“Don’t Worry About the Mule Going Blind”
An overbearing oak tree stands in front of our home, standing guard and at attention, holding our lives in its hand. Larger and stronger than our tiny wooden house, it has its own agenda, especially during the winter. Even before the lighting and thundering start in, the tree begins to sway back and forth, warning us that it might just fall right on top of our place. So it takes only the thought of an approaching storm for Ma to gather all her children and run to a neighbor’s more securely built home. Once we arrive at the neighbor’s, Ma establishes a mood of sheer terror. As the rain beats on the tin roof, she and the older girls form a circle around the babies in the corner of the main room, praying to survive the unpredictable storm. When Dad arrives home from work on a rainy day, he has to look for his family.
But Johnnie and I are never afraid.
* * *
City Blacks living in southern Alabama in the 1950s had it worse than the rural Blacks, who could at least grow and harvest their own food. In Troy, Alabama, we weren’t rural, but it wasn’t a steaming metropolis either. We were functional poor—no running water, electricity, or indoor toilet, and we sometimes ran out of food. The only true white person seen in the neighborhood was the insurance man, who showed up once a month.
But my father, John Owens, did support his family, working at a mill from sun up to sun down. Eventually he earned a dollar an hour, which was a good salary, especially for Black folks. Every Friday when he got paid, Uncle Felix, his sister’s husband, took him shopping for groceries at the store owned by the mill owner. Dad gave Ma all the money he had left, and she’d give him fifty cents for a haircut. To supplement his income, Dad dug graves and hunted for possum, squirrels, and other live game.
Dad was born on a farm in Troy, the eldest child of a large family. He grew up to be a very dark, handsome man with eyes that confessed the depth of his soul. When he reached beyond his boundaries and fell unconditionally in love with Ma, his life was no longer his own. His life was Ma.
Hazel, as she was named, had razor-blade blue eyes, with medium-brown olive skin and a stature that could not be reckoned with. Ma was a city girl, the eldest of six children. From what I’ve been told, Grandpa was paralyzed after falling into a well he was digging. So after Ma graduated from the eleventh grade, she went to work to help support her family instead of pursuing her dream of nursing or teaching school. She worked for a while as a housekeeper for whites, but she couldn’t manage being a maid and started eagerly pursuing a mate who would cater to her every whim. She met my Dad at a church gathering. They held hands and were soon married.
Then came us kids. Ma always appeared to be satisfied with making babies, which she did like she was making biscuits: whenever they were baked, her job was complete. That is where my sister Sarah’s chorus begins: cooking, cleaning, washing, and babysitting.
* * *
Sarah was the oldest. There were seven of us: Sarah—who we called Honey Gal—Johnnie, Catherine—nicknamed Bush—Betty, Jab, Sammy, and Ann. And Ma was known to beat Johnnie and me down. I never remember Ma hitting Sarah or Bush or my younger siblings. Sarah was so timid; if Ma said “Come here” to her, she’d immediately start to cry, and Bush was saved from beating by a constant nosebleed from some unknown disease. But if me or Johnnie so much as hesitated when she asked us to do something—sweep the leaves in yard or fetch something—there was a beat down. She’d say, “Come here!” and we’d take off running like we was trying to outrun a bullet. She’d send long-legged Honey Gal to catch us, and she always did; either we got tired and stopped running or she caught us and bring us to Ma. Then Ma would send another child to get a switch off the tree. It didn’t matter what we’d done; the whipping was always the same. She’d put our head under an old church chair, with only our naked butt sticking out, and she’d sit on the chair and beat us until she got tired.
Ma worked fast, though. After she got your head and butt properly situated under the chair and got herself sitting in it, the beating lasted for less than two minutes—just like wringing the neck of a chicken you were going to eat for dinner. Chicken or child, you do not tarry. As she beat us, she’d tell us why. Then she would remind us of other things we had done that she did not like. Lying with your head under the chair was like being in a choke hold, and you could have easily passed out. Her licks were hard, with a stick or a broom handle, and after a couple of licks, you couldn’t even cry or scream.
