She Humanized Him

This post follows Phony Gold and Our Patrimony. Language and characterizations reflect the times, people and places. 

    Without Waymon our two-family home shrunk. That’s a statement I couldn’t attribute to his wife Camille, or sons Richard and Junior together. Combined my aunt and cousins lacked my uncle’s single vitality. Waymon’s subtraction multiplied emptiness.

    Although obviously gone, one truly became aware of his absence after the funeral. Esteem him, fear him, my uncle lived 93 years. He’d known a lot of people. Not all of whom went before him.

    The significance of Waymon’s death was such that even mother made a pilgrimage to our old modest homestead. Certainly acrimony ruptured my parents. However, that happened in 1966. So long ago time had blurred its sharpness.

    Separated as they had, mother and father achieved a surprising level of cordiality. So much so neither ever considered formalizing their split through divorce. Nonetheless 37 years needed passing until 2003, the next to last hour she graced her former address.

    A woman’s discerning eye coolly appraised father’s austere furnishing motif since they’d diverged. Whatever mother’s opinion of his decorating she kept to herself.

    Her condolence call gratified father. Mother’s was an unexpected gesture. By far Waymon had been her least favorite in-law. Sentiment many of his in-laws shared. With him covered over by dirt, some later did aloud. While the precise causes behind my parents’ separation remained between them, her brother-in-law apparently contributed a decent slice to it.

    Mother later acknowledged she never understood the sway Waymon held over his siblings. She thought as adults they’d finally declare their independence. Instead, one after the other, they chose to sulk and chafe under their eldest brother. More than devoted, his brothers and sister felt beholden. He’d helped establish the whole bunch once they rose from Carolina.

    Cagily picking his spots, I heard he never let them forget it.

    Waymon’s siblings yielded to him as if he were a parent. Sister and I came along too late to witness that reverence. Or, if need be, cowering. Should I have ever wanted, I wouldn’t have known how to question father about it anyway.

    Then again perhaps circumstances hint at the family psychology. Waymon sat eight years older than father. Between them two sisters were born and died. From thereon, random luck, not improved medical care, expanded their family line by three further brothers and a sister.  

    When I’d reached an age of comprehension, Waymon had lost much of his harsh master manner. I witnessed the tail end of his angry tiger. While he never lashed out at me or my contemporaries, his spouse, peers and then grown children dodged his last bolts.

Father, a student, aunt, uncle, 1978.

    His voice carried. Big difference between renting an apartment and owning a house: less concern about neighbors’ sensitivities in the latter. Ownership confers greater privileges. Homeowners have wider latitude in what they say and may do nearly as loud as they wish.

   Saturday evenings, Waymon exercised his privilege. Often a few relatives and friends who’d shared the passages north from the Jim Crow South attended his half of our house. Maybe as a younger couple, he and Camille circulated.

    By my early teens their excursions had been curtailed. Through preference, acknowledgement of diminished capacities, boredom with radical 1970s amusements, recognition of an unmoored world, they, aided by their favorite spirits and abetted with familiar music, became hosts. A lot of strivers’ records spun on their turntable. R&B cuts which should’ve been more aligned with Junior and Richard than their parents. Black and funky and wailing.

    Listening to these beats today, larded by memories as they are, I suppose a musicologist may hear the American musical progression as an aural map of the country’s black diaspora. Somewhere surely some university offers Ph.D’s in Sam & Dave and Eddie Floyd.

    Didn’t these nights always funnel into one topic? The white man. The host never besmirched his subject. In fact he quite admired him, the white man. Waymon dissected the white man clinically. Lubricated as they were, his dissertations regarding the white man’s success soared.

    And, yes, discussions regularly excluded women. The most insistent voices belonged to a male side which habitually dismissed its distaff. No apologies because neither knew nothing else.

    Doctoral candidates and preachers stuck for sermons ought have crowded Waymon’s living room. Their note-scribbling might’ve sparked fires. Deprived of book-learning as the speakers had been, generally their powers of observation were acute.

