Itís funny how I donít ever remember it being this cold in September before. Every year now the chill seems to come sooner than I last remembered. Winter donít come to the very last here in East Texas. But maybe thatís just a sure sign that Iím gettin olí. Iíve been thinkin a lot lately about what it really means to be old. When I was younger and I would have to see my grandmother, she would always make me feel cold inside. I think that was because I associated old age with death and death for me in my young mind meant being really cold. Plus, I donít ever remember seeing her in anything other than a long-sleeve shirt and pants. I never saw her sweat and in these parts thatís saying something.
Now here I sit in early September in the warmest part of East Texas where winter is yet three months away, and I am cold. Iím sitting out here on my faithful old porch swing with the patchwork quilt that June made for me wrapped around my legs. I remember when she started stitchin it before we were even married. The colored cook her ma and pa kept had help her at the beginniní until her pa found them one day and had a fit. He said it was fittin for her to just be sittiní and talkiní with a colored person. But that didnít stop June from learniní. She worked on this here quilt until our second child was born. Well by then she had her hands perty full with two youngins and me to care for. You can see where she finished it off real quick like just so she could say it was done.
I can hardly believe this blanket has been around since 1885 when we were first married. That was over sixty years ago. Iím really not sure where all that time went. Probably the same place as the long autumns and the late winters. But I do know that I sure am cold.
But ya know I donít mind so much. I have lived a long, full and happy life. I have seen the turn of the century, and I have seen all my kids grown. Life has been good to this here old man, but I sure wouldnít mind seeiní my beautiful June again. But until the good Lord sees fit, Iíll sit here in my old, squeaky swing. Thereís always something to think about, ponder on, and who knows, maybe, I will even learn something new. I have been told you canít teach an old dog new tricks, but sometimes he forgets the old ones and can sure use a reminder. Or the young folks come in and change the trick enough so that you have to relearn the whole shebang. Or sometimes you only thought you learned the trick, and then one day you truly learn it. That happened to me once before.
It wasnít too long ago that I was taught a new lesson in life that I assumed I had long ago surpassed. Well letís see, where should I begin? I have always taught my students that the beginniní is the best place, so I will try and start there.
Way back in 1865, I, Robert Leautard, was born in Kirbyville, Texas. Just kidding. I wonít start at that beginning. That would be the beginning of the novel, and I just need to start at the beginning of the tale. But I should tell you a little bout Kirbyville just to get us started. My family has been livin in these here parts as long as I can remember. Perty much everybody here is southern Baptist to the core, and there are just certain ways of life that have always been and always will be if people here have much to say bout it.
Well, on to the story. It all began the year my wife, June, my wife of over sixty years, passed away. That was 1949, three years ago. I had been teaching in the small county schoolhouse in Kirbyville for as long as I could remember. I taught history to the seventh and eighth graders who came from miles away. But when I lost June, I fell perty hard. I took to forgettin things, and comin in late. I started losin my temper more and more with the kids. I just didnít love my job like I always had.
She had been so tired. She took to sleeping in mornings, and she had never been prone to that before. She as usually up before the birds were singing Iíll Fly Away and making homemade biscuits like her ma had taught her. Her smile didnít come as quickly and when it did it wasnít as bright. I was gettin worried about her, but she just kept tellin me that her old age was catchin up with her, and then she would laugh. Oh, how I loved her laugh. It was so contagious. She could walk into a room full of sour people and perty soon have all the folks there smiling and chuckling with one another.
After a couple of months of her just not beiní herself, I finally coaxed her into goiní to see the doctor. She had always been so afraid of needles and things. It didnít take them long to figure out she had some disease without a name, and that it was terminal. Even with all our newfound technology in the middle of the century they still couldnít save my June. She made me promise that I wouldnít let her die in a hospital.
Her ma had died at home and thatís the way June thought the Good Lord intended it. She had given birth to all five of our youngins in our house with nobody but me and the preacher to help Ďem into the world.
So she stayed in our home till the coffin carried her out. It didnít take long. She took care of the all the details of how the funeral would go, and who should receive all her things. Once everything was in place, she knew it was time. She was always one to take care of all the details. My life is perty unorganized these days.
She called me in the bedroom early one Saturday morning. I held her hand softly and waited. She whispered for me to lean down close. I obeyed. She kissed me gently on the lips and smiled. That was all she had the strength left to do, and I wasnít even sure where that strength was cominí from.
