Category Archives: Loss

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 19, April, 1927: Dick

DICK

He squatted by the slough and dropped his leaf boat into the muddy water. It bobbed along down toward the road. He jumped up to run after it.

“Mistah Dick, don’t you go down to that road,” Uncle Ned called. “You stay in the yard like yo momma say.”

Uncle Ned sat on the ground in the shade by the slough, making a leaf boat for Little Jim. He might be the oldest person he knew, maybe even older than Granpaw. His dark skin was kind of ashy, and the hair on his head and chin was white, like just bloomed cotton. Little Jim was watching Uncle Ned work, holding onto the shoulder strap of the old man’s clean overalls to steady himself.

He felt that since he was five-years-old, he should be able to go down to the road but knew better than to argue.

“Yessir,” he answered and scooped up his little boat and ran back. He had gathered the magnolia and oak leaves with Jim tagging along. Now Uncle Ned was making boats for the two of them. He watched as Uncle Nate poked a hole in the middle of a shiny magnolia leaf with his pocketknife. Then he carefully stuck the stem of an oak leaf into the hole. It looked like a little sail.

He handed the leaf boat to Jim. Jim grinned and said, “Mine.”

“Thas right, Mistah Jim. That one’s yo’s.” Uncle Ned said and laughed. It sounded like one of Mother’s hens cackling.

“Can you make me another, Uncle Ned?” he asked.

“Sholy,” Uncle Nate said and picked up another magnolia leaf.

“Me too,” Jim said. And Uncle Nate laughed again.

Little Jim was not even two-years-old yet, but if he had two boats, Little Jim wanted two boats too.

He watched the old colored man work. His hands and fingers were brown and shiny and lined with creases, except on the insides which were almost pink. He liked the way Uncle Ned smelled, like woodsmoke and fatback and pepper, all mixed together. And he liked Uncle Ned. He could not remember ever not knowing Uncle Ned, could not remember a morning when Uncle Ned had not gotten him, and later Jim, up and dressed for the day. Made him wash his hands and face too.

“Uncle Ned?” he asked, “Have you lived here forever?”

The old man laughed again.

“Nawsuh, Mistah Dick, I come here back in sebenty, eighteen and sebenty, with Mistah Henry Ferg’son. I’s still a young man then.”

Uncle Ned smiled at him. The white part of the old man’s eyes was light yellow, like the color of butter. Then those eyes got a glassy look, like the marbles in Dick’s pocket. Uncle Ned turned a little and stared out toward the road and across the road and the cotton fields over there.

“Wadn’t no cotton fields then. No hay neither. No roads. No houses. Nothing but woods, big ole oak trees it take two, three men to reach around. More of ‘em than you can count. Swamps and sloughs and brakes filled with them ole shaggy cypress trees, snake doctors buzzing over that black water.”

Uncle Ned looked at him with shiny eyes. “Why, you could walk through them woods all day and never once see the sun, everywhere you go squirrels and birds be jabbering and chirping in the trees, like they was passing the word that Man was in the woods.”

Uncle Ned had finished his second boat and sat there with it resting in his dark hands.

Little Jim tugged on the old man’s overalls. “Unca Ned, Unca Ned. Make mine. Make mine.”

“Jim,” he barked. “Uncle Ned was telling a story.”

Little Jim pouted up, but Uncle Ned set Dick’s new boat carefully aside and tousled Jim’s hair and smiled. “I start on yo’s now,” he said, and picked up a magnolia leaf.

“You ever go with yo daddy or one of yo brothers down below Blue Lake, that big ole patch of woods in the crook at the bottom end?” Uncle Ned asked.

“Yessir,” he answered. “Once. With Morris Bailey.”

“That sorter what it was like. Woods over everywhere. And critters. Chile, you never seen the like. There was bear, panther, deer, coon, possum, squirrel, beaver, alligator, snakes, and rabbit. And birds. What you say. More birds than you can ‘magine. Blue jays and redbirds and all kinds of black and brown and yeller and all mixed up colors. And them big ole peckerwoods hammering away. And them doves.”