    These disquisitions concluded on a faithful point: How could black men channel themselves along the white man’s pursuit? Woe to any foolish guest who saw black men incapable of applying their effort and energy forward. Facts and fervor his allies, Waymon bushwhacked and waylaid any dissenter. It could be done. It would be done. Their own vaults out of Southern black misery and sticking landings in solid middle-class prosperity confirmed that. His question was “how?”

    Seeing the muddles into which civil rights quests have devolved, how might Waymon, the others in those Saturday evening klatches, regarded present-day figureheads?  Sometimes when I listen to those who now bear the standards the word “regression” plays in my mind.

    Bible-versed as Waymon and guests were, King’s methods and message held natural appeals. They understood Malcolm’s impatience, but knew his remedies non-starters. Having escaped pernicious segregation and discrimination, each knew violence boomeranged – especially when the opposition needed zero provocation before resorting to it.

    Those men then might’ve given stink eye today at any group who based its demands on “You owe us!” Their generation having truly grown up “dirt poor,” might’ve seen our disadvantaged as kin to Rockefeller, comparing what we consider poverty luxury. If any bothered with mottos, “earn then receive” could’ve served.

    As years increased and life quieted, one of the two enduring images I retain of Waymon is him in repose deciphering that week’s issue of US News & World Report, the driest newsweekly ever.   

   Our mourning for Waymon commenced a few days into April. Unfortunately, early March hadn’t finished with Quarropas yet. Spring as calendars read, winter stubbornly continued hammering our suburban New York splendor.

   From his demise to interment, a steady procession of Waymon’s contemporaries hobbled through the front door, warming their old bones in our living room. There, they reminisced while further revivifying themselves and loosening their tongues on father’s bottled cheer. These several days probably surpassed his liquor cabinet’s annual usage. 

   Again, none of our visitors shared any recollections which burnished Waymon’s humanity. His memory made do with overflows of deference, oiled by grudging drops of respect.

  Of them all mother provided the sole fillip that somewhat redeemed the dead man. Among themselves, not to us who knew him as an elder uncle.

Mother, the early 1970s.

  The story mother told happened when we all still resided under the same roof. I was a toddler then. A spring day on the cusp of summer in the earliest 1960s. On an afternoon before aluminum siding, Waymon chose to finish repainting our house. He and father had almost completed the job. Only porch rails and other trims remained undone.

   Father was elsewhere those weekend hours. Regarding the remnants as minor, Waymon figured he could finish them himself. Deep into afternoon he’d made good progress. Mother assumed Waymon had decided his diligence earned reward. So he took a break.

   The painter went inside. There, he opened a bottle (probably a fifth of VVO) and enjoyed several nips. Refreshed, Waymon returned to his task.

   At our porch’s farthest end a dogwood grew. Tree trunk and branches blocked easy access to the last reaches.

   Someone prudent would’ve shifted his ladder in order to brush from the dogwood’s open side. Waymon thought if he leaned enough he could stretch around the trunk through the branches and color the undone bits. Otherwise he must climb off, set down his paint, scoot the ladder then re-establish himself. After all very little needed attending and the nips he’d swigged shrunk his measurements.

   Waymon misjudged.

   Mother heard clattering from our kitchen. She hurried to the front of the house. Looking past the porch railing she saw no Waymon. No ladder either.

   She rushed down the short leap of stairs, and searched towards the dogwood’s base. Behind the tree stretched Waymon, his ladder across our driveway. Green paint covered his head and splattered his shirt.

   Hilarious as mother saw this sight, even Waymon, a man who zealously prized and defended his dignity, so much so it often alienated him from others, recognized his plight. Both laughed long and loud at his predicament. For a man who took himself with utmost seriousness, Waymon could laugh.

   In her brief telling, mother allowed what we remembered of his laughter to lighten the obligatory somberness. Doubtlessly what she did was calculated. There would be plenty of opportunities after the service to recall Waymon less fondly.

   Mother did not want her listeners to forget the whole man. He hadn’t lived under a bridge. Waymon hadn’t been an ogre.

   By rights, Camille or Junior or Richard ought have softened his image. It was a shame inverted deaths scythed his wife and sons. Natural order expected him to slip the binds first, not last. A greater shame was Boopy, his granddaughter, his sole direct legacy.  

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