Baptized in Spring Creek

I don’t remember the guest preacher’s name or the messages he delivered, but I’ll never forget the three-night revival he led at my Uncle Walter’s church.

New Mardrid Mississippi River baptism 09-03-1967          My grandfather’s brother, the Rev. Walter White, was pastor of Mt. Nebo Missionary Baptist Church, which was down the street from my grandmother’s house. Because the church could be seen from the house and Uncle Walter always stopped by the house on his way to the church, my brothers and I rarely missed church on first and third Sundays. Uncle Walter pastored a church in Cross City on the second and fourth Sunday, so we were only required to attend at Sunday School and church service at Mt. Nebo on the first and third Sundays, Mt. Nebo’s once-a-month Sunday evening service, holiday services, and revivals.

            My brothers, cousins, and I weren’t looking forward to attending three nights of church service during the middle of the week. But, we had no choice.

            So, we moped down the street that first night.

            We sat twiddling our thumbs through the first part of the service, and we moaned and sighed when the service seemed to linger into the night.

            Then, my uncle introduced the preacher who was delivering the message for the night, and from his first word to his last, we clapped and shouted hallelujah like we’d never done.

            When we walked out the church that first night, we began counting down the hours until the next night’s service.

            Our grandmother didn’t have to tell us to get up and get dressed the next night, and by the time Uncle Walter came by to remind us, we were walking out the house heading to church.

            The second night’s service was just as spirited as the first.

            The third night, we were so moved by the preacher’s message that when asked who was ready to live for God, my brothers, cousins, and I all answered by joining the church.

            My uncle, who had been prodding us to join the church for a few years, was more than a little surprised. Our grandmother and my mother were even more surprised.

            The baptism date was set for the first Sunday of August, a little over a month later.

            During the next few weeks, my grandmother and aunts bought a bunch of white bed sheets then cut and sewed them into ten baptism robes.

            As the big day neared, the spirited joy I felt during the revival turned to fear of the unknown.

            My grandmother tried to calm my fears by giving me a new book of Bible stories and telling me, God loves you, but that did little to calm my fear of what creatures existed beneath the surface of Spring Creek at Folsom Park.

             When the first Sunday morning in August arrived, I stood in the middle of the line of about 16 children. I watched as Uncle Walter and one of the church deacons dipped each of the children in the water then said a blessing over them.

            Because none of the children in front of me came out of the water talking about the creature from the Black Lagoon, my fear disappeared when it came time for me to I step in the water. When I stepped out of the water into my mother’s arms, the spirit I felt during that three-night revival was all over me.

Every now and then, I wish I could step back inside Mt. Nebo M.B. Church, hear the message delivered from the preacher whose name I don’t remember, take a dip in the water at Folsom Park, then step into my mother’s arms and feel that feeling again.

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Remembering Mr. Bean

grandfathers photoMr. Bean was my grandfather, but I called him “Daddy.”

His name was Willie White, but I hardly ever heard anyone call him by that name. Instead, my grandmother and his friends called him, “Bean.”
He was “Uncle Bean” to his nieces and nephews; He was “Mr. Bean” to unrelated younger folks.
His big brother, my Uncle Walter, who was a couple of years older, called him, Son.
And his children and grandchildren, we all called him, Daddy.
By the time I came along, my grandfather was nearing retirement. He’d worked with his brother as a logger for years, but health problems were forcing him into retirement. What         I mostly remember are the years after he retired.
When my grandfather could no longer work as a logger, he became an entrepreneur.
He grunted earthworms and sold them as fishing baits.
He raised rabbits then sold them.
He collected aluminum and scrap metal then sold it.
He even put a vending machine on our front porch and sold sodas.
My grandfather did what he had to do to take care of his family.
Becoming an entrepreneur was an easy decision for my grandfather. After he retired, he quickly realized he had everything he needed to “sit and watch” as he made money.
He had a light brown Chevy truck.
He had a big yard.
A front porch.
And, he had an able-body workforce of children and grandchildren, who were already paid in shelter, food, clothing, and a lot of love.
For his fishing bait business, we would load up on the back of his truck with our wooden stakes and iron bars then head out to the woods, where my grandfather spent the day watching us grunt baits. I always stayed near my grandfather, who loved using snakes for target practice. When we got home, we became sales clerks, counting out fishing baits to customers, sometimes in the wee hours of the morning.
For his rabbit business, my grandfather bought several rabbits, sat in a chair and instructed us on how to build rabbit cages, and then waited. And not that long.
For his aluminum and metal collection business, he loaded us up on the back of his truck and we road to all of his established collection sites. When we got home, we processed and bagged the metal then packed the bags on the back of his truck for shipment to the recycling center.
Selling sodas didn’t start out as a business venture. Initially, my grandfather’s plan was to stop us from spending every quarter we got our hands on buying RC and Nehi sodas from Mrs. Lillie down the street. After he put the vending machine on the front porch, he quickly realized that his household members weren’t the only ones buying drinks from the machine. All times of day and night, we would hear people walking up on the front porch to buy drinks from the machine.
My grandfather was also a wise man.
He knew that all work and no play does not make for good children. So, when it was time to clock out, he let us play. And play we did.
On July 3, 1976, Daddy closed shop.
I was 11.