-I love you, Robert Leautard. Iíll see you in glory land someday.
She said those last words and quickly slipped away. I didnít protest. All of my insides were screaming for her not to go. I wanted to shout and shake her. Instead, I just stood there holding her hand as oceans of tears streamed down my face. She looked to be smiling, and her smile was lighting up the room.
Well, like I said that was almost three years ago. Not quite a year after her death though, life for me still hadnít quite moved on. People around town were startiní to talk. I had even caught some of the younger kids hanging around my house tryiní to catch a glimpse of me talkiní to Juneís ghost. Now that was crazy, of course, but kids look for stories in just about any place. Kirbyvilleís a small town, and we folks look out for each other. Folks knew I just wasnít the same. Folks were worried about me thatís all. So, I knew it wouldnít be long. Then one day around the middle of the school year Principal White finally approached me. They should have let me go years ago, but we were family, and they were gonna let me keep on teachin until I could teach no more.
-Good afternoon Bob. How are things goiní for ya?
-Well John Paul, I guess Iíve seen brighter days. Just trying to make my way through this patch of darkness. I know the Lord will bring me through. Just praying for an extra ounce of grace this week.
-Yea, we sure do miss June too. Belle says itís just not the same in the ladiesí Bible study without her smiling face to light up the room.
-The house is the same. Everywhere I look I see her smile, but it just isnít enough to illuminate anything anymore but my memories. Those I have no problem findin and lightin up. They look for me.
-Robert, thatís kind of what I wanted to talk with you about. I have talked to the other teachers. We have all noticed how much you are missing June, and we were concerned for you.
-Ainít that mighty nice of yíall to still be thinking about me. I am still in debt for all the food and laundry and arrangements yíall made for me after the funeral.
-Donít you even mention all that. You know good and well that weíre all family around these parts. But we were thinking that maybe you should take a break from your teaching. You have been faithful to this school and these kids for a long time. Now itís time we were faithful to you. You need a rest, Robert. Miss Duke has offered to take over your class until the end of the term when we could begin looking for someone full-time.
Yep, Iíd seen it coming all right, but it sure didnít make it any easier. I just stood there for a moment swallowing hard. I was a grown man, but I was prone to tears. I had to get handle on myself before I trusted words to come out of my mouth. I glanced up and down the hallway of our tiny country school. And in that brief moment, memories overwhelmed me.
-I guess I saw this coming. Youíre right though. Itís about time for me to take a rest. But I just donít know what I will do with myself without the children. I mean who will I teach? Who will teach me? My life has been about teaching for so long that I donít think I remember what to do without it.
-Just take some time and rest. Read some of those books you have been threatening to read for years. Maybe even reread some of those books you have been teaching from for so long. Enjoy the sunshine, friends, and family. I am sure that there is plenty you can find to fill your days.
-Alright, I understand. Iím headed home. Do ya want me to stick around for at least the end of the week?
-Nah, thatís all right. Miss Duke is all ready to start tomorrow morning. You can take today to tell the kids good-bye though, if ya want.
-If everything is all ready for my leave I think I will just sneak on home. It will be easier for me that way. Iíd hate for the children to see an old man like me cry. Iíll just go grab my things off my desk. Tell Miss Duke I sure appreciate her help, and I guess Iíll be seeing you at church on Sunday. Tell Belle I said hello.
-Okay. Iíll go in and let the kids know for you. See ya Sunday Bob. You remember to get some rest.
So that was the end of my long teaching career, or so I thought. I headed to the office to clean out my desk. Sitting in a plain, dusty old frame was a picture of my family from many years ago. My kids were all still young, and June was beautiful. I tenderly picked up the picture and smiled. Yes, I was ready for a rest. It had been a long life.
I picked up my bag and turned to leave. The seams were worn and the strap was thin. It reflected the many years of use I had gotten out of it. As I looked at it, I saw a reflection of myself. My seams were worn and tired and thin. I waved bye to Principal White and walked out the door of the small county schoolhouse. The sound of the kids lingered after me.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and I decided to take the longer route home through the woods. After all, I was now a retired man. I was in no hurry. Plus, itíd give me a chance to sort through all that was runnin through my mind. I trekked along the path by the stream humming old hymns to myself. The words to Iíll Fly Away made my heart soar as I heard Juneís soprano voice singin along with me in the woods. Some day soon, Iíd fly away and be with her. As I looked around at all the flowers my heart swelled with a longing for June.
