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The Tongue That Wouldn't Keep Still
By Robert Evans Jr.
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert Evans Jr.
All right reserved.
Beatrice and James
In August of 1946, my mother, Beatrice and my father, James were married in Newton County, Mississippi. She was fourteen-years-old and he was seventeen.
In July 1947 they had their first child, Mary Jane and in October 1948, I was born. They named me after my father, James Jr. In September of 1950 they had their third child, Grace. After the three of you were born, well, this was the beginning of the end of our marriage, Mama told me.
In Mississippi, the only work for Blacks was as field hands. "I had some money I had received from my father's death, so I bought a train ticket to Chicago for your father," Mama said. "He said that he would get a job doing construction work and he would send for me and the three of you."
So Daddy moved to Chicago and lived with his sister, partying, drinking and having a good time. Six months later he came back to Mississippi with no money. He stayed in Mississippi for two months, and then returned to Chicago, leaving us alone again.
Mama told me, "One time in the winter of 1950, I had no wood for the heater or for the cooking stove. During that time most people had only wood heaters to heat the house and a wood stove to cook with. This was a cold day with freezing rain. I had to cut up my kitchen table for firewood to cook us some food."
"There were many days when I had to walk for miles to pick cotton in a white man's field," said Mama. "Mary Jane would walk with me to pick cotton. You were a one-year-old and could walk, but you wouldn't. I was so tired. As soon as I would put you down, you'd start crying, so I had to carry you with your baby sister," Mama added.
When she arrived at this field, she said, "I carried an old blanket, placed it on the ground about half way down the row and set you two on it. I'd pick cotton until I got to you babies, then I'd move you to the end of the row so I could finish picking to the end. After that I'd turn around and do the same thing all over again."
In the evening, after the day was over, she collected her pay, four dollars. "Then came the long walk back home with the three of you," Mama sighed. "Those were very hard times. I didn't think I'd ever get away from that life."
One day in 1951, Mama's mother arrived from Chicago to take us all back with her.
My Daddy's parents, Grandpa and Granmo, lived about a hundred yards from Mama's house.
When Grandpa realized that Mama was going to take all three of us back to Chicago with her, he stepped in and said, "No, I don't want you to take the two oldest. You leave them here with me. You are going to Chicago, you don't have a job and you don't have anywhere to live. You leave those kids here with me: if I eat, they eat. When you get set up in Chicago, you can come back and get them. That baby ... you can carry her with you."
Mama said, "This was a difficult choice for me, but I knew this was my only chance to leave."
So she left Mary Jane and me with my grandparents. I was between two and three years old, so I didn't remember any of this.
One summer day when I was about five years old, Grandpa told me that my Maw (Grandpa had a real way with words) was coming to visit. I didn't remember her. I knew that I had a mother because my grandparents always told me about her. I just couldn't remember—all I knew was my Grandpa and Granmo.
That afternoon, we were sitting on the front porch. A car came down the hill blowing its horn. Grandpa said, "There come your Maw." I jumped off the porch and ran around the side of the house to the China Berry tree. I climbed up that tree and stayed there.
My mother and her sister got out and spoke to Grandpa. They came to the tree I was perched in. My mother asked me to come down. I didn't want to, because I didn't know this woman. After a short while she started crying and begging me to come down. I just sat up there and looked at her. Grandpa finally came around and said, "Boy, come outta that tree."
Grandpa didn't have to tell you but once, so I came down. My mother was hugging and kissing me. I didn't want this lady kissing me. She asked Grandpa if she could take me with her to her uncle's house. He agreed. I went with her and stayed all night.
The next day she brought me back. I was happy to be home.
Mama and Daddy
Mama once told me, "When I first arrived in Chicago, I lived with my mother. Your father was living with his sister. We would see each other and talk, but we never got back together."
One day, while Mama was at work, Daddy came over to my Mama's mother's house. My grandmother was babysitting my little sister Grace. He asked if he could take her to the store to buy some candy.
After Mama arrived home from work, she called my Daddy's sister's house looking for her baby. My aunt told her, "He's not here. I don't know where he is." My father had taken Grace and not come back.
That night went by, and the next day, but still no word of the baby. "I was really hurting, but the one thing that gave me comfort was that this was my baby's father," Mama said, "and I knew he'd take care of her."
Two weeks later, Mama was told that Daddy had moved to Detroit, Michigan. Daddy kept Grace in Detroit for a year. In his later years he told me "I took real good care of Grace. I loved my baby girl with all my heart. I used to dress her real pretty and comb and braid her hair."
When I was five and Mary Jane was six, we were still living with Daddy's parents in Mississippi. We knew that we had a baby sister, but we didn't remember her.