Even Dad was cautious of Ma. When he came home after drinking, to determine what type of mood she was in, he’d open the screen door slowly and throw his hat inside onto the floor. If Ma didn’t say anything, he knew she was in a good mood and felt it was safe to enter. Otherwise, he sat on the porch until he thought she had cooled off. If she started fussing he knew that he was not going to have a good time: Ma would be after him about drinking, talk about how his family was crazy, he was a not good man, he should not be gambling because we needed the money—anything to make him feel less than a man.
So I don’t know how Johnnie and I had the nerve to rebel against Ma, but we did. Johnnie always sassed Ma on the run, or under her breath. Like she’d say, “When Dad’s get home I’m gonna ask him where I get my color from!” Ma would hear the mumbling, and that was all she’d need for a beat down. But I admired that dare Johnnie had in her, and I was an instigator for her. She was not afraid of anything, not even the dead.
* * *
Johnnie’s nickname growing up was “Mama.” Aunt Juanita gave her this nickname and it stuck because Johnnie was the one who helped Ma talk to white folks whenever she had to go to town to take care of business, and it was Johnnie who helped Auntie with ways to do business in a common-sense way. “Mama, I need you to go with me to the courts to pay a bill,” Auntie would say. Then all the details of the transaction had to be discussed, because Johnnie wanted things to go as planned.
She was like a stage actor, practicing a scene, even with ordinary things like scheduling the day. Auntie’d say, “Mama, first we’re going over my brother Marvin’s house to pick up the milk and butter, then we going to pick the berries next.” Johnnie would interrupt, “Auntie, why are you going to drive to Uncle Marvin house first and drive out of your way so we can pick the berries? We should pick berries first, and on our way back, since we got to come that way, we can stop at Uncle Merley’s house to pick up the milk and butter.”
“Mama, you have so much sense. You’re going to make something of yourself one day.”
* * *
We were fortunate that our neighbor, Mrs. Johnnie Mae Warren, worked in a school cafeteria and brought the leftover food home for us every day. Her husband Mr. Ed, had my complexion, and Mrs. Johnnie Mae looked white. Not light-skinned or high yellow, but white. They had a beautiful gated corner home with electric lights, an inside bathroom, and a kitchen with running water. They had a television and a car. We had two rooms and a kitchen, with a wood stove, a well, and an outhouse out back.
But we had the marbles, and their boy, Eddie B. Warren, was not allowed to crawl on his knees. Still, sometimes when we were in the middle of a game he would come over and demand that we start over so he could play. I never understood how someone could come into your yard and give you orders.
Eddie B.’s baby sister, Elaine, had pink cheeks with dimples and golden Shirley Temple curls. And she was treasured like gold. Elaine used to stand by the fence, calling us names and telling her brother to come home.
* * *
Before I was nine years old, I had to have surgery to remove a tissue growing in my eye. I was scared to death. During the surgery, Ma held my hand, telling me that everything was going to be all right and not to cry. She stroked my nappy hair and rubbed my shoulder. My Uncle Marvin drove us home from the hospital, and Ma had him to stop at the store so she could buy me a cookie for being such a good girl. She held my head in her chest and rubbed my arm. It was a comfort.
* * *
When I was a small child, mostly my mothering came from Honey Gal, who always treated me as if I was her baby doll. Every morning before school, she heated water on the wooden stove and washed me up and dressed me. Afterwards, she would carry me to the kitchen and force me to eat grits or bread, even though I would raise holy hell and try to keep my mouth shut. When she finished with me, I’m sure she was eager to go to school. Then me and Honey Gal, Ma and Johnnie, Bush, Jab, and Sammy would go to Grandma’s house, which was near the school. Walking was something a baby doll did not do, so Honey Gal had to carry me, along with her books. During her walk, I allowed her to put me down only to rest for a few seconds.
