I asked specifically for Denise. We arrived at the appointed time. I sat in a large rectangular room, four hair dresser chairs, black, boxy, modern, and new since the last time I was there. A wall of lighted mirrors covered one side wall. A counter attached to the mirrored wall was neatly organized with straightening combs, curling irons, curler paper, curlers, hair clips, and pins. Dyes, conditioners, and locking agents, of various sized boxes, tubes, jars, and bottles, were stored in a cabinet at the end of the counter. Only one hairdresser today, Chris, the owner. On the opposite side of the shop were two shampoo bowls and another wall of lighted mirrors. Only one shampoo person today, Denise. Non–stop Christmas music played on an Atlanta black radio station. The station also played non–stop commercials directed toward poor black people. The announcer hawked, “Forget your FICO score. Those scores are just a number. Come on down and we can work something out.”

Chris quipped after the tenth such commercial. ” You know what they say about those people who give out those loans and sell those cars, don’t you?”

Even though the customers had heard Chris ask this question before and heard the answer, one asked, “What they say Chris?”

“You go get one of those cars with one of those loans in November and the Repo Po-Po comes to get it in May.”

“Yeah, that’s right,” anther customers commented.

Chris continued.

“And the people who give out the loans and sell those cars will all make a bunch more loans and sell a bunch more cars just like those the next November.”

On the same side of the room as the shampoo bowls, four chairs with hair dryers, that looked like space helmets sat behind the new boxy chairs. Together they gave the illusion of cubed alien bodies. Plastic aprons and towels were neatly folded, stacked, and waiting for use along the opposite mirrored wall and counter. Bottles of shampoo, conditioner, and neutralizer sat in good order on the counter behind the two shampoo bowls. The two sides reflected each other, allowed conversation with just a look when Chris or Denise was turned away completing a task. The front of the shop was all glass, and looked out on a mostly empty parking lot of a mostly empty strip mall.

Denise’s is dark brown, petite, and plump with a round sweet good natured face. She wore maroon glasses that stretch around her eyes like goggles, only very fashionable ones.

“Denise, those glasses look very good on you. Where did you get them?” I asked, as her hands guided me to lean back to place my neck into the curved bottom of the shampoo bowl.

“Oh, thank you,” Denise giggled in shyness and pleasure. I got them at the eye glass shop over at Kroger Plaza on Columbia.”

“What kind are they?”

“Oh, they’re by Joan Collins.”

I sank into the chair, my head cradled in the neck of the shampoo bowl, thinking about Joan Collins eye glasses being sold in strip mall south of Atlanta catering to poor black people, while Denise began her shampoo waltz. Warm–warm water. Shampoo that smelled of sunshine and dew laden morning air. Denise applied it tenderly, thoroughly, then gently scrubbed my twenty–four–inch long dreadlocks from my scalp to tip end. She then rinsed, rinsed, and rinsed some more. I felt the strong flow of the very water on every inch of scalp, and the slight tugging on my hair as she lifted and showered the water close to my scalp. Denise gently rocked my head this way and that, while her other hand cupped and covered my ears. She toweled my hair to damp dry and then applied hair conditioning that smelled like the warm evening air moving through night blooming jasmine. I relaxed and sighed in the scents dancing and swinging around my head.

Christmas music had been playing relentlessly on the radio and Chris turned to another station only to find more Christmas music. When my hair was rinsed and damp dried again, I got up and walked across the room to Chris’ chair. She sprayed and then separated, twisted, and clipped each section of my hair with a pin close to my scalp. I was looking forward to the magic Chris would do styling my dreads. The last time she had given me a complete up do, twisted and curved upward all eighteen inches on the top of my head. When the pins would not hold my thick hair, Chris decided to sew the style in place. I loved it! Showed it off to everyone, even people in museums, restaurants, and dog parks when my daughter and I walked my grand–dog. I wondered how she would top that style.

A black performer, I didn’t know, sang soulfully on the radio suddenly at twice the volume it had been before. Denise began to bop and sway in place to the music. An announcer interrupted the music and began to hawk a concert that would happen in February at the Fox Theatre in downtown Atlanta. Another performer followed closely behind the announcer. The beat was heavy. The female voice was strong and suggestively romantic. The announcer hawked that performer and then others. He admonished listeners to, “Buy tickets right away before they are all sold out!”

Denise spoke quickly and excitedly in a high pitched adult-baby-doll voice, with a soft Florida twang, and an urban Atlanta drawl.

“Oh this show is gonna be good. I gotta get my tickets. I know,” she said like she had just had a great idea,” “It’s my husband’s birthday right then and it’s at the Fox. I can get us tickets and get really–really dressed up. He’ll like that”

Denise sang along with the various performers, in a quite sweet melodic soprano voice, as she continued to shampoo another customer’s hair.

One of the customer’s in the shop said, “Ya husband will be so happy. That’ll be a great birthday present, Denise ”

Denise did not look up from her work, but her tone implied the customer was out of her mind when she replied.

“My husband?”

Denise reared back a little with her eyes wide and incredulous.

“Mister ain’t goin,” as if her husband’s going to the concert was never ever in her thinking.

Denise continued, “I’m gonna ask….,” naming women who I thought might be her daughters or sisters or friends or a mix of both.

Another waiting customer said what I was thinking.

“But you said it was ya husband’s birthday present,” she said in a questioning tone.