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

“Lawd, Mistah Dick, hard as it be to ‘magine, we cut all them trees down,” Uncle Ned sighed, and the old man stopped again like he was looking somewhere else. Jim didn’t notice because he was watching a junebug crawl through the grass. A squirrel chattered at them from the oak tree they were sitting under.

“We come here from Alabama with Mistah Henry Ferg’son, seemed like hunderds of us coloreds, more’n I could count anyways, and mules by the hunderds, too, and wagons loaded with axes and handsaws and tents and stoves and food, everything we need to live here where there wadn’t nothing but nothing. It remind me of that Yankee army when they came through an ‘mancipated us back in sixty-fo.”

That surprised him. “You were a slave?” he asked.

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell us about it?”

“Sho, but another day. Let’s finish this story first. When we come here, we free and we working fo’ wages. Slave days over,” Uncle Ned grinned.

“What did you do?”

“Well, we cut roads through them woods avoiding them swampy places and them brakes, and we pitched some tents to have a place to stay in. Them skeeters at night, Lawd, what you say! Then we commenced to clearing land, sawing and chopping down trees, oak and gum and who knows what all. Some we used to build houses and other buildings with the logs. Some we cut up for firewood for cooking and whatnot. Some that wadn’t good for nothing else, we saved for campfires. Most nights we went to bed early, but we’d have a fire to keep away skeeters in the summer and to keep warm in the winter.”

“Kinda like when Father and Grady and Morris Bailey go to hunting camp?” he asked.

“Sorta like that,” Uncle Ned grinned. “’Cept at our camp, there be a lot less whiskey and a lot more singing.”

“Like the songs we sing in church?” he asked.

“Kindly like that. Onliest most of ‘em made up and passed along. Not written down in a book like yo’ daddy have. Sometimes I think those songs rise straight up to heav’n like them sparks from the fire rise up to the stars in the sky. It was the best part of the day. Work done, belly full, smoking a pipe, relaxing ‘fore bedtime.”

“Father sings a lot. Grandma sings all the time. I like to hear her sing,” he said.

“She sholy do,” Uncle Ned agreed. He went on. “‘Ventually, Mistah Ferg’son hauled in a sawmill, and we commenced to sawing them logs we had piled up into boards.”

Uncle Ned nodded toward the house where Grandmaw and Grandpaw lived, then said, “We sawed the boards for that house right there. I he’ped build it too.”

The old colored man pulled a stick out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls and began to whittle on it, shaving off long strips of yellow wood. Then he stopped and stared out across the cow pasture and laughed. “And stumps. Good God a’mighty, we pulled stumps. Why, I could wear out two span of mules a day pulling stumps back then.”

Uncle Ned’s big hands rested on his knees. Little Jim was playing with his two boats in the slough. His brother’s feet were in the water, but he didn’t care.

“What did you eat?” he asked. It was close to dinnertime and he was beginning to get hungry.

“Oh, we brought flour and coffee and beans and such with us. Some bacon. The rest we hunted or fished for. Mostly venison, but turkey too. With all them woods being cleared out, game was ever’where. Ole Mistah Ferg’son he a good shot. His son, the Mistah Furg’son you know, he a good shot too. We fished the bayous and brakes too. Got us some fishes to eat.”

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

“He sho’ is,” Uncle Ned agreed. The old man brushed the shavings from his knees.

“I wisht you boys coulda seen it then. Hit was wild and scary and purty all at the same time. Them big ole trees. Why, it take three mens together to reach around one tree.”

Uncle Ned had already said that but maybe he didn’t remember.

“Cool and shady under ‘em too. Full of squirrels fussing at us as we work. And at nighttime them panthers be screaming and carrying on,” Uncle Ned said.

