Great Mammaw was unable to stay for more than a couple of hours Friday, pining as she was for her tiny room in the Greenville retirement home she moved to some years back.
This was not entirely unexpected, so I’d arranged with my parents to drop her off at their house, and they would oversee the second leg of Aged’s journey back while I rushed home to fill the day’s Internet surfing quota.
Aged began to reminisce on the way back. Shocking, I know. One would think an 84 year old would have better things to do with her time. My grandfather had died when I was five or so, and she wanted to know what I remembered of him.
I remember a man with white hair picking sand burs out of my foot, and walking along a beach scattered with oyster shells with me. I remember my mother hanging up the yellow phone in the kitchen the day he died, after someone called with the news, and breaking into tears.
As you can tell, not much–and as I am almost certain we didn’t have a yellow phone when I was five, probably even less.
In apparent defiance of the rules governing conversational segues, Aged began to talk of the one trip she took to New York City. She was a Down East country minister’s wife who could have never afforded to go on her own, but a spot on the Methodist Women’s United Nations tour opened up after another lady had a schedule conflict, and she was given that. My grandfather was away at the time and unreachable, so she just went, leaving my school age uncles on their own for a few days until he came home.
“It was all very interesting,” she told me in her best sotto voce tones. “No one knew what the U.N. was then. They asked me to teach a class on it when I got back. ”
Remember when the U.N. was considered a good thing, the vanguard of a new world order, its reputation still burnished and shining?
She and my grandfather served 11 churches in eastern North Carolina. For most Methodist ministers, this would been over a period of about 44 years. They managed to do it in less than 30. At least two congregations, in Maury and Conway, requested new ministers from the conference after clashing with them over civil rights issues. My grandparents were for them. The sharecropper’s landlords who normally took the lay leadership positions in their congregations were not.
One of them, a man who had given the congregation the land for the church and the parsonage, one of the wealthiest landlords in the whole county, once ordered a colored boy out of her kitchen after she’d invited him in for cookies.
“He didn’t even knock,” she told me. “He just walked in and said, “Boy, you don’t belong here.”
At another church, a group of men, farmers all, once asked her to stay after choir practice, then questioned why she had taken a job as a teacher’s aide at the black elementary school.
“I told them that I wanted to do something for those children, that there clothes that just got dirtier and more ragged because they were too poor for new ones, that they licked their plates clean after lunch every day because they were so hungry. I told them these children needed to know a white person who wasn’t a landlord.”
She paused, and as bitter a tone as I had ever heard her use, went on. “They were afraid I was inviting them to join the congregation on Sunday. They told me if I gave those people an inch they’d take a mile.”
Only one of those men who surrounded her in the choir room ever apologized.
She said my grandfather always told her to do as she saw fit, and she did. The only time she ever questioned herslf was one night when she went to teach at another church, on a contorversial lesson the NC Methodist Conference had just handed out, “Jesus, The Gospel, and Race.” The church’s minister had stopped by earlier in the week to warn her off. No one wanted to touch this lesson with a ten foot pole.
She went out on schedule to teach it anyway, and instead of the 4 or 5 women she was used to seeing instead found a church packed to the gills.
“I felt a little funny in my stomach, but went on in and taught the lesson. At the end I figured, “In for a penny, in for a pound’, so I took a deep breath and asked if anyone had any questions. And not one person did.”
“Your grandfather was very proud of me that night.”
She patted the digital photos I had printed out of her with Ngnat and Scotty M.
“He was good man.”