Sunday afternoon conversation with Grandma (on farming, past race relations, and our changing times)

Just got off the phone with my Grandma. From time to time she gets to tripping down memory lane, telling about her life while growing up out on the farm. Listened to her tell of all they work they had to do back then, from tending to the hogs and plowing the fields, to picking cotton and growing a wide variety of vegetables. Plus caring for the chickens and milking the cow, churning butter, picking figs and peas and butter beans, etc. She told about how for several years her father would recruit black men looking for day labor positions to help pick the cotton and how a black woman named Mrs. Annie helped facilitate it so that all the men would be ready to be picked up on the day of hire and how she’d also oversee when wages were paid out later in the day for the amount of cotton collected, ensuring all was accepted as fair so no disputes could arise later on (and they never did). That would’ve been back in the 1940s-1950s. Grandma reflected on it being a good working relationship between all involved, with her father viewed as a fair man in that respect who paid well and treated people decently. And his wife was known as a good cook who was generous about feeding people. And the black folks in that area (a poor county by most standards and still to this day) were happy for the work, showing up on time as requested, content with the wages offered in an era before minimums became enforced. She spoke of people sharing their crops with one another and helping each other out as needed on one another’s farms.

Not that she always had nice things to say about her father. But he was by all accounts a sober man and a hard worker, and he treated people with friendliness and direct firmness so that they knew what he expected from them. That being back in the time when people had many kids so as to have low-cost laborers for their farms. My grandma was one of 6 kids, all girls except for one brother. I only knew my great-grandfather past the age of 70, he later living with my grandparents until he died at age 98. But during those years he was so old and worn out by life that I never had much of a relationship with him.

Grandma spoke about her mom and how her mom’s mom had died early on, leaving her mom to be raised by her aunt mostly. Apparently that woman wasn’t too nice of a person. Said her mom worked hard all her life. That being the running theme among nearly everybody worth mentioning in my lineage. Workhorses is what I’ve always referred to them as. The kind of people who wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if left idle. They find work to do since that’s all they know. Funny how things changed so abruptly for us younger generations who know nothing of that sort of lifestyle and can only listen to these old stories with wonder at how they managed all of that year after year, incapable of relating to their daily struggle to earn a living.

Sounded like a lot of drudgery, like the kind of life my contemporaries and I cannot relate to. We rely on a grocery store to provide everything we need today, whereas in Grandma’s time the only items they purchased at the store were flour, salt, black pepper, and occasionally lard (when a freshly slaughtered hog wasn’t available). She speaks of the wells on the property and how beef couldn’t be preserved as long as pork meat in the smokehouse. She tells of her mother sewing clothes for herself and the kids, though they sometimes went to the store to purchase church attire. And she tells of how they’d sweat in those churches, that being years before the advent of air conditioning. I don’t doubt that unto itself would prove to be hell in the Mississippi summer heat.

Hard to imagine life back then. While not so long ago, it might as well be centuries ago. So I keep asking her questions and pondering on the stories she shares. I asked her about race relations in her time, and she says it wasn’t like how it’s become these days, that people worked together then more than now because they all had hard lives. Amazing the difference a few decades and the emergence of material conveniences has made. Nowadays it’s as if some people are trying to rewrite history, pitting one race against another and pretending as though they’ve never been anything other than enemies who’ve never been able to see eye to eye. It’s a shame really that it’s come to this since many of us are rooted for generations in that same red clay soil, under the same blistering sun and its humid heat, contending with the same climate and conditions in trying to eek out an existence. Those were my ancestors just as they were some of yours too. And looking further back to pre-abolitionist days, I’ve read of the first indentured servant with my Papa’s last name to land on the east coast only to die during his servitude. Our histories aren’t as wholly separate as some like to pretend these days.

It’s as if we’re all becoming detached and divorced from history to where we’re prone to repeat generic stories passed down from those pushing an agenda, nevermind the truths of our actual lineages. That saddens me because it’s like watching something real get swept away as if it no longer matters. As if the new narrative trumps the truth. And with that, we can no longer appreciate what bonds we did possess in common, including a shared culture, for better or worse.

When I listen to her it feels like grains of sand being poured into my hands that then trickle down between my fingers and disappear into bottomless space where they might never be retrieved. Going, going, Gone. History made and history abandoned. Life’s work retold but then forgotten. Communal bonds established once upon a time, only to later be denied by future generations who care not about what came before. The past is being disposed of, like an inconvenient truth that defies the new narrative being woven. And I sit here and watch and listen as the conflicting tales pull in opposite directions and tear at the very fabric of (Southern) U.S. culture.

In a few more years all that will remain is the new retelling of racial injustices with no mercy shown to the many decades of the late 19th century and early-to-mid 20th century where progress had been made. That’s deemed obsolete, if not outright denied as a fairy tale, by those who wish to capitalize on a perpetual sense of victimhood. But they ought to see that their retelling of events isn’t accurate, that it leaves so much out, and that unto itself creates a new form of injustice that we’ll all wind up suffering from as a result. But people don’t think like that usually. Instead, they don’t look far enough ahead and like to cherry-pick the past to suit themselves. But what are you trying to suit nowadays? A grievance industry? A monopolization on righteous indignation? A false belief that only one sort of people were ever taken thorough advantage of, or, in reverse, that only one sort of people ever universally escaped hardships? It’s untrue. All might not be equal, nor would I claim that to be the case, but it’s not as unequal as some would have others believe.

So, when people go on these days talking about our roots and bloodlines and heritages, I can’t help but feel like mine has died. Perhaps never to be resurrected except in libelous narratives that attempt to rewrite history in order to bolster divisive modern political pursuits. That’s a damn shame. But I suppose this is just the way life tends to go. What once was tends to be forgotten over time. And what is here today might disappear tomorrow as well. Not sure what good it would do to try to hold onto that other than to keep it in my heart and let it inform my senses in the face of what others now wish to bring about. Not sure there’s anything else that realistically can be done.

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