In their reckless haste to denude Waymon and Camille’s portion of our house, my cousin Boopy and her husband Dim overlooked “the pen.” To them, the instrument must’ve been among the most meaningless of trifles. Like all those photographs of her family.
The implement was more than an expensive writing tool. Boopy’s grandfather Waymon bought it for a single use, a distinct purpose. He’d paid attention to the processes which granted blacks greater inclusion into American life. All of them affirmed through signatures. What he had in mind was no less momentous than those bills enacted.
The sleek pen’s artful and silvery length contained everything Dim and Boopy would never aspire nor achieve. Fortunately, I salvaged the memento while rescuing pictures destined for the trash and forgetting.
In 1980, that pen raised our family. It also should’ve assured our futures. Waymon used it to imprint his signature to the house’s final mortgage payment. By the hour of the ceremony itself the lender had already cashed his check.
Through work, denial, economy, and industry, our address’ adults had crushed a 30-year obligation in just two decades. They had reached the American summit: they owned their own home; they owed nobody nothing.
At the same time I knew nothing about debt. Other than it needed to be discharged as quickly as possible. An undergraduate still, my consumer habit remained unformed. Realize back then grants, summer jobs, part-time laboring during the semesters, and affordable higher education costs kept students out of penury. My personal balance stood at zero. I needed to graduate and find employment before experiencing the advanced math defining “monthly budgeting.”
Until my abrupt meeting with financial reality, the adults’ proud relief served as a novelty. These were not demonstrative people. However, the last mortgage payment elicited a kind of emotive response more suited for mineshaft collapse survivors and their relatives. It also prompted a rough eloquence that bruised poetry.
We were fortunate the mortgage burning ritual could be held during summer. The season allowed us to hold it outside in our backyard.
Now knowing better how the adults had lived, I have a fuller sense of their joy. Happy for them as I was then, I remained too callow, too immature, to comprehend the hour’s magnitude. My money holes sat waiting in the future. A 30-year note exceeded my imagination.
A gentle sunny August day in our small backyard. Then, we packed the green. Now nearly 34 years on, maybe four or five remain from that afternoon.
No one attending bore proper foresight. In his or her own way each only saw a boundless future because the past had been settled. After 20 diligent years Waymon could cast off his stone. From that day and the thousands following, he truly owned his home.
At 70, Waymon had become a bantam. His small dark stature barely contained his vigor. Only he alone of his siblings saw through sly eyes – a trait he bequeathed to his younger and favorite son Richard. Though at that time who among us didn’t share ready grins and quick laughter?
Exulting beside Waymon his wife Camille. In her youth she’d been one light-skinned Georgia beauty. Had Waymon never left our native Carolina, there was slight chance of those two meeting, much less marrying. No reason for him to visit far into Georgia, nor for her to seek fortune along the Atlantic coast. Both owed their mutual fate to America’s internal black diaspora. Only Southern hopelessness had compelled each to forge his or her way North.
Instead, immersed in an alien culture, necessity blurred and melded distinctions into mutual survival.
Midnight as he was to Camille’s noon, Waymon proved himself one capable provider. Contrary to the era’s social constraints, Waymon was loud, opinionated and insistent. Mule stubborn, too. Racial roadblocks and his own meager education aside, he set goals without really knowing how to achieve them. He often resorted to the bulldozer method.
Like most blacks of his time, Waymon practiced patience. A seething patience, but he kept his powder dry. That, and humility left his aspirations small and simple and reachable.
Waymon’s father, my paternal grandfather, worked for the railroad. He and grandmother also tilled a piece of soil. The combination fed them and six children as well as permitted trips to “exotic” Savannah. Which to my reckoning was unusual because Charleston sat much closer. However as father once curtly explained, “Georgia crackers treated [them] fairer than the Carolina ones.”
From that loam, Waymon secured himself a spot in the middle class. He, akin to father, expected his children to launch themselves farther.
All those within Waymon’s cohort bore the same stamp. This paid mortgage, his scrawl upon the copy, its ritual burning, represented their apogee. The gesture held simple man glory. There should be more for us comprising the next generations than mere in fee.