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

“Reckon not,” said Uncle Ned. “Not likely to now. Might be one or two in them woods I told you Mistah Furg’son left down below Blue Lake. That be the onliest place ‘round here.”

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

“When did you start planting cotton?” he asked.

Uncle Ned laughed. “Not for a while yet. First we had to drain them swampy places. That’s when we cut those sloughs and ditches to run the water offen into the them little runs or into the bayous. That water move slow but it move. It musta chopped the heads offen a five hunderd rattlesnakes and water moc’ssins down in the swamps. Had to be watchin’ all the time. Couple boys got bit. One of ‘em died. Wadn’t nothing nobody could do”

Uncle Ned shook his head and looked sad. “That was Philander, my brother. I talked him into coming with me and he fell in the water and got snakebit on the neck and died. I felt like it partly my fault.”

He sat down by the old man and put his hand on Uncle Ned’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

“Me, too,” Uncle Ned said and tried to smile.

“But one of them boys lived though. Go bit on the foot. Mitstah Furg’son cut that bite open with his knife, then snatched up a pullet – we was keepin’ some chickens by then, milkcows and hogs too – but he cut that pullet in two with an ax and slapped that raw meat on that bite. It pull that poison right out. Turn that pullet almost green, but saved that boy’s life. He was sick and fevery for a while. That foot swole up and got ugly too, but he lived even if he did limp the rest of his life. I ain’t never seen the like, ‘fore or since.”

“Dick. Jim. Time for dinner.” It was Lucille calling. Hungry as he was, he wanted to hear more.

Lucille called again. “Uncle Ned, Momma says to bring the boys on in for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Lucille,” Uncle Ned answered. “Let’s go, young mistahs.”

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

“I tell you more later. Time to clean up for dinner now.”

He set his boats at the base of the oak tree and started toward the house. He walked as slow as he could. Little Jim cried when Uncle Ned went to get him. He wanted to play in the slough some more. Uncle Ned picked Jim up and tickled him under the chin until the little boy laughed.

“You can take them boats with you, Mistah Jim, but we gots to clean yo’ hands and feet and face too before dinner. Like yo’ Momma say.”

Lucille had already run to the backyard and was ringing the dinner bell to call Father and Grady and Morris Bailey from the fields. they would be here soon. As he and Uncle Ned climbed the steps to the back porch, he smelled warm cornbread and his mouth watered. There would be peas and butterbeans and corn and pickled peaches, mostly put up last year because Mother’s garden was only just coming in. And she had baked a cobbler.

Uncle Ned scrubbed their faces, hands, and feet with cold water, soap, and a rag at the sink on the back porch. As he dried his hands, Father and his older brothers rode up on their horses.

Father climbed down. “Ned, will you take our horses to the stable, loosen their girths and give them a little feed and water?”

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

“Thank you, Ned,” Father said and stomped up the stairs.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and ran a big hand through his hair.

He grinned up at Father. Father was so big and tall, and strong, but then so were Grady and Morris Bailey who were washing up at the sink. He hoped he would be big and tall and strong just like them some day.

“What have you boys been doing today?” Father asked. He picked up Little Jim and gave his baby brother a kiss.

“We’ve been making boats with Uncle Ned and he’s been telling us stories about the old days when this was all woods with no cotton or hay fields.”

Father squatted down setting Jim on one knee. Father was no taller than he was now. “Well, Uncle Ned would know. Now, how about a hug?”

He hugged Father and kissed him too. Father rose and lifting him too, carried both of them into the house for dinner. Morris Bailey and Grady followed right behind.

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Filed under Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA, Chapter 2

MINNIE

Minnie hummed to herself as pulled her personal items from her valise. She paused for a moment. Had it really only been this morning that they had left Concord? It had been a long day, but Greenwood and the Delta were so different that she felt they had traveled for weeks rather than one day to get here.

