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Flowers Out of Bone (12)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

Flowers Out of Bone (12)

            “Yes. Lurleen B. Wallace, only forty-one when she died from cancer. Her husband couldn’t run for governor anymore; he had exceeded the law. So they ran her. She died after a year in office in 1968, a little bit more than a year after she took office.”

            “The same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.”

            “That’s right. What a note in history. George C. was known more for barring the door at the University of Alabama to keep four scared Black students from enrolling. ‘Segregation now and segregation forever’ was his motto.”

            “Wonder why Gram didn’t tell me that?”

            “Folks around here weren’t concerned about him keeping Black students out of the University of Alabama. They knew his family; he wasn’t an outsider. The devil they knew. And he gave us new textbooks.”

            “What do you mean?” Emma asks.

            “Before that, Big Mama and other women in the community used to fish discarded books from the trash bins at the white school.”

            “Really?” Emma put her hands over her mouth.

            “Yes. Often, the white students wrote, GOOD LUCK NIGGERS all over the books.”

            “Mom, I’ve never heard this before.”

            “Our parents cleaned them up with erasers the best they could. We didn’t write with ink pens like today. They also wrapped them in newspaper and brown paper. Our home economics teacher showed us how to press flowers on the outside of the books, with stencils, after they were wrapped.”

            “When did you get new textbooks?” Emma asks.

            “Eleventh grade.”

            “That’s so awful Mom.”

            “We didn’t think it was so awful. Our parents would shake their heads and say, “‘Lord have mercy on Alabama.’”

            “You see, when they said, ‘Lord have mercy,’ they meant it for the white folks. We had the high ground and prayed for others. Even though the others seemingly had so much more than we did,” I continue.

            “This is amazing.”

            “You know, one of those scared little girls who George C. Wallace was trying to keep out of the University of Alabama was Vivian Malone Jones.”

            “I’ve never heard you mention her.”

            “I don’t tell you everybody I know. We used to sit on some of the same nonprofit boards together. I think Vivian was the bravest person. I could’ve never done what she did.” I look toward the sky. Our walk slows into more conversation. I am pleased. Birds are tweeting and the sky seems wider. We aren’t talking about college, boys, money, or all of the other serious issues in our lives.

            “Did she graduate?” Emma asks.

            “Of course, the first African American to graduate from the University of Alabama, and with honors.” I smile.

To be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (11)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

            Crying had helped to free me. Big Mama didn’t allow crying. “Only de weak do dat.” She had even made fun of folks who cried. “Ain’t dey ugly ‘nuff ‘out tyin up dey ugly faces.” I hadn’t cried when Emma was sick; I just stopped talking. And, of course, I hadn’t cried at Big Mama’s funeral. But for three months I paid $100 an hour to cry. Before I left for Bone, I made an appointment with my therapist for the week I get back to Atlanta. There will be plenty to talk about. I am long past just crying. Or maybe there would be a lot to think about.

            I don’t know how to think of my life without being overwhelmed by what had happened in the park. The warmth from the spring sun isn’t enough to keep sharp pains from piercing my stomach. I try to change the direction of my pain by shifting my thoughts toward my aging mother, and the role I’ll have to assume as the oldest daughter. Ruby is more prepared to take frontline duty since she lives in Bone, and would always be there. I feel like a stranger not just thinking about my estranged family, but about the red clay where Emmett’s blood is drenched. How much black blood is soaked in the earth of Alabama?

            “Twenty minutes for the AAA to get here,” Emma beams, hanging up the telephone.

            “Lady of Adventure, let’s get something to drink.” I smile and reach for my daughter’s hand.

            “Your hands are so cold.”

            “They’re always cold,” I squeeze her hand. Emma has Beauty’s small and delicate looking hands; both are the color molasses.

            “I like them cold.” Emma looks around the peaceful park. “This is really nice.” Crickets hiss; it’s too early for picnickers. We stroll through oaks, magnolias, and dogwoods. The scent of spring grass, night flowers and weeds linger in the early air. Dew from the grass beads on our shoes. I wish I had worn sneakers like Emma. Instead I am wearing 3-inch heels, trying to impress my mother–something I should’ve given up on by now.

            “Look, Emma, there’s a basswood. I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one.”

            “How can you tell?”

