You know, I owe my mother so much. In a number of ways, she is most responsible for the man I have become. At least, all the positive stuff. My mother gave me so many things and taught me so many more. However, there is one lesson that stands out in particular.
You see, in the very beginning it was just me and my mother. She and my natural father separated soon after I was born. And between then and the time she met and married the right Reverend L.G. Reddick, I was being raised by committee in a very rural area of West Tennessee with my mother and maternal grandmother being the co-chairpersons of that committee.
And it seems that their complete child-raising efforts went into assuring that I did not turn out like my natural father. Truthfully, they spoiled me rotten, and I got away with almost everything. But if I exhibited any negative trait that seemed to in anyway be a product of my natural father, they went absolutely nuts. And the foremost of these negative traits was lying.
However, I could not ever understand this extreme disdain for my father because everyone else seemed to adore him to no end. He was this diminutive, pigeon-toed, round headed man. He was maybe five foot seven or five foot eight, but his personality was about seven feet tall.
He was a popular minister in the C.M.E. church, and admittedly, he had his peccadilloes, but people forgave him for it. People overlooked them because they loved him so. And admittedly, he was a bit unorthodox, but the thing is that as much as people loved him, he loved people right back. While most ministers set themselves apart, he was always out right in the middle of people, laughing with them, trading stories and more than a few lies with them.
Perhaps, this love for people and being around people persuaded him to construct that thing that my mother and grandmother held up as prime evidence of his depravity and all-around no-good-ness. At some point doing my childhood, he founded a juke joint.
My father built this little cinderblock structure on the empty tract of land next to his home where my grandfather had once farmed. Now, he says he built it for some other purpose which we never fully knew or understood, but it eventually ended up being a juke joint.
And during the spring and summer, on Saturday afternoons at about two o’clock, he would begin setting up shop outside his juke joint. He would begin to barbq, and he would set the pigs feet and the hog maws and the greens or whatever else he was serving his customers that night to boiling. Around five o’clock, everyone would be returning from town, and little by little, they would drift over to his juke joint where he would be outside cooking and sit for a spell.
I call this the period of preliminary sin. If I were around at this time, he would put me to work bringing more firewood or running this errand or that errand for him. But I couldn’t tell my mother or grandmother that because had they found out that I was an active and willing participant in his little den of iniquity, there would have been smoke in the city. For those early comers gathered, he would sell them a little corn whiskey and pass out small samples of whatever it was he was cooking.
But as soon as it got dark, he would plug up the juke box, and the sinning would begin in earnest. Now, I was never around for the real sin, but my maternal grandmother seemed to be a bona fide expert on the scandalous debauchery that took place there though I’m not so sure how she had such intimate knowledge of the comings and goings of my father’s juke joint since I don’t ever recall her being in very close proximity to the place.
This went on for about two or three summers before the church establishment shut him down. The governing body of the C.M.E. church cited some obscure scripture about not being able to serve two masters or something like that. However, I couldn’t exactly follow their reasoning.
It seems to me that my father had a pretty good set-up which worked in the best interests of all involved. People are going to sin. That’s a fact. So why not let a minister of the church be on hand to supervise the sinning so it doesn’t get out of hand? Then, in the morning, he could just absolve them of that sin, and their souls would not be in jeopardy.
Now, if something dreadful happened to befall them between the time they entered the juke joint on Saturday night and the time they reached the church on Sunday morning, it seems to me that they were pretty much meant to go to hell anyway. No one’s luck could conceivably be that bad.
Anyway, in the fallout that followed, my mother and grandmother found out that I had been witness to, at the very least, the preliminary stages of the foolishness, so my mother decided to move from the country to the closest city, Jackson, Tennessee partly because I would have better educational opportunities there, mostly to get me away from the horrible influence of my father.
So, we moved out of my maternal grandparents’ home, and she bought this little house on Hayes Avenue, right around the corner from Lane College, a local HBCU. During the day, she continued to teach English at Tigret High School, and sometimes in the evening she worked part time at the new J.C. Penneys.
This meant that when I got out of school, often she would not be there, and my grandparents lived so far away in the country that it would not have been prudent for them to drive into town to get me, or if they did, that would mean that my mother would have to drive out to the country to pick me up when she did finally get off work, and then drive back to the city. So, they enlisted the help of this older couple who knew our family and who had made the migration from the country to the city much earlier who just happened to live next door to us in the city.
Please forgive me, but it’s been so long that I have forgotten this older couple’s names. However, their faces are forever etched in my memory. And they were good people too, salt of the earth. Their children had long moved away, and they did not have ready access to their grandchildren, so they readily jumped at the opportunity to allow me to spend the evenings with them until my mother arrived home.
And if I was spoiled before I began to stay there with them in the evenings, I surely got spoiled really quickly once the arrangement kicked off in earnest. They literally adopted me as their new grandchild. These two elderly people doted on me.
When I would get off the bus in the evenings, they would have a snack all ready for me. And they would just sit there across the table from me side-by-side as I did my homework and stare at me, literally stare at me, in anticipation with eyes all wide. With every stroke of my pencil or every turn of the page, they would go on and on about how smart I was, what a little intellect I was. I cannot understate just how much love and affection these two had invested in me.
But then one day I got off the bus in a sullen, morose mood. I don’t know what was wrong with me. I really don’t. It’s just that day, for whatever reason, I felt a little down, and my demeanor reflected that.