Denise responded, “Yeah. But he ain’t no people person. He don’t go to

thingslike that. He talk too rough when he be around company. But, he’ll like seeing me all dressed up. He’ll drop us off and pick us up. I’ll tell him all about it. I’ll buy him a CD. He’ll like that.”

Everyone in the shop laughed and hooted, while Denise’s look said,

‘What? What are you laughing about? Ya’ll just don’t know Mister. He’ll be very happy. Really,” Denise reassured.

Chris finished twisting my hair and I went under a dryer that muffled the voices of the women and one man in the shop who were having rolling conversations about football, school board scandals, O.J. and Cosby’s innocence, which ball player was cheating on his wife or beating her or their child. They caught each other up on Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, the latest movies, the soaps, who had appeared on late night TV dressed how, and the ongoing rivalry between the Hawks and the Saints.

Chris maintained a strict policy of no gossiping about the people they all actually knew, or barely knew. So, there was no talk of what preacher was acting badly or which wife or husband was cheating with whom, or whose child had been arrested for what or whose house the police had showed up to or who had a drinking or gambling addiction or anything people could judge another about in their absence.

When my hair was mostly dry, I switched to Chris’ chair again. She cut my hair about six inches, just below my shoulders blades, and styled it with a round bun behind my right ear, almost sitting my shoulder.

I wanted to like it and so I tried to.

I paid Chris gladly and gave both Chris and Denise a generous tip. Later that day, as I sat in reserved stadium movie seats, the faux leather kind that have high backs and you can recline in I realized, I could not fully turn my head because my hair doo wouldn’t let me. Irritated by my hair doo, I reluctantly picked out the pins holding my style together. I chuckled to myself and leaned to whisper to my daughter, who eyes were questioning the pile of pins being dropped into my purse

Oh well. Not this hair do. But, absolutely, yes to Str-8-N Natural. Oh, and Mister.



From: A Thousand Crowning Sorrows: A novel not yet published



As they carried Perry between them into the house, June stared at the girl walking ahead of them. She held the shotgun in one hand and a lamp in the other. Something in June’s chest did a funny skip and stutter that felt odd, and good at the same time.

The girl turned into the third room they came to.

“Papa. Help get his clothes off. I’m going to get the things I need.”

June noticed her voice. While she was nearly as tall as he was, she was strong-bodied, and her voice was a rich contralto rather than the soprano he expected. Her skin was the color of burnt sugar, dark brown–gold. June and Mr. Bartholomew undressed Perry and placed him on a mat lying face down.

“Violet.” Mr. Bartholomew said.

” Tell me what else you need.”

“Just the basin and hot water by the stove.”

Violet, Perry thought. Her names is Violet.

Violet put on a long apron and tied a wrap around her head made of unbleached muslin.  She washed her hands thoroughly, dried them, and began to work on Perry.

Her father helped her as she bathed, then scrubbed his wounds, and then poured a good dose of whisky over them. Perry groaned and writhed. The three of them helped turn him over to repeat the process. When his wounds were tended to and Violet had dosed him with some sort of medicine, they changed the bed and left him to sleep.

Violet picked up pieces of his clothes that could be salvaged and placed them in a tub to soak for washing later. Mr. Bartholomew showed Perry into the kitchen, just next to the room Perry was sleeping in.

“Tell me what happened.” Mr. Bartholomew said.

Perry told him just the facts. The men shooting Perry and leaving him for dead in order to steal his horse.

“This your first shepherding?”

“Yes sir.”

“How old are you boy?”

“Sixteen. I’ll be seventeen in December.”

“I’m glad you were with Perry for your sake and his.  Yon did good by yourself and all of us.”

Mr. Bartholomew stepped to June with his hand held out.

“I just realized. You must be Emile’s eldest. You look like your father and your grandfather.”

June shook his hand back and said, “Yes sir.”

“This here is my daughter, Violet.”

“Violet, this here is Emile Verrett from over Red Bayou.

“Please to meet you Emile.” Violet said.

June felt strange being called Emile. But he liked the way she said his name. He felt her clear brown eyes and her oddly low voice rake him. He felt a little light headed and foolish looking at her so intensely. But, she was looking at him with curiosity and a small smile twinkling in her eyes.

“Everybody calls me June. For junior. “

“Oh,” was all she said, but it felt to June like she understood something about him. He was not sure what, but he was glad of it.

After Violet showed June where he could wash up, she cleaned up the sick room, placed food on the table in front of June, and sat down to finish the meal they had started before June and Perry had arrived. June watched her move from stove to table, her movements sure and fluid, her hands strong, yet delicate. Every time she passed in front of him, he stared at her mass of tangled hair. He had never seen anything like it. Her hair was curly at the edges of her scalp, like baby hair, but otherwise was an enormous jumble of uncombed wild nappy hair. He wondered if she had ever combed or brushed it. June was entranced and found it hard to not stare at Violet. He did remember his manners that his father, and grandfather had  drummed into him on how to treat women, especially girls he liked. June felt for the first time that Violet was a girl he liked. He really-really liked her.

“Well. What do you think, Vi?” Mr. Bartholomew asked when Violet was done and Perry was as comfortable as she could make him.

“The bullet went straight through, but he left a lot of blood on the road. He’s feverish and the edges of both wounds didn’t clean up good. He really needs a healer.”