            “See the star leaves?” We stop and I pick up a few of the leaves that have fallen on the ground. “And there’s the little thistles fallen around its trunk. In the fall the leaves turn red, yellow and purple. When Big Mama first showed me one, I called it the chewing gum tree.” I brush my hands. We continue to walking.

            “Are we close to Gram’s?”

            “About two hours.” Why am I so nervous? It’s just my family whom I haven’t seen in nearly twenty years.

            “Did you come here when you were a kid?” Emma asks.

            “No.” I step over a patch of muddy grass.

            “Was it a park then?”

            “Yeah, but coming here never occurred to me or anybody from our community. But I remember a big celebration with loud music and cars with signs, when this park was named for the one and only George C. Wallace.” I toss a fallen branch out of our path. “There was a big parade and politicians making promises. The smell of barbecue blanketed the entire town. The only Blacks were here to cook, clean, and serve. It was like the town wasn’t ours.”

            “The old governor Gram despised because he made his sick wife run for governor?”

            “That would be him, the infamous governor of Alabama many times over.”

            “Did she win?”

Flowers Out of Bone is to be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (10)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

            Surely there must’ve been some joy in my childhood. It’s hard to imagine that anybody could grow up without something other than mutilated memories. But in spite of, maybe because of, growing up in the segregated South, I had succeeded by earning a scholarship to college and later a fellowship to graduate school. After working in marketing for a Fortune 500 company for eight years, I now own a thriving floral business. My generation of the 1970s is the first in sizable numbers to directly benefit from the hard work of the Civil Rights Movement. Ten years earlier, if I’d worked anywhere, it would’ve been as a teacher with a college degree; otherwise, I would have sewed in shirt factories like Ruby, or cleaned white folks’ houses like Beauty had. My world had indeed changed and will keep changing, too, through Emma and maybe Anton.

            We continue wandering through the meadow, me proudly pointing to and naming trees and Emma paying attention. I’ve always been determined to learn about the world of nature. In spite of growing up in the country, I had few encounters with the forest. Nor had I had any contact with beaches, lakes, or rivers—even the sunshine is to be feared because it too is for white folks; it only makes Black folks blacker.

            I think of nature as gifts from the universe, not belonging to anybody. The sun belongs to the ocean. And there can be no sky without the ocean. When I was a child, I dreamed of seeing stars mirrored in the lakes. I longed to embrace the silence of the wilderness, and to smell the sea and taste its salt, like I read about in books. But there hadn’t been room for such a dream for little Black girls in Bone. Instead fear was the law of the land.

            “I see a phone booth.” Emma points. “Do you have change?”

            “Here’s the auto club card too.” I slip her the coins and card, and continue to examine the scenery as Emma runs toward the telephone booth. Pleasantly surprised, I am almost in the park and feel no panic or shortness of breath. And if I feel no panic in this park, then I know I’ll be okay anywhere. No swelling of the skin. No rushed poundings of the heart. Can those days be behind me? Is it possible? Maybe Emma is right.

            I’ve fought hard to exorcize my inherited demons, the ones that come with being born Black, southern, poor, and female—my plantation baggage. His body was found near the park. But I know it’s not the park, but the people. Always the people, that’s what I’d learned from ten years of therapy. I was pleased when I finally found a therapist I felt comfortable enough to trust. I hated the males the most, always telling me how strong I was. I am not strong, that’s why I need your services, I wanted to scream to the goddess of sanity. Sometimes all I could do was cry through the entire session.

Flowers Out of Bone is to be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (9)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

Emma sighs and stretches her arms forward and sits up. She doesn’t look as much like me as I do Beauty. But she doesn’t look anything like her daddy either, other than a feature here and there. I am pleased that I don’t see my dead husband when I look into my daughter’s face. A few years ago I’d have thought that would be a mean thing to think. It’s not, just honest. Emma’s long curly hair is braided in a thick ponytail.

            “This is a new car. What can be wrong?” Emma asks.

            “Do I look like a mechanic?” I hiss. This is the first sign of bad luck. How can we be having trouble in this new BMW?

            “I hate it when this happens.” Emma yawns.

            “Everybody hates it when this happens,” I snap. “I think it’s the tire.”

            “It’s not that big of a deal.” She stretches and yawns again.

