Every day, after school, I walked up to the house. The family’s hub of activity. The place where I learned how to be a proper young lady and my male cousins learned how to be men. The porch swing was installed in 1943, after my mother was born. Weathered, worn, and weighted down with memories of warm summer evenings, Papa’s pipe smoke, and Mama’s lap, it still stood the test of time. Like every southern home, even one built in Maryland (south of the Mason-Dixon line, but not proper southern if you know what I mean), there were two doors: the wooden one, with a knocker for when company came calling and the screen door to keep out flies and rowdy children who ran around the yard playing cowboys and Indians. Indians, not Native Americans. And it seems odd now, in this time, to realize that nobody ever wanted to be the Indians. Not one little black child fought to play the “bad guys.” Sure enough, even when we played Tarzan, we all fought to swing from his rope.


Our cultural identities were already bent towards white, and we didn’t even bat an eyelash.

Family never had to knock on the door. Given that the entire community was linked by blood or by tears, this meant only the white folk had to knock.

Family knew that hello wasn’t a fit greeting when you came home. Instead, you always asked “What you know good?” A chorus of replies would range from “Hey baby” to “Nothing but the good.” And if food was cooking, the new arrival would inevitably be invited to eat. Something was always cooking and there was always room for one more. If Jesus could turn two loaves of bread and five fish into a feast for his beloved, the family could turn our portion into equally as much.

In the morning, the cast iron gridle, black as tar and slick with bacon grease, would serve up griddle cakes, as golden brown as my skin. I learned, from Mama, that you knew they were ready to flip when they bubbled in the middle. My first one fell half on the griddle and half on the stove. And it still tasted like love. Or, if the evening sun was setting, the pigs out back nuzzling the mud, and the grape vine dripping with Concords that tasted like summer nights, the big pot on the stove would emit the smell of Chitlins, waiting to be drenched in vinegar and supped with Papa’s dandelion wine.

The dining room table always managed to fit one more.

“Plate first child, fold the napkin, fork on the left, knife on the right, spoon next to the knife. Don’t forget the teacups. To the right child, to the right. Just above the knife and spoon.”

I hear Mama’s gentle voice even as I type this, and I smile.

What you know good?

I know that time was patience, and grace, and growth. I know it was before the older vines withered and died or some of the younger ones fell to the ground, never managing to find their way back to the trellis. Back to the house.

“The bread on the table child. Not until then do we eat.”

As we sat at the table, heads bowed, the white dessert plate held the slices of bread. Wonder bread.

“And Jesus said unto [us], I am the bread of life…no man comes to the father but by me.”

God is great, God is good. We always thanked him for our food.

We talked. Even children allowed a voice. The day’s events discussed, argued about, dissected. Each one teaching one, long before I learned the word rhetoric, I lived its ways. I was shown its possibilities. There, up at the house, my family, housewives, day girls, Negro league baseball players, and military men, taught me to hold my own and be my best.

And after my belly and my mind were full, I plunged my hands into the soapy water and scrubbed the plates, glasses, skillets until they shone. I was a dishwasher and Westinghouse appliances had nothing on me. It was a chore for women; our preparation to keep house for a man and children. Because that was the way. Even if God had other plans for us-in the years that would change the way roles were played. In a new time when you had to play Native Americans and Occupiers. And everyone, even the occupiers, swore they had Native American blood. Everyone wanted to be Sitting Bull, except Dan Synder.




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