In answer to the thought of going out to fetch a healer, the wind punched the front door open so hard it sounded like the shotgun had gone off. Mr. Bartholomew and June went to the front of the house to secure the outside shutter and the inside door. When both were closed, the whipping and whistling of the wind, and the slapping and tapping of the rain hushed to a whisper, but the wind constantly shoved and pushed against the house, making it tremble with each gust.

“The storm is coming and there isn’t a way to fetch a healer. June, you can go straight to Mum Del’s when the storm passes to get some help. Until then, we’ll stay hunkered down here.”

As Violet removed her apron and head wrap, she said, “I’ll be staying with Perry. There’s a pallet for you over there.”

Violet pointed to a corner space in their roomy kitchen.

June was still entranced with Violet’s mass of nappy wild curls. He longed to see her hair untangled, unfurled, and tame, although he liked her hair wild almost as much as he wanted to tame it. Violet looked up from untying her hair and apron and saw him looking at her in a way that made her smile shyly and flushed her cheeks.

“Here, let me help you with the cleaning up,” June said and began to clear the table.

Mr. Bartholomew took the only chair with arms. He lit his pipe and after a while took up a battered banjo and picked out songs in the glow of a lamp on the kitchen table.

“Vi, I’d like some coffee since there won’t be much sleeping with this storm beginning to rage.”

“Yes, Papa. What about you June, coffee? We have milk syrup.”

“No thanks, I’ll just have some of that tea we had with supper.”

“All right.”

June and Violet cleaned the kitchen and talked while Mr. Bartholomew plucked and sang..

“This your first shepherding,” Violet said in a matter of fact way.

“Yes,” June answered.

“Mighty hard first,” Violet finished her thought.

“Harder for Perry than me. He saved my life you know. Two white men came up on him and wanted his horse. He told me to get away and bolted away to draw them away from me.”

June felt how quickly it all happened. He felt the worse thinking first, that Perry might be dead, and once he got to him and he was alive, that he could still die.

“But you didn’t go away, and you saved him,” Violet stopped oiling the cast iron pan and looked directly at June.

“Sounds like you saved each other,” Mr. Bartholomew said, “so tell us about it.”

June told them the whole story. He felt the shame of his forgetting his pack, his

not obeying Perry to run, and his desperation to get to the Bartholomew away house.

“I was never so glad to see you on your porch with that gun, Mr. Bartholomew and you with that lantern, Violet. I thank you.”

“You earned your welcome here, son,” Mr. Bartholomew said.

As they finished up cleaning the kitchen, Violet caught him staring at her hair.

“Why you staring at me so hard,” Violet asked.

“Your hair is so… wild and beautiful. Do you ever comb it?”

“No. Haven’t been combed since my Mam died four years ago.”

June looked astonished and entranced.

Violet’s eyes twinkled at the way June looked at her.

After Violet was finished getting ready for sleep, she kissed her father saying, “Good night Papa. I’ll come and get you if I need you.”

“Good night Vi. I’ll be right here.”

“Good night Emile,” she said as she passed into the room where Perry lay sleeping.

“Good night Violet,” June responded.

June settled down on the pallet provided. Exhaustion fell on him like a sack of grain from a height. Even though he felt the aftermath of threat, gunfire, Perry laying in the road, faith struggling with despair that he was not remembering the way to the Bartholomew’s, he was happy he would wake up and see Violet in the morning.


Free First Session for A Writer’s & Artists Creative & Wellness Consultation

Free First Session for A Writer’s & Artists Creative & Wellness Consultation

Novelist and Memoirist who holds an MSW and an MFA in writing.

Do you have stories that beg you to write them down? Has your writing or artist life and practice been stalled or placed on a back burner? Have you been thinking about or longing to start, revise, complete or move to publishing that novel, memoir, poetry collection or essay collection? What is in the way of you having a more vibrant and productive creative life?

Explore individual creative–­wellness consultation and group writing classes and workshops that will start January 2019. Give yourself a gift of one free specialized individual creative and wellness consultation. Make an appointment for a Thursday, Saturday or Sunday through the 2nd. week of January of 2019.

Contact: Andrea R. Canaan, MSW, MFA

A Writer’s Life


A Writer’s Life Individual Writer Wellness Consultation

Supporting Creative Wellness


The experience I bring to A Writer’s Live is as an engaged writer for thirty years. I have earned a MFA degree in Writing Nonfiction from the University of San Francisco and a MFA degree in Writing Fiction from Goddard College. After earning a MSW degree from Tulane University in New Orleans, I maintained a public and private clinical social work practice, worked as a social service administrator and taught social workers at the graduate level. My elemental skills sets are writing, counseling, working with individuals and groups and teaching and writing. I’ll be a fellow journeyer, a coach, a support, a teacher and an investor in your creative process and work.






Individual Wellness & Writing Practice

  • Focused writing
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9 Session Combined Wrting Class and Workshops

  • Fiction
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Contact: Andrea R Canaan, MSW,MFA
A Writer’s Life 
Verve Wellness Studio
1231 Cortland Avenue
S.F., Ca 94110




The Saltbox House on Bayou Black

Title chapter of upcoming memor: The Salt Box House on Bayou Black


Bringing in the sheaves,

Bringing in the sheaves,

We shall come rejoicing

Bringing in the sheaves.