Clear of burden and doubt, extensively educated, we were to excel. Our rise would add luster to the family. Our accomplishments would fully validate the prior generations’ marginal then menial progressions, the long hours, the low pay, insults accepted with little-to-no discernable reaction, and arbitrary abuses whose sole rewards were to be deferred pleasure.
As stated earlier, the adults reduced the obligation of our two-family house by a third. Union jobs carried them all into the middle class. Such wealth and attendant benefits were unimaginable during all their Southern childhoods. Yet who among them didn’t augment these with part-time, cash-money work elsewhere?
Like Camille, mother also sought and found sinecure in nursing. Father and Waymon eventually worked at the same manufacturers. However, due to timing and placement quirks, father, the pair’s younger, occupied seniority above his brother.
Mother left our house early, separating from him in the mid-60s. Why? She gave her reason as wanting her own home. She claimed proximity to her in-laws bothersome. I would’ve thought that impetus might’ve branded her as selfish, lacking in communal spirit. But no one saw her in such fashion. Believe me if anyone did, propriety be damned, it would’ve been voiced.
No. The rupture came from within their marriage. Something she’d grudgingly admit years later after father unable to dispute or agree, rationalize or apologize.
Convoluted to a child, to this adult her move seemed prescient. If she hadn’t founded her own home, had we all still lodged at the old place after Waymon’s death, Dim’s and Boopy’s eventual torments would’ve angered her more than father.
Father was stoic, the strong silent type. On the other hand, mother might’ve gone Medea on the young, foolish pair. Those two would not have pushed her far or long or quietly.
Mother was 11 years younger than father. She worked until I arrived then once I could navigate nursery school resumed her shoulder to the wheel. When the others’ careers wound down, hers was just plateauing.
On that summer 1980 day, who among our immediate family above Delaware didn’t trample the grass? Even figures only known through Christmas cards and telephone calls from Brooklyn and remote Jersey attended.
A radio broadcast a Mets game. Savory barbecue aromas hovered at hedge heights. If it weren’t a beer or soda pop top cracking, then the tinkle of ice upon sweaty highball glasses frequently punctured our merriment.
After decades and distance slid away, those who refused having their spirits crushed now ambivalently acknowledged the demoralizing past. Some admitted stretches of despair. For them, this hour wasn’t payback but payout. The reward for what had been endured. While only a few had directly contributed to this endeavor, others among them had wended through similar travails. Here was an occasion not for repeat rejoicing, but familiar celebration. They came to signify the moment.
The Debutante, Boopy’s mother, tall, willowy, feverish bronze amid a brown-black gathering, acted the admiring wife beside Junior, the older of Waymon’s and Camille’s sons. She laughed on the right cues. She also unspooled complimentary chatter which burnished her husband. On this Saturday afternoon no one could mistake the Debutante for anyone other than a goodwife.
Richard, Waymon’s elegant son, charmed our visitors enough to obscure his increasingly erratic life. He exuded such brightness that those aware of the bedeviling rumors concerning him dismissed them altogether.
True, there had been one rehab stay for Richard. Several little mentioned court appearances as well. This day’s clean and sober demonstration made relapse unthinkable. Why, hadn’t Waylon himself discounted the possibility? Fervidly. And what about the whispered difficulties between Richard and his wife? Weren’t we each happy to banish all that discord?
Wedded couples among us spoke sotto platitudes from experience: who among them hadn’t survived rough patches? Those of us creeping towards marital states were made to understand these conditions unpleasant rites of passage.
Father, Richard, his parents, 1988.
Two ancient uncles, Cleveland and McKinley, one older and the other as old as the century itself, graced our enclosure. Distant as we now view the Civil War, these two as boys had known emancipated slaves. Both men lent “spry” sheen. Each retained wise sight behind think lenses. Neither stooped.
Indeed their lives north of the Mason-Dixon Line could’ve borne fair comparison to Southern and Eastern European émigrés. In hindsight. Prompted sufficiently, the two older black men would’ve pointedly noted that unlike the lionized Ellis Island arrivals they landed in New York speaking English. Not that it helped any because both unabashedly would’ve said their skins negated whatever native advantages.
Father, Waymon, their younger siblings often voiced this same point. Without rancor and always delivered flatly. The claim never failed astounding some of my less knowledgeable, more ignorant cousins.