            “I just don’t like feeling trapped.” I try rubbing away my headache. I have to get ahold of myself if there’s any hope of me getting through the trip in one piece. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I am not ready to be here. Why haven’t I demanded that Ruby and Beauty come to Atlanta? I could’ve even had a driver pick them up.

            Emma unbuckles her seatbelt, gets out of the car and reaches her arms to the sky. Her honey eyes are wide with curiosity, like Beauty’s but with the almond shape of Big Mama’s. “No reason to panic; we’re in a park. Fresh air.” She opens her hands like a fan. “Remember what that is? Freedom! Let’s make this an adventure.” She beckons me to join her. “It would be nice to have a picnic here.”

            “The state park is just a stone’s throw away,” I concede and step out of the car.

           “We can call AAA from here. And I’m not going to panic.” I pop the car locks.

            “We could use a break about now.” Emma reaches her hands above her head until they meet in a triangle. “A picnic would be nice.”

            “We?” I turn to my daughter and smile. “I think I’m the person doing the work.” I point to myself.

            We walk in a silent peaceful rhythm about a fourth of a mile. When I am not watching her, I see the broken necks of dandelions and patches of burst buttercups near the side of the road. The bittersweet smell of wildflowers is cut by the sharp scent of the pine trees stinging my eyes. I wish I could crush my past away as easily as flowers underfoot. Even the flowers are responsible. As nice as the park is, even it is a reminder of my fearful childhood that stole my voice. Never walk in the park. Always go around the long way. No, you can’t go to the lake for a picnic. No, you can’t try on the clothes in the stores. It’s the law. Stop asking so many questions.

            I struggle through the thought. Take a breath and count to ten. “The moment you dance, your heart dances with you,” was on a postcard I received from Mr. Anton Haas before we left Atlanta. Take another deep breath and count to ten, but try to remember only the good. And there is some, it’s just buried by what happened to Emmett. I massage my temples again and step over a patch of purple crocus. Why had I worn these stupid clothes?

Flowers Out of Bone is to be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (8)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

Flowers Out of Bone (8)

            Soon after Big Mama moved in with us, Beauty mustered up enough courage to kick Mr. Tex out of the house and out of our lives. He was her third husband, my sister’s daddy, and everybody’s disappointment. A tiny man with processed hair and copper-colored skin that shaded more red in the summer; he never had much to say except on the weekends when he had been drinking. After Friday’s payday, we often didn’t see him again until late Sunday night when he’d stumble home without money or food and the bickering would begin. Sometimes Beauty would go to the sawmill on payday to try and catch him before he got away with his paycheck. Finally, she put Mr. Tex’s clothes on our front porch in five brown paper bags from the Winn Dixie. She told Mr. Pig Walker to go by the sawmill to tell Mr. Tex that if he didn’t come and pick up the clothes by Saturday, she was going to give them away.

            When Miss Sweet had called ten years ago with the news of Big Mama’s death, I was packing to travel to Holland to secure a relationship with a flower distributor. I was nervous and so excited. This little flower shop was not just working but had grown into an international business. I owned an international company! Well, almost. My host was to be a Mr. Anton Haas, who had been kind and understanding when I telephoned him to reschedule our appointment. After cancelling my plans to travel to the international flower festival, I drove the rough and rugged roads of rural Alabama with a weighty heart and still in shock with Emma. Only for Big Mama’s funeral was I willing to set foot in Bone again, until Emma asked me to come. I never thought I’d need to come back for anything other than funerals. I never thought of Beauty with regard to funerals, maybe Aunt Honey’s, Miss Sweet’s, or Mrs. Wright’s.

            I continue driving, fussing to myself through the wide-open pastures of rural Alabama. Why did the citizens of this state put up with such bad roads? Potholes are dangerous. Highway 29 had been the only main road for as long as I can remember. Why should the road be any different from the town? Some things don’t change, and those I haven’t missed. I shake my head in disbelief when I hear a sudden rattling noise. Assuming it’s more bad roads, I keep driving, but the noise grows louder and the car jerks. I swerve onto the shoulder of the road and navigate the car to a safe stop.

            “Emma. Emma. Wake up. Something’s wrong with the car.” I wonder how she can sleep through all the noise. Dust and gravel settle.