What’s Wrong With My Children Calling Me Alexis?

Differences-Ma-Mum-Mom-Mam

I don’t know who to blame.

I could blame my oldest first cousin, Gloria, since she was the first one to call our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” and her parents Ann and Charles.

I could blame my grandparents for not relinquishing the titles “Momma” and “Daddy” when their grown children became parents.

And I could blame my mother and my uncles Charles and Archie for not insisting that we call them by their proper titles.

I could lay the blame on all of these folks, but until the family was all gathered outside under a tent watching boxing one Saturday night, I never knew there was anything to blame them for.

We were watching the Floyd Mayweather boxing match when my cousin Tonja’s daughter turned and asked, “Antmar, do you think there’s something wrong with my children calling me Alexis?”

Before I could answer, Alexis’ sister, Natasia, chimed in. “You couldn’t pay one of my children to call me by my name.”

TaSonia, their cousin, nodded in agreement.

“Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Alexis countered. “Even if they call me Alexis, they know I’m their mother.” Then she turned and tried to get Tonja’s attention by calling out, “Ma.”

Until that moment, I’d never noticed that all of my cousins’ children call them Momma or Daddy. None of them refer to their parents by name.

My cousin Sonja, Tasonia’s mother, eyed me as I pondered Alexis’ question. As usual, she was ready to pounce on my response if it wasn’t what she thought I should say. So I knew I had to choose my words carefully. Before I could figure out how to answer this question in a way that would please everyone, Alexis inquired, “Didn’t all of y’all call Grandma Doris ‘Momma’ and your mommas Ann and Lois?”

She had a point.

My brothers and I called our grandmother “Momma” and our mother “Lois.” My Uncle Charles’ children called our grandmother “Momma” and called their mother “Ann.” My Uncle Archie’s children did the same. They called our grandmother “Momma” and their mother “Boot.” And, to all us, “Daddy” was our grandfather.

So I agreed with Alexis.

I also agreed that even though we called our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy,” we all knew who our parents were. Our parents gave up the title in My brothers and I lived with my mother and grandparents, but my cousins lived with their parents.

When we were growing up, a lot of my friends used to ask why I called my mother Lois. I knew what they meant, but I usually responded, “That’s her name.” I’m guessing the real reason we called our parents by their names and our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” was because we were copying our uncles who were still teens and our parents.

I thought this would answer Alexis’ question, but it didn’t.

“But is something wrong with children calling their parents by their name if the parent doesn’t mind?” she asked again.

I want to agree with Alexis because I’ve called my mother “Lois” and my father “Tyrone” my entire life, and I think I turned out okay. But judging by the response of my cousins, who also did this, I think I may have missed out on something by not being a parent like them.

So I’m turning this one over to you.

What do you think?

Shooting a Wounded Bird

bird with broken wingA B.B. Gun

It was the one present I got for Christmas as a child that I didn’t ask for or want.

When my two brothers and I woke up that Christmas morning and rushed into the living room, we wasted no time ripping open the packages and gifts scattered about. As I put on my new skates, I noticed there were three B.B. guns on the sofa. I looked around and counted. Antmar makes one. Ken makes two. And Tony makes three. Even though I knew my arithmetic was correct. There were three B.B. guns and three sons. Still, I wondered out loud, “Who’s the other B.B. gun for?”

“What do you mean?” my mom asked.

“There are three of them,” I answered.

“I know,” she responded as though I had stated the obvious. “There’s one for you, Ken, and Tony.”

I couldn’t hide my confusion.

“What’s wrong?” she asked. “I see that look on your face.”

“I’m trying to figure out why you got me a B.B. gun.”

“You said you wanted one,” she explained.

I quickly corrected her, “No, I didn’t.”

“Yes, you did.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Then you got one anyway,” my mother stated and ended the debate over whether I had actually said I wanted a gun.

I whispered under my breath, “I didn’t though.”

My brothers, cousins, and friends all had B.B. guns and wasted no time canvassing the neighborhood trees for robins. A few days passed before I took my B.B. gun out of the house. When I did, it was to follow the gang on their neighborhood hunting expedition. I wasn’t planning to shoot anything. I was just tired of being left out while they were out hunting.

I should have known things wouldn’t go as planned. As everyone set their sights on the red-chest birds high in the trees, I aimed at cans, bottles, and make-believe targets in the trees.

