It was 1926, Naomi just married for three years. The storm came in the early morning hours and residents received no warning. There wasn't a national weather service to alert them or a media who could cover the airwaves to update people about the path of the super storm. The Category 4 hurricane's eye moved over Miami Beach and downtown Miami during the darkest hours before dawn when people were asleep. Every downtown building was damaged or destroyed completely. This hurricane produced the highest sustained winds ever recorded in the United States and Florida hurricane history at the time. It was a monster come calling. It was full of death and disaster. There was a storm surge of almost fifteen feet in Coconut Grove. It did $90 billion of damage (an astronomical amount of money damage in 1926) with 800 people missing, 373 dead, and 6,381 injuries.
“I saw one old woman in her rocker on the porch in the height of the hurricane, just rocking away,” Bigmama said. “My sister and I were running with our children for shelter at her house and we couldn’t believe that woman sitting on her porch like it was just another bright daybreak morning. Suddenly the wind gusted so strong it whipped the roof right off the old woman’s house, broke down the walls around her, and still she sat, rocking, looking out at the worst storm to hit the coast in her lifetime.”
“Unbelievable,” I said.
“It really was unless you saw it yourself. It was the worst storm I ever lived through and I never want to see another.”
It was that massive, destructive hurricane that probably put the fear into Bigmama about storms for the rest of her life. When any storm ever blew up, she warned us to stay away from the windows “because lightning can come right through them” and “don’t stand at the sink with your hands in water if you don’t want to be electrocuted” and “don’t touch the metal on that stove!”
A courageous woman who was never scared of anything was always humbled by a squall and a wind, a bolt of lightning or a thunderclap until the day she died.
Hunkering down beneath bed mattresses and praying for their lives, the two families survived the Florida storm, but the aftermath was terrible to behold and it took all of them some time to return to normal lives.
Jim got sick in Miami years after the Florida coastline had been economically pummeled to death by the 1926 hurricane. It was 1931 and his fifth child was on the way. Naomi was a happy wife and he gave her everything she ever wanted, including a large family. There was Warren, Raymond, Thelma, Marjorie, and if the new baby was a girl they’d call her Juine.
Jim usually was of strong constitution, but he’d gotten wet in the rain one day on the job building another bridge and came home soaking. He was shivering and began to cough. Bigmama got him into dry clothes and rubbed salve on his chest and liniment into his joints, but a fever started. He was burning up. He was sliding in and out of consciousness.
"I'm all right," he insisted when he could speak. "I'll be all right.
The doctor was called and pronounced the man had pneumonia; his lungs were filling with fluid.
“Take this and you’ll get better,” the doctor said, handing over a vial of antibiotics—no doubt penicillin.
Once he was gone Jim told Naomi he didn’t want to take that medicine.
"You know I hate taking medicine. I just don't want it." He stipulated: "Just in case this is a bad sickness, maybe you ought to try to take the kids home to Alabama."
“Not without you,” she said.
Jim gave in because he was too sick to do otherwise. The fever took him into and out of a phantom world where dead relatives talked to him and beckoned, where the light hurt his eyes and his chest felt as restrictive as a corset pulled tight on a fat lady.
Jim surely fought against his illness and tried his best to survive. He had so much to live for. He had spent the last years of his life making a name for himself; he was respected and paid well for his work. His family meant everything to him and he had to live to raise his children.
Naomi plied him with poultices and potions, begged him to let her take him to a hospital, but he continued to doggedly refuse.
He didn’t last long once they got home. He had turned down the one medicine that might have saved his life. Alabama dirt covered his grave and Bigmama stood there with her four small children, the fifth swelling her belly, and she wept hard enough to kill her.
The man she thought she would spend her whole life with, the man she imagined growing old with while he bounced grandchildren on his knee, had up and died on her so quickly it seemed a nightmare had taken over and wouldn’t let either one of them wake up.
Bigmama had to live with her widowed mother, but now the old woman, still known as "Scrap," was alone, all her children grown and living around the county somewhere.
The house was unpainted wood with a leaning front porch. The roof was tin and the chimney looked chalky. The bare front yard was broom-swept and thick brambly woods crowded round every side throwing blue shadows.