Flowers Out of Bone is to be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (7)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

Old Man Forest from our church worked in the yard. He told us how the white woman ordered expensive flowers from all kinds of foreign places he’d never heard of. I’d never seen anything like the beauty of the blooming yard. Even the hibiscus was opening up to its new home with petals orange as the skin of peaches.

            Old Man Forest worked hard to get the foreign flowers to take to the red clay of Alabama. He wore overalls and the biggest sun hat I’d ever seen, always taking it off and wiping his wrinkled face with a limp rag. I dreamed of squeezing my hands in the black rich dirt and planting flowers. I wouldn’t even mind pulling weeds. My favorite was the white tea roses, so small and delicate, light and lovely. To have such a house would’ve been like living in the bosom of heaven.

            The white woman served Ruby and me lemonade and teacakes from paper plates and cups. We sat in the screened back porch where a white ceiling fan gave us bursts of cool air. She sat directly under the big ceiling fan. Her light-colored hair pulled back with a white headband. Her lips were the same color of pink as her shorts and sleeveless blouse. She fanned herself with another hand fan with Chinese women painted on it and complained about the heat. The only fans I’d ever seen were the cardboard ones we used at church that came from Sharpe’s Funeral Home. Sometimes the rolling store would give us a handful of free fans. The white woman always asked us questions about school. We were told to sit up straight, smile, and say yes ma’am and thank you. Beauty never ate with us; she kept working. Afterwards Ruby and I would skip the mile-long walk home with Beauty, while the white woman napped before supper. I dreamed of fields of color.

            When we got home Ruby and I would soak Beauty’s feet in a bucket of hot water and Epsom salt, while she slept sitting up. Sometimes we combed her hair. After about an hour she would get up and eat supper. We would have already completed our schoolwork and cleaned the kitchen. Big Mama never allowed us in the kitchen other than to eat or clean up. With Big Mama in charge at our house, delicious scents always waved through the air. I loved leaping off of the school bus and running into our warm and cozy house. And our yard bloomed too, just not like the white woman’s. Our flowers were more like splashes of yellows and whites, here and there. But we kept our dirt yard swept with a homemade straw broom. I thought our lives would go like that forever and Big Mama would never die.

To be continued

Flowers Out of Bone (6)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

I wish Big Mama could be there; it’d help me to feel part of the family again. Beauty is needy and whiny; she wants to be parented, rather than be a parent. She can’t handle anything emotional after losing Ivy, her seven year old and first-born. “Hit ain’t right for folks to even thank of countin on me. Auh had de worst loss any human bein can have.”

            I wonder why coming home is always about sadness. Had it ever been joyful? From the time I’d learned to read, I dreamed of traveling to places where there was no fear of white folks. Sometimes I feel like I had been run out of Bone for committing a crime that I never understood. After books, Bone was boring. Reading about places so different from my world was exciting and gave me hope that my world was meant to be bigger than Bone. It was a dream I assumed that everybody had until Ruby told me how silly I was. “Why would folks wanna leave their homes? That’s crazy talk Gracie Mae.”

            Before Emma and I left Atlanta, I packed five disposal cameras to take photos of Bone. Emma never takes pictures. Maybe if I could see the space through the safe lens of a camera, my view would be something other than the horror of Emmett’s mutilated body, lying in the park like dead tree limbs. This place had stifled my voice and stole my soul.

            I also threw some of my favorite gardening tools in the car. Before Big Mama died we worked in the yard—planting, weeding, and talking about flowers. I can hear her reminding me to, “Always be ready to work in beauty; hit saves us from so much of de evil in de world.” I’ll never know that joy of having somebody to works side by side in beauty and in blood again. As close as Emma and I are, we don’t share a passion for flowers.

            Big Mama moved in with us after Grandpa Alex died. I was four and Ruby was two. I only saw Grandpa Alex once or twice. He was tall and lanky. I remember him kissing Ruby and me on cheek with a scratchy face that smelled like cigars. While Beauty cleaned the white woman’s house, Big Mama supervised the assembly line of domestic relations in our house. An ideal set-up, since Beauty showed no interest in nothing except the white woman’s house. Sometimes during the summer Ruby and I would visit Beauty at the big white house with the screened back porch that looked like it was a good mile long. What I remember most was the yard full of flowers bursting with every shade of yellows, reds, whites, pinks, even blues, and in every size. The yard looked like it had been carpeted with a quilt of blossoms.

