Monday, June 22, 2009

Family Ties

There was a strong sense of family among our immediate and extended family. Momma was the tie that bound us all. We loved our family gatherings, which occurred every holiday at a minimum.

Memaw and Papaw (Iva Jo and Eugene Henry) hosted the events at their house. Their home was very small and very old. I was told that Memaw and Papaw moved in when the house was first built and lived there long enough to pay it off. When the home was purchased it was considered an “all-white” community. Keep in mind these were tumultuous times caused by racial bigotry against African Americans.

It wasn’t long before a brave African American family made a bold statement by moving into the neighborhood. Against all persuasion, the family stayed. One by one the Caucasian families moved out and one by one the African American families moved in. Before long, Memaw and Papaw were among a small handful of Caucasians still living in the community.

Memaw and Momma always taught us to treat every person with dignity and respect without regard for their color or race. Papaw and Daddy were your typical, southern and racist men but they were kept in-check by their wives. They did manage to get away with building a cyclone fence around Memaw’s front yard. That always seemed so odd to me. I think it somehow made Daddy and Papaw feel like they were compromising, in the sense that they lived in the neighborhood with the “colored folk”, but then fenced off the house to display segregation.

My grandparents earned a certain level of respect from their colored neighbors and she never felt safer or more at home than she did during this time. Soon, Momma and Daddy bought the house next door.

During times when Momma did have a job, Memaw kept Lee and me during the day. I can remember playing in the backyard all day with my dolly. There was a little girl next door to Memaw that I would play with through a cyclone fence. Every day, we had plans to play together. We pretended that we were mommies and tended to our dollies all afternoon. We longed to play in the same yard, but that was just not allowed. In fact, playing with this little girl “of color” was mine and Memaw’s little secret from Daddy.

I loved living next door to my grandparents. Memaw and I were very close. We played lots of games and we would talk for hours. She knew all of the things I loved to eat and had a good supply of them in her pantry. I snuck out of my house and over to hers on a number of occasions, just for a piece of sharp cheese. I did this so often, that she used to call me a mouse! I thought that was so silly, for I was not a mouse, I was a little girl.

When I turned 6, Daddy insisted we move to Watauga, another “all white” community. He felt that this was the proper thing to do, now that I was of school age. I was so sad to leave Memaw and Papaw. I knew I would see them often, but I really loved living right next door. And, I would miss my secret friend.

Moving away did not limit the amount of family gatherings we had. It also did not minimize the number of visits to Memaw’s. It seemed we were there 4 to 5 times per week.

The boys and I spent many weekends playing with our cousins while our parents enjoyed each other’s company. So much time was spent with our cousins that it seemed like they were more like siblings. Momma’s older brother, Roger lived in a neighboring town. He and my Aunt Sharon had 3 children that were all very close to our age, Little Roger, Gina and Brian.

Momma’s sister, Brenda lived in Houston and had 5 children with my Uncle Dan. These cousins were quite a bit older than my brothers and I. They loved to hug and kiss on us. I thought this was so weird and I really hated their wet kisses and I hated being called “little” and “cute.” Though, I did love their frequent visits.

There was another sister that passed away as a child from the flu. Her name escapes me. Memaw always cried when we asked about her. You know, curious kids ask painful questions. Eventually, I understood it was not something easy for her to talk about so I stopped asking. As a mother myself, I don’t even want to imagine the magnitude of her pain.

My Aunt Catherine, Daddy’s sister was an integral part of our family as well. Even though she was on my father’s side of the family, my mother’s family treated her and my cousin Jessica as if she were born under their family tree.

Momma, Aunt Brenda, Aunt Sharon, Aunt Catherine and any female cousin old enough to follow directions were required to be in the kitchen. My family always enjoyed eating and with as many people as we were feeding, it required a lot of kitchen support. It was very much expected that the women do the cooking and the cleaning while the men sit and watch the television. Being a small little girl, I didn’t mind the kitchen chores. It made me feel important and big. I learned to shuck corn, shell peas, set and clear the table. When I got a little older, I was taught how to make cream gravy, mashed potatoes, banana pudding and pinto beans. We were you typical southern family enjoying down home cookin’ every chance we got.

At the center of the gatherings was Momma. She told funny stories and kept everyone engaged in conversation. I can remember hearing the stories of how they stayed up all night talking and laughing. In my little mind, I wondered how on earth they could have found so many words to say to keep them up until the morning time.

As a little girl, I thought all families spent this much time together. I didn’t know until much later how truly precious and special these moments would come to be. And how fractured a family could be come with one member absent.

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