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