I came across this photo while looking for another. Everyone in this picture has gone on to be with God except for me and the babies. The two I’m carrying and the one sitting at the table.
That’s Mama, the baby of her family, harassing Uncle Carl and Uncle Charlie, two of her older five brothers, as Aunt Blanche and Aunt Joycie look on.
Those babies I’m carrying turn 38 in a couple of days. That boy at the table? He turned 40 on his last birthday.
This is one of my most favorite photos of my mother. Uncle Carl and Aunt Blanche had flown out to Oregon from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, because I was having twins and they were hoping to be around for that event. Everybody in the extended family was excited over me giving birth to twins, especially my uncles. Mama was more worried than she appears in this photo. She had warned me “Don’t buy two of everything until they get here.”
She worried one or more of them might not make it. Her worry was well-founded. Grandma Ruth, her momma, had twins, too, but the girl twin died at birth or shortly thereafter. The story I heard is that Grandma Ruth birthed three girls before she had one that lived – Mama.
Stubbornness isn’t always a curse, sometimes it’s a saving grace.
Half-smoked cigarettes and half-cups of coffee were the staples of my girlhood. I never knew my parents or my mama’s kin to gather without both nearby. Raised up in Appalachia, they all started smoking before they were old enough to drive. Tobacco grows were as common as cuke vines.
It was the smokes that took Mama’s life. She had the strongest heart of any person I’ve ever known. She probably would have lived to be as old as John McCain’s mother had she not been a life-long smoker. I know she regretted that. She tried to quit several times. But as her doctor said, “There’s a reason they call it an addiction.”
The twins arrived in good health not long after this gathering, over the 4th of July weekend in 1982. The entire hospital bill for a 3-day stay cost $4. That was our co-pay at Bess Kaiser Hospital. It was the closest we ever got to universal health care coverage. Tim was a student at the time. We were covered through my job at a local bank, a job I didn’t return to because I couldn’t afford daycare for three babies off my $9 an hour salary, a problem that persists decades later for many women. You would think of the two things the richest country in the world could afford its citizens would be universal healthcare and daycare, wouldn’t you? But nah.
Some of my earliest memories as a child are of my aunts and uncles and the stories they told while sitting at the table smoking cigs and drinking warmed up coffee. Mama did her best storytelling with her brothers. She rarely mentioned Dad’s name to me, but in the presence of her brothers, they would talk freely about “The time Dave _______________.” Fill in the blank.
My children are the aunts and uncles now, the ones telling stories about the time their mama, their daddy, their siblings did … Fill in the blank.
The other day while out for a walk with my grandson, he stopped me: “You broke your momma’s back!” he admonished.
“Because I stepped on a crack?” I replied.
“Yeah, you stepped on a crack. I didn’t. I didn’t break my momma’s back.”
“Did your momma teach you that?” I asked, reciting the old ditty.
“You know who taught that to her?”
“No,” he said.
“Granny did,” his older brother replied.
I taught my children the old rhyme I had repeated myself growing up, but it wasn’t the original version. According to some folklore scholars the original rhyme evolved from its 19th century racist beginnings: “Step on a crack and your mother will turn black.” Or some suggest: “Step on a crack and your mother’s baby will be black.”
One of my kin in this photo was reportedly a member of the KKK. I never asked them about that. I would today if they were still alive. Perhaps it was more rumor than reality; I can’t say. I can only hope it wasn’t the case. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out it is true, though.
I grew up in a racist country among racists.
I still live in such a country among racists.
Racism has always rode shot-gun in this country, never a back-seat.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of BURDY, a novel, Mercer University Press.