You stand in the middle of a maelstrom and watch helplessly as your Mama loses her mind and gets strapped in a straitjacket it prepares you a little for what life is really about. I might have become a cynic at five, distressed at the world and what it can do to you. But it took quite a few more years to swallow my naiveté beneath an avalanche of sorry gloom.
For one thing, I had Bigmama and Bigdaddy. After leaving West Texas and moving into real south Texas to a small town called Victoria, I found myself in first grade and suddenly in love with book knowledge. I’d already had a short lifetime of people-study and it was getting to me. I knew by first grade life was going to be a rocky road and my Daddy worked for oil companies that were going to move us around. A lot.
Moving was all right with me. I don’t think many of us get used to the rocky road. I‘m not whining; it‘s just the bald truth. But I liked moving. When grown I read in a Virginia Woolf novel about seeing “different views from different rooms.” That’s exactly what I wanted. Before I could tire of a room, a rented house, a school, a town, or some little friend with a nose-picking habit, we were packing and I was grinning and asking, “Where we going, Mama?”
“Here, dump your clothes into this box, we have to hurry.” I found out where we were going when we got there and that was as good as it got.
Sometime during the first grade I ended back in Alabama with my grandparents. Years later my first grade teacher in Brooklyn, Alabama said of my writing novels, "I knew you'd be somebody. You were the smartest little girl I ever taught."
I'm not sure we can count on this compliment. How many children you teach in first grade goes on to be published? If you happen to have one and meet her again years later in her thirties, naturally you're going to say nice things about her. It isn’t that I didn’t appreciate what she said. She had taught me my ABCs and my numbers. She was responsible for getting me on the road to my destiny. She was sweet and plump and wore dresses with tiny flower prints and shoes with sensible heels. I was uncomfortable with her statement because I just don’t believe I was extraordinarily smart.
I have a couple of memories from Victoria, Texas. The first day of school, which went without mishap. I had a new lunchbox and my hair was short with bangs across my forehead. I was ready for anything. The picture of me on that day shows a little girl who looks like she’s going on a trip that means something to her; she’s going to school, finally!
I also remember a summer day when a hired Mexican woman bathed me. Mama was working and the lady babysat us. She ran the tub full of water and I began to undress.
"No, no, keep on your underwear!" Keep on my underwear? How did one bathe while partially clothed? I did as she said and she soaped me down good, rinsed and towel dried me.
When Mama came home I told her the kind of bath I'd been given. "You kept on your panties? In the tub?"
I assured her I did and wasn't that just the strangest thing?
Mama said, "Maybe that's how they do it in Mexico. Never mind. Do what you're told."
“But I don’t feel clean, Mama.”
“You’re clean, just don’t make trouble.”
I never made trouble. Trouble surrounded me, it might pop up any second and arguing with my mother could bring it on. I shrugged and decided to be bathed in my underwear.
Somewhere between second and third grade Mama had so many problems and hospital stays, I wound back up in Alabama again. Mama fought with Leroy like a mongoose with a snake. He accused her of flirting with other men and she accused him of being a jealous-ass son of a bitch. My brother and I would stand still and quiet in our room and listen to these volatile people who couldn’t control their emotions. If one called the other a name, the other topped it with a much harder, more obscene, and more biting name. It was a round-de-round. It could go on for hours. Days even!
These stays with my grandparents were like respites from the stormiest of storms. I describe living with my parents like living with bad weather and that’s just what it was. It was a harsh winter with below freezing temperatures in Alaska and sometimes it was a real West Texas dust storm that could choke you before you found cover. It was high wind, tsunamis, forest fires, mudslides, and blizzards. There were few times when life could be described as normal balmy weather, not until I could get myself shipped back to Alabama. Living in Alabama was honeysuckle days and gardenia nights. It was lazy rivers and weeping willows. There was unconditional love that drove chaos far away, barring it from ever entering my grandparents' door.
Bigmama and Bigdaddy had owned a little house in Mobile, Alabama on Riverside Drive. I went down in that area once and couldn’t find the house, but saw the whole street, despite its pretty name, was a damp, dirt yard kind of place hiding in woods and not far from a slow brown river. The neighborhood was poor and it was ugly. Maybe it had been better back when the Robinsons lived there.
The dirt yard was swept clean and neat each day by the children using handmade brooms. They shaped the swept area into a big heart. You drove up to the house and were held in the hands of that heart, do with that what you may. The children played near the river, went fishing, climbed trees, and brawled as children will do. They might as well have been living in the countryside as near a big city.
