One question I’m often asked is how I remember so many stories of my very exciting and blessed life. One answer is a process I call “clustering.” When I recall thoughts of a particular person, activity or event I just let my mind wander to enjoy the fullness of that experience. Then, the cluster of related people, places and things spawn their own story.
While writing last month’s story, The Shoe Box, my thoughts centered on the neighborhood of my childhood where so many persons, especially adults, taught me lessons that guided me to this day.
Here are two additional stories from that period and setting:
Some times during my childhood, a little before suppertime, my mother would tell me to wash my face and hands and come to the kitchen. That was her signal that I was about to deliver food to another home in the neighborhood. It might have been a mess of cooked collard greens, or a big skillet full of crackling bread, or a pot of yams. When I arrived there, I was often joined by someone from another home who brought enough corn, or butterbeans, or at certain times of the year, a steaming pot of chitterlings. One of our neighbors was “under the weather,” and those ladies who weren’t feeling poorly took up the slack and fed the sick woman’s family.
As I made my trips to the homes of our colored and white neighbors, I remembered my grandmother’s words: ” when you give to a neighbor in need, you also give yourself two presents — a favor from God, and the good grace of a neighbor who might have to guide a spoon to your lips on tomorrow.”
Occasionally my mother gave me a different signal. When she told me to wash up and to put on clean drawers, I was going out of the neighborhood. If something happened to me that required emergency attention, my mother’s reputation would be judged more by whether or not I was wearing clean or dirty drawers.
It takes a long time to build a good reputation.
A Trip Around the World
In our community of Valdosta, Georgia (mid 1930’s – early 1940’s), both children and adults found ingenious ways to entertain ourselves. We children learned to create toys from something that had worn out. A single used roller skate became the new runners for a scooter. Every punctured inner tube from a bicycle or automobile tire provided enough rubber for at least six slingshots. I was declared the best slingshot maker in the community. I also was declared the worst slingshot shooter in Georgia, a title my playmates honestly bestowed on me after I shot myself three times — with my own toy.
My mother, like many of the colored women in the neighborhood, was a domestic in the homes of white families; keeping the homes clean, raising the children, and preparing their meals. Some days she augmented the recipes to create a surplus, which she brought home for our supper.
One day as she walked home from her employer’s kitchen she also had a novel entertainment idea, and she shared it with other domestics. They all worked for several families who traced their heritage to Europe and Scandinavia, and those families had recipes that highlighted their family history and traditions. My mother suggested that when the other domestics made one of the fancy ethnic meals, they should also write the recipe on the little pad all the maids carried in their apron pocket. Ordinarily, they used the pad to make notes of things they saw at work that were later the subjects of gossip, or information the entire colored community needed to know.
She further suggested that, once a year during the summer months, each domestic would use the special recipe to make a dish from a different country, and we could stroll among the neighborhood homes and taste cuisine that originated so far away and pretend we were on a “Trip around the World.”
Even though the entertainment idea started in our neighborhood, pretty soon some of the employers found other ways to get directly involved, especially to enhance the ambience. The employer might share for a day a keepsake that had passed down through her family as a reminder of their roots in “the old country.” So, if the recipe was for a French dish, the decoration might include the Tricolor flag of France, or a small figurine with an inscription that read Eiffel Tower. A desert from Holland was likely to be served on plates emblazoned with a windmill, and anything from England was served in a setting that included a picture of Big Ben or the Union Jack.
And then World War II was upon us and we discontinued the festival. Some of the boys who ate those meals were now young men. They put on uniforms and they went on trips — around the world — that were no longer imaginary.