A Little Help from Monday through Sunday
Love has a number of addresses and simply wanders from place to place where it is needed to give warmth and comfort.
Every child should have at least one adult who understands his or her motives, dreams, fears, apparitions, likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses — one’s personality. I grew up in a community believing that every adult gave me that consideration. One year as Christmas approached, at least three adults asked, “What’s Santa Claus gonna bring you, James Edward?” My reply was swift. “I want Santa Claus to bring me a baseball and a bat.” At age six baseball was my passion. When I awoke on Christmas morning, I had at least a half dozen balls, five bats, and a couple of gloves, from families who also had children. It was a display of special affection from the neighborhood.
Here are two of the men who treated me as though God put them here to help me make it through a series of Mondays through Sundays.
Mister Holly Howell managed the Shell service station in our neighborhood. His wife was Miss Virginia, a lovely, stately lady, who also was a schoolteacher. For a long time, their kitchen was an extension of ours, as my mother cooked their meals, and at the insistence of Miss Virginia, brought food home to feed us. The Howell’s, like many White families in the South, recognized that the system favored them, so they shared whatever they had with those whose road was a little rougher.
It didn’t matter if he was operating the lever which drew gasoline into the round glass topped pump, or checking the oil level on a Model T Ford, a Packard, or a Hudson, whenever I passed the station Mister Holly always wanted to know, “How ya doing James Edward?” He was genuinely interested in how well I was doing in school. He taught me to read a map, showing me how to find my way to the places that excited my imagination. As he pointed, I would pronounce each location. Atlanta, Savannah, De-troit, Nu-York, and Texas — where the cowboys were.
Mister Holly also knew that I didn’t like to eat meat, but that I could tolerate shrimp. My friend also was aware that my first-grade teacher would take the class on a Spring picnic. To make sure my picnic basket contained what I liked to eat, he returned from a trip to Jacksonville, Florida, with about 50 pounds of shrimp, which he had deep fried at a local restaurant, thus sparing my mother the chore of cooking so much. On the night before the picnic, he delivered them to me, saying, “James Edward, I just want to make sure you enjoy your picnic tomorrow.” In that gesture, he also provided enough for the entire class. My friend was clever.
Later that year, on Christmas eve just before the sun set and I crawled into bed to await Santa’s arrival, his car pulled into our yard. He was accompanied by my cousin, Joe Alexander, who worked at the station. Joe entered the house and talked to my mother Catherine and me, diverting my attention while Mister Holly placed a box on the porch. That time, Mister Holly had ordered from Santa’s workshop a beautiful toy train mounted on a round tin plate. Attractive scenes were painted along the circular track, and a key was attached to the engine to wind the spring which moved the toy vehicle counterclockwise through a tunnel, just before it reached the station. And, to make sure I ate well as I pretended to journey to far off places, he told Santa to fill a giant stocking with candy, oranges, candy apples, nuts, candy, caps for my toy pistol, and candy. It was a good Christmas.
The next day I was eager to show my friend what St. Nick had brought me, so, I rushed to him and shouted, “Mister Holly, look what Santa Claus brought me.” He and Joe exchanged glances and smiles and he said, “You know James Edward, I think that Santa Claus loves you as much as I do — well, almost as much.”
HOWDY, MISTER HARP
The terms domicile and residence are often used interchangeably. A person can have many residences, but only one official domicile. Mr. Harp had neither. Our family offered him both. My mother doesn’t recall how he came to us, who accompanied him to our door, or where he came from. I just remember that summer day when I walked on the front porch and saw a stranger sitting there. That was not unusual at our house, for many travelers occasionally stopped to refresh themselves, to share a meal, or spend a night before moving on to a predetermined destination or continuing their search. His presence did not alarm me. He was an adult, so I did what I was taught to do. “Howdy, sir.” He responded, “How you boy?” He rocked smoothly in a comfortable chair that I had intended to use that day to watch the train go by. He asked, “What’s ya name?” “My name is James Edward. “Ain’tcha got no last name boy?” I answered, “My name is James Edward Alexander, what’s yours — sir?” “Just call me Harp,” he replied. Now I had enough information to properly greet him. “Howdy, Mister Harp.” He responded, “How you James Edward Alexander?”
Since the seat I wanted was now occupied, I sat in the swing, alternately observing Mister Harp, and the last few boxcars. When the train passed and left a normal calmness, I initiated further conversation. “Whatcha got that stick for, Mister Harp, you crippled or something?” The man smiled and said, “Naw, I ain’t crippled, James Edward, I’m blind, and this here stick is like a pair of eyes sometimes.” I sat silently, wondering if I had said something that I shouldn’t to a blind person. I even closed my eyes and tried to imagine how it would be if I were unable to see the train. Suddenly, I had some reservations about his blindness, so I checked. “If you’re so blind, Mister Harp, then how did you know I’m a boy when I spoke to you?” The blind man gave me an answer. “Boy, when you blind you see some things with your ears. Not only did I know you’re a boy, I reckon you about six or seven years old.” He was close. I continued the interrogation. “Whatcha got in that bag Mister Harp?” My mother came to the porch in time to hear the question and she answered, “None of your business.” She then invited him inside to become familiar with the place that he could call his domicile and his residence.
Before bedtime, Daddy walked our newest family member around the yard, and Mister Harp extended his cane to ‘see’ the corners of the house, to locate the path next door to Mister Dye’s well for fresh water, and his way back to our yard and to the big black cast iron pot. He stored the information about shapes, sizes, locations, and distances in order to find his way in his new environment.
The next day a car brought the rest of Mr. Harp’s belongings from wherever he last slept. Among the items was a large bag of raw peanuts, a collection of tools, containers and implements for doing what he did best — roasting and boiling peanuts.
On the third day, Mister Harp rose early and got started. To help him get underway, Daddy had filled the large pot with water, and had constructed a hearth on which another ten-gallon container rested. Thereafter, he toted his own water, and refused offers of help, except to do those things which he couldn’t manage, such as chopping wood. He simultaneously monitored the two containers in which peanuts were boiled and roasted. When the peanuts were cooked and sufficiently cooled, the industrious blind man used his hands to fill 40-50 small paper bags with his product. After a short rest, he headed to the marketplace — the busy streets of downtown Valdosta.
In our town, in those days, it was customary that only White boys peddled their peanuts along the downtown streets. Likewise, I don’t recall seeing any White boys running errands for the soldiers on the troop trains that stopped in Valdosta. Economic reality in those days also restricted ownership of downtown property to White merchants. Colored businessmen only worked ‘across the tracks’. This territorial division was another way each race identified ‘our place’ and ‘your place’. Yet, despite the customary restrictions, Mister Harp was allowed to vend on whatever corner he chose, not because of his blindness, but because of his warmth as a person and the quality of his product and service. His packages were full, and when a customer paid him the dime for a bag, Mister Harp smiled sincerely and said, “You gonna enjoy them peanuts. I cooked them with care just for you.”
There is no record, or memory, of how long he shared our home, but we learned to like and trust each other during our days together. When he left, he went across another set of tracks into another hub of Colored activity. He still had his downtown corner of choice, but he was not a young man when he was with us, and by the time I changed schools old age had forced him to find a suitable spot near his new residence. It was on my route to school and each afternoon as I passed, we exchanged greetings that transmitted mutual caring and years of friendship. “Howdy, Mister Harp.” “How you, James Edward Alexander.”
Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.
Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.
They give us safe passage to where we were once content.
Good memories are not exhausted by time.
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