–Shaw, Knowles, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” Negro Gospel, 1864


T Martha didn’t come to Thanksgiving and Easter dinner each year at Auntie Bert’s. Her brother, Wilbur, Brother they all called him, rode the train from New York to New Orleans. Her other sister, Olivia, rode the train from Los Angeles. They usually came, along with Auntie Bert, to our house in the Magnolia the day before the family Thanksgiving or Easter dinner. They brought T Martha chocolate-covered cherries and other small gifts, like stockings and handkerchiefs. They sat drinking tea and eating finger sandwiches, and T Martha’s layer cake with the cherry icing. They talked happily about their family and the saltbox house on Bayou Black. They all had with their Papa Daddy, Papa, and Mama until a tragedy happed the year their baby sister, T Martha, was twelve years old.

T Martha was always easy with her sisters and brother. She was the most relaxed with Uncle Wilbur. Her face was relaxed, her worry lines disappeared, her voice sounded younger, and her laugh was ringing and joyous whenever she was in their presence. The day after the family Thanksgiving dinner, T Martha would go to Auntie Bert’s and eat leftovers when it was just the four of them, plus Uncle Alex, Auntie Bert’s husband. T Martha was shy and wary of gatherings, even family ones. She preferred the company of her siblings without tinkling glass and silverware, long prayers, children, and grandchildren, her own included. I always wished she were with us at holiday dinners or I was with them the days before and after. I was sure they told stories I wanted to hear.

Auntie Bert and Uncle Alex lived in a neighborhood called Sugar Hill, even though there are no hills in New Orleans. The small Negro middle-class neighborhood was nestled in the south curve of North Broad Street where it made a sharp right turn due east to become Gentilly Boulevard and Highway 90 East. The north side of the curve swept open to reveal the stately campus of Dillard University with its hundred-year-old oaks draped in Spanish moss. The south side of the boulevard was populated with the mostly brick homes of middle- class Negros. Auntie Bert’s House was on Lafreniere Street one block from St. Anthony Street, which had a very wide and grassy median lined with magenta, white, and lavender crepe myrtle trees. We played circle games there. Our brothers, fathers, and uncles swung us round and round, until we were too old or too big to have this delicious flying-laughing sensation. After family dinners, we usually played touch football or stood watching others play.

On Thanksgiving Day in 1962, when I was twelve years old, my mother, sister, and I arrived at Auntie Bert’s by bus at seven in the morning. My brothers would come later, excused from the work of girls and women. Auntie Bert had been up since four that morning. When we arrived she served us Creole cream cheese, poached pears, Pain Perdu, eggs and sausage, fresh squeezed juices, and strong coffee with heavy cream. Aunt Olivia, Auntie Bert, and Mama shared the news of elder family members’ illnesses, who had died, had been born, was an honor student, had had a recent piano or voice recital, or had gone into one branch of military service or another. No one spoke much of the sons and daughters who had not been home for years or who were drowning themselves in alcohol or whose marriages were shattering or who appeared to be lost to us for a time. Those family members were spoken of in hushed tones behind closed doors.

After breakfast we received our assignments for setting the tables, going out into the gardens for flowers and greens, and cutting fresh herbs for the food being prepared and finished. The ingredients for the meal changed with the season, depending on what was gathered from Auntie Bert’s and her neighbor’s gardens, and what was available at the French Market and the A & P.  Mirliton, for instance, was usually available for Thanksgiving but not after the first frost. Mirliton was planted and grown along the back fences of many homes in New Orleans. This pale-green– pear-shaped vegetable was boiled, cooled, and then halved.  The insides were scooped and scraped from the pale thin shell and placed in a cooking bowl. The thin skins were saved for later. Stuffing was made of finely chopped onions, garlic, celery, parsley, and basil and mixed with fresh crab or shrimp. After fresh breadcrumbs and a little butter were added, the stuffing was placed in the saved mirliton shells and baked.

We set the table with my great-great grandmother’s Blue Willow china placed on bright white linen. Heavy engraved silver and crystal wine flutes, and glasses adorned each place setting. These treasures had been bought and bartered for by my great- grandmother Florida Dora, Mama Flo. Mama Flo was had been an herb woman and midwife. Her mother, Florida Goins, Grand Martha, had been a slave, an herb woman and midwife as well. They both had helped colored and white women deliver babies for more than fifty years in Terrebonne Parish.

I remember them describing Grand Martha and Mama Flo to me.

“You could not tell that Grand Martha was a Colored woman. You had to tell folks, even white folks. But if you look at T Martha, she has her looks, her build, her legs, and her hands. T Martha is just taller, a lot taller, darker skinned, and she has dark-nappy hair, not like Grand Mama’s light-brown, curly good hair.”

Auntie Bert had pointed to my sister Jean, and said, “And when you look at Jean, you are looking at T Martha, only Jean is tall and big boned like her father. Grand Martha is still alive in her.”

Mama Flo’s silverware, table and bed linen, crockery, and cast iron pots had been packed in barrels with moss and wood shavings and shipped to New Orleans by river barge to Auntie Bert. These things were sent to Auntie Bert, because she was the oldest girl, and the first to be married. That was the family story.

We all worked together until the house smelled of things savory and sugary mixed with the scents of garden greens, roses, and violets we had set out in small glass vases in every room. The house began to fill with family and the sound of many voices, screen doors screeching open and closed, and laughter. I was placing flower vases in each room when I heard raised voices coming through Auntie Bert’s den door, which had been left open a crack. I saw Aunt Olivia and Auntie Bert sitting on a sofa and Brother sitting in a winged back chair. I couldn’t see my mother, but I recognized her voice.

