When I was little, my Grandma Cora took me on the train from California to Greenville, Texas, to spend the summer with her sister, Mary. I don’t know how many days we spent on that train, but I celebrated my fifth birthday during the journey. For the entire trip I wore a red-and-white polka dot dress with a white pinafore, white anklet socks, and white Mary Janes. There was not much for me to do on the train, so I spent most of my time running up and down the aisle and looking out the window at the passing scenery. Once I tried to go into another car and was sternly reprimanded by Grandma Cora to stay where I was. I had no idea that the train was segregated.
Once we arrived in Greenville, I was fascinated by the amount of land my great aunt and her husband, George, had and by the cows and chickens in the yard. There was a little boy my age next door, and we became fast friends. Mary and George had no children of their own, and I was happy to be treated like an only child since I had to share my parent’s attention with my sister at home. I had a special stool in the kitchen to help me reach the sink and the high shelves of the icebox. With all of these advantages, I was thinking this Texas thing was going to be okay.
Under my great aunt’s patient tutelage I learned how to milk cows and churn butter. I perfected the science of picking and canning peaches, plums, pears, and figs. I survived being caught outside during a Texas sand storm with my newfound friend, and we were given a bath in a big metal tub in the yard to remove the grayish-brown sand that stuck to every inch of our little bodies. I spread footprints in the dusty soil, scraped my knees while climbing fences, and yelled and sang at the top of my voice. I was in my element.
One day Great Aunt Mary went into the yard to get us a chicken for dinner. She picked one up by its feet and twirled it around a couple of times to break its neck. Then she brought it into the kitchen where a pot of boiling water was sitting on the stove and showed me how to dip it in to remove the feathers. I was in awe of this process and so the next day, I went into the yard and proceeded to wring chickens’ necks until she saw what I was doing and ran out to stop me. Dead chickens surrounded me. I’d say about ten in all. Great Aunt Mary did not fuss or punish me. Instead she spoke gently to me in that jasmine-laced soft voice of hers and calmly helped me clean all of the chickens and put them away in the icebox. For most of the rest of my visit, while everyone else had steak, ham, or fish for dinner, I was served chicken until I ate at least a good portion of the ones I had killed. Stewed, fried, baked, broiled, barbequed, roasted, and smothered—I learned all the ways to cook a chicken. Sometimes my Great Uncle George, feeling sorry for me, would eat some of it. When I returned home to California three months later, I had a southern accent and had removed chicken from my diet. I kept the accent and did not eat chicken again until I became a teenager, but I learned at the age of five that major actions could have major consequences.
In spite of the chicken fiasco, my close and enduring relationship with Great Aunt Mary was solidified during that summer visit. One of the things that bound us was our mutual love for my mother, but there was something else, the lesson about survival she taught me about being a Black woman in the South during the 1950s. From her I learned how to overcome obstacles and maneuver through life when the playing field is not level.
Many times during my visit, I accompanied Great Aunt Mary to the rich white lady’s house where she did what she called “day work.” She referred to her employer as “Miss Anne.” Armed with coloring books or a toy, I was relegated to the kitchen, where I would stay until my aunt’s duties were completed. Since I was only five, I did not fully grasp why I had to stay in the kitchen. But the kitchen was huge with all its white cabinets with gold piping and a black and white checkerboard floor perfect for hopscotch, yoyo, checkers, or jacks.
I never saw “Miss Anne” during the times I played in her kitchen that summer. I would hear her voice every now and then, so I just assumed from her soft-spoken southern dialect that she looked like one of the older white women I had seen on the black-and-white television. I imagined her as someone who padded around her big house giving orders to her black maid while wearing a floating dressing gown that she never took off.
Sometimes Great Aunt Mary would come into the kitchen and announce that she was done for the day, her arms full of old clothing “Miss Anne” had given to her. At “Miss Anne’s” urging from the other side of the closed kitchen door, my aunt scooped up leftover food from the large table that doubled as part of my expansive playground. We would then leave the house through the back door that was our designated entrance and exit, and take a leisurely walk to the nearby bus stop. There my aunt would have conversations with other day workers who also carried something or other given to them by their “Miss Annes.” Once the bus arrived we would climb aboard and ride several blocks to my aunt’s car.
When we got off the bus, my aunt’s pace would quicken and she’d tell me not to tarry. Arriving at the car, she would glance over her shoulder as she opened the passenger door for me. I’d put my hands on the seat and lift myself onto the hot cloth as fast as I could. She would then put the food and the old clothes into the trunk, scanning the block the entire time. Taking one last glance over her shoulder, she would drive to the Salvation Army store where she’d drop off the clothes and throw the food into the nearest garbage can.
At some point during these times, I asked my aunt why we hid the car and why we did not keep the clothes. I did not ask her about the food; we had plenty of food and I, of course, still had all the chicken I could eat. She told me that she worked for “Miss Anne” because she had to work for someone and that was the only job she could get. If her employers knew she had a car, a house, and a husband with a little money, things would not be so good for her in Greenville. And, she continued, since she had all those things, she had to have a job to explain why she had them. As for the clothes, she said, “I have much nicer things than these rags she is always giving me.”
That was a lot for a five-year-old to take in, but on some level I understood what she was telling me. I knew not to repeat what she said and to just use it when I needed to. And, I knew at that moment, even if only temporarily, that my life in Texas would be very different from my life California.
When I look back on this “teachable moment” with Great Aunt Mary, I think about the savvy and strength she and countless other Black women like her had to have to survive during those ugly times. Her open and honest explanation to me that day provided me with an understanding that barriers will exist and you have to go around or through them to reach your goals.
For Great Aunt Mary in 1956 Greenville, Texas, the goal was simply to lead a happy life. And that is exactly what she did, in spite of the oppression and the games she had to play for it to stay that way. Although she outlived her favorite niece, my mother, we remained close confidants and spoke and wrote to each other often. When she came to California to attend my mother’s funeral in 1981, she stayed with me and helped me through it all.
By the time of her passing in 1986, she had been widowed three times with each husband leaving her land, money, and good memories. She had long ago stopped working for “Miss Anne” and at last felt free from the need for pretense. In one of her last letters to me, she wrote about her upcoming shopping trip to New York with several of her best friends. Much of the letter was about looking forward to the trip, even though it would be a long bus ride, and the plans she and her friends had made for what they were calling their “spring fling.”
Reading her letter, I could picture them in their fancy hats, flowered dresses, and crocheted gloves, talking and laughing as they took their time boarding the bus. Not a one looking back over her shoulder. Dead chickens and “Miss Anne” reduced to fodder for their stories along the way.