Bigmama eventually sold the Riverside place and got enough from the sale to purchase thirty-four acres in Paul, Alabama with enough cash left over for Bigdaddy to build her a house. She had to sell the Riverside house, I think. Bigdaddy was about played out. He’d worked hard with the WPA, many years as a carpenter, and found work in shipbuilding. He worked doing whatever he had to do and being a short, fiery, temperamental man he got stomach ulcers the size of fists. The pain kept him off work more than on. Bigmama had to do something, seeing that Social Security was still some years away and they were going to go down fast if she didn’t haul them out of the Mobile swamp.
Later on they operated on Bigdaddy and took out three-fourths of his stomach. In those days that was a serious operation and meant he was supposed to eat little bitty meals throughout the day from that time on, but he never did.
I'd eye the overflowing plate of biscuits dripping butter, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes covered with milk gravy and ask, "Aren't you supposed to eat small meals?"
"What I'm supposed to do and what I do are often two different things," he said.
I guess his stomach grew back. But he was never able to work again like he’d done before.
Once when I was a teen we sat together at the dining table and he asked the weirdest question. He said, “Let me ask you something. If you were stuck in a roomful of ‘ha-it,’ say it was all the way up to your neck, could you still eat your supper?”
Ha-it was his way of saying shit without saying it. I pictured the dining room full of that stuff, filled all the way up the walls, and me standing in it. Only my head is above that foul matter. Could I eat?
“If I was hungry, I could, I sure could. I'd just ignore that stuff all around me.”
He nodded and left the room without a word. I didn’t know the purpose of the question unless he just wanted to know how tough I was. My answer must have assured him I was tough enough.
That’s what I soon learned about myself. I was tough enough. Throw all the ha-it at me you want, and I’d stand there above it just as long as I could, and offered a meal, I’d eat it.
Now you’re going to think Southern crackers who get no more than a fourth grade education (Billie) or a ninth grade education (Naomi) can’t be very smart or interesting people. Well, you’d be wrong. Bigdaddy could work numbers and fractions faster than I ever could, his handwriting was script penned by an angel, (he taught me how to make a cursive S that is quite lovely), he could build a house from scratch, and the man knew when it was going to rain before the sky did. Bigmama just knew everything, but you’ll have to take my word for it. She taught elementary classes in the little one-room school house in Paul for a while and she knew her Bible backwards and forwards. Having read that good book quite a lot in my youth I realized what an education it can give you if you pay attention to the stories and to the poetry of the words. A writer-to-be could do worse than peruse those hallowed pages.
What Bigmama knew most was the human heart. Whether she learned it from her Bible or not, I wouldn’t know. I suspect she came by the knowledge naturally. She knew compassion and tolerance. I didn't know any religious figures at my young age, but I knew my grandmother epitomized a wise person, a truly good and forgiving and loving person. There could be no one else like her.
It’s possible I idolized her.
I think she deserved it and besides, I’d bonded with her as a baby. She was my Bigmama—my GoodMama.
* * *
This is how they came to be together, my grandparents--
Bigmama’s name was Naomi Cobb. She had come from a long line of Cobbs and Dixons, strong English names, and somewhere back in the past I’m convinced there must have been British royalty. How else would an Alabama countrywoman learn to be so queenly? There was also Native American blood on her side. I haven't traced the ancestry, but I was told my great-great grandfather married a full-blood Cherokee woman. That may account for the olive skin and square-faced bone structure of my mother, me, and one of my daughters. Certainly we look more Native American than English, I think.
This little British-Cherokee Naomi strolled through the woods one day on the way to school, her mind on the day ahead. She heard something coming through the pines and underbrush. She hurried down the path, afraid of cougar or maybe a wild boar, but what burst through the undergrowth was neither. It was Bigdaddy. His name was Billie Robinson and he was nineteen and long since out of school.
Billie burst from the woods like the boar hog he’d sounded like coming through them and Naomi froze and narrowed her eyes. “What do you want, Billie Robinson? You like to scared me to death.”
“I’m coming to give you a kiss before you get to school.” He had a twinkle in his blue eyes.
“The hell you say.” Bigmama backed up, holding her schoolbooks to her scrawny chest. Now her eyes were wide and her heart beat like a fast brook running over rocks.
Billie waltzed toward her and she turned to run, but he caught her, spun her in his arms, and planted one huge smackeroo on her closed lips.
“There!” he said. “I did it, how do you like that?”
