I could sit on my great grandparent’s porch in the deep southern woods and count to ninety from the time I’d first hear the sound of a car coming to when I’d finally see it round the bend up the road. The sound was something like the wind makes when it’s first gathering steam. Louder and louder it’d come, piercing the still, damp heat until, finally, in just half a second, the car would fly by leaving only the memory of an off–handed wave from the driver hanging in the air. And I’d always wave back from the porch swing, nonchalantly, with just a slight tinge of melancholy as I watched the fleeting visitor disappear from sight.
The old farmhouse sat a ways back from the road, had a wrap–around porch, and a peeked roof that jutted high into the sky. Late afternoons I’d rock in the swing to cool off the sweat of the day and from there could see across the road to the wide–open field where crops had once been grown. I loved the field. Just behind the house was a large shed for the tractor, and then, off to the side, tucked away, almost hidden in the tall bushes, was the outhouse.
No, we weren’t the antebellum south. We were the other south, poor but fiercely proud. My great grandparents raised six children here in the early twentieth century. Pigs were hung upside down and slaughtered for bacon and salt pork, seedy watermelon was stolen away in the back fields on rare goofing–off–after–church–goin’ afternoons, bottomless buckets of peas were shelled off the back steps, and the smells from the mid–day meal could linger well into the evening. We called it down home and it was where I’d come to visit every summer from out west. It was also where Mini would come to cook and clean for us.
Like other rural families with many children to feed and crops to plow, extra hands were needed in the house and in the fields. And those hands were black. Of course, by the time I was growing up and spending long, sultry, days there an image of those black hands in the fields could only be held alive in the vapors of memory. But Mini was no memory. She was right there making those biscuits and, then, making my bed.
And so, she labored for our family for most of her long life. No doubt she would have said she loved us dearly, as we certainly felt so, and we always said we loved her like family. And, I believe both were, undeniably, true. Me, however, living in a different part of the country for most of the year, didn’t have the same history with Mini. So, though I was always happy to see her come through the back door (yes, only the back), mostly, I just tried to turn away and not think about it too much. But, sometimes I couldn’t and a sour feeling would start curdling in my stomach.
I suppose I could have made it through without any unnecessary upheaval for those few weeks each summer. After all, this was where my roots were, my home. This was my family, the only place I knew I belonged. And our stock was sturdy, the kind with solid backbones, straight gaits, and piercing eyes that could bore straight through to tackle the most unforgiving hardships of life. I loved them. And, of course, still do.
Yes, I suppose I could have had it not been for that outhouse at the outer edge of the backyard. Mini wasn’t allowed to use the indoor bathroom. The outhouse was for her. One day, as I watched her heavy–laden ankles shuffle slowly out to that outhouse, I could feel that curdling again. But this time, the inevitable tide, like nausea, having festered for what seemed like a long time in my young life, could not be curtailed. I was just old enough to feel it all but too young to know what to do with it. I just wanted it to go away. I wanted it to be different. So, this time, I waited for her to return and, finding us alone, suddenly blurted out, Mini, why don’t you use the indoor bathroom?
And, exactly in that moment, would have given my whole life to take it back. Her stunned, piercing glance felt volcanic, like hot embers long dormant, now suddenly in real danger of erupting without regard to fallout. And I, in the wake, stopped breathing, paralyzed. Oh, but my young, naive, heart was screaming, But, Mini, don’t go out there! Don’t!
Gratefully, her lifetime of well adapted this is how you behave ‘round whites instinct kicked in and she quickly recovered but not before giving me a good tongue lashing. Youse knows better’in dat Miss Stetnee. Things is how they is. Youse best leave it ‘lone now! And, turning from me, she threw the dry cloth over her shoulder and flashed me one last clear look of warning, We be done w’ this Miss Stetnee. We be done w’ this. And, so we were.
Things is how they is. Youse best leave it ‘lone now! My family would have said exactly the same thing. Still, since, I’ve winced every time I remember. Just what was she to do with that? In truth, none of us, least of all me, barely nine years old, were equipped to do anything with, simply, yet regrettably, what was. It was more than what we did. It seemed to be who we were.
We never talked about it again. I returned home and, in later summers, would come to see Mini less and less as age and health issues took hold of her. Still, over the years, I’ve often prayed that she knew what was in my heart that day in the kitchen and have often longed to say . . .