“You’re scaring the birds with all that,” I was quickly admonished. “Either shoot at the birds or don’t shoot.”

“He’s too scared to shoot a bird,” my baby brother joked. “He should have stayed home.”

This brought out that “other” side of me – the side that needed to prove them wrong. So, I looked in the trees, spotted a bird, lifted my B.B. gun, steadied my aim, and then shot. The bird fell to the ground.

“Don’t tell me I can’t shoot a bird,” I bragged.

“Well, you gonna have to shoot him again,” my brother said after going to pick the bird up. “He’s still alive.”

“What?” I asked.

“He’s still alive,” he answered. “You have to shoot…”

I was home before my brother could finish telling me what I needed to do.

A few days ago, I was reminded of that B.B. gun when I saw a group of kids gathered around something on the ground. One of the boys had a B.B. gun and had wounded a small bird. As the boy stared at the bird hopping around, a look that I was all too familiar with crept across his face. He was discovering what I learned a few days after I got my one and only B.B. gun for Christmas. Shooting a bird out of a tree was a monumental task for me, but shooting a wounded bird that was hopping around my feet was next to impossible.

 

Santa, I’ve Been Good

black_santa_ap_mediumI have. I really have.

All I want for Christmas is to be put back on Santa’s list.
            Even though I haven’t lived with the threat of being scratched off of Santa’s list in a rather long, long time, I’ve still tried my best to be nice. I’ve brushed my teeth, washed my face, and combed my hair every morning like I was taught to do. I’ve respected my elders and stayed out of the way of our young (to avoid the fate of that grandmother who got ran over by a reindeer). And I’ve dreamed of a white Christmas, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and waited for the Christmas when Santa would deem me fit to be put back on his list.
            Christmas is and has always been my favorite time of the year. As a child, it was even more special because, although Christmas Day came only once a year, Santa always came twice.
            Santa’s “big” visit was on Christmas Day.
            My brothers and I would wake up before dawn to a living room that looked like the toy sections of TG&Y, Western Auto, and Southern Auto combined. Even though my grandmother and mother had threatened to have our names scratched off of Santa’s list, it seemed the jolly old elf had dumped his entire sleigh at our house. A few years, when my cousins also lived at our grandparents’ house, Santa needed three sleighs to haul the toy list for the twelve of us. We were so excited about the toys Santa had left on display that it was usually noon before we got around to unwrapping the presents under the tree.  Santa’s other visit, a sort of prequel to Christmas, usually occurred the week before Christmas.
            My brothers and I never knew how we got on Santa’s other list – the one he put the local Rotary Club in charge of, but we were glad to be on it. The Rotarians didn’t keep as watchful eye on us as Santa, so we didn’t have to worry about being scratched off of their prequel-to-Christmas-Day list. And, because our grandmother and mother appreciated the club’s acts of kindness, we didn’t have to worry about them threatening to have us taken off the Rotarians’ list.
             The invitation to the Rotary Club Christmas Luncheon arrived a few days before the event, which was held at various locations around town. The days leading up to the luncheon were just like the days leading up to Christmas. We couldn’t sleep. We couldn’t sit still. And we couldn’t stop talking about the gifts we hoped Santa would leave for us at the luncheon.
“Just be thankful for whatever ‘he’ leaves you,” my grandmother would remind us. And we were thankful.
              The luncheon that stands out the most in my mind was held at the Boys and Girls Club facility on Washington Street. It looked like the Rotarians’ Santa had unloaded two sleighs of gift-wrapped toys for all the “good” children on their list. My brothers and I needed a dufflebag to carry all the gifts we received.
              Several years later, I was disappointed to find out my brothers’ names made the Rotary Club’s Santa List but mine didn’t. Apparently, I had reached the age limit for their list.
              A few years ago, when my name stopped appearing on the gifts under the tree, I surmised that I had reached the age limit for Santa’s list too.
             But, I haven’t given up trying to get back on it.
             This year, I’ve tried not to cry. I’ve tried not to pout. And I’ve tried to be good and it wasn’t just for goodness sakes.
             So, if I wake up Christmas morning and find that my name didn’t make it back on Santa’s list, there’s only one thing left for me to do – spend the next twelve months searching for the elusive Fountain of Youth.

Mom Wasn’t An Old Lady Living In A Shoe

My mother was not an old lady living in a shoe.

old lady shoe tiny house kids fort playhouse

Unlike that old lady, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do, my mother only had three. And she knew just what to do with them – put them to work.

For the longest time, I thought my mother had me and my brothers for two reasons: she wanted children and she needed a workforce.

The day I began walking my mother, the taskmaster, told me to, “Put that bottle down and get to work.”