When Ma was not with us, we would take a shortcut to Grandma’s house—maneuvering through the field and around the stream and the cows. Sometimes the stream overflowed and we’d have to find another place to cross safely. After crossing we entered a thicketed area, draped with long branches and silent leaves.
The quiet lasted only a moment, because the second we lifted our heads out the top of the embankment, the neighbor kids bombarded us with anything they could pick up and throw. Instead of ignoring these children and running, Johnnie would talk back to belittle them for attacking us: “You don’t go to school; your clothes is too ragged!” “Your sister pregnant and not married!” or “You got a big head!” With those kids at least, Johnnie was selling wolf tickets, and I was still afraid to fight. But I didn’t have any problem screaming when the going got rough for Johnnie. Usually if we screamed loud enough some adult would come out to see what was going on.
After surviving that encounter, we’d have to pass the witch’s house in front of Cousin Fred’s. That property looked abandoned; even the house had weeds growing out of it! The witch always wore black, and if she saw any kids walking on the road in front of her house, she ran out her front door with an ax, a hoe, or a butcher knife, yelling obscenities from her porch. So we’d pass her house swiftly and soundlessly, for fear of annoying her.
Finally, we were at Grandma’s. Ma felt better over at her ma’s house because Auntie Juanita, who lived nearby, took over our care. She’d take all the kids who were not in school, and we spent our days with her and her kids—exploring the surroundings, playing house, fighting, searching for gold in a ditch, pretending we were Tarzan, playing marbles. Auntie’s house was a child’s paradise. She was a hoarder—her house was so full of stuff there was no walking place—and we were allowed to play freely there. Or she would have something planned. She’d pile us all into her old automobile and take us somewhere—like to her brother’s farm, where we got milk, cheese, and vegetables. Or we would pick berries or look for chalk on the side of the road, and sometimes we’d go fishing. Auntie was the first entrepreneur I knew; she sold chalk, and she sold bootlegged whiskey. She never took her children to church, and she and her husband partied every weekend like a rock stars.
After school, Honey Gal and Johnnie came to Grandmother’s house to help Ma carry us home. Once home, Johnnie would fetch wood for the stove; Honey Gal got the kids settled; and Ma started dinner. Bush always sat on the porch with a rag stuffed up her nose to stop the bleeding. I waited for Johnnie to finish her chores so we could play marbles, or when dusk came, play hide-and-seek or look for lighting bugs.
* * *
One highlight of our pilgrimages to Grandma’s house was going to Cousin Fred’s house for our weekly ghost story. Cousin Fred was an undertaker, and we believed every word of his stories.
A lean, muscular man with flawless skin, Cousin Fred brushed a piece of lint from his meticulous black tuxedo as he looked in the mirror. The face in the mirror had the shine of a hand-polished hardwood floor, with not a line visible, just like the palms of his hands. His eyebrows extended across his forehead, with upper and lower lips equally composed. After gently polishing his ears with white powder, he put on long, black gloves with black chicken feathers sticking from the fingers. He bowed as he put on his black wizard’s top hat. His boots were hard knobs, with soles so thick they seemed part of the boot.
Charming, kindhearted, and serene, like an unruffled karamu, and the whole formation wrapped with contentment, Cousin Fred opened his door and in walked five children. Honey Gal: chunky, with long, substantial legs and wearing a nurse’s hat; Johnnie: daring, bold, unafraid, tomboy of the group, entering with a rush; Bush: alert, frightened, uneasy, dressed in blouse, pants, dress, sweater, coat, scarf with no shoes, looking nervously over her shoulder; Betty: cared-for-younger child, puny as chicken feet; Alto, Jr.: lanky and awkward, like his dad.
Cousin Fred walked away from the front door, the cape on his shoulder swishing back and forth, to sit, daunting, on the stool before the children, amused by their reaction. Tree branches slammed against the tin roof of the house, and the wind sang a sinister melody. It was spine chilling. The children, petrified, sat in a circle in front of the fireplace. Cousin Fred gave each of them one of his favorite homemade chocolate chip cookies. Then he started telling his weekly ghost story. “Once upon a time, there was an old man who lived in a house with his wife.” Cousin Fred paused to scrutinize their attentiveness.