The rustic’s inner clock still ruled Waymon and his brothers. Still. Despite greater lifetimes in Metropolitan New York, farm rhythms managed them. High as the sun remained, Waymon declared this day edging into “late.” His signal. We lent him our eyes and ears.
Once he had us, words failed Waymon. He stumbled before recovering. Book smarts deficient, Waymon had absorbed instinctive intelligence. Lack of polish never impeded his way to truth. Truth as he saw it.
First, Waymon wished his parents had lived longer. Although considered old for their time, life had run them down sooner than necessary.
Junior and Richard might barely have remembered their paternal grandfather. Having lived into their early teens, the woman who would’ve been my grandmother as well occupied a firmer memory fix. Not only did she survive into the late 50s, outpacing her husband by eight years, latter-decade prosperity allowed her grandchildren frequent southern visits.
Waymon struggled for profundity. Bad choice. Perhaps he believed the moment required “meaning.” English tussled among events.
Again he bemoaned Jim Crow medical care. He ruefully observed what had once been commonly fatal for blacks had now become routinely curable. Waymon knew of what he spoke. Two sisters died between his and father’s births. The older listeners nodded. For a moment the generational divide opened. Every family member who grew up under Jim Crow recalled at least one death caused through a distinctly black malady.
My generation had been reared to take progress for granted. Miracle drug as once proclaimed, who among us injected saw the Salk vaccine as nothing more than another in a series of required needles? However, Waymon’s contemporaries were the only people I’d ever seen who’ve regarded how progress could task memory as well as improve life.
I doubt Waymon grasped his words effect. He merely tried getting from here to there, not make any cosmic points. He was unaccustomed to shading or honing or tailoring his tongue. Simple man as he was, Waymon locked out all emotions except for outrage.
He regretted the poverty of that Carolina had prevented any photographs of their parents. While vestiges lived in the faces of him and his siblings, and were extended through the features of Junior and Richard (and strangely enough my sister), these remnants were becoming ever-shifting puzzle tiles.
Twenty-three years later, I wondered whether this tangible sign of Waymon’s eventual dementia. The one leading to his confused raging death. Or had he momentarily gotten entwined in the occasion?
Clarity regained, Waymon returned to 1980. Forcefully.
He declared this day proved much. It taught even more. They weren’t crabs.
His remark yielded two kinds of laughter. Older listeners chuckled knowingly and heartily. Younger attendees, those ignorant of the parable especially, giggled weakly. By the clouds shading their faces, I watched several cousins wonder how crustaceans figured in his reckoning.
The elders knew crabs never escaped the pot’s boiling water because as soon as one reached the rim’s lip, the others latched on and dragged him back down. The gist being one cannot extend assistance until the aid-giver himself is solidly established.
While taking obvious pride in home ownership, Waymon saw true reward in what had been created. He doubted there grew any finer roses than those cultivated by his wife Camille. Although this house was purchased too late for his own sons’ ample benefit, watching and hearing how I, and to a much lesser extent Boopy, thrived there filled him with great pleasure. He liked how the surety of our home, further enhanced by people eager to offer affection and protection, could only bolster our prospects.
If he wished the same benediction covered Junior’s and the Debutante’s own home, Waymon left it unsaid. Though he never acknowledged it in any way, Waymon was too observant a man not to notice that couple’s fissures.
He then thanked our uncles Cleveland and McKinley. His family was indebted to them. Had they not blazed the way north 60 years earlier, who might’ve guided and eased his passage? Without them he wouldn’t have been in any spot to turn around and perform the same labor for his siblings. Waymon then held out his hand to each of his brothers, grabbed, and shook theirs. He literally did this after years of actually having done it figuratively.
Afterwards he cited father. Granted, the deed lacked his younger brother’s name. So Waymon took the moment to announce this property half father’s. After all, his toil and contributions towards it immensely helped issue full title 10 years sooner.
Expecting nature to respect the order of life, Waymon demanded his sons, both of whom were established elsewhere, honor their uncle. And once the elder generation had passed, Junior and Richard were to confer with me. (Although nine years my senior, sister got aced because Waymon was a patriarch. The medical degree she earned simply meant in his eyes she’d become a lady doctor.)
