A Navy veteran of the tumultuous Vietnam and Nixon years, he served his country from inside that chaotic White House. I cannot sing his praises enough! As a writer and a brother, a mentor and a friend, this man has had a life-long effect on me and so many others. Enjoy the spell he weaves with his mastery of prose and attention to detail that only his style surpasses.
Kenneth B. Kay
Our family called our friend “Negro Mattie” for the simplest and most innocent of reasons. My father had a sister whose name was Mattie as well. To avoid confusion about which we were talking about when referring to one or the other in family conversations, we added the descriptive word simply as a convenience and nothing more.
Political correctness was at the time still 30 or so years into the future and we certainly meant her no disrespect. We would never have called her “Nigger” Mattie because that term was used to describe those Negroes of shiftless character, questionable honesty, and bad habits, and would have been an affront to a self-respecting person like her. It related to the term “poor white trash” for us Caucasians. Both terms were used to describe those of both races who apparently had no respect for themselves.
In our home Mattie was “Mattie” or “Mam” for my sister and I. Mother was “Miz ‘Ginia”, Father was “Mista Cecil”, and we were “Precious”, “Honey pots” or what ever other endearments Mattie chose depending on her mood or how well we were behaving. If we were on her wrong side she got formal and called us “Mista” or Miz”. If you really care about the people you are around you choose your words carefully and always address them with respect no matter what the circumstances.
We came to know Mattie through our family doctor. She came with him and attended my mother at both my sister’s and my births. Later on she became our part time housekeeper and trusted family friend. Sometimes my mother would just drive down to her little shanty by the railroad tracks and bring her home just to spend the day or we would take her fishing or blackberry picking. We thoroughly enjoyed one another’s company.
Once when I was 2 or 3 I found a nickel. At that age things always find their way into a child’s mouth. I swallowed it and it stuck in my windpipe. Mattie found me all but unconscious and knew exactly what to do. She held me up by the heels just like a newborn and firmly dislodged the coin by striking me on the back. Gravity did its part and the coin fell out. From that day on Mattie could do no wrong as far as my mother was concerned.
When we first knew her Mattie was a dead ringer for Aunt Jimima on the popular pancake mix boxes. She was jolly, heavyset, and constantly attentive to my mother. She always seemed on the verge of laughter. The slightest prank or antic on us kid’s part would first be met with a suppressed giggle that would explode into a fit of sputtering laughter that she vainly tried to control. It was if she was constantly trying to suppress her mirthful nature but failing miserably at it.
To celebrate the end of the war, our family decided to take a much-deserved vacation to Florida when I was 3 or 4. One of the high lights was a ride on a glass bottom boat at Silver Springs. The passengers were provided with dough balls to feed the fish during the ride. The tour guide would call our attention to certain of the larger fish that had names usually of famous people. One big catfish was called Harry S. Truman after the president at the time. He was a particularly active fish and got more that his share of the dough balls.
When we returned we shared stories of our trip with Mattie. The “Mr. Truman” story was Mattie’s favorite. There was something about the idea of a fish named for the president that muscled in on all the other fishes’ food that sent Mattie into uncontrollable laughter. For years afterwards she would always beg to hear “dat fish story” time and again.
I don’t think Mattie ever went more than 50 miles from where she was born in her whole life. She seemed to cherish the time she spent with us. It was probably as close as she could ever come to a “vacation” from the day-to-day squalor that was so much a part of her life. She never learned to fully read or write beyond what she needed to recognize food containers from cleaning products but she was never at a loss for words.
In our home Mattie was a fastidious housekeeper who washed her hands before and between every task with rubbing alcohol. She could not have taken better care of our things even if they had been hers. Whatever task she did she did the best way she knew how and in a spirit of pure love. She took pride in what she did and when praised responded with even more effort in the next task. She went about her work humming hymns and sometimes gently chuckling to herself as if in conversation with some one.
