I thought you might like spend a few quiet moments with me sitting on the porch of a sharecropper’s shanty down South in the late 1960s.
But before we go there, I would like to make this disclaimer. My intention is only to share with you a brief experience I had there one afternoon so that you can time travel into an era of which you may have only read. I am describing the event and reproducing the speech of the people who were there precisely as I remember them. It is merely a fragment of history, recorded.
I have no political or social agenda. I intend no condescension; I am making no excuses. I am simply opening the door for you on an afternoon that I have never forgotten. I was young at the time, and divinely fortunate in being insulated from the ugliness and violence of the civil rights struggle. But there are so many prisms through which you can view that era, and this is one of them.
Would you like to come? We won’t be gone long.
It is a quiet, late September afternoon on my cousin’s tobacco farm in the tidewater of North Carolina. Mother and I walk from the house across the harvested field to Goldie’s place, a two-room shanty in the middle of the field. Before Goldie’s “stay place,” as she called it, is a yard of neatly mown grass bordered with rambling masses of multi-colored flowers. Back of the shack is a small garden of okra and field peas, tomatoes and cucumber vines, neatly staked with white string running from stake to stake. Like a child’s ruined toy abandoned in a garden, the shanty’s red paint is rain-washed and its rusted tin roof sags in the middle as if it had been sat on.
Goldie is sitting on the edge of the front porch. The worn floor boards of the old porch incline, as old folks do, toward the ground. In the gloom of the porch behind her, the sooted screen of the front door is patched here and there with squares of new screen sewn in with stitches of thick, white thread.
Goldie gave no sign that she saw us approaching.
“Goldie?” Mother said, smiling.
“How do.” Goldie gripped the edge of the porch boards, her body inclined and her gaze fixed upon the empty, two-lane blacktop running past the field in front of her house. Her feet, swinging gently in unison, just grazed the beaten dirt below. The slippers on her feet were worn, the softened leather flattened over the soles. The tops of Goldie’s dark little feet looked as if they had been lightly dusted with ash.
“You remember me, don’t you, Goldie?”
“May we sit down?”
Goldie looked at us then, a smile in her eyes, and nodded.
We sat, our feet flat on the ground.
I remember the smell of wood smoke and kerosene drifting from the small room behind us. I had only a glimpse within—of broken, yellow linoleum and tatters of paper on the wall boards.
Goldie began to talk, as if continuing a conversation that she had been having silently with herself before our arrival.
“Men trash and gittin’ trashier all de time. You take dat Rudie now. He don’ care ‘bout nottin’ in dis worl’ cept…”
“H-e-e-ey,” Aunt Effie said softly. We had not seen her coming. She had apparently followed us from the home place, turning silently into the grassed path leading between Goldie’s enormous bushes of “snowballs.” A little bitty thing coming slowly. The last flowering bush, as Effie moved past it, was alive with bees.
“How do, Miz Effie,” Goldie said.
Effie made her way to the porch and sat down beside Goldie. Like Goldie, she could almost just touch the ground by pointing the toes of her sturdy black shoes straight down.
“Nice evenin’, ain’t it?” Goldie said.
Effie nodded. “Ye-e-e-s.” My great-aunt Effie had a speak impediment, a nervous affliction that had come upon her in middle age. She forced the syllables of each word with great effort and the result was staccato, as if she were clearing her throat.
Without releasing her grip on the porch, Goldie knocked Mother’s elbow with hers, smiling slyly. “Pickin’ up some, ain’t she?” She indicated Effie with a jerk of her head. Effie gave her a gentle smile.
“Dem’s two things you gotta watch out fer, Miz Effie,” Goldie teased. “De rheumatism and de his-terics. Now I knows all ‘bout de his-terics. I be standin’ right dere,” she said, pointing emphatically at a place directly in front of them, “an’ I cain’t move. I don’ know nottin’, ain’t thinkin’ nottin’, and cain’t do nottin’. An’ dat’s de his-terics. You gits ‘em sometimes. You gotta watch out fer ‘em when you gits ole lak us.” She bobbed at the waist with soft, heeing laughter.
Effie pointed with her cane to the bush of white snowballs. “N-i-i-i-i-c,” she said.
“Dem snowballs come up good dis year.”
“T-o-o-o h-o-o-ot,” Effie said.
“Ain’t I gots ‘em?”
Effie dismissed Goldie’s argument with a flip of her hand.
“You don’ts belieb me? You wants me to show you? You got a head lak a mule. You know dat? Lak a mule.”
They were almost identical in size, except that Effie was stouter, a condition that was apparently a source of inexhaustible amusement for Goldie. Effie’s hair lay in flat, white curls on her tender pink scalp. Goldie’s dark skull was striped with minutely thin, white braids. The fields beyond her head were similarly striped, green on brown.
Sometimes of an evening, Mother told me, Goldie went up to the house to visit Aunt Effie and her children and grandchildren. In the evenings, at suppertime, she often made her way slowly across the road and rapped on the screen porch door and a voice from within would say, “Come on in, Goldie,” and when she stumped into the kitchen someone would pull out a chair at the kitchen table and fill a plate for her. Sometimes she came over after supper, pulling open the creaking screen door and walking right on in to join the family in front of the small television set.
“Get up,” my cousin would say sharply to one of the kids, “and give Goldie a seat.”
But I was not there on any of those occasions. She would not have come up when family was visiting, as we were the weekend that Mother drove me up to Chapel Hill for the start of my junior year at UNC.
On that evening, as Goldie’s voice, interrupted occasionally by Effie’s hoarse stutter, went quietly on and on, I listened with a smile, gazing into the lilac twilight.
Later, remembering that brief experience, I would think about little Aunt Effie making her way carefully with her cane down from my great-grandfather’s big white house and across the field to sit and visit with Goldie in the evenings, the two of them swinging their legs over the edge of the porch as they talked about flowers and the heat and their aches and pains.
In the morning of their lives, in the last century, had they played together as children? Or had the little white girl in her soft, white, muslin dress stayed close to the big house, perhaps glancing and wondering at the little brown girl skipping around the dirt yard of the small unpainted house out in her daddy’s field? I wish I had asked. But at least I was with them in the evening of their lives as they sat side by side, two little old women peering through the twilight dimness as through muslin, rocking on the edge of the porch of a shack in the fading light.