For the next few years, I thought the English language only consisted of the three-word sentences that my mother used. Go do that. Come do this. Hand me that. Pick that up. Put that down.

The tasks were never ending.

By the time my two brothers, Ken and Tony, came along a year and then two years later, I was ready to put in for my Social Security. Unfortunately, in those days, three-year-olds did not qualify for retirement.

I warned my brothers about the potential consequences of learning to walk, but they chose to ignore my warnings and walked their way into my mother’s workforce.

Two labor principles guided my mother’s workforce. The first principle was, if we could do it, she didn’t have to. The second principle was, do it right.

If we could cook, that meant she didn’t have to. So, although my grandmother constantly argued at my mother for not paying attention when she was trying to teach her to cook, my mother made sure my brothers and I knew how to cook.

If we could sweep and mop, then she didn’t have to. So she made sure we knew how to do both. Every Saturday morning, after cartoons went off, she sat and watched as we swept and mopped the living room, hallway, bathroom, kitchen, our bedroom, hers, and the front porch.

If we could wash our own clothes and then hang them outside on the clothesline, she didn’t have to. So, after we were done sweeping and mopping, we began sorting, washing, and then hanging up clothes. When the clothes were dry, we took them in, folded them, and then put them away.

My mother didn’t like ironing, so she taught us how to stand in a chair and iron.

She didn’t like doing the dishes, so we pulled that same chair up to the kitchen sink and washed dishes.

And she didn’t like looking at messy children’s bedrooms, so we made sure she didn’t see any messy children’s bedrooms.

Our mother wasn’t a perfect taskmaster. Her Achilles heel as a taskmaster was she didn’t like having to go behind us to straighten out a task we didn’t do right. So, because I was the oldest child and therefore labor supervisor, I always went behind my brothers to make sure our mother didn’t have to go behind us.

I was 11 when I discovered that there was no room for advancement in my mother’s workforce and that my mother had an Achilles heel. That’s when I stopped checking behind my brothers and I stopped trying to be her best unpaid employee. “We’re not doing all this work for free,” I informed my mother when she learned of the mutiny I was orchestrating.

“You don’t work for free,” she said. “You work because you live here. And you work because I buy you food and clothes.”

That ended the mutiny.

Like I said, my mother was not the old lady who lived in a shoe.

Three Facts All First-Graders Needed to Know in 1970

facts are facts photoFacts Are Still Facts

One plus one always equals two.

A precedes B.

And, people are the same regardless of their skin color.

My mother armed me with these three facts all first graders should know then stuffed a slip of paper with our phone number on it in my pocket before sending me off to my first day of school at Perry Primary. I was five going on six, but even then, I doubted whether all my mom’s so-called facts were indeed proven truths or just aspirations she wanted me to believe.

The year was 1970, and although my mother tried not to show it, she was more than a little nervous about sending her firstborn to the “white” school. She had grown up during the “separate but equal” era and received her elementary and high school education at the “black” school, Jerkins School. So, on one hand she was ecstatic about the opportunities that a real “equal” education presented for me, but on the other, she was terrified about sending me to a place where she had not been welcomed.

At the time, I didn’t understand why she doled out the first two facts: One plus one always equals two, and A precedes B.  My kindergarten teacher had already taught me the 26 letters of the alphabet and how to combine them to make simple words. And I had learned to count and add up to 25 cents by buying penny cookies and freeze cups.

What I didn’t know then, was the first two facts were simply her effort to disguise the other fact as something a first-grader needed to know. And her apprehension was because she believed facts only applied in a perfect world. And for parents like my mother, the first week of school in Taylor County and in many other towns and cities that year was anything but perfect.

Even though I was going to first grade, my mother was afraid there might be riots at the school. Shoving over the see-saw. Rumbles in the sandbox. Spitball fights. For sure. But riots? It seems ludicrous now to think that a race riot would break out at a primary school, but try telling that to the parents of kindergarteners and first-graders back then.

My mother spent weeks preparing me for the transition from an all-Black school to an integrated one by reiterating the three facts all first graders should know, and in the process her anxiety rubbed off on me.

When my bus pulled into Perry Primary on the first day of school, I was the last child off. At the end of the school day, I was the first one back on the bus, but it wasn’t because my mother’s fears had come to pass.

My mother was waiting on pins and needles at the bus stop.

“How was your first day?” she nervously asked as soon as I stepped off the bus.

She was a little surprised when I told her, “I had fun.”

As we walked to the house, she asked what I had learned at school and I replied, “White children are nice too.”

My mother never did let me forget what I told her I learned on that first day of school. And I never let myself forget the real lesson of that day.

It wasn’t, one plus one always equals two.

A precedes B.

Or, people are the same regardless of their skin color.

It was realizing that facts are still facts even in an imperfect world.