One hot summer day we were very excited because we heard that our baby sister was coming home. In the late afternoon, a car pulled up and a man got out and talked to Grandpa. He took a little suitcase from the car, and then a little girl. Daddy sent Grace back to Mississippi, saying, "I want all of my kids to be together." Mama didn't see her baby again until she returned to Mississippi.
Mary Jane and I were happy. And Grace was so pretty. I remember the reunion just like it was yesterday. I told Grace, "I am your brother and she is your sister." Grace stood there crying.
I remember trying to take her hand, but she didn't want any of us to touch her. She didn't know us, and we didn't know her, but that was okay. Mary Jane and I were still happy to have our baby sister back.
Peas in a Pod
Time went by. I remember being seven years old. The three of us were very happy, poor as we were. We were like three peas in a pod. If one cried, we all cried: if one got a whipping—we all cried.
Our grandparents did not have electricity or running water. We had coal oil lamps for light. We carried water from a spring about two hundred yards from the house. We walked down rolling hills, through weeds, to the edge of the woods, and finally, there was the spring. Every day we had to go and carry water for cooking, washing and bathing.
Some days while we were walking to get water, a black snake would cross the path. Sometimes there was a water moccasin near the spring. Whenever we saw a snake, we would run back home without the water.
Grandpa would get really angry. He'd say, "To hell with a snake!! Go and get that water." I thought he was a very mean man.
We would go back, and if the snake was still there, we would throw sticks at it to make it leave. Then we would get the water and run back up the hill. If one of us fell and spilled the water, we would have to go back and fill up the pail again.
Looking back, I realize that those times were hard.
There were many times when I had no idea what Grandpa's words meant. I was afraid to ask him. If it was cold outside, he would say that it was "airish." When people would ask how he was doing, he would reply, Fair to middling. He said "yesterdi" for "yesterday."
If we were in the field working and it was time to eat, he would say, "Boy let's go get grub." While having breakfast, he would frequently tell Grandmo "This coffee is strong as alka falta." Later I learned that he was trying to say "This coffee is strong as Niagara Falls."
I remember one day we were working on something out in the yard by the wood pile. Grandpa said to me, "Boy, go look on the garrett and get that hammer." I went running to the house to look for the hammer. I looked every place I could. But I didn't know what he meant by "garrett."
He yelled again, "Boy, bring me that hammer!"
I was afraid but went back empty handed. I said "Grandpa, I don't see the hammer."
He replied, "Boy, that hammer is hanging right there on the porch." I ran back to the front porch and there it was. I was glad to even find the hammer, given some of the words that grandfather would use.
One day Grandpa said, "I'm gonna make a man out of you."
I was too small to plow, so he had me drive the mules all day long while he did the plowing. As a small child, I had to work hard. I was glad to go to school, because that way I didn't have to work until I got home.
Biscuits 'n BoloGna
Everybody loved Grandmo. She was a loving, sweet, fat lady. She was jolly, always laughing. I have vivid memories of her in the kitchen cooking. Every morning, Granmo would get up and bake biscuits. She would put biscuits with syrup and salt pork in a syrup can for our lunches. The syrup can was a one gallon tin, with a lid to press down and a wire handle.
We rode the bus to school. We were always teased about the can, mostly by our cousin. Back then, most kids had bologna sandwiches.
If you had a bologna sandwich you were middle class. Many days my cousin teased us by taking our can, opening it up and showing it to everybody on the bus. When my cousin took our lunches and paraded them around to the kids on the bus, the three of us would cry. I thought to myself that one day, we were going to have bologna sandwiches like the other kids.
One afternoon when I was eight years old, I got an idea on my way home from school. I walked two miles to where a man had people picking cotton and asked, "Can I pick?"
"Go to work," he said, handing me a sack.
I wasn't good at picking cotton, but I had to try. After we finished, the man weighed my cotton and paid me fifty cents. There was a small store just across the road from the man's house. I went there and I bought a loaf of bread, twenty cents worth of bologna and a small jar of mayonnaise. I still had five cents left.
I walked back home feeling that I had done something big. My sisters and I had a good lunch for the next two days. I loved my sisters, and I didn't want anybody teasing them.
My oldest sister, Mary Jane, was always in charge. We loved and respected her. She was like our mother; she always tried to take care of us. She combed Grace's hair, dressed her and bathed her. Mary Jane was only a year older than me, but I could remember her even giving me a bath once.
These are some of the things that made us so close. At times, I felt that it was the three of us against the whole world.
My father's brother was called Uncle Red. Everybody around Newton County, Mississippi called him Red. He lived just up the road, about a quarter of a mile from my grandparents' house. Uncle Red and his wife, Aunt Ginger, had six kids: four boys and two girls. The cousin who took our lunches and teased us was their oldest son.