She had always loved nature. We would take evening walks through the forest, and she would pick the wild flowers and sing back to the birds. I could still see her with flowers woven in her hair. Her hair was always pulled back except those few wisps that would fall in her eyes. She was constantly brushing those away. Her strong voice would capture the attention of the birds, and she would sneak up as close to one of Ďem as she could before they realized it wasnít a real bird singiní. The table was always decorated with a bunch of fresh flowers. I decided to pick some flowers of my own and try to liven the place up again. It was gonna take some effort to get my old life rolling again, and I was determined to try.
So I wandered from the path a little ways and just took in the scenery all around me. I would walk a few feet and then just pause to listen to a bluebird singing. I couldnít convince my knees to cooperate so I just looked at all the perty flowers instead of picking them. When I stopped to catch my breath (Now Iím an old man remember) I saw someone in the distance. And it appeared to be a nigger in our part of the woods. Now my blood got to boiling, and I raced over. I got no more than two feet from the boy when he suddenly looked up. I could see the fear in his eyes. I could tell the only thing keepin him from runnin was his fear of what might happen if he didnít show the proper respect. Now mind you I am an eighty-two year old man born and raised in East Texas. It didnít matter what the federal government was startin to question. Things here in the south werenít gonna change near as soon as things in Washington planned on it. I saw a black boy in a part of town he wasnít welcome in, and I was determined to change that. He had every reason to be harboring that look of fear in his eyes.
-Hey you! Whatíd you think youíre doiní here? Go on get out of these woods right now. You and your people arenít welcome here in our part of town. I should go an get the hounds after ya right now. We donít want any of the likes of you here in Kirbyville. Get out of our town. And get out of my woods!
My blood was on fire, and my heart was pounding. Now Iíve never been a violent man, but I held to tradition. Black folks just knew not to be caught in Kirbyville. That was the way it had always been; the way we figured it will always be.
-Sir, sorry sir. Iís just reading this here book. Iís snuck away from my chores and was trying to find a place my momma couldnít find me. I thought yíall would all be at school now. Please, sir. Please donít send for them hounds. Iíll leave.
I glanced down at the book he was reading. What kind of nigger would be sitting here in the woods reading a book? And what kind of book was it? Probably some trash that needed to be thrown away. I didnít even think that their kind could read. Looking down, the title The Grapes of Wrath, a novel by John Steinbeck took me quite by surprise. My tone flared in anger as I supposed he had stolen it from someone.
-What you doing reading a white manís book like that? Whereíd you get it? You understand it?
My questions flew like lethal bullets towards the young boyís head. I could see him flinch each time I spoke.
-Yes, sir. No, sir. Well sir, Iís trying. Itís a good book. This is my third time to read it. The preacher at the Baptist church in Jasper gave it to me. He told me it reminded him a lot of the story of my people and the story of the Lordís people. Said it would help me persvere, I think. So I been readin it ever since. Trying to see how the good Lord works it out.
-What you know about the good Lord? You go to church boy?
-Yes sir! Every Sunday my momma and me walk over to the Baptist Church in Jasper. The preacher there donít mind us coming. He even let us sit in the front pew if we want. But we never do. Momma says just isnít right. So we take our seats in the back, and leave right before the end of the service. Preacher done gone and lost half his church, but says he donít care.
-I heard that rumor. Canít believe it though. How come you donít go the colored church I heard bout?
-Momma says all they talk about is their suffering, and how evil all white people are. She donít want me growing up just to hate. She wants me to know all the truth, so we walk to Jasper every Sunday.
I had listened with a hardened heart for the first few words, but for some reason what he said tugged at my heart. I sípose the Lord had planned that meetin in the forest that day, and it was His doing that softened my heart. Probably used the fact I was lookin for anything to distract me from all that was going through my heart even if it was a conversation with a colored boy. So I ever so slowly bent my old knees with quite a loud grunt and lowered myself to the ground. And believe it or not I found myself talkiní to that boy. Iíd look around every now and then and make sure no one was comin. Folks run me outta town sure enough if they caught me.
-Well that was mighty nice of the reverend to lend the book to you. You better be taking care of it. Youíre not getting it all filthy in that dirty house of yours are ya?
-No, Sir. I keep it under my pillow where the sheets are nice and clean. Then I donít have to be worrin about the youngins findin it.
-Thatís good to hear now. So ya like it?
-I do. I like Tom. He seems to me to be a decent fellow.