There was no work and no money. In a couple of years the United States would be struck down with the greatest depression it had ever suffered. It was the first time Bigmama understood what a drastic mistake she had made not learning how to save some of the big money her husband had earned building bridges in Florida. It was a hard-earned lesson. She had never imagined she’d lose Jim or her life would force a return to her mother’s house a widow. Much later in life she taught herself to save a nickel when she got it, to trade hen eggs for school tablets for her children, and to finally buy an old house on Riverside Drive, get it paid for even if she had to go without, and to turn it into land in South Alabama that would give her a secure home for her old age.
Billie Robinson came home from up North. He might have been in Chicago doing dirty deeds, no one knows. He might have been in Cleveland, shooting loaded dice and pocketing his wins. Whatever he was doing and wherever he was he got a letter from a relative in Paul, Alabama asking him, "Do you know Naomi's back? Jim died and left her a widow. You want her, you better come home quick."
Billie was back in remarkable time. He took off his spats and bowler hat, donned a pair of overalls and boots and began to hunt. Naomi lived down some holler, back in some dreary woods; he knew her mother's house. A couple of months after her husband’s funeral she had given birth to one more Hyde child, he'd heard. A girl.
Juine. Later to be legally named Yvonne Juine Hyde--my mother.
Billie Robinson heard she was a pretty baby, a fatherless baby. He really needed to do something about this state of affairs because he couldn't articulate why, but he loved Naomi more than he loved himself. He would change his life for her, he would change himself if she wanted--and he knew she would. It might be hell getting him to attend church, but if she insisted, he'd even do that once in a while, but don’t expect him to scream “Praise Jesus!” or ask him to be dunked beneath a tub of water to save his soul. He had in mind what he would change and what he wouldn’t. He would stop cursing, gambling, traveling, and drinking. He would show everyone he could be a proper father to five children. He’d do most anything for Naomi, but religious stuff was going to be a hard go.
Food was scarce and work for a woman nonexistent. There were five children to feed, plus their grandma, so Naomi had to find a way to get money into the house. All that was offered was a job picking cotton. You take a scratchy brown gunny sack longer than you are tall into the field, bend your back, pick the fluffy white bolls and try to fill that sack. It earned a few cents a day, cut your fingers all to hell, but a few cents could buy sugar or salt or flour or cornmeal. It had to be done.
Around the time I was seven years old several people around Paul went out to pick a farmer’s cotton to make extra money. I heard of it and asked if I could do it. I must have been a little entrepreneur. I wanted money I’d earned myself.
Bigdaddy said, “It’s hard work, no work for a child.”
I insisted I was up to it. “I can do it, I know I can. Won’t you let me try?”
Without further argument he drove me to the cotton field and got me a sack. That’s why I know what they were like. “Fill it,” he said. “I’ll sit over here and keep an eye on you.”
I began to pick. The sun rose higher. Sweat bunched and flowed down my neck. Every little while I’d glance over at my grandfather where he sat smoking unfiltered cigarettes. He gave no indication he felt sorry for me. I’ll show him, I thought. I can do this. I worked all day. The sun hit a zenith and I kept looking back at the gunny sack to see my haul. It didn’t seem to be filling up at all. I’d get fifty cents if I could fill that bag and I meant to see it to the finish. I picked on. The day stretched out like a long yellow cat. The hours leaked by so slowly. The heat rose burning my skin red. I’d drag the sack and pick the next bush clean of snowy white cotton bolls. Their hard brown shells kept pricking my fingers. “Oh!” I’d grunt, and out of some misguided stubbornness picked on.
At the end of the day, Bigdaddy came to me and lifted the sack. It was about three-fourth’s full. He walked me to the man who weighed the cotton and paid the workers. Bigdaddy might have winked at him because the man handed over a fifty-cent piece though I didn’t earn that much.
I never asked to pick cotton again.
Yet that experience proved to me just how hard it is to do. It takes fortitude, strength, and a good back. You might as well grab a shovel and dig ditches, it can’t be any harder. My grandmother, broken by sorrow, destitute to make a little change to feed her children, walked into those Alabama fields and picked cotton all day every day. It was a shame to her name because it was the lowest work in the South. That she did it makes me proud of her because it was honest work and she took the helm. But then what mother wouldn’t if given the field work was the only available avenue to survive?
Grandma Cobb was elderly, five foot tall, and called “Scrap.” They called her Scrap because when she was born she was so small her daddy lay her swaddled little body in a shoebox and set it near the fire to keep her warm.
