The original draft of this comes from an extra credit assignment that I did in Don Hoover’s History 109 night class, spring 2000 when I was working third shift at a local factory called Meritor at the time. You never know when a teacher will ignite a project from a student that comes down onto paper and ends up in the family archives. I ended up writing 24 pages. I couldn’t get up the courage to ask Don if he read it and certainly don’t blame him if he didn’t.
I was in the fifth grade in Birmingham, Michigan in 1960 when one day my father took me out onto the sidewalk in front of the house and explained that he had gotten a job with Boeing Aircraft in Seattle. He said he was going there by himself but would send for us when things were ready. I had no interviewing skills at the time and so probably just nodded as he talked. That was the last time I would ever see my dad. He made it impossible for years by disappearing. Then when my brother Brent found him through a genealogy search in 1980, I talked to him by phone and exchanged letters intermittently until his death in 1996, but never visited him.
Soon after he left, my mother got her Michigan teacher’s certificate and taught for one year there in Birmingham. I was in the sixth grade. Ironically my teachers were male and struck me as towers of masculinity. I remember few elementary teachers, but I have never forgotten Mr. Vensky and Mr. McKee. I had a fascination with Roman history in Mr. McKee’s class, the same fascination I would experience in college reading classical history.
At the end of that year, my mother announced that we were moving to Kentucky to live with her mother, Mrs. Boxley. On July 4, 1961 we left Detroit by train and stopped over in Chicago, where we switched and headed south, arriving in Hopkinsville the next day. The train station on East Ninth Street in Hopkinsville seemed tiny compared to the Detroit and Chicago stations with their vast yards of weaving tracks as far as one could see.
My grandmother lived in a huge two- story house at 1812 South Virginia Street. She was a widow who kept her stately house by renting out two sections of it. The renters upstairs moved out, and we moved in for fifty dollars a month at a time when the minimum wage was around a dollar an hour. One of the first things that awed me was that the ceilings were ten feet high. There is a feeling of space in houses like that.
My grandmother immediately rebuked me into saying, “Yes sir, no sir and Yes mam, no mam” to all adults. Adults were sacred entities, including adults of different races and economic strata. The exact age where this matriculation to adulthood occurred was a bit blurred, but I generally understood it to be at age twenty-one. That left me often guessing, so when in doubt, the safe thing was to render due respect, especially where uniforms or shirt and tie indicated rank of some kind.
My grandmother was a large woman though I never thought of her as fat. She weighed 185 pounds and wore her hair put up with bobby pins. When she washed it, I would be amazed to see it hanging down below her waist. She was very warm and would do anything for me, but I knew not to cross her. I would hide from her, but never cross her. That was unthinkable.
She loved to cook fried chicken in a big, black iron skillet, with sides of mashed potatoes and gravy and green peas. She laughed out loud every time I made a “birds nest” by forming a crater in my mashed potatoes and filling it with the peas. Atmosphere in the kitchen was accented by “Perky” the parakeet. I loved to get Perky frenetic and then feel his racing pulse. It was also fun to let Perky out and watch him fly from the top of one curtain rod to another as I reached toward him with a wooden yardstick.
My grandmother let me know the lines of authority in the house from the beginning. I couldn’t go around the house bare back. The first time I did that I heard the thunder: “Cover that naked body.” I wondered who was naked. She meant me. This was a new definition of nakedness.
Chores were mandatory, as well as church. For chores, I was to sweep the walk and the wrap around porch, as well as keep the grass cut with the old rotary blade mower. If chores were not completed, there would be thunder from that warm soul. It wasn’t hostile, but it wasn’t the storm you wanted either, and there was no point angering the person who fried that wonderful chicken.
Yes, grandmother was a master of soft skills, except that they didn’t seem so soft. I guess it was the softness of her heart underneath that I always knew was there, that made her one of my favorite people ever.