“My grandmother promised me, she promised me, that her things would come to me. She told me so. She would never have told me that they were mine if it wasn’t true.”

My mother was being rude to my great aunts and uncle again. She did this almost every holiday at Auntie Bert’s. She was mad with Auntie Bert. She practically accused Auntie Bert of lying and stealing from her.

I believed my great–grand mother had promised her the treasures. When they had been sent to Auntie Bert, my mother had been fifteen years old and pregnant with her first child. Great grandfather had had died in Jackson, and T Martha and Ditty had returned to Bayou Black. T Martha detested frills and things she would never use. It had made sense for Mama Flo to ship the treasures to Auntie Bert because they would stay accessible to the family and she would keep them safe. I believe Auntie Bert would have given my mother the treasures if she believed my mother could have been trusted with them. But, for my mother, Bayou Black and Mama Flo had been her only haven. The loss of the treasures, even just across town, was a wound that would not heal.

I heard my mother say, “Mama and Papa loved me. They were the only ones who did. None of you ever did. She didn’t blame me because T Martha is crazy.”

“Be careful now, child,” Auntie Bert said with a storm in her eyes and her displeasure clear.

My mother often smoldered with anger and resentment in her belief that her aunts and uncle hadn’t stopped T Martha’s cruel treatment of her as a child, and that they expected her to care for her mother without complaint now that she was an adult.

Aunt Olivia responded in her elder-to-child-voice, though my mother was thirty-six-years old that Thanksgiving. She stepped up to my mother, who was much taller than she, and pointed, and wagged her finger in my mother’s face, a definite insult, a fighting gesture in the Magnolia.

“Dora, you were too young to care for yourself and your children, let alone those precious things. Your house was always a wreck until T Martha came and kept your house for you. These things would never have survived if we had given them to you.”

Auntie Bert hushed her sister.

My mother stopped speaking.

What Aunt Olivia had said was true, but it was mean. Our small two-bedroom Magnolia Project apartment housed six people and had no space for precious china, crystal, silverware, and linens. It was true that the precious thing most likely would have perished with four active children and my mother working two jobs. It was also true that my mother was an atrocious housekeeper. It was T Martha who kept the house, cooked the food, washed the clothes, combed our hair, and kept everything neat and clean, excessively so, we children all thought.

Auntie Bert had used, preserved, and shared these lovely connections and memories of our past. She saw to it they were carefully repaired whenever needed, and served us with them on every family holiday. But my mother’s anger and resentment would not be soothed or extinguished. My aunts and uncle thought my mother was ungrateful, had wasted her talents and opportunities, and had had too many children, one out of wedlock, and my mother blamed so many of her failures in life on their sister. Their sympathy had dried up for my mother a long time ago, yet they loved her, gave her help and money whenever she asked, though they were exasperated with her just the same.

Dinner started soon after my mother’s outburst. We gathered around the heavily laden table to say grace. Each person, child and adult, said what she or he was thankful for. I counted twenty-one of us around the table that year as we held hands, bowed our heads, and prayed. I listened to the lilt and whisper of each voice, the deep baritones of my great uncles, the sweet warbling altos of my great aunts, the lilting sopranos and contraltos of my mother and her women cousins, and the tenors of the young male cousins. We were each the verses and harmonies that deepened the covenant yet again, with the final Amen.

Chairs scrapped back, hands rubbed together, and eyes widened as seafood gumbo, rice, Creole potato salad, and warm French bread were served first. We ate in reverent silence as napkins were placed on laps, dishes were passed, silverware clinked, gumbo slurped, and an auntie scolding us about the slurping sounds. The conversation all about us moved back and forward between ages, grades, and school accomplishments of all the children and teens. Uncle Wilbur and Uncle Alex talked about being Pullman Porters and the trains and the rich and famous people who rode on them.

When Auntie Bert signaled the first course was done my generation of youngsters removed the plates, bowls, and utensils to the kitchen. We cleaned crumbs from the table, replenished glasses, and added any needed plates, bowls, and utensils. Older teenagers washed, dried, put away the precious dishes and glassware. We could see Uncle Alex and Uncle Wilbur beaming with pride. They were retired Pullman Porters. They had dressed, served, and cleaned tables, all while negotiating constantly lurching and rocking trains between New York, Chicago, New Orleans and Los Angeles. They were proud we knew how to serve and did not have to be servants.

As our elders sipped wine, tea, or coffee, they told more stories that we had heard many times before. I listened carefully, because each time a story was told there was often some detail added or left out. My secret joy was this listening for what was left out, what was added, attempting to discern from the cadence, tone, and lilt in their voices deeper meaning, and things hidden away, until now, maybe.

Gumbo bowls and salad plates were cleared to make room for the main course: turkey, corn bread oyster dressing, shrimp stuffed mirliton, collard and mustard greens, rice and gravy, and brioche rolls. Uncle Alex, with some sort of sleight of hand, some magician’s trick, and with little effort it seemed, gently placed the dark and white meat on the right plates in the correct portions, the legs going properly to the youngest, who would never finish them.  My mother, her aunts, and cousins laughed, talked, passed children from lap to lap, and oohed and ached over our food, pleasing Auntie Bert, who said, “It was nothing, really.” We all laughed and talked about just how carefully she had made each of our favorite dishes.