Waymon made it explicit. This home was ours.
Swell as that was hearing, adding simple codicils to his will and installing father as co-titlist would’ve lashed the agreement in iron. But the eldest brother scoffed at legal impersonality among family. Legalities served strangers. The countryman in Waymon believed in the strength bonded through blood. Certainly one’s word and handshake ought have sufficed, trumping paper.
A fine 19th century notion that five years into the 21st got trampled.
We in attendance heard. To a listener each expected Junior and Richard to obey their father’s intentions. No one considered that either son would do otherwise. None doubted that decades from this sunny untroubled day Junior and Richard, me, and depending on how tolerant we’d become, sister, would determine our patrimony.
We were not arbitrary people.
Junior. Father. Our porch. 1962.
Okay. Other than no longer tackling an insistent monthly nut, what did ownership mean? Why the mania? Possession. Absolute possession. This state conferred greater rights and privileges than having yet owing and far more than renting. For people quite aware of their heritage, that not too long ago others saw them as commodities instead of humans, a house anchored them to the community. As fully enfranchised equals.
A securable foundation, the house could be used to launch dreams. Maybe one of us might contrive an idea, a sound business venture requiring capitalization. Perhaps future higher education costs became onerous. Or augment savings ravaged by illness. Use the structure as collateral. Then again on some far off day, let’s say all three or our successors decide to cash out what had been accrued. Who could foresee exigencies or necessities or whims in 1980? Nobody. But the house should be there, and ours, to utilize however.
No one saw inverted deaths. No one imagined the mindless monster Boopy became. Indeed that black day waited beyond many horizons. No one drinking Waymon’s liquor, eating his food, in short enjoying his hospitality, dared peer so far ahead. We basked in the sweet moment. It encouraged us.
Proper in the heraldic sense, Waymon’s proclamation was legally void. Boopy, Dim and their fat pasty shyster brushed it aside 25 years later.
By 1960, our house’s purchase year, Junior completed his first freshman semesters at college. At the same time Richard had just finished skating through as a high school junior. All they’d known until then was life on Quarropas’ colored neighborhoods. The city’s designated black areas were nowhere near mean enough to be mistaken ghetto. Nonetheless life along those leaner blocks was rude.
Before delivery into suburbia proper, we’d all resided in tenements whose heydays expired after the last Old World family cleared out. Life on borrowed time reduced any further structural luster.
Maybe it wasn’t so bad for our elders, who’d known a hell of a lot worse. Junior and Richard? They’d known nothing but cramped and sparse. Both had grown up sharing a tiny bedroom in a small apartment. Their front yard also served as one heavily trafficked commercial artery. Blocks away a piebald community park formed the backyard.
Compared to Waymon’s and Camille’s childhood homes those boys lapped in luxury. They resided in sturdy housing. In summer rust-corroded fire escapes doubled as po’ folks porches.
The building featured competent wiring. During winters it was heated more often than not. Gas fired the stoves, coal the boiler. Radios abounded and by the mid-50s everybody had telephone connections. Not surprisingly, Waymon was among the neighborhood’s first television owners.
At Junior’s and Richard’s ages, our parents lived in little more than drafty shacks “down home.” Were they lucky, the WPA eventually strung a flimsy line to the electric pole. Otherwise kerosene lamps elbowed aside what darkness possible until flight north. Wood, paper or coal recovered from nearby rail beds heated cast iron stoves. Privacy, the notion of having one’s own space, remained inconceivable outside their heads.
So much so public observation stamped them far into adulthood. For some that constant sense of surveillance never dissipated.
Down South, maybe a few far afield neighbors owned radios. None had telephones, the combination post office/general store housing a single party line to the greater world away.
Whatever few photographs existed of their formative years were stiff portraits whose subjects without fail summoned bittersweet recollections. Years and miles piled these stories with sad clarity.
In the middle 50s Junior and Richard became familiar with “down home.” Circumstances beyond their personal experience made the introduction belated.
Late birth down there saved me all but several months of tenement living. Otherwise from infancy on this son only knew leafy, quiet suburban sidewalks. I slept in my own room. In our own house.
“Rex” with grandma in South Carolina, August 1959.