She smiled to herself. Grady had surprised her today when he asked if she would miss all the family they were leaving behind. It was something she might have expected from Morris Bailey, always the more sensitive of the two, not from the normally taciturn Grady, fourteen years old now and beginning to look more and more like a man. Actually, he looked just like Henry. In her innermost heart, she thought of Grady as Henry’s son and Morris Bailey as hers.

She had even expected Grady to accompany Henry in the second wagon while Morris Bailey drove her and the girls, but Henry had decided otherwise. Now she was glad he had, otherwise she would have missed that glimpse into her first-born’s heart.

She placed her last few items on the bureau and looked about at the finely furnished room.

“Henry, are you sure we can afford to stay here?” she asked as she admired the rich colors of the heavy damask drapes.

She rarely asked these sorts of questions. She handled their household expenses, and Henry handled everything else. When he said they could afford to buy the car, she had trusted him. When he had decided he wanted to purchase the Ferguson place at Friendship, she had trusted him. They had been married 15 years now. They had five children. He had worked hard for all of them. They both had.

The crops had been good. Henry’s father had practically turned over management of his farm to Henry and his brother George, the other brothers having pursued other interests. And Henry had done especially well as a representative of Stark Brothers Nursery.

“Still, it is so … opulent. It must be expensive,” she added, fingering the heavy fabric.

He looked up at her from the chair in the corner of their room, his long legs stretched out before him. He looked tired, his face ruddy from the long days in the cold with the wagons.

“Mother.” He had called her that since the day Grady had been born. It was what he called his own mother, but with a subtle, indefinable yet distinct difference. She knew that he loved, honored, and respected both her and his mother, but when he called her ‘Mother’ she also heard ‘You are dear and precious to me, the mother of our children, the anchor of our lives.’

“Mother, we can afford it. It is just this night for Morris Bailey and me and two nights for you, Grady and the girls,” he said with a weary smile.

“Still,” she said as she crossed to him and perched on the arm of the chair. He put his arm around her waist and squeezed.

“We had so much to do preparing for this move, and we have plenty of work ahead of us at the new place. It is an indulgence, I know, but we can afford it and I thought we all could use a treat, especially you,” he said. “Was it a hard day?”

“Mostly long, rattling, and cold. But the girls were reasonably well-behaved,” she answered. “You would have been proud of Grady. He took very good care of us. He even took us by Papa’s so that I could tell him and Lennie and her children good-bye.”

Henry hugged her a little closer.

“What’s it been now? Four years? Do you think Lennie will ever remarry?” he asked.

Minnie missed Lennie already. They were as close as sisters could be, often mistaken for twins. Their mother had died shortly after Minnie had been born. Minnie had never known her mother, and she carried that loss deep in a secret place in her heart. She never mentioned to anyone except Lennie, who had only been two when Mother had died and did not remember her either.

Grandma Bailey had moved in with Papa to help raise the girls. She was the only mother the girls had ever known, and she was gone now. Henry’s brother Swint too was gone, married to Lennie and the father of her children.  When he had died in 1914, Lennie had taken Jewel, Brice, Lucy, and little Mae, born just before her father died, and moved back in with Papa.

“Wool gathering?” Henry asked.

She nodded.

“Hard not to,” he said. “We are leaving a lot behind.”

He paused. “But the opportunity to buy the Ferguson Place. That was too good to pass up.”

She stared into his gray eyes set in his wind-chapped face and tried to smile. She knew he was right. Understood his burning desire not just to have his own place, as strong and consuming as that was, but also his desire to provide for her and their growing family. It truly was a wonderful opportunity. She had not even told him she suspected that she was carrying their sixth child. This baby would be born in the Delta, part of the new life they were creating in a new place.

Henry laid his large, calloused hand gently against her cheek.

“I love you, Minnie Bailey Catledge,” he said. His voice soft and laced with the love she knew he had for her.

She leaned down and kissed her husband who in turn put his other arm around her to hold her that much closer. He still smelled of cold and faintly of cigarette smoke.