“She never puts marshmallows in the sweet potatoes just for me. She knows I don’t like that,” a cousin said.

“Well, she leaves out the garlic from a portion of the mirliton because it makes my stomach hurt,” a grandchild said.

“Auntie uses real cream instead of evaporated milk for me,” my sister said.

“She makes the yeast rolls just for me instead of buying them at McKenzie’s bakery like my mama says she should,” another cousin said.

I think Auntie Bert liked that part the best, our jostling-teasing appreciations and competition for her care and favor.

When the savory meal was over, we cleared the kitchen table and set it up for leftovers. My mother and her women cousins packed food for each individual family, knowing what they preferred and needed, and then set out dessert, T Martha’s cherry icing layer cake and Great-aunt Sweentin’s pecan pralines. The French coffee pot was set up to make the strong coffee to accompany dessert. Adults would be served Manischewitz Concord Grape Wine, while Welch’s Grape Juice and sweet tea were served to the young ones.

Family members left the house to take walks through Dillard’s campus and the cemetery next to it. Babies were nursed and changed. Belts were loosened, and slippers replaced dress shoes. Smaller children were dressed in play clothes and then let out into the back yard to rip and run.

Before Uncle Alex left the table, Jeffrey, my thirteen-year-old cousin asked, “Uncle Alex. Is it true that colored men who had earned college and masters, and doctorate degrees and could not find work became Pullman Porters?”

Uncle Alex answered, “Yes.” Pullman Porters had to be intelligent, strong, and able to serve white people with an elegant subservience that didn’t threaten them, but with a sense of dignity and strength that made them comfortable an elite servant class was serving them.

“Were they mean to you?”

“If you mean prejudiced, absolutely, but the pay and benefits and tips were good, and when we came home, we lived well.”

“I want to be a Pullman Porter like you and Uncle Alex,” said a cousin who was five.

“When you grow up transportation companies will need your mind to design and build new trains and comfortable ways to get your old aunts and uncles to New Orleans for Thanksgiving and Easter. You can also become an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a chef, anything you want.”

My great aunts and uncles retired to the den, where Brother, smoked a cigar, Uncle Alex, Auntie Bert’s husband, smoked a pipe, and Aunt Olivia smoked cigarettes. When I was done with my chores, I joined them. I was very quiet. I sat at Uncle Alex’s feet.  He welcomed me, bent down to kiss the top of my head and squeezed my shoulder. They were talking about T Martha, and about their childhoods on Bayou Black.

“Yeah, it is so sad she was ‘‘teched so early,” Aunt Olivia said, “She was smart and so shy. Maybe if she had not been so young when Papa Daddy died and Papa was sent to Jackson, she could have been happier in her life.”

I had been asking for years about T Martha’s early life. What had happened that made her unable to work or live outside her immediate family circle? Why had she had been such a cruel mother to my mother? Every answer before this had really been a non-answer, vague, and tenderly dismissive. I grew small and quiet. I tried to help them forget I was in the room. I knew if I asked anything they would make me leave.

Uncle Alex asked for me, “When did you know T Martha was ‘teched?”

Brother hesitated for a moment. He looked at his sisters as if for permission or for their help to get it right.

“It was just after her twelfth birthday,” he said and put his head down.

Aunt Olivia jumped in, “T Martha was really smart. She loved gardening and raising chickens, and turkeys more than any of us. She was a born midwife. Mama and Papa decided they would see to her training as a midwife and herb woman, and they would see to her education at Gilbert Academy in New Orleans University. The money was being saved her.”

Auntie Bert took a shuddering breath, remembering.

“T Martha was a big prankster,” she said, “Theo Baker, the preacher’s son, had placed a fake snake in her seat at school and nearly made her pee her pants! She kept it, even though he wanted it back. One day, she left that rubber snake in the hen house. When the hens began to run all about squawking and running around in circles, I went out to see what was the matter. I was nearly paralyzed with fear to see a snake tail hanging out of a hen’s nest. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move to run for the longest time, it seemed. I finally ran to get Wilbur to help remove the snake. He brought a stick to lift the snake out of the nest and a machete to kill it, only to find the snake was a fake! T Martha was laughing hysterically, holding her stomach while tears streamed down her cheeks. She had to lean against the side of the chicken coop to keep from falling down.”

Brother’s voice slipped in, “Mother punished her for upsetting the hens. She had to sit on a stool and read from the Bible to Mother while she cooked for each meal the following day.  I never thought that was much of a punishment. They were easy on her because she was the baby.”

I could still hear the very old upsetness that T Martha had gotten off too easily. I also heard just how sweet and special they thought she had been.

Auntie Bert’s voice dropped, filled with vibrating emotion, and her eyes filled with tears, “We all constantly laughed around her. She was serious, studious, and filled with a constant quiet joy. Every once in a while she played a trick on you and made you want to whack her after you finished laughing.”

“What happened? What changed her?” Uncle Alex asked.

“It was a Saturday afternoon in late August,” Aunt Olivia answered, “It was cool only because we had gotten drenched by rain and there was a stiff southern breeze from the gulf. Brother, Bert, and I had walked three miles coming from choir rehearsal, and we were ready for a cool drink, and dinner.  As we rounded the last bend before home we heard the screams. As we got closer, we realized it was T screaming.  Papa was bending over someone lying in the dirt on the side of the porch. Mama was standing on the high porch with her hands over her face, sobbing but making no sound.”