Although seldom considered while it occurred, when mortality chopped Waymon’s line, I started recalling instances of being observed. Nothing sinister. Certainly fascination from him and Camille, and to a lesser extent father. Fashions became odd. Music strange, and my acquaintances stranger yet.
I doubt Junior and Richard underwent this same amount of scrutiny. Certainly nowhere near the same depth of interest. Those two issued from that ‘tweener generation, the one between my parents and us Boomers. Didn’t ours invent “teenagers”?
My teens might’ve challenged father, but this period confounded Waymon and Camille. Unlike their sons during the same frame, I simply wasn’t a younger copy of the old folks. On the other hand, mother, who’d come of age a decade later than father, easily rolled with the changes. My zest probably confused Waymon and Camille. Circumstances proscribed their activities at that age, while their sons’ own were limited.
Didn’t the gang I hanged with cause the greatest wonderment? Having grown up in the South, Waymon, Camille, father, and to a lesser extent mother, fraternized inside a homogenous circle. They lived in strictly black spheres. Almost any white face inside them invited potential menace. Through custom they learned and practiced distance. The 60s and 70s easier social permissibility would’ve been regarded as heresy during their own youthful emergences.
Boomer ascendance recognized the abnormality of these proscriptions and rectified them. Late births lent us advantages which we exploited. At first friendships mirrored the surrounding blocks. Then all of Quarropas.
Arriving at the Boom’s tail end allowed us to avoid the infrequent yet sharp nonetheless biases encountered by Junior and Richard during their formative years. Just as being born outside Dixie in the 40s spared the boys requiring forming calluses against pernicious segregation’s steady cudgel.
Increasing tolerance and diversity let us grow up stronger and straighter than Waymon’s and Camille’s sons. Relatively stunted as our forbearers were, they might’ve considered us giants and amazons. Which is why some comparisons with past and present are unfair. Besides, is glory quantifiable?
Junior, Richard and I esteemed athletics. Junior parlayed football skills into a scholarship. Richard lacked his brother’s bulk. Perhaps might’ve been similarly rewarded, but his academics fell short.
Tall as Junior, Richard stood as a reed beside his brother’s tree trunk. No Saturday afternoon gridiron heroism for Richard. Instead, he mined success through track & field. His self-satisfaction obvious because in every photograph snapped during his splendor Richard glowed. Not any tepid response to the photographer’s command, but luxuriant airs which confessed pleasure with himself.
Richard naturally displayed delight his stern older brother could never muster – even accidentally.
Richard, Christmas 1958. He could’ve been one of the kings of the cats.
Though a generation separated our respective high school classes, enough educators lingered who’d mentored or coached both cousins. They compared me favorably with the boys. Until adulthood did praise get any higher than that? Also, exhumed stories revived and recreated their teens.
Recalling those reconstructions now, I never fail seeing Junior agile and bruising, Richard swift and graceful. The middle-aged men they became are entombed. Their conjured personas remained exceptionally lively.
At Quarropas High team pictures line passages leading to the gymnasium. Always assemblages of successful varsity squads, these having won titles. (Our high school’s lone concession to stellar individuals: an obscure and badly maintained board listing record-setting performances.)
Ironically, Junior never appeared in any football pictures. Opponents grabbed those laurals. His sole appearance came beside Richard in the single outdoor track season they shared. Passersby frequently saw Richard smiling from many frames thanks to outstanding harrier, indoor and outdoor campaigns.
Their respective legacies could’ve been preordained through athletics. Junior a steady determined boy; Richard among the school’s most gregarious.
Should I have been remembered there, I hoped for both qualities, athletic and inquisitive. I like to think the then student pleased my parents. If remembered correctly, he walked tall and straight with his chest out. He also never shied looking directly into others’ eyes.
Thankfully my sister is nine years older and many times smarter. The first, reason why she was little referenced and seldom seen. She proved the second herself. Why would a woman bother herself with her teen-age brother’s associates? Gender and our age gap spared her plenty of knucklehead behavior. Or as I later boiled it down for the guys: “When we were leaving high school, she graduated from medical school.”
Though that’s not the thankful part. Her absence meant I needn’t tough out overhearing my fellow horny bastards dissect her. Should she have been an object of fumbling schoolboy lust, I would’ve had trouble holding certain opposing views in check. But since she wasn’t present, I dogged around without care.
