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