Aunt Olivia looked away as if she couldn’t bear to remember that day fifty years before she continued, “Brother kept running until he reached Papa,” Auntie Bert said.

“Olivia ran up the steps and fell and hurt her knee. We would tend to that much later. I went to T Martha, who was still screaming, though her voice was beginning to give out. I tried to hold her, to ask her what happened. She pushed me away and hit at me blindly. I spoke to her, ‘T, “T, It’s me, Bert, stop hitting me, let me hold you, tell me what happened.’

She kept screaming, but she stopped hitting me. I took her around to the back of the house to the water pump. She came willingly, but she was still screaming and shaking. I pumped water into a basin and ladled water to drink. I washed her face, neck, arms, and legs with a dishcloth that had been left out to dry. I brought the ladle to her lips for her to drink. She resisted, but I made her. She finally went quiet. It would be months before she spoke again. When she did, we knew she had been ‘teched. The happy prankster was gone. The serious smart girl remained, but she had constant nightmares. She didn’t speak at all for long periods. Sometimes she shouted at and fought things that were not there.”

Auntie Olivia looked down at her hands in her lap. She fingered the fingertips of her right hand with her thumb, worrying the chips at the tips of her nail polish from washing dishes and scrubbing pots.

Auntie Bert said, “I fell and scraped my knee while I was running up the porch steps. All that mattered to me was my mama. I reached her and put my arms around her. My back was to Papa and Brother, who stood on the ground below. When I could finally look at what lay on the ground, I saw it was Papa Daddy. I knew he was dead. I moved Mama away from the edge of the porch to the center steps. I gently pressed Mama down to sit. I could hear Papa crying so pitifully. I had never seen my father cry about anything. I had never seen my mother look so stricken and helpless. I just held onto her and waited for what was coming.”

Brother turned his bass voice down low and spoke next, “When I stopped at the side of the porch, I saw Father kneeling and wailing. I knew instantly it was Papa Daddy, lying strangely twisted on the ground, his curly graying hair, and his hands. ’Boy,’ Father said, ‘take Alberta, Olivia, and T Martha to the moss house with food, water, and bedding. Tell them to stay there until your mother comes. When you’ve done that, go to Parson’s store and ask to use the phone to call the sheriff. Tell them there has been an accident at our place and the senior Benjamin England is dead. Make one more call to Pastor Baker. Tell him what happened and then go stay with your sisters in the moss house.’”

Brother took a long breath and continued, “Olivia signaled that T Martha and Bert were around back. I went to them and told Bert Papa Daddy had fallen from the porch and he was dead. I gave her our instructions. She did not hesitate. She gathered the things we needed, while I went to get lanterns and water, and we loaded everything into a hand wagon. I saw them to the moss house and then took off at a run to Parson’s. I cried the whole way. Papa had only said that he and Papa Daddy had argued, and Papa Daddy had accidentally backed off the side of the porch. He had died instantly. His neck was broken.”

Brother tapped his cigar ash into a heavy glass ashtray and I stretched my legs and waited quietly before he continued.

“It was almost dark when the sheriff and his men came. From the moss house we could see the lights of the sheriff’s cars drive right up to the front porch. I left the moss house and snuck closer to see what was happening. I saw them put Papa Daddy’s covered body in the back of a coroner’s wagon. I saw them take Father away. Pastor Baker stood beside Mother while the cars and wagon bumped along our lane until they got to the road. It would be a year before we would see Father again.”

Auntie Bert looked sad and weary remembering before she started the story again, “We had to travel by barge to Natchez and sixty miles by lorry to Jackson to see him. They put him in a crazy house when he wasn’t crazy. And he never came home,” she said, Jackson Mental Hospital was said to be worse than Angola, that terrible prison. They say, if you’re not when you get sent to Jackson, it won’t take long once you’re there.”

I had heard portions of this story before. My mother told me her first memories were of going to see her grandfather in Jackson. He was in a place for crazy people and the family made going to see her grandfather into a holiday. They were happy visits, according to my mother, times filled with precious memories of her grandmother and grandfather together, and of being loved, and adored by them.

“It was weird,” Brother said. “Before T Martha spoke again, she sang one song constantly. He sang it in a childish mocking tone.

Bringing in the Sheaves. I can still hear her voice. We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves. 

I didn’t understand why she was singing a joyous song of spiritual harvest. It felt crazy. I hate to use that word. But that’s how it felt to me. I still hate that song to this day.”

My mother came to the door and announced that great-great Aunt Sweetnin and other guests had arrived. Auntie Bert and Aunt Olivia were out of their chairs in a flash. I kissed Uncle Alex’s shiny baldhead and tried to store all the questions that were filling my head. Why were the children sent to the moss house? Why did they send Papa to the worst mental hospital imaginable, one hundred and eighty miles away? Why would white people go to all that trouble when Charity Hospital had a ward for crazy people and it was just sixty miles away? I believed there had been some danger more terrible than being placed in a crazy house that caused our family to flee the land they had lived on since they had come out of slavery. What could that have been? What had happened to T Martha? How could white people have gotten out putting Papa’s in a crazy house far away when he wasn’t crazy?