Bigmama twisted away, dropped her books and picked up a length of dead pine limb as thick as her wrist. When she told me this story she called it “kindling” as in the wood you use to start a fire in the fireplace. "I picked up that kindling," she said. She swung it and landed a good shot alongside Billie’s temple hard enough to make him stagger.
Then she calmly took up her books and walked to school.
Bigmama told me one day that Billie Robinson had been in love with her from the beginning, but she didn’t love him back. He was a wild boy, the whole county’s wild boy, one who drank, gambled, caroused, cursed with abandon, and generally had a bad name. She steered as clear of him as she might have a rattlesnake. She came from a poor, but proud family and they didn’t hold with behaving other than as a gentleman or a lady.
That didn’t stop the wild boy from loving her.
Even when she married someone else.
Just before the summer of her fourteenth year Naomi got up one morning and stuffed the nicest dress she owned down the front of her school clothes. She owned three dresses. She picked the best she had. She and a girlfriend from school had determined they would get married and planned a couple of weddings. They planned to elope. Dang it to Hades what parents had to say about it.
“Elope” is a word rarely used today. People just run off and get married. We say of them, “They got married.” We hardly ever hear someone say, “They eloped.” In the early 1900s it was a great undertaking to secretly circumvent your family to get married.
The two girls met on the wooded path on the way to school, pulled their wedding dresses from underneath their clothes and stood waiting for the car.
James Hyde, another very old English-descended family name, drove into the clearing wearing the brightest smile on the East side of the Mississippi. Next to him was a boy willing to marry Naomi’s girlfriend. The girls hopped in the car and they were off to the Florida border a hundred miles south where young people not of age could be married without parental consent.
That began Naomi’s real life, the one she loved the most out of all the lives she was granted to live in her eighty-seven years.
Jim, as he was called, stood tall, lanky, and not at all wild like Billie. He was dark-haired and serious, and educated as an engineer. The man knew how to build bridges. Not with his own hands, either, but with diagrams and brainpower. He was more educated than any of Naomi's relatives at the time, but he was no show off. He was polite, southern as southern can be, and so in love with his young bride.
After they were first married during their quick, secret elopement into Florida, Jim brought his wife back to the wilds of south Alabama and rented a small old sharecropper’s cabin for them near Paul, Alabama. He was a man looking for bridge work and times were hard. Naomi didn’t care. She was used to a hard life since her own father had died leaving her mother widowed and poor with twelve children to raise alone. For Christmas one year all Naomi got as a present was a big red and white striped peppermint stick from one of her uncles. Hard living had no power over a girl who had come from nothing, from a girl who loved Jim Hyde whether he ever made a dime or if she ended up eating weevily potatoes the rest of her life. What did it matter when you’re in love? She had been born in 1909 and country living in the South was nothing if not hard.
The first house they rented was haunted. One evening Jim and Naomi decided to take the baby and walk to Naomi’s mother’s house for a visit.
It began to rain, the dirt roads turning to mud and the ditches overflowing. “I’ll go back home and get some raincoats to cover us. You hurry on to your Mama’s and get out of this rain,” Jim said.
It was a good mile or two distant and by the time he neared home, he saw something lighting up the night. Wind lashed the trees, the pines swayed like drunken sentinels and a ghost was coming. It looked like a woman dressed in flowing white riding a horse. She was headless. Frightened out of his wits, Jim turned and ran back to his mother-in-law’s. Bursting through the door wet and bedraggled, his eyes wide, he said, “We’re staying here tonight and tomorrow we’re moving out of that house. It’s got ghosts.”
No one in those days and that neck of the woods questioned supernatural events. If a man as sober as Jim Hyde said there was a headless apparition on a horse, then that’s exactly what was there. The next day they moved to another rental in another patch of woods.
Jim found work and began to build some of the largest bridge spans across Alabama rivers. One day Bigmama pulled out a shoebox of old photographs of bridges and began to hand photographs to me. Jim’s standing by a few. The others are photos of steel and high spans and deep, dark rivers where you can see no one could have crossed the swirling waters had it not been for this intrepid bridge builder.
“He made all these?” I asked, flabbergasted. I had thought maybe he’d built small bridges, maybe wooden bridges, just small, rough-hewn log roadways across small waters that didn’t mean too much except to the locals. But this--this was majestic work, important work, opening up whole regions of the country for travel, connecting highway to highway.
“He built all that and more,” she said, a hint of pride in her voice.
