When I was a young girl, I believed my siblings and I to be the only black people in the world without relatives in the deep south. My parents took us to Jamaica, Washington, and several times a year to West Virginia. During the turbulent sixties I came of age. That was the height of the civil rights era and I deeply longed to feel a connection to the south.
Finally after marrying a man who grew up in the rural area of Bainbridge, Georgia I was, at long last on my way to the south. This time not just to fly in the airport on my way somewhere else, as that had always been the case. But now to really see and get to know the people, hear their stories, maybe meet an old man who lived in the early 1900’s. I looked forward to seeing the Springfield Baptist Church founded in 1787, which is the oldest black church in the United States, possibly talk with a woman who may have been clubbed during a lunch counter sit-in.
During the long ride, I’m sure my in-laws never guessed the excitement building up in me. They had lived here as children and had made the trip hundreds of times, their most common phrase being, “If anything ever happens to grandma, I’ll never come here again.” This kind of thinking, I do not understand, but maybe their childhood experiences were altogether different. All eyes turned to me when I yelled;” STOP THE CAR!” My husband asked me if I was sick,” No! I shouted, Look.” My sister-in-law “Thelma”, who was visibly irritated at pulling the car over said, “look at what?” For miles all the dirt was red, red like clay and I wanted some, which I scooped up like treasure from the Nile.
Being a newlywed I was able to convince my husband into stopping again when we came to sugar cane. Just being able to chew on it brought me such a thrill, as we passed by what had once been exquisite southern plantations.
When we arrived at the home of my husband’s cousin Jeb, I was disappointed to see how modern his family lived. Maybe in my mind, I expected us to be jetted back in time. Why he had running water, an inside toilet, a new brick home, set in an interracial community. This did not fit with the books I’ve read, nor the movies I watched. Where were the families depicted in “Roots, The Next Generation”? What of all the stories my grade school peers had shared with me? I didn’t dare ask if they could show me any former slave quarters nearby. For days it seemed as if someone had ripped out the pages of my black history books. Yes, I enjoyed the museums, and appreciated all the important history that is preserved for generations to come.
Still, I felt like something was missing. When alligators came up in our picnic area, they generated excitement for everyone but me. I was in a deep funk as we called it back then. What did I expect? No, I didn’t want to live in slavery or segregation. Why did I look for these people to? I couldn’t answer.
However, on our last evening in Georgia, we went to the home of my husband’s great Aunt Mattie. We drove far out in the country and then miles down a dirt road. At last, I exhaled. Here was a place where time stood still. Aunt Mattie’s house, though filled with love was a shack that looked like a strong wind would blow it over. She also boasted of her outhouse in the back, saying she would have it no other way; thank-you Aunt Mattie. The spry old woman served fresh fish that she cooked it in an old washing machine tub that had a blazing fire burning underneath it. We enjoyed that great tasting fish with homebrewed iced cold beer. For the rest of the evening I listened to all Aunt Mattie’s life stories, even the ones she repeated. Sadly I would never again have the opportunity to talk with Aunt Mattie, she passed away a year and a half later. I wish we could have spent the entire week in that shack surrounded by rows of weeping willow trees, briars and berries, outside cooking and yes even the smelly outhouse. I will forever cherish the history Aunt Mattie shared with me that still evening while sitting around her cozy shack, in a place forgotten by time.