Many of you never met Toian, my wife who inspired the Story of the Month. Toian died May 21, 2016. This month I share pictures which symbolize our harmony, and one of her favorite stories.
The following story was first shared with fellow members of the Island Writers Network, located at Hilton Head Island, SC. It was then published in Hilton Head Island: Tide and Time, An Island Writers’ Network Anthology.
Even her name sounded independent.
Her name was Gussie. She also answered to a number of titles based on family ties or her status in the community, but whenever and however she was addressed she authorized the time and manner. For me, she was Aunt Gussie, my mother’s step sister, but she claimed full status as a sister of the other siblings of George and Maria Alexander. She was a particular favorite of my grandmother, whom we called Mama. Mama liked Aunt Gussie’s fierce independence and her capacity to exercise control of her environment. Aunt Gussie was childless, but she provided a home for her niece and a nephew.
My time with Aunt Gussie was during family reunions before I was a teenager, but she sensed that I felt her special nature, so she told me stories that she knew satisfied my curiosity. Over the years she told me one story at least three times, not because I didn’t remember the details; she just liked giggling and acting girlish and smiling when she talked about her husband.
Aunt Gussie recalled every detail of that Sunday afternoon when she sat with three sisters on the front porch of their country home. In the distance a figure approached, but he was too far away to distinguish his identity. Gussie said she suddenly felt a chill that “cut to the bone,” even on that summer day. Then she announced to her sisters: “Yonder comes the man I will marry.” Minutes later a stranger tipped his hat and spoke: “Good afternoon ladies.” His name was Anthony Johnson. He and Gussie lived as man and wife for more than 65 years. And then she told me a longer story.
Shortly after their marriage, she joined Uncle Anthony at his work site. He was typical of many young colored men who offered an able strong body to a variety of employers. One employer was a company engaged in the forestry industry, which supplied lumber and turpentine to other parts of the world.
To more specifically describe Uncle Anthony’s employment and the multiple roles she played in that setting, we left our seats on the front porch and walked into the yard. She took a stick and drew lines on the ground to diagram the operation. Two long straight lines represented railroad tracks. A series of wavy lines depicted the forest. To her far left of the tracks she drew a circle where sat a cluster of one room huts, which she called “My neighborhood.” I detected her emphasis on “My.”
Each day before sunrise the men hopped aboard a flatbed railroad car, sometimes sharing their space with mules, and they rode down the trail into a section of the forest that was ripe for harvesting timber and turpentine. It was also rife with rattle snakes, alligators, insects and other vermin that bite and sting. They rotated assignments; some days laboring as cutters with hand saws and axes, and at times as mule skinners, driving the animals to haul and load the logs and barrels of turpentine aboard the flatbeds. When it was too dark to see what to cut, they and the mules boarded empty flatbeds for the ride to their living quarters, thereafter shortened to “the quarters.” They had worked before sunrise and stopped after sunset, a condition described as “working cant-to-can’t” – can’t see daylight when you start to work or when you finish.
The men knew what to do in the forest, but Gussie was in charge of the quarters, whether through self-appointment or by acclimation. Gussie was the authority who settled disputes. Gussie was the neighborhood scribe and banker, safeguarding her neighbor’s secrets and their money. Gussie paid their bills, and it was from Gussie that they bought cigarettes, snuff, and whiskey. If Gussie didn’t have it or know about it, it didn’t belong in the quarters.
After the timber was cleared from a section along the rail line, they hoisted the huts aboard the flatbeds and moved them to the next cleared spaces further on up the trail. Their pattern remained the same during the months of blistering heat or freezing cold. They were paid just enough to satisfy the cost of their hut and food at the company commissary. Sometimes, Gussie managed their weekly allowance to save six bits (75 cents).
When Uncle Anthony was offered less burdensome employment they left the quarters. Aunt Gussie departed in her style: “I called everybody together. I gave back to each person what he or she owned, and I got from each of them what they owed me. That’s the way to part on good terms.” They eventually settled in Suffolk, Virginia.
During a later family reunion Aunt Gussie and I again selected our seats in rocking chairs on the porch and enjoyed our final session together. She again told me her favorite story of meeting her husband in a style cultivated by delightful repetition. Aunt Gussie was in the ninth decade of her life and I complimented her appearance and asked for her secret to longevity and vibrancy. She leaned close to me, so that I would not misunderstand her answer: “James Edward, if you’re happy you look good and feel good. I smoke at least a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes a day; I drink at least three bottles of Coca-Cola a day; I don’t listen to other folks’ bullshit, and nobody gives me any bullshit. Your Aunt Gussie is happy.”
She leaned back and resumed rocking. I simply said, “Yes ma’am,” and joined her rocking cadence