Indeed. The man had been something, all right. Something much more than I’d first thought. My grandfather, the engineer.
I began to ask questions about him and the bridge building, but a sad veil dropped over Bigmama's face. She was rarely sad or down, maintaining a moderate calm exterior even against life’s greatest setbacks and sorrows. She took the photographs and put them back into the shoebox with care. She was thinking of him and missing him. She had never got over loving him. I shut my mouth looking at what lost love can do to a woman even forty or more years after a beloved's death. I would ask no more questions that day.
Building bridges in Alabama across Murder Creek or the Conecuh River were fine, but Jim wanted more for his loving bride, as the pay for building Alabama river bridges didn't afford him the life he wanted for his family. So he applied and got himself hired to build bridges in Florida around Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
It must have seemed a world away. Naomi had never been out of the state of Alabama except for the fast trip down to the state border to get married on a sunny school day of her fourteenth year.
Imagine the distance. Imagine how far from home Miami had to be from Paul and the people she loved and knew. Today you can get to Miami from anywhere in the country faster than Naomi and Jim did driving an old Model T down the two-lane roads from Alabama.
Yet it paid off handsomely. Jim became the chief engineer of bridge building across the dozens of canals in Fort Lauderdale. More money came in than he’d ever seen in his life. He moved from being penniless to ensconcing his young bride and burgeoning family, now counting two sons and two daughters, in a penthouse in Miami.
A penthouse! Top of the world, Ma. Beautiful furniture that gleamed in the softness of a Florida setting sun. Clothes imported and sold in the most exclusive stores. A car so shiny and new others turned to stare at it as the machine rolled down Miami streets. There was food and plenty of it, after hours' clubs, fringed flapper dresses, someone to watch the children so the couple could make a night of it. Money galore and so much of it the world was turned upside down.
One of my aunts said one day, “When they went to Sunday church, she dressed the children all in white. The girls in white, frilly dresses and little black shoes, the boys in white suits. One day Raymond got outside before the others and fell into a mud puddle, ruining his suit. Mama rushed him back to the penthouse, threw the suit into the trash and redressed him while the rest of the family waited in the car.”
Naomi had so much money and so much security that money provided, she could commit a mortal sin and throw a brand new white suit in the trash barrel. So much money, it must have seemed obscene.
For a few years Jim provided this high life for his family. The bridges went up and went in and across, spanning canal after canal. The town of Fort Lauderdale expanded and progressed unknowing that it was destined to one day be the home to Snowbirds from the North and a vacation Mecca of white beaches and low pastel stucco houses marching down palm-lined streets.
I lived in Fort Lauderdale for a year one time in the 1990s and every canal bridge we crossed seemed to stir Jim Hyde alive in my thoughts. He walked these streets, I thought. His brilliant mind created these bridges. His thoughts lingered here in the twilights and the sunrises. He sat on this beach and watched the ocean swallow the sun.
For some reason, surely before the big money rolled in and the penthouse was leased, Bigmama said they lived next to an Indian Reservation near the Okeechobee swamp. When Jim was gone to work she spent her days with the Indian women and became such fast friends with them that ever after they began to leave baskets of food on her doorstep. She’d get up in the mornings and there on the step would be fruit--mangoes, oranges, grapefruit, hard green bananas. Or a basket full of outdoor-oven baked hard bread that could break off a tooth if you weren’t careful.
“I liked them more than anything,” Bigmama said. “A lot of white people wouldn’t have anything to do with the Indians, but I don’t understand why. They were kindly people, gracious and generous to a fault.” Maybe they saw one of their ancestors in her face. Or they recognized a woman devoid of prejudice when they met one.
Not too many years into the family’s high life, they went through the hurricane that almost wiped out Miami. It was a death dealer, taking the lives of those who slept and those who ran from it.
It was one of the worst hurricanes in Florida history.
It bore down on the Florida coast with whirling winds and a deluge of rain. Lightning broke the skies to shards and thunder shook the foundations of buildings. Water ran high in the streets, jumping curbs. Naomi, scared to death, grabbed her children, and ran for her sister's house and together with their husbands they tried to get to safety. All around them the world was coming apart before their eyes. Skyscrapers shook and leaned precariously. Palm trees tore from their roots and sailed through the air like toothpicks. Cars and house beams and debris of all sorts tumbled through the air. Screams were drowned in the melee of the storm.
Jim knew if they survived it, they'd be counted lucky. Only God in heaven knew how they were going to stay alive.
* * *