And Lord could that woman cook! Turn her and my Mother loose in the same kitchen and look out! Breakfasts of scrambled eggs sometimes with pork brains or Polk salad or hunks of cheese mixed in, side dishes of bacon, streak-o-lean salt pork fried to a crunchy brown, homemade country sausage or salt cured country ham, hot biskets smothered in a rich smooth saw mill gravy or soaked in red-eye gravy or buttered with a whole array of homemade jams, jellies or dark buckwheat honey or sweet tangy sorghum molasses, bowls of oatmeal, grits, or Cream O’ Wheat laced with butter and brown sugar or honey all served with cold milk, hot coffee and a heaping portion of love.
Lunches consisted of soup or stews mainly of chicken or beef slow simmered with fresh vegetables and grilled sandwiches oozing melted cheese with slabs of baloney or Spam or maybe bean soup cooked overnight with ham hocks served with fresh hot cornbread and a glass of cold buttermilk To top it off a bowl of bread pudding the kind without raisins heavy and rich with a golden brown crust smothered in a rich creamy smooth vanilla sauce still warm from the stove.
But the best were the dinners or supper as we call it in the south. Chicken and dumplings swimming in white gravy - true southern fried chicken; skinless, salt and peppered, coated with flour, dipped in beaten eggs, rolled in cracker meal and fried in hot vegetable shortening served with mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn either cut creamed or on the cob – liver and onions with the liver first seared in a frying pan then slow cooked in a cornmeal gravy with lots of Bermuda white onions cut in rings put in just before the liver was done so that they were still crunchy when you ate them served with Ford hook lima beans and rice – fish usually crappies coated in cornmeal and deep fried with hushpuppies and coleslaw made from fresh cabbage out of the garden grated fine mixed with salt, vinegar, sugar, and mayonnaise – roasts of beef with potatoes, carrots and onions slow roasted for almost a full day in metal roaster with gravy served just by itself or maybe with fresh homemade bread and butter. If you had any room left – cakes, pies, cobblers and cookies that quite simply defy description.
All of these meals were simple fare really but you could literally taste the love that went into their preparation. Gourmets can talk all they want about aroma, color or presentation being essential for a memorable or even acceptable meal; nothing can equal that taste of love.
Considering the time (late 40s to mid 50s) and the place (northern Alabama), relationships such as ours and Mattie’s that seemed to cross racial barriers could be considered unusual at least. In fact they were far more common than non-southerners and even some southerners might think. A lot of southern households employed Negro women as domestics in particular. Their duties often included a practice known as “wet nursing” for newborns. That means exactly what it sounds like. More than a few white babies suckled at the breast of these Negro domestics. It was viewed as just a matter of convenience and yet was totally inconsistent with the concept of segregation.
Segregation or what most people think of as segregation started as an attempt to codify societal mores and taboos more than anything else. It did not forbid relationships between people of differing races. It attempted to set limits and define the structures of them. It evolved into a legalistic dictatorship of a majority over a minority and became unworkable in a free society in much the same way as slavery.
One day just before my sister’s birth and just after my seventh birthday, I remember asking Mattie about why her skin was so much darker than mine. She answered “ The Good Lawd made us what we is so we can be who we is and ‘dat jus’ dat Honey.” It would be many years before I realized and appreciated the simple wisdom of her answer.
The passage of time was not kind to Mattie. She seemed to age decades in just a few years as her body succumbed to multiple illnesses and the effects of a life of hard toil. I barely remember the last time I saw her alive but I vividly remember taking the trip down to the little back room of the funeral parlor just off Vine street behind the railroad station.
In those days Pinky Brown buried both back and white since he was the town’s only undertaker. Economics and death combined to make total segregation impractical in that regard too. Mattie went to meet her God in her best dress and made up with lipstick and rouge. She was adorned in death with what she never wore in life.
Mattie’s visitation was the first time I remember of being aware of the terminal nature of life. Knowing that I would never again feel the warmth of her hug and experience her boundless love filled me with a sadness I felt for many days.
Perhaps the greatest testament to Mattie’s capacity to love was the fact that we were not the only white family to pass by her casket with tears our eyes.
Doc – “To say our family respected and trusted our family doctor is an understatement.”
Little Sisters - “I was her foil and scapegoat . . .”