And this upset the couple to no end. Normally I was this cheerful, happy little fellow with a big smile on my face and a spring in my step, but this evening my face wore an implacable frown, and I moved about lethargically, and they could not figure out why. So, they begged and pleaded with me to tell them why so they could make it better. However, I could not because I did not know myself.
So, the wife disappeared in the kitchen while the husband kept close watch on me as I lazed languidly on the sofa. The concern could be seen on his face. And I felt bad for them. I really did because they were so upset because I seemed so upset, but I could not even articulate why I was so upset. I guess it’s just one of those things kids go through.
Anyway, momentarily the wife emerged from the kitchen carrying this big platter of cookies and a glass of milk. I sniffed the air. Oh my goodness! Cinnamon raisin oatmeal. My absolute favorite. And I don’t exaggerate in the least bit when I say that each of these cookies was as big as a saucer. Instantly I began to feel just a wee bit better.
So, I sat up, took a cookie from the platter, and took a bite. You won’t believe what happened next. I didn’t even have to chew the cookie. It literally dissolved in my mouth sending reports of cinnamony goodness to the deepest recesses of the pleasure center of my brain. After dissolving the rest of the cookie, I decided to cleanse my palate with a quick gulp of milk, and then it got even better.
This milk was so very cold that it had little tiny flakes of ice in it. After taking a few quick sips, I fell back on the sofa thinking to myself that this must be what heaven is like, spending the afternoon dissolving cinnamon raisin oatmeal cookies on your tongue and washing it all down with ice cold milk.
Just then this couple sensed that they have made some kind of breakthrough, and they then moved to either side of me, imploring me to finally tell them what was bothering me. After the whole cookies and milk thing, I did feel that I owed them something, so I decided to just make something up.
I told them that my grandfather, my mother’s father, was sick. I thought this would be the end of the inquiry, but they pressed for details, so I felt further obliged to give them the details they sought. I told them that he was practically on his death bed, and suddenly my imagination kicked in, and on the spot, I composed a whole narrative around the “illness” of my grandfather. The narrative was so affective that I even made myself just that much more morose, and ended up having to dissolve another cookie or two to ease the pain. They, too, had pools of tears standing in their eyes.
But just as my pitiful narrative of woe and commiseration was reaching its apogee, we heard a familiar knock on the door. My mother. So they let her in, and before she could even get inside the door good, they smothered her with hugs and tearful kisses much to her surprise. Then they laid out the yarn that I had been spinning for about the last hour.
My mother took the time to assure them that her father was in no way ill and certainly not at death’s door as I had told them. She apologized profusely for my overactive imagination, and with her last words, reminded them of who my father was. They nodded knowingly. With the mention of my father, I knew that I was really in for it the moment we got outside.
But for the first time since I had known them, this old couple looked upon me in disappointment. Suddenly the cookies I had dissolved in my mouth began to feel like wet concrete sitting at the bottom of my stomach. So I quickly dissolved another to see if I could make that feeling of guilt go away, but I could not.
And just as I predicted, the moment we got out of their home and crossed the yard into ours, my mother went to work on my behind. She waded into the very center of the hedges in our yard and came out with the longest, thickest switch I had ever seen in my life up to that time and I have ever seen since. Then she went to work in earnest.
But suddenly during her angry strokes of the switch and frenzied shouts of “Imma whip the lies right out of your black behind” and “I betcha won’t do it again, will you?” and my yelps of physical and psychological pain, she just stopped and looked at me there writhing in the dust. Suddenly the look on her face transformed from aggrieved malice to pity. Muttering “My God, my God, what am I doing?”, she threw the remainder of the switch aside, picked me up out of the dust, and carried me into the house.
Upon entering the house, she sat me in a chair at the dining room table. Presently she returned and placed a plate of cookies and glass of milk in front of me. But I wasn’t touching either at this point; that’s what got all this trouble started in the first place. It looked quite like a trap to me.
Anyway, she sat down next to me, and using a warm, moist tile, she began to sooth the many angry red welts that covered my arms and legs. As she did, she apologized to me for disciplining me in anger, in such a rage. She explained to me that my father had many, many amazing talents and gifts; this is what attracted her to him in the first place. But, she explained further, for every talent he had, for every gift he had, he also displayed a conflicting predilection for abject foolishness.
She closed her monologue by explaining that all she really wanted was to see the very best of my father in me while eschewing the negative. She hugged me and kissed me on my forehead, and I rewarded her by smiling and taking a bite of cookie and a drink of milk.
Then she said, “Now there. Tell me all about your day at school today. Did you enjoy your day? Did something happen to make you so sad?”.
Again, she was being so kind to me, and we had just shared such an honest moment that I felt I had to give her something. But because of my most recent experience, I was more than a bit leery. But she pressed, and my imagination took over.
“Well,” I began, “we did get to go out to the playground today. But as I was playing over by the bushes, I heard these strange noises coming out of the bushes.”
Instantly, my mother looked concerned. Her eyes widened, and one hand went to her face, covering her mouth, and the other clutched her pearls. “Oh my God! What kind of sounds did you hear? Could you tell what it was?”
I continued my story. “It sounded like a loud, deep roar, like a lion or a tiger. But it could have been a bear. It’s very hard for me to distinguish between the three types of roars. Anyway, I…”.
My mother stopped me in mid sentence. First this look of utter disbelief crossed her face, followed by a look of abject surrender. “Max, Max, Max,” she said, shaking her head.
She left the room, and then returned carrying a pad and a pen. She then placed both in front of me and bade me, “Just write it down, Max. Just write it down and put a title on it.”