Black Magnolia

Except from Memoir: The Salt Box House on Bayou Black

There’s a little wheel a turnin’ in my heart 
There’s a little wheel a turnin’ in my heart
In my heart
In my heart
There's a little wheel a turnin’ in my heart
– “There’s a Little Wheel a Turnin’ in My Heart.” American Folk Song

Along with my brothers, Dwight and Jesse, and my sister Jean, I watched Roy Rogers on a black-and-white console TV that our grandfather, Peter Samuel Ransom, Ditty, we called him, had won at a raffle for World War I veterans. He had it shipped to us because he and my grandmother, Martha England Ransom, T. Martha her family called her, didn’t have electricity in their saltbox house on Bayou Black. As I watched the cowboy show, I imagined the colors of a desert sky, rock, cactus, and low sparse trees. My throat and chest swelled with delicious trilling when they sang, while riding into the sunset. Happy trails to you, until we meet again.

My brothers and sister rooted for the good guys, white men in white hats, and against the bad guys, white men in black hats. I rooted for the Indians. When we played, I was always an Indian. None of us were the prissy white women whose dresses dragged in the dirt or the floozies who hung out in saloons, leaned all over strange and drunk men, danced the can-can, and let men follow them upstairs to their rooms.

I wrapped the belts from Jesse and Dwight’s trousers around my chest and shoulders. They turned into quivers to hold my arrows. To overcome the driver of the stagecoach, I climbed to the top bunk. I pushed Dwight off, onto blankets and pillows piled up below. I took over his reins and spread my feet across the narrow space between the two sets of metal bunk beds in our bedroom.  The bed’s metal frames became the backs of wild horses stolen from their lands, and I was coming to the rescue. I pounced on the bottom bunk, dragging greenhorns and gringos from the coach. I hooted and howled and smashed and slashed with tomahawks fashioned from wooden spoons.

Breakfast, an extra special treat, was delivered express to our Wells Fargo stopover in our Magnolia Project room by our mama. We demolished the eggs, grits, biscuits, and grape jelly. Milk chalked on the sides and hardened to rich soft– yellow cream circles on the bottoms of our jelly glasses. We dashed down the hall and into the kitchen to hurriedly scrape and stack our dishes. We scurried, pushing, shoving, and laughing between cliff–hanging scenes and during commercials advertising Tide, Ivory soap, Hula Hoops, and Brylcreem. 

One day without warning, while we scraped dishes, I felt heartsick. My brothers and sister suddenly turned mean, too rough. They pointed and laughed. A cappella and in harmony they sang. 

Crybaby, crybaby, suck ya mama’s titty. Always rooting for the Indians. You betta get tough girl. You betta know the right side to be on.”

I walked down the narrow hall knowing Mama was not home. There was no recent music of her in the rooms ahead. I walked to the front door. When I put my hand on the doorknob, I knew she had not passed this way. I looked out anyway.

I counted the doors of all the buildings in our court hurriedly, fifty-two, as I did every day. I called my playmates’ names, reciting them, silently moving my lips, calling up their faces as my eyes slid quickly past each door. Pat, Lil Pam, Big Pam, Lil Ursula, Marie, Myrtle, Sister, Tiny, Loria, Justine, Nesbitt, Ida Mae, Rita . . . until I completed the naming, a prayer.  I skipped their brothers and fathers, but I called up their sisters, mothers, godmothers, and grandmothers. 

I worried about Pat. Her uncle peddled dope. I didn’t envy their expensive clothes. I knew they lived in fear. I knew tragedy would come. I avoided looking into the dark uptown-riverside corner. The O’Neal brothers could terrorize us all at any time. I shrank from the thought, as if it would bring them tumbling out of their homes, waving shotguns and calling out someone’s brother or father.

I shut the front door and hummed the song I sang to calm myself. 

“You sing that song when you is vexed,” Big Pam always said imitating her mother’s voice when someone asked her how she was doing.

“I is as vexed as a chicken bout to get they neck cut off.” 

I didn’t know if I was vexed, but my brothers and sister had hurt my feelings, and I could not find my Mama. I sang to soothe and comfort myself. There’s a little wheel a turnin in my heart, as I closed the front door of my small world. In my heart, in my heart, there’s a little wheel a turnin in my heart.

I walked back across the small living room. This room was spare, open, and bright. A small mint green brocade sofa sat like a delicate grandmother.  Come, sit with me but be careful, it said to me. There was a dark brown table polished to shining with red oil. A fern sat on a one-legged stand like the ones that held the flowers in church. The curtains were heavy white cotton. They were starched and stretched on wooden frames four times a year. When a breeze came, they lapped gently at the windowsill as if they were sipping water at the edge of a river. The floor glistened with Johnson’s Paste Wax. We would wax the mahogany linoleum square tiles again later that day, after my oldest sister and brother gave it a good soaking and scrubbing with ammonia to get the old wax up. We would make small circles as we smoothed the hard paste until it was as soft as warm butter. We would go out to play until the paste set and it was time to polish and buff the floors on our knees or with soft old rugs under our feet. We danced, scooted, and skated across the floor until it shined, laughed, and sang in delight, just like we did. This was a good room.

Jean and Dwight were singing the Oscar Mayer jingle in front of the TV as I entered the kitchen and peeked into a pot of chicken necks, celery, bell pepper, and bay leaves boiling very slowly on the stove. Gumbo, okra and shrimp, shrimp Creole, cornbread dressing? I reached the back door and the dimmed warmth on the brass doorknob told me she had come this way. We would polish the doorknobs with the special pink polish later that day, smoothing the polish on and then waiting for the pink liquid to dry. We used rags to polish the faceplate and then curved the cloth around the neck of the knob, and polished them the same way we polished our shoes, with gleeful, fast, whipping motions, to make the cloudy polish turn to sparkling gleam.  

