that stretched for acres in every direction from that shotgun house, filling the bags they trailed behind them with cotton bolls picked with their five and eight-year-old little girl hands. On Saturday mornings, Daddy Sewell, Mama’s granddaddy, set up a table in the yard in front of their house, stacked with ones and fives and tens and nickels and dimes and quarters. It was in front of this table that the workers would line up to get paid for the cotton they’d picked the week before.
“It looked like there was a million dollars piled up on that table,” Mama says, “and Daddy Sewell wouldn’t even give me a nickel!”
Later in the day though, Daddy Sewell would splurge on the mud pies adorned with china-berries and bird feathers Mama and Aunt Lila Ruth made for him, and they—the richest girls in the world—would walk to the store with a nickel in their pockets.
The funeral home fan in her hand stills and Mama goes silent, away in a time and place only she could visit.
“I am worn out!” she exclaims after a moment and, with visible effort, rises from her chair.
She gives me and my brother a hug and asks if we need anything and tells us there is food in the kitchen and that we should eat the caramel cake and finish the cornbread and then she goes, slowly, off to bed.
My brother heads upstairs and I am left alone to stretch out on the couch.
The fan whispers and night seeps through the screen.
Good night, Mama.
William Carter is a longtime Franklin city employee and published author.
Posted on: 9/11/2013