We packed a cab with gifts and leftovers, kissed and hugged everyone, and then headed home. As we rode home, my mother picked at the wounds of her childhood until they bled, as she always did after a holiday dinner with her family.  It was like a play I was an understudy in. I knew all the lines. I counted them off.

One, “She beat me all the way home when I walked home with Paul Mobley holding hands when I was seven. She said he was a nasty no-good boy, and I was a strumpet.”

Two, “She wrapped my chest in yards and yards of muslin so tight, even in the summer time that the muscles of my breasts atrophied.”

Three, “She wouldn’t let Mr. Joe take me to the hospital when I fell from Miss Beulah ‘s porch and broke my arm.”

Four, “She wouldn’t let anyone help me. She made me wait hours until Daddy came home and then we had to walk eight blocks to the St. Claude line, and rock back and forth on the street car till we got to Charity Hospital. Daddy had to beg the white doctor not to put her up on charges. The pain was worse than anyone can imagine. I was only nine. She hated me, she hated me.”

Five, “I woke up in the middle of the night and she was beating me, screaming at me, accusing me of masturbating.”

Six, “She forced me into marriage when I was fourteen years old. I had my first child when I was fifteen. Who does that to a young girl?”

I nodded my head and murmured sympathies. I did really feel sorry for my mother. Even though I knew it was true, it was always hard to believe that T Martha had hurt her so when she was a child. And it felt wrong for my mother to act so rudely to her elders and spoil our family times together. If I had been that disrespectful to my mother or any adult, one of them would have put a switch to me.

Before we left the room Uncle Alex had asked one last question,

“What had they been fussing about before Papa Daddy fell off the porch?”

“Don’t know exactly. I do know it had something to do with T Martha,” Brother answered.

Brother had gotten close enough to hear Papa tell his mother to take the children and go. They wouldn’t be able to stay on the land anymore. Friends would stay and keep watch with them while they packed up. Mama Flo came for the children at the moss house after Papa was taken away. She did as Papa said. Everyone but T Martha was packed off to go to boarding school at Gilbert Academy in New Orleans. Mama Flo took a position as a live-in housekeeper for a rich Jewish family in New Orleans and continued to work as a midwife. T Martha stayed with her.

An inquest was held and Papa Daddy’s death was ruled an accident. Yet, Papa had been sent to Jackson. His children never knew the reason. Colored lawyers they hired were dismissed and sent packing. They were finally able to see him a year after he was taken. They went to see him four times a year until he died there twenty-nine years later. My mother was fifteen years old at the time and pregnant with Jesse.

It was immediately clear to the people who worked at Jackson that Papa was not insane. He was made a trustee and finally told he was free to leave eighteen years after he’d been sent there.

“Tell Alex what he said when they told him he could go,” Aunt Olivia had said.

“He always said, ‘If I go back, I will kill somebody or truly go crazy,” brother answered her request.

After Papa was told he could leave Jackson and he refused, my great-grandmother did return to the saltbox house on Bayou Black. By that time, T Martha had completed high school and earned a nursing degree from New Orleans University. She even had advanced training at a teaching hospital in Nashville, Tennessee.

Great Aunt Sweetnin had said at other family gatherings, “We was so proud of T, but when she returned from Nashville a light had gone plumb outa her. The people from the school said she had a nerve attack shortly before it was time for her to come home.”

T Martha never worked as a nurse and rarely left the land. She tended to the gardens and animal yards, made clothes, and bedding for everyone on a foot-peddle sewing machine, and preserved, and canned the fruit and vegetables that grew on the land. She sang to herself and read the Bible. Other than that, she was quiet and content, as long as she was on the land.

No one ever told me how T Martha and Ditty came to court, marry, and move to New Orleans to make their new family. Ditty did tell me he had returned from the WWI by ship after being discharged in New York with little money and his only possessions in a duffle. He had walked the Appalachian Trail and the Natchez Trace getting work along the way. He went home to Kingston, but didn’t stay long. He took his carpentry tools and walked, hitched, and traveled by barge until he got to New Orleans. He stayed there a while but got the itch to keep moving. He found himself on Bayou Black working for my great-grandmother. He was forty-eight years old by the time he got to Bayou Black. T Martha was twenty-three. They married and moved to New Orleans to start their married life.

My grandparents struggled to survive in New Orleans on money my grandfather made as a day laborer during the worst of the Great Depression in the Deep South. They decided they could do much better for themselves if they returned to Bayou Black. Once my mother had been married off at fourteen years old, they returned to Bayou Black. They made a living for themselves from Ditty’s carpentry work, the fresh produce from the garden, T Martha’s preserves and canning, her chicken and duck eggs, dried and cleaned moss, pecans and walnuts, and her live turkeys.

No one lived in the saltbox house on Bayou Black after T Martha came to live with us in the Magnolia. But we still visited the property often during my childhood. Whenever I went to Bayou Black, I imagined I heard the voices of T Martha, Uncle Wilbur, Aunt Olivia, and Auntie Bert working in the bayou side gardens filled with tomatoes, eggplant, okra, and peppers, and harvesting plums, peaches, walnuts, and pecans before T Martha was ‘teched. I could see them drawing water from the above-ground cistern and washing and hanging the laundry on lines propped up by long poles. I imagined roosters heralding the coming of the sun, china berries plinking on the tin roof when the rains came and the wind was high. I imagined it was a home place filled with hard work and laughter until the day T Martha was ‘teched.











A Writer’s Life

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