When I was a very small boy my Daddy owned a farm outside the town of North, South Carolina. It was a mile to town and with the exception of one family; all of our neighbors were black. The one white family had a girl about ten years my senior so as I grew up all my playmates were black. Either they share cropped with Daddy or share cropped on the