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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Little Sisters - “I was her foil and scapegoat . . .”