She stands proudly, shoulders thrown back, looking the camera full in the eye, a kerchief on her head, skirts that come to ankles clad in a pair of boots, a crisp white apron topping it all. She wraps her arms protectively about two small children, one in a pair of frayed overalls, the other in a dress outgrown, in a coat from which thin wrists poke out too short sleeves. They look a bit bedraggled, these children, and shy. They lean into the woman's skirts and the woman's strong brown hands clasp the shoulders of the children firmly. It is evident from the way the children hover behind her skirts, and from her own fierce proud look into the camera that these children trust her to keep them safe. It is apparent that this woman is as fierce in her devotion to them as they are to her. It is equally apparent that the strong tall woman is not their mother, for her skin is not the same color.
When my mother found this picture in a box of photographs she did not know existed, she was overcome with emotion. "It is Aunt Lillie!", she exclaimed, and from that day till this she would not part with that picture. "I would take nothing for that picture," she has told me time and again. My mother is the little girl whose thin little arms poke from the coat sleeves. Her brother is the tiny shy little boy hiding behind Aunt Lillie's skirts. Aunt Lillie was the black woman who came each day to help their mother run a household on a sharecropper's farm, and Aunt Lillie was considered yet another mother to them. My mother's family was not wealthy, and did not own the farm they worked. Side by side they tended the land with other folks. When sharecropping could not feed and clothe the family, they left the farm, and went north to a land of factories and industry, and they left behind many folks like Aunt Lillie, that they had worked beside, and considered extended "family".
They took along with them their memories. They remembered praying together, singing together, helping one another bury their dead. A little boy remembered sadly not ever again having "Aunt Lillie's biscuits". Mama
says, "I will never forget the sight of Aunt Lillie walking down the road to the house each morning. She always took long strides, always wore her white apron, always had a shopping bag she swung in her hand..." And as she smiles remembering, I know a little girl must have anxiously waited for that woman to appear each day, perhaps hovering in a window peering out.
Many years later, having raised their own families, my mother and her sister would go back to Tennessee looking for the "old farm". They would find it, and sit at the end of the road looking up at it and remembering. A man would appear on the porch to ask them if he could help them, and when they told him they had once lived here as children, his bronzed face would break into a wide warm smile, his eyes light up, and he would say, "You Mr. Jim and Miz Icie's youngins? You get out of that car right now, and come on up here on the porch a spell and talk to us!" And so they did...welcomed home by an extended family who remembered a time years could not erase. And for all of them, this family who lived in the house my mother and her sister once did, and for my mother and her sister, there was made another time to cherish in memory, as they sat on the porch and caught up on one another's lives.
Do not misinterpret the addressing of "Mr. Jim" and "Miz Icie" and "Aunt" as being anything but what it was...a sign of the regional belief in manners. In much of the south, we address each other, regardless of race or age, in such a manner. It is considered "proper" and it is considered respectful. Those of the area who knew my grandparents, regardless of who they were, recall their memory to me and address them in that same way.
Much has been written of the south, of prejudices and injustices, of wrongful thinking and of stereotypes. Much of what has been written is true, but much is not. There have indeed been miles to travel in terms of equality, but there is yet a story not often told. There is another picture in the south, one many of us know well...and it is a story of mutual caring, mutual friendship, mutual sharing...that transcended all the negative pictures media has painted for so long. Within the south so often, there was indeed a friendship, a clasping of hands of differing colors, that is often not written of. And so...regardless of whether it is "politically correct" to do so or not, I do so now. A copy of the picture my Mama loves so is on my desk, will remain there.
Mama, I love Aunt Lillie too. I never knew her but I love her because of the way her hand is clasped on your frail thin shoulder. I love her because that faded old photograph captured the look in her eye that tells me her love for you and wish to protect you was as fierce as my own. Yes Mama...we know another picture of the south...and I expect that two little children and a tall protective woman would have taken to task anyone who tried to come between the mutual love the three of you had for one another with the picture media sometimes portrays as a generality occurring everywhere in the south. It simply was not so.
just a thought,
(Note: Afternoon Rocking messages are meant to be passed on, meant to be
shared...simply share as written without alterations...and in entirety.