Flowers Out of Bone (5)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

            I love wearing Big Mama’s pearls. I run my finger around the rough edge of the faded beads hanging around my mint-colored silk blouse. I should’ve dressed more causal. Don’t they want to see the life I’ve built for Emma and me? How we live? It’s not like I’ve asked them to come across country, only get in a car and five maybe four or five hours. I would even have a driver to pick them up.

            In 1942, Big Mama put the pearls on layaway at Grant’s Department store and paid two dollars a month on them for three years. Old Man Grant let the church ladies use layaway but wouldn’t extend credit or let them try on clothes in the store. He said it would insult the white ladies. To protect the beads, I had them restrung. The jeweler told me I was paying more for the restringing than they were worth. I told him I didn’t think so. My diamond studded earrings and a Timex watch are the only other jewelry I wear. Tapping my fingers on the steering wheel reminds me that I should‘ve gotten a manicure. My ashy hands are cold and rough.

            I shift my focus onto the gray highway and remember that I have to deal with Beauty. I was surprised when Ruby called to say that Beauty wasn’t feeling well. When I asked what was wrong, she said nothing in particular, but she seemed to be aging quicker than normal. I’m not sure what that means. I asked her if that was what her doctor said, she snapped, no. “I’m the one who spend everyday with her. I can see.” Ruby can be such a drama queen; maybe it’s her way of getting me to come home. Why hadn’t they just asked me to come home? After about five years of not visiting my family, they started asking me when was I coming home. I said I couldn’t. No one said a word after that; they would continue the conversation by telling me what they were cooking for supper. When they continued to whine about me coming home, I told them not ask me anymore unless they were willing to talk to me about Emmett. They never asked.

            I hope my long absence will make it easier for us to get along. Before Big Mama died, it hadn’t mattered much whether we got along; Big Mama mothered everybody. Ruby and I hadn’t needed to call our mother anything other than her pretty name, Beauty.

To Be Continued

Flowers Out of Bone (4)

Flowers Out of Bone

Photo of Ethel Morgan Smith

by Ethel Morgan Smith

Chapter 1

Writing checks to my family felt cold and heartless at first, but I soon got used to it. Even the coldness of hard cash doesn’t weigh me down anymore. Plus they never send Emma or me anything, other than Christmas and birthday cards with a note on the inside of the card that always said, “Didn’t know what to get you since you have everything.”

            In spite of my success, I am still Gracie Mae from Bone, Alabama: dark-skinned, country, tall and quiet, smart but nice, and too serious for my own good. But nice, dark-skinned girls could never be pretty. Yet, away from Bone, I am stylish, sophisticated, and still smart. And no one thinks of me as being tall or quiet. I am 5’5” and have been since I was twelve years old. Some even call me beautiful. No one knows that after Emmett’s death I stopped talking to anybody except Emma. I’ve been afraid all of my life; I’ve never known another way to be in the world. My life is about to change again, and if I understand nothing else, I know I have to come home and begin where it all started.

            My green linen slacks feel clingy even through the lining. I tried to dress up some, which I hope will be one less issue with Beauty, who has some image of me wearing pressed hair, high heels and box-pleated skirts with silk blouses and expensive jewelry. If she or Ruby bothered to visit us, they’d know I wear casual clothes because my work entails picking up heavy containers and running around delivering flowers.

            For a long time I wore only red and black to rebel against being told that I was too dark-skinned to wear red; and folks only wore black to funerals. Maybe the funeral was mine, but like a perennial, I had come to life again. Not wearing high heels hadn’t bothered me, since tall girls weren’t supposed to wear high heels anyway. Why are there so many rules about clothing? And they are all about what I’m not supposed to do. The only things on the to-do list are pray, respect your elders, and keep your skirt down.

            When I started to work with flowers, I fell in love with pastels; and trusted them more than people. They could not cause pain; even when they died, they returned more beautiful than ever. Ruby thought I should dress sharper and shows some cleavage, which I don’t have, since I wear a size eight and had money. I spend less money on clothes than any of my friends, but none of them know. Dressing well with little money is one of the most valuable skills I’ve passed down to Emma, but she thinks I am just cheap.

To Be Continued

 
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