Relieving our parents greatly, neither sister nor I succumbed to the suburban black fallacy. We didn’t strive mightily towards mindless “hyper urban street authenticity.” Or as the folks might’ve judged, “No capering. No skylarking.” How self-defeating it would’ve been to have voluntarily demoted one’s self after so hard a climb.
Neither did we find ourselves burdened with unplanned parenthood or partied into next-day embarrassing stupefaction.
Once the other participants were safely buried, mother told me about those evenings Richard had been deposited on our porch after some hellacious partying. (It’s amazing how unknown puzzle pieces fit after the riddles pass away.) Back in the late 50s, early 60s, he held better than his fair dram of liquor. Which he now and then posited by vomiting across the front of the property.
Blessedly, during that stretch Waymon and father both worked nightshifts. Wordlessly sizing up the situation, mother and Camille delivered Richard’s often delirious form to bed then hurried to eliminate all traces of his big nights.
And until mother revealed these incidents 40 years afterwards, they remained unspoken by either woman. Why bother? Richard had already shown himself one far less than perfect son.
Mother wondered if early occurrences like expunging evidence of his misconduct led to strengthening his addictive habits. His ultimately fatal craving. The two mothers acted as they did to spare him Waymon’s roof-raisings. After years piled high, mother didn’t know which would’ve angered Waymon most – his son’s public disgrace or that boy desecrating their home.
Either way one certainty: Waymon would’ve been loud and profane.
Maybe, mother mused, instead of protective silence obscenely-pointed harangues might’ve been what Richard needed. Perhaps fear instilled into his marrow could’ve set and kept him straight. Her memory and the sigh accompanying it summed up the wrecked man who rushed towards his own demise. Fifteen years after Richard’s passing, and father’s own recent departure, we regretted never asking the doomed son how could and why did he waste a promising life.
Thinking of Richard saddens me. He could’ve become a king of the cats. A cousin I considered a brother. The Eddie Haskell kind.
Boopy had none of our light or drive. Despite having greater advantages than us all combined, she fell far short of at least the minimum.
Once after the spike had pushed his consciousness into space, Richard proposed that perhaps one day Boopy could become an actress. His utterance came a day before incredulity joined derision in my quiver.
If Richard believed her capable of breathing life into another character then convincingly inhabiting it, um, no. If he meant being a walking unfiltered pipe through which others could sluice their worst conduct, why, yes.
When Boopy’s entered Quarropas High the holdovers remaining from Junior’s days and remembering him to me were dust. Unfortunately for her, though, the interim between my leaving and her arriving was shorter. Casts of thousands knew our surname, me, and made the connection with her. Gulf between our qualities further burdened that child.
By then the Debutante had bolted. Had she been a present in her daughter’s life, a supportive mother could’ve championed Boopy. Despite augmentative affection from her immediate family, none of what they offered salved nor filled the Debutante’s abandonment.
Boopy was a dull student. It was also her misfortune that clumsy fit neither team nor individual activity. An ungainly child, Boopy dragged through every chubby permutation on the way to her present “queenly” sluggishness. Boopy was forgettable. Human filler. She merged with backgrounds very well.
Her sole scholastic achievement? Advancing as a mediocrity, she somehow matriculated into the local Lutheran college.
In her adolescence, Boopy developed a lifelong trait which still vexes me. When pressed the slightest, she crumbles completely. Rather than maintain level gazes, the girl lowered her head. The universal gesture of whipped curs everywhere. Chin tucked against chest, doleful eyes stared from below her eyebrows.
I heard she detested any relationship with me. Good. Maybe she struggled just as hard to avoid seeing her father’s and Richard’s youthful smiling faces mocking her along gymnasium hallways.
If further insult could be heaped upon such a consciously minor person, cousins also within Boopy’s own age bracket happily promoted only reluctant familial association with her. Although these girls weren’t Heathers, they found Boopy weird and a drag.
Had she not become such an ingrate, I should’ve replied, “Ouch!” But she did. So I won’t.
In the end, I suppose her being the rump of our family’s female structure gouged deeply. Once the other girls judged Boopy worthless, her dead-end future was assured.