Crowded with family. Food is everywhere – potato salad, friend chicken, meatloaf, green beans, etc. I walk into what is called “the den” and sit down next to my seventy-four year old Family Member. He, like his prosthetic leg, is strong as a mule. Threaten to take away his driver’s license and he’ll sue you…no lie.
Family Member: “I remember growing up out here and having to read from the old textbooks that the white kids got. Their names would be in ‘em…pages would be torn out. Oh boy, they’d be in bad shape.”
Person: “Oh yeah, I remember that, too.”
Wow, I can’t even imagine how that felt. I grew up with new and clean textbooks. No other name in ‘em besides, Lauren.
Me: “That must have been hard to deal with...I know I would have been an angry kid.”
Family Member: “Well, of course it was. I had dem white boys beating on me when I went to school all the time. And, you know, we had to sit in the back of the bus. Even if the bus had empty seats in the front. Us 'niggas' didn’t touch ‘em though.
Family Member: “But, you know what, us black folk had to be closer back then. It was family, school, and church. Now, black folks is scattered everywhere. We lost that connection.”
Person: “True, but it’s better in a lot of ways.”
Family Member: “Oh you betta believe it. I hear these people say we had it betta before. Oh, no we didn’t. I don’t miss having diarrhea and having to go 100 feet to the outhouse at 2 in the morning. I’ll tell ya that right now.”
Ew. We all laugh.
Person: “I hear ya. But, boy was that fun…even when it was segregated. We had a great little baseball team. Hand-me-downs from the white boys' teams—but it didn’t matter. We all had a great time.”
Family Member: “I'll tell ya what else I don't miss -- getting hit with those switches from my teacher. Whenever I’d get into trouble she’d have one of my classmates go get a switch in the yard. And those suckas always picked the biggest, longest, hardest one for her to hit on me with.”
We all laugh. Again. Yeah, it’s f-cked up, but it’s funny.
Family Member: “I’ll never forget it, one day the white boys were throwing rocks at us and I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t involved for once, but the teacher called us in and gave us all a whoopin’. Even when I told her I had nothing to do with it, she bent my butt ova and smacked me. But, they don’t do that anymore.”
No, they sure don’t. Geesh, I had it good in school. All I got was a ten second time out, but that usually included a soda.
Another family member we'll call Man, a quiet soul, chimes in –
Man: “I remember one white boy who would pick on me every day on the way to school with his friends. He’d always call me a nigger. One day I caught him alone and beat the dirt outta him. I pounded his face in and said, say you’re a 'nigga' and he kept saying, “no way in hell imma say that.”
Person: “Even as you beat him up he wouldn’t say it?”
Man: “Naw, he wouldn’t.
Family Member: “Wow.”
I sit there, letting his words sink in. How blessed I am to be able to walk on the streets and not be beat, hit, ridiculed, or attacked for the color of my skin. It hits me that because of what my family, ancestors, and others fought for, I am able to be where I am today.
Later, that next day, I find Person outside and run over to him; I was on a mission to learn more about my Family Member, a truly amazing man --
Me: "Hey, how did he lose his leg?"
Person begins to take the dirty sheets off his bed. Grandmommy told him to do it and, like the obedient son he is, he responded in the way he always does: "yes, ma'am."
Person: "During peace time in the military. When he was in Walter Reed Hospital getting better I would come everyday and play cards with him. For two months I did that. All day, everyday."
Gotta love my family. We know what love is all about.
Person: "And, when he finally got his prosthetic leg, they discharged him within a short amount of time. One of the first things he did with the money he received from the government was buy himself a new car."
Me: "Cool. Was it a good one?"
Person takes a break from gathering the linen and stands in the middle of the room, right underneath the fan that is spinning wildly. If he was one inch taller, his head wouldn't be lookin' so good.
Person: "Oh yeah, it ran real nice. One day he came and picked me up so we could race some rednecks down the street. He liked to speed, ya know, like me."
That's where I get that from.
Person: "So, we go down there and see this trash talkin' redneck. He says, "you ain't gonna beat me. Trust me on that one." And, sure enough, he smoked us in his fast car."
Me: "Oh no, what did ya'll do?"
Person smiles brightly, loving this moment. His hands gesturing wildly in the air. I only see him this animated when he's talking about family or women.
Person: "Well, he took himself back down to the car dealership and said, "I want the fasted thang you got here on dis lot." And, they told him, "Sir, you just this vehicle and it's fast." He yelled, "I want the fastest car you got. Right now." Sure enough, he traded that one in and got himself a new car."
Me: "What kinda car was it?"
Person: "A Chevy 396."
I have no idea what that looks like, but I write it in my phone to save the name.
Me: "Did ya'll go back?"
Dad smiles even more, a prideful look on his face.
Person: "Oh yeah, and we smoked that redneck...bad. That thang was fast. One day we were going over 120 MPH and zoomed past a cop. He pulled us over--a young white dude (picture Smokey and the Bandits) -- and said, "you see this here gray hair I got? If ya'll keep speeding like that you won't have any of this."
I laugh, not really getting what the cop meant.
Me: "Did you get a ticket?"
Person: "Naw. He just said, "my radar ain't pick ya'll up, so you betta get going on outta here." And, sure enough, we left before you could say Hillbilly."
I laugh even harder, loving this moment. Kinfolk and memories. Gotta love it.
As you get older, these moments become easy and breezy. You find that adults in the family begin to open up and talk about things you never discussed as a kid. And ya know what --
It's freakin' great...if ya listen.
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