One thing I can say about Uncle Red: he took care of his family. Uncle Red spent all week working construction on the Gulf Coast, about one hundred and fifty miles south. He would come home on Friday night. They had a car, electricity, running water and a television.
Daddy also did construction work with Uncle Red. Daddy would come home once or twice a month. When he would get home on a Friday night, we were happy to see him. Sometimes he would bring a big bag of bread, Hostess® Twinkies, cupcakes and other treats. Most of the bread and cake had green mold on it. We just broke off the bad parts and ate the rest.
Daddy would get up Saturday morning and get dressed, putting on a starched shirt and pressed khaki pants with his cowboy boots. He looked really sharp. Daddy was known for being a good dresser. He would leave on Saturday morning, and we wouldn't see him again until Sunday evening. Then it was time for him to go back to Gulfport.
I guess I am a lot like him, because he was a Jack of all trades. He was a good cook and very clean.
While Daddy made nice money, we didn't see any of it. One time, Grandpa asked Daddy to buy me a pair of shoes. My shoes were worn out and I had to dance in a play at school. Daddy said he would, but he didn't.
Before the play, Grandpa got hog rings, which people pin in a hog's nose to stop it from rooting in the ground, and pinned them all around the front of my shoes to hold the soles together. When I went on stage and started dancing, people laughed. But I didn't care because I was on stage.
Uncle Red and Aunt Ginger
There were many days when my sisters and I would walk to Uncle Red's house to watch TV. We would watch "The Little Rascals," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Lassie" and "My Friend Flicka" until it got dark. Then we'd walk back home, hoping that we wouldn't step on a snake. We went to Uncle Red's to watch TV almost every day.
Aunt Ginger cooked good dinners for her family, and when we sat there, she would usually offer us food. Of course, this is what we wanted. Her food was good. Some nights, the family would leave us, going into the kitchen to eat. We just sat there, watching TV, smelling the food and listening to them at the table.
One summer evening, the three of us went to watch TV. As we walked towards the back of their house and got to the back steps, Aunt Ginger opened the screen door and threw a large pan of dirty dish water in our faces. We all got sopping wet. I can't throw dish water out without seeing you all," she barked.
We stood there crying as she slammed the door. Then we turned around and started walking back home. But Mary Jane turned back toward Aunt Ginger's house and yelled, "You black dog!" Grandpa whipped Mary Jane really bad for saying that. All three of us cried.
During that time, I felt like we had nobody. This made us love each other even more. And Mary Jane was still our leader and protector.
I was in the second grade and seven-years-old, at Lawrence School in Lawrence, Mississippi, when I met the love of my life.
I would see this girl at school every day. She had a light complexion and was about four feet, five inches tall. She always wore her hair in a long pony tail. I was madly in love with this pretty girl, whose name was Ruby. I knew in my heart that she was the girl I would marry.
At lunchtime, Ruby would talk to older boys who were football players. I would get angry, and start using bad language to get her attention. She would come to me, take me by the hand and say, "Walk with me." After some time, she said, "You know, one day you're going to be my husband."
That made me feel good. I was seven and Ruby was fifteen. But that was okay by me.
A.D. Jones Grocery Store
A short distance from Lawrence School, Ruby's father owned a store called A.D. Jones Grocery. Mr. Jones was a black man who looked white. Everyone thought that his family was rich. I guess they were, compared to the rest of the community.
A. D. Jones Grocery was a general store. It had groceries, clothes, a pool hall and a barber chair. And Mr. Jones had a grits mill. People would bring their corn to the store to be ground into meal. He also had a wood yard. People that cut down paper, or wood pulp, would bring it there. Mr. Jones would buy it, load it on semi trucks and move it to the railroad yard. He also had a dairy with lots of cows that were milked daily.
The Jones family lived in a nice house that was next to the store. In later years, Mr. Jones told me that he owned six hundred and seventy-two acres of land.
A.D. Jones Grocery was the place where all the party people hung out: Friday and Saturday nights and Sundays. Mr. Jones sold bootleg whiskey. People would get drunk, there would be fights and some would get cut. Everybody had guns, but I don't recall anybody getting shot.
There were lots of fights. You would see guys in dark cars with other men's wives. They were all friends. After party nights, everyone returned to normal. They would be back in the fields or out in the woods working together.
Everybody had an account with Mr. Jones. People would pay them once a month. Some days my grandparents would send me to Mr. Jones'store to get sugar, snuff or chewing tobacco. I would be happy to walk those three miles, so I would get a chance to see Ruby. Granmo would give me a note and away I would go.
Excerpted from The Tongue That Wouldn't Keep Still by Robert Evans Jr. Copyright © 2011 by Robert Evans Jr.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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