“I love you, too, Henry Gray Catledge,’ she whispered in his ear.

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Songs of Death and Life

On the second anniversary of my father’s death

 

Let us not delude ourselves with platitudes

The end of suffering

Heaven’s aching need for another angel

Burdens lifted from the living

Joyous reunion

 

No, let us not delude ourselves

Death is a brute, a thief

Who takes from us those we hold most precious

 

Time and distance may separate us

From the beating heart of a dear one

But that heart still beats

That love is still tangible

In the warmth of flesh

In touch and embrace

Needing only to be reunited

If only briefly

But death rips that away

Stills that beating heart

Chills that once vibrant flesh

Erases the gentle smile

On that familiar face

 

Death is an ogre

One whose features are not softened

By familiarity or frequency of visit

Remorseless, it intrudes

With shuddering suddenness

Or lingering expectancy

 

Memory, the cruel consoler

Delivers images of both joy and remorse

Days of burnished beauty

Words that could not be unspoken

 

The faith core within

Affirming that death is not the end

That ultimately even death will be conquered

Is still assailed, battered by the loss

The carnage of shattered souls

Longing

For one last word

One brief smile

One final embrace

 

Let us not delude ourselves

For us, the living

Dark days will alternate with bright

The vivid image of a loved face dims

Some memories fade

While others remain deeply etched

Roiling through the mind

And heart

Bringing an unexpected, fleeting smile

Or a wistful moment of melancholy

 

Let us not delude ourselves

There can be no loss lest first there be love

 

On All Saints Sunday

 

For each name intoned

A single votive is lit

A single bell is tolled

Resonant, the solemn peal diminishes as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

The long litany of names

Each another life

Severed from this world

In this last year

Leaving its wake

Of love and sorrow

Laughter and regret

Wistful smiles and soft sighs

The entire arcing panoply

Of human feeling

 

Congregants stand in serried ranks

Solemn array of bowed heads

The soft sheen of tears on cheeks

A quivering lip or shudder

A too firm grip on a pew as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

Fresh grief released or stifled as

Their lost one’s name is uttered

Old anguish renewed as

A loved name or face from last year’s list

Or the year before or the year before that

Rises unbidden but embraced as

Another name is intoned

Another votive is lit

 

 

A fellow mourner’s comforting touch or

Firm arm around a shaking shoulder

The questioning face of

An uncomprehending child

Who somehow senses something amiss as

The last name is intoned

The last votive is lit

 

 

Then the other litany

The litany of faith and triumph

The surety of the resurrection of the body

And reunion

Why else conquer death or

Resurrect the body or

Preserve all the things

Body and mind and spirit that

Make each of us ourselves

Except we should praise

Each in our own distinct voice

Arrayed about the throne of the Almighty

Heaven and earth reconciled

See the Lord and each one gone before face to face

And rejoice

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Filed under Death, Life, Loss, Poetry, Uncategorized

BELL BOTTOM BLUES

For those who share these memories …

How often it is, a long unheard but well remembered song triggers a cascade of memories, unbidden yet vivid, some pleasant, some bittersweet, some heartbreaking. This morning “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominoes popped up on my iPhone as I was out running errands, and it happened.
Suddenly I was back in the college grill shooting the breeze with my usual group of guys and girls, when one of our friends walked in with that loose-jointed saunter we all knew so well, his lank, shoulder-length hair swaying with every stride. With a bemused smile and a sigh, he slumped down in our booth and plopped his books onto the table just as “Bell Bottom Blues”, no doubt selected by one of us, ten cents a song, three for a quarter, dropped onto the spindle of the jukebox.
He had a rather long, clean-shaven face with angular features and wire-rimmed glasses perched precariously on his nose. He perked up at the opening guitar chords and proceeded to expound on how wonderful it was to have friends who understood and appreciated good music as opposed to so much of the drivel passing for music on the radio. In fact, he expounded almost all the way through “Bell Bottom Blues” so that we did not get to really listen to the song. But that was our friend, and his foibles were accepted along with his many fine qualities because, well, because he was our friend.
I lost a little part of me a few years back when I heard that he had, in the words of one of our gang from those days, “finally succeeded in drinking himself to death.”