“Fearing that his beautiful wife would abandon him, he forbade her to leave the house. So she sat in front of the mirror all day, alone, talking to herself. Every day after work, the old man stopped at the neighborhood hardware store and bought a piece of glass to build a glass house for his wife so she could see the beautiful landscape. But before the glass house was completed, his wife died.”
We moved about nervously and Cousin Fred paused before continuing. “After that, the old man always slept on his packed suitcase so he’d be ready to join his wife when the time came. Then one night, while he was trying to sleep, he heard a scratching sound on the glass.” We too heard the noise … squeak squeak squeak … and we saw terror and alarming evil in Cousin Fred’s eyes.
“After the old man heard the noise,” Cousin Fred continued, “he sat up on his suitcase, wondering if the noise came from those damn neighborhood kids. Then he lay back down and eventually fell asleep.”
Suddenly Cousin Fred rushed out of the room. When he came back, just a moment later, a creepy grin spread over his face and a stench filled the room. Then we heard someone banging on the front door, as if trying to break in. Cookies flew everywhere. Yelling and screaming incoherently, the children reached for their blankets to cover their heads.
Cousin Fred walked curiously but unhurriedly to the front door, and as he opened it stillness filled the room. “No one is at the door,” he said.
He continued. “For years, the old man slept on his packed suitcase and waited to be united with his wife. One night, he was sleepwalking, and he woke up the next day inside a casket at my funeral home. I asked the old man, ‘What are you doing here?’ The old man said, ‘I don’t know. I fell asleep in my house, but how did I end up here?’ ‘Well, I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I didn’t bring you here. If you’re ready for your funeral I can accommodate you. But first I must check my schedule.’”
“As I turned to get my calendar, the old man yelled loudly from the casket, ‘Wait, wait! Since I’m here, can you bring my wife back?’ I told the old man that yes, I could wake the dead. The old man said, ‘I’m not dead, but can you please bring my wife back?’ I told him that when he died I would bring him and his wife back at the same time.”
“I closed that old man’s casket five years ago,” Uncle Fred said in a matter-of-fact manner. “So tonight, I’ve invited him and his wife here to introduce them to you all.”
As the front door and the windows slammed open and shut, the children heard two people enter from the back door of Cousin Fred’s house.
Desperately, chaotically, wildly, everyone crashed out the front door.
“Ma! Ma! Ma!” Screaming hysterically, Honey Gal runs into Grandmother’s house. “Johnnie is hurt!” Hazel calmly places the baby on the blanket as she rises from the floor. Aunt Juanita yells, “What happened?” She and Hazel follow Honey Gal outside into the moonless night to the bottom of hill, where Johnnie lies in a pool of blood, telling Ma she is sorry for hurting herself. Aunt Juanita and her son, Alto Jr., help carry Johnnie into the house. “Ma, I’m sorry. I told Johnnie not to ride fast on the bike while driving down hill,” says Honey Gal. “I didn’t know she was going to fall and hurt herself.”
“Betty, shut up,” says my cousin Pee Ann. “Why are you crying and screaming? Nothing is wrong with you.” But I scream louder. Johnnie is my heart. My neck is hurting because I think Johnnie is going to die because they are having to hold a rag around her neck to stop the bleeding. Aunt Juanita and Uncle Alto drive Ma and Johnnie to the doctor. I cry myself to sleep while Sarah comforts her back, sore from Ma’s fist bruise.
Waking up the next morning and seeing Johnnie lying on a pallet next to me brings peace to my heart. I roll closer to investigate the large bandage around her neck. “Johnnie, can I get you something?” I ask. “You can move further away before you hurt my neck!” Then Honey Gal walks in, holding the baby, our sister Ann, and tells us to get up. We are going home.