I walked into the back hallway and stopped. Was she up the back stairway to Miss Aldonia? No, I didn’t think so. I would smell coffee and chicory and hear them talking and laughing about some goings-on. Besides, Mr. Addison was home from working on those ships. Their house would be silent and cold. Miss Aldonia would have bruises beneath her eyes. Loria’s sweet good child face would be filled with hate. Marie’s eyes would be wild with fear, but her body would be hard and unyielding, like a sentry on guard. No, my Mama was not up the stairs, and neither would I be until Mr. Addison went blessedly on his way back to the waters again. I turned from the stairs to walk into the day. 

Where was she? 

Bright bottle-blue day above red tile roofs, a cavern of buildings, yards divided by low chain-linked fences, clover-filled grasses covered in early morning dew, tiny gardens exploding with color and the scents of rich dark earth, kitchen herbs, morning glories, and newly mown grass. Back yards, a cluster of close fitted islands floating on a green and black velvet sea. Our driveway, a curved way within a crescent city.  A hot blue-green summer Saturday morning. The sun not yet come over the three-storied buildings that marked the borders of my home. 

But where was she? I wondered

My throat and chest hurt from trying to hold back tears that fell in fat drops anyway. I loved the Indians, wild horses, open land, mountains and skies, the singing cowboys, and girls. They loved the sheriffs, guns blazing in the noonday sun, and shooting the bad guys. They said I was a baby and had too tender feelings that only Mama cared about. 

Aunt Gladys’? No, Aunt Gladys always slept past noon on Saturdays. Miss Corrine’s? No, she was already gone to market. Miss Etta’s? Miss Juanita’s? Since these last mothers were the most likely, when I reached the backyard gate, I turned right toward La Salle Street. 

My mama was leaning on Miss Etta’s fence talking. I walked toward her. Miss Etta saw me coming. She smiled openly and loving me, like the light and air filled with roses growing all around her. Without missing a beat, while she continued to talk to Miss Etta, my mama spoke to me.  Well, she didn’t say anything with her words because she was talking to Miss Etta. But her eyes talked to me saying, Hello, Darlin. Come looking for your mama, did you? Well, I wasn’t far.

I leaned into my mama holding gently to the bottom of her dress. Miss Etta’s rose beds were sprinkled with coffee grounds around the neat rows of bright-colored flowers filling the air with their perfumes. I felt the rhythm of Mama and Miss Etta’s voices. The pulse of their hands moving as they talked vibrated through my Mama’s thigh and hip into me. I moved with her when she shifted from one foot to the other, like the ships and tugs we saw on the river, moving as one with the heaving river, yet never colliding.  

As I leaned, I looked out from this safe place. Laundry flapped in the warm humid breeze. I smelled the scents of bleach, flowers, earth, and dew damp cement. Some women bent down slowly to enamel wash basins, wringing, then shaking in a no-nonsense, sometimes violent, snap of towels, sheets, work clothes, school clothes, and church clothes. They hung them carefully and slipped on wooden clothespins to hold them on the line, like family portraits. Every so often a woman sighed, held a hand to the small of her back, surveyed her world, waved or nodded to a neighbor, and watched the brown grey sparrows.

My mama did not speak to me or even look at me. She didn’t need to. I didn’t need her to. She made a space for me against her hip and thigh. Her hand caressed my head and shoulder, the way she transplanted tender herbs from Miss Etta’s garden, tenderly tamping the earth, like a prayer, a song, a blessing, a promise made between the sun, the earth, the sky and God. 

While my mama and Miss Etta continued to talk, I imagined myself one of the grey brown sparrows flying in spurts and stops, to the roofs, the copper gutters, the guava trees, the drooping black utility wires, porch rails, garbage pails, the sweet clover, the orange trees. I was quick and wise, brave and cautious, remembering the joy and work of the day.  I felt my mama’s plump hands at the small of my back leaving a warm trail of comfort. Her nails were unpolished and shaped like almonds with white crescent moon tips. My mamma smelled like garlic, filé, basil, and that sweet mother smell, like just bathed and nursed babies, the sun, and roses.

My mama and Miss Etta began to end this part of the still early morning by counting all the chores yet to be done

After they said their goodbyes, my mama turned toward home and I turned with her. I carried the bag of fat yellow onions, tomatoes, smoked sausage, fresh shrimp, and long grain rice. The reason for her desertion so early had been lying at her feet, jambalaya for dinner. I forgave her, not knowing I had been blaming her for leaving me home alone with my mean and rough brothers and sister. 

My mama said her “Mornings” without stopping to talk to Miss Juanita and Miss Louise. We entered our yard, still in cool shadow. We looked over our small garden. Shallots, mint, green onions, and Wandering Jew were coming to fullest life. The orange tree, the worm bed, and the gardenias held out secret promises in the warming to full day. I would dig later to feel the cool earth in the hot day, watch the fat pale worms dive and ooze into the black velvet soil, and know the heavy spiced scents of my small world out back. We stopped at the top of the steps. We held onto the morning. 

Postscript:

The Magnolia Project, later name C. J. Peet, and three other New Orleans housing pojects survived Hurricane Katrina with very little damage. However, housing project dwellers were locked out of the city and the their home were demolished.

https://www.thenation.com/…/former-residents-of-new-orleans-demolished-housing-p…

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