Please forgive me, Mini. I just couldn’t watch you walk out to that outhouse anymore. I just couldn’t. Still, I’m sorry I was so unkind to you. I just wanted you to know that I saw you . . . and so felt for you. This was what was in my heart that day. I just didn’t know how to say it. Oh Mini, thank you for your long, faithful, service to my family. Thank you for making the biscuits and for making my bed, for caring for us, even when we did not know how to, best, care for you.
And sometimes, through those vapors of memory, I’ve closed my eyes and pictured us again there in the kitchen, her with that dry cloth flung over her shoulder. Yet, this time, I’m a grown woman and we’re simply standing there gazing quietly at one another. And, this time, I’ve imagined us both, at last . . . unburdened and free.
But I couldn’t have known what was yet to come—a final chapter that could, at last, bring us around full circle to, just perhaps, true freedom for Mini . . . and me.
We’d heard that the house had finally sold—this house and land that had been in my family for almost two hundred years. I was relieved as I’d seen it empty for a while and had watched it steadily go down since the passing of my last remaining great aunts, one of whom had lived in the house for many years. On recent visits, my heart would ache seeing the screen doors hanging off the hinges, paint peeling, windows covered up with black paper, and always a scattered pile of garbage littering the porch. And the swing, the one that had silently joined me in my late afternoon musings, now hung crooked and still.
So, holding fast to all the old faded photographs and to those lingering memories still alive in the vapors, I’d been asking my heart to let go so I and this place, which had long held and sustained my family, could breathe in new life again.
But still I wasn’t prepared for what was to come.
On what would be our last visit down home, my aunt, husband and I decided to just drive by and see—but see what, we didn’t know. As we neared the house we slowed down and then my aunt suddenly said, “Pull in the drive. I want to see who bought the house.” “No!” I thought, “That’s not a good idea. Maybe they’ll think we’re intruding.” A trailer was parked in the front yard and, clearly, there was work being done on the house.
As we got out of the car and walked toward the trailer, a black man wearing a blue printed bandana and matching shirt came around the corner strolling casually toward us. As he got closer, we could see that his bandana loosely held back greying dreadlocks.
My aunt was the first to speak. “Hello . . . we’d like to speak with the owner.”
“I’m the owner,” he said. And I felt a silent gasp in my breath, some need to freeze the moment, to hold this unexpected brevity in time, a moment that held not just my life but so many lives before.
“Oh . . . well, this was my family’s home for almost two hundred years. We’d heard it’d sold and just wanted to stop by,” my aunt said.
And I heard myself jump in.
“Looks like you’re doing a lot of work on the house. When I was growing up, I used to sit on the porch and watch for cars to go by—on a swing that used to be over there,” I said pointing toward the end of the porch.
“I actually bought the land first. I was taken by that field,” he said pointing in the opposite direction across the road. And it was then, a certain something in his voice, that let me know that he’d be a most perfect caretaker to help breathe that new life into the place.
“It was my great grandmother’s favorite place to go in the early evening after supper,” I said. And so, we chatted back and forth, our small talk soon effortlessly bridging across the depths of time, race, the old and the new.
At one point, we noticed a couple of bees swarming around his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a bee keeper,” pointing to some crates nearby. “They won’t bother you. They’re just mad at me because I moved them.”
“Oh, it’s okay,” I said. “I know, in time, they’ll come to be right at home here.”
Then smiling, a surprise: “Would you like to come in?”
And, for the last time, we walked down the center hall—me holding fast to those vapers of memory. In the background, like a distant echo, I could hear him saying he was an electrician by trade and also a jazz musician. But then I was jolted back when he said, smiling again, “I’m redoing the kitchen first. I want it done before my family comes. We love to cook.”
Oh, Mini, if you could have only known that some sixty years after that day in the kitchen a black man would buy this house and that the kitchen would be filled with his family—all folks who love to cook . . .
Folks, dear Mini, that look just like you.
Full circle. Now, when I think of down home, I instantly smile. I think of bees, jazz music ringing across the wide open field, and good smells coming from the kitchen. I think of new life arising out of the old. And I think of Mini and me and I know somewhere deep in my soul that we’re both now truly . . .
Unburdened and free.