Our friend’s family lived a few south of the campus in a house his parents had designed and built on land purchased from his mother’s mother. It sat in a densely wooded area, a two-story, white, wood-framed house, reached by a gravel road running down the left side of a large pasture before diving into the woods and winding through the trees to a small clearing just large enough for the house. We were always welcome there.
His father was a usually taciturn but occasionally engaging artist who had moved into management at the advertising firm to better provided for his family. He composed symphonies on the side. My friend’s mother had taught school but now kept home. She had wavy hair, freckles, and a ready smile and warm hug. His younger sister was a delicate flower with long, straight hair who loved horses. His younger brother was the only high school aged kid I knew who was an avid Elvis fan.
From this milieu sprang my friend, a multi-instrumentalist (guitar, bass, piano, and drums, to my knowledge) who could read music and excelled at math and science. He was prone to the outrageous statement such as “Steve Earle is god!” His musical taste ran from the Romantic symphonies of Shostakovich to the acoustic harmonies of Bread to the blues of Mose Allison to the Southern rock of the Allman Brothers. Our tastes coincided on most points, but I could not quite make it all the way to Bread. America was as far as I could go down that road. He was smart, frequently unfocused, always open-handed, a chain smoker, and a true friend.
There was always a place at his family’s dinner table, even if two or three or more were hanging around. His mother insisted on patching my torn jeans with the most colorful swatches she had. Through the family, we added another member to our loose coterie, a recent graduate of our college who had met the family through his electrician father who had wired their house.
One Christmas the girls in our gang suggested we each decorate a square of fabric in some appropriate fashion, which we did. Then the girls used the squares to create a quilt to present to our friend’s mother. It made up in love what it lacked in aesthetics. She treasured it.
Our gang enjoyed those times hanging out with our friend and his family. It was our home away from home, a house was filled with good conversation, music, and laughter. I believe that in our heart of hearts, we thought this was the ideal family, the kind of loving and accepting family and home we hoped to create someday.

We progressed through our college years. Soon, my friend’s younger sister began dating another classmate of ours. One afternoon the two of them were pedaling bikes on a country road near her house when a motorist struck and killed her boyfriend. Devastated, her life spiraled out of control. I might bump into her at a concert or music venue, out of it, unaware of where she was, abandoned by whomever she had come with. I would load her up and take her home.
Around this time, my friend’s father began an affair with a woman in his office which led to a divorce and more heartbreak.
In those pre-social media days, time, distance, careers, and families led us down different paths and we all lost touch except for sporadic and unexpected contact. I learned that my friend began a career in information technology and that he had lost his mother to cancer. Then I learned he was in a hospital in New Orleans, dying. Then he was gone.

All of these memories and more erupted into my mind unbidden, whole, intact, nearly palpable, and all in the blink of an eye, the space of a heartbeat. Music, that most abstract and evocative medium, was certainly the trigger, but it must have been more than that. How many times have I heard that song? Who knows? The driver’s seat of an SUV has little enough in common with a vinyl-covered booth in a campus grill, a parking lot with a college campus.
For whatever reason, it happened, revealing the arc of all those lives, rich in detail at times, frustratingly patchy in others, each joy and sorrow and loss acute and real.
It is a blessing that with each remembering, those people, those friends that shaped our lives so, are etched more deeply in our hearts and minds, where they can be clutched more dearly and treasured for the times that were precious, where all that happened can be pondered upon, searched again and again for answers and meaning.
All that and more because “Bell Bottom Blues” popped up on my iPhone, and I was suddenly 20-years-old and my friend strolled into the campus grill with a grin on his face.

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Filed under Loss, Memory