-Yea, I always liked Tom, too. I never quite understood why he went with them though.
-He went cause it was his family. A manís gotta stick with his kin in the rough times. Sorry, sir. No disrespect sir. Mean, there are things you donít understand too? Iís thought you knew everything.
-Thatís all right. Guess I never really thought about that before. Sure. Thereís all kind of things I donít know. I síppose life would be borin if I had all the answers.
-Yes, sir. I think youíre right.
So there I sat in the forest for most of the afternoon talking about literature with that young colored boy. We talked about all sorts of books he had read. Boy was so hungry to learn. Like nothin I ever seen before or maybe just never looked for in that place before. And isnít funny how I was a teacher aching to teach? I just know the good Lord was smiling down that day.
Well that was the beginning. I think I told too much detail on the beginning. But Iíll finish up the end for ya right quick. Stories seem to grow longer the older we get. I notice that more these days.
The afternoon was growing late and it was getting perty chilly in the woods. I asked Lawrence Ray, thatís his name, if he would like to come on over to my house and we could talk some more about the book. Maybe even have a cup of hot cocoa. The whites of his eyes grew so wide I thought they would pop right out of his head. He started stuttering about needing to go home, and sorry to have bothered me.
At first I was confused, but then I remembered where we were. The Klan was always lurking in our parts. Horror stories roamed around, and most of them were true. Poor Lawrence was afraid for his life. He didnít know what I was trying to trick him into. The Klan used all sorts of stunts when they were on a hunt. It took quite some convincing, but soon enough he agreed to come by the next afternoon. I was quite surprised when he really did show up on my doorstep. My first impulse was to scoot him right on home. What did I think I was doiní bringin a colored boy to my house. But we sat out on the porch and talked a little that day. Weíd be alright long as he didnít come in my house.
That was about three years ago. Lawrence now comes and visits me nearly every afternoon. We started just talking about our favorite books, but it wasnít long before we moved on to philosophy and history and the Bible. We both learn something new every day. We have so much to teach each other.
I talked to my pastor about maybe opening our doors, and he came close to exiling me, but we Baptists donít do that. Lawrence invited me to his church over in Jasper, and now I go every Sunday. This was that pastorís idea really, but I didnít tell Principal White that when I visited the schoolhouse a few weeks back.
-Hey, John Paul. Been awhile since I seen you around. I have this crazy notion in my head, and I was wondering if I could talk to you about it.
-Well hey Bob. Belle and I sure do miss you at church. Where ya going these days?
-Oh I headed over to the church in Jasper. Preacher there has a real good heart and I been helping him teach the gospel to the black folks. Thatís what I wanted to talk to you about. Pastor Glen and I have been talking about me maybe tutoring some of the black kids who lived in the woods. But I need some current textbooks. I have some stuff at the house, but itís perty old.
Principal White took an instinctive step back. He looked me dead in the eye for a minute before he responded.
-Ya know, Bob, Miss Duke was telling me just the other day that her hands have been perty full lately. I was wondering if maybe youíd be interested in taking back your old job. You could start next week if you wanted.
I realized that I had come to the wrong place for help. I politely told him that they needed to learn, and I needed to teach. I declined his offer and went about my business.
I talked to Pastor Glen later that week, and told him about my visit. He just smiled and said that the Lord would provide for our needs. Neither of us was looking to bring the coloreds into school with our own. An we sure werenít lookin to keep them from their work. We just wanted to let them learn a little. See the whole world the Lord made for us. So we set out making a plan, and listing all the children that we knew lived around. I asked Lawrence what he thought about the whole idea, and I know I havenít seen a smile that bright since June was alive. I think part of it was her smiling down on me through him. She always told me to never stop learning and looking.
Lawrence helped Pastor Glen and me make up a final list of names. He also picked the books that we would be reading since that was his area of expertise. Weíve got it all planned out now. So I think come October these old bones are gonna wander over to the side of town I was too afraid to enter before and teach like never before. Maybe the exercise will warm me up a bit. Maybe then I wonít be so cold. And maybe as long as I am teaching, I will be living.
Principal White and all the other folks in Kirbyville done gone an stop talkiní to me altogether. I was thinking the other day. Life is still the same as it always was, itís just that death doesnít seem so close anymore. I donít have to fight so hard to live these days. Me doing good and helping others keeps me young. And somehow it makes me feel as if June is with me more often. I know soon though Iíll Fly Away, Oh Glory, Iíll Fly Away.