“She was only a scrap of a thing, hardly big enough to survive, but she did anyway,” he said.
She went on to give birth to twelve children, an even dozen, and then her dreamer of a husband, hearing about land going cheap in Texas and some of it might have oil on it, went on a trip from whence he never returned. Scrap got a notice in the mail saying he'd died without stating the manner of his death and if she wanted the land he owned, several hundred acres, she'd have to travel to Texas to claim it. She had a dozen kids. She wasn't leaving Alabama the way her husband had done in search of some wild-haired oil rights on some horrible Texas desert. Though she had never been there, just the word "Texas" brought "desert" to mind so to her that's all it was. It represented a barren wasteland while Alabama was a forested Eden. She refused to go and lost the land. All she had left was the little broken down house and the patch of ground it sat on. In the early 1900s most people didn’t have life insurance and there was no such thing as welfare, not that Scrap would have accepted it. She made it on her own.
When Naomi had to pick cotton, Scrap offered to care for the children while she worked, but my grandmother thought it might be too much for her frail mother so she took them with her, all except the baby Yvonne, and set them in the cotton rows while she picked under the high, hot sun. Pick a while, pull the gunnysack down the row, call for the children to follow. They sat all day playing in the dirt, making castles and moats and pretending the cotton bolls were clouds floating on top.
Billie knew about all this and it broke his heart. The woman he loved, the only woman he’d ever loved, was reduced to picking cotton with a field full of blacks, breaking her back for pennies. He loved her more for being so strong, but he could not let it continue.
If he caught fish that day, he began to take his catch to the Cobb house porch and lay the fish down in a long pretty string, their scales slick and shiny.
If he hunted down some squirrels or rabbits, he hung them by string on a nail on the porch column.
If he had a few dimes, he’d buy a bag of rich, sweet oranges and leave them for the little children who belonged to his love.
“Who do you think’s leaving all that stuff on the porch?” Naomi asked. Her mother called her “Nomi” for short and now everyone in the county called her that. Naomi, a lovely Biblical name, was just too hard for country people to pronounce.
“You know who it is. That wild Billie Robinson. He’s always had a hankering for you, Nomi.”
“I thought it was him, though I never see him do it.”
“I figure he comes at night when we’re all in bed.”
“He doesn’t seem so wild anymore. I haven't heard any talk about him acting up.”
“Don’t let him fool you. That boy’s been up North doing mischief. Zebra don’t change its stripes.”
“Well, that may be so, but this fried squirrel and biscuits taste just fine.”
“That it does,” Scrap said, taking up another piece.
Eventually Billie started showing himself. He’d softened the blow of his coming with the gifts of food. Now he came out in the open, carrying a ham. He had been hog hunting and brought down a rascally fat mama hog. The ham was thick and meaty. Naomi met him at the screen door that needed fixing so the flies couldn’t get in. She was embarrassed the house was so poor--that she was so destitute.
“Afternoon, Billie, what you got there?”
“Got a ham. Sure would like a slab of it fried up with some red-eye gravy.”
Naomi whisked him into the dark cool house and set to slicing and frying while Billie sat at the scarred farm table. Scrap said hello to him and took herself out back of the house to work in the little garden. She gathered the older children with her to pull weeds.
Billie Robinson was not a man of patience, despite the fact he’d just spent weeks bringing food in the dark to the front porch. “You need a husband.” There, he'd said it plain and outright.
Naomi turned from the wood stove. She wished Billie had some finesse about him. He was too blunt and forward, not at all like her more refined Jim.
“I don’t need anything of the sort.” She was still in love with a man who had denied his medicine and died on her too young. The majority of her heart not reserved for her fatherless children lay in the grave with him.
“You need someone to take care of you so you don’t have to pick cotton and kill yourself. You need a father can discipline and love those children. You need me.”
She sighed in resignation. Alone in that darkened house, with shadows crouched in the corners, wavy glass in the rotten windowsills, her old mother out back tending a small garden, her children playing around the yard that had been swept with a homemade broom, she was hearing the second proposal of her life. This was one she had to take, whether she liked it or not, because to be fair Billie Robinson seemed to be a man intent on marrying her no matter what the circumstances and a man that determined had to love her. There was something to be said for a man of his resolve. There was a lot to be said for it.
No, he did not possess the brilliant mind of an engineer. Nor did he stand as tall or as handsome. Where Jim towered over her, Billie might only top her by an inch or two. He was square and muscled and his hair was receding. He would be bald soon. He did not stir her heart and make her thank God in her prayers at night for giving her a love so deep it was like a buried river running through her entire soul.
But he did love her truly. How many men would want to wed a widow with five little children? Not that many in any decade or time of history. He had not loved or wed another. He was a man who’d wandered far and rushed home when he learned she needed him.
He had brought her a ham and sat at her table asking for her hand in marriage.
And she said...”Okay.”
* * *
My step-grandfather, Billie Robinson, was the only grandfather I knew. I remember him taking me with him to milk a cow. They had one cow for a while and she gave milk year round. “Here, hold her teat like this and squeeze down one finger at a time.”
I was afraid the animal would kick me, but she had her head locked in a wood stall and she seemed happy to munch her feed.
When I was able to get a squirt of milk slamming into the galvanized bucket, I’d grin crazily.
Across the road on their land they kept a nanny and a buck goat. When the nanny gave birth and freshened, they began to milk her too. My brother and I would go watch the milking and were handed warm glasses of milk to swallow down. We were the healthiest kids in the village.
From the milk they made buttermilk and butter in a churn. Bigdaddy sat by the fireplace and churned the milk for the longest time. Before he churned, Bigmama would dip out the rich cream for coffee and for making desserts. Once he’d churned the milk, she’d pour the buttermilk into bottles to refrigerate. Then she’s slap the butter with the back of a big spoon, add a little salt, and shape it in a round for the butter dish.
If I was in Alabama on Christmas, my grandfather took me riding on his shoulders to hunt for a tree. We’d traipse off into the thick woods looking for a likely cedar.
“You like that one, Sugar Baby?” He’d put me on my feet and take the ax to the trunk so he could haul it home. We’d decorate it with strings of popcorn and red berries and Bigmama would attach a few shiny ornaments.
One Christmas before I was school age the tree stood in the corner and the bed was in the living room. This must have been the “old house,” the one made of wood before he built Bigmama a new house. It was called a “shotgun” house because an open hall went right down the middle of it. Some people who didn’t know better thought that was for dogs to wander, calling it a dog run, but it was really to let the cool breeze flow to all the rooms opening off the hallway.
Christmas Eve. The lights were out for the night and firelight bathed the room in glowing warmth. I lay between my grandparents watching the fire-shadows dance across the ceiling. I could smell the tree so green. I could hardly sleep thinking about the coming Christmas morning. I already knew there was no Santa Claus, but I wondered what I’d get under the tree. Finally sleep came as a thief and dragged me into dreamland.
I woke to a big fire roaring in the fireplace, warming the frigid room, and Bigdaddy kneeling before the fire to stoke it. He looked back over his shoulder at me and then to the tree.
I leaped from bed and ran to see what was under it. I opened the wrapping paper to reveal a baby doll made all of rubber, even the spit curl on her forehead. I opened a dresser set, so beautiful in gold metal—a hand mirror, a brush, and a comb. I opened a little china tea set decorated with miniature roses. I was ecstatic.
When with my parents I always got lots of presents, not just three, but I wasn’t thinking about that. Weren’t these three gifts the best anyone ever received? Wasn’t the stocking filled with apples and oranges and Christmas candy wrapped in gaily colored cellophane?
I ran into Bigmama’s apron-front and hugged her legs. “Oh, Bigmama!”
I jumped into Bigdaddy’s arms and hugged his neck. “I love it all so much!”
I spent the day pretending to have a tea party with my new doll. I let Bigmama brush my hair by the fireside while I stared into the mirror at my reflection. It’s one of the loveliest Christmas memories of my young life.
Bigdaddy was stern with many people, but never with me. I must have reminded him of Yvonne, the little baby girl he’d been a father to when he first married Naomi. He babied her and he babied me. We both loved him for it.
When I think back on the man who came home in the night from work and gave me a banana, the man who carried me through the forest hunting a Christmas tree, the man who taught me to play peach leaves and milk a cow, I can’t help but smile at the memories. He never admonished me, but then I was a pleasant child and really didn’t need it. He never raised his voice or hand to me. I was his Sugar Baby and he was my grandpa and when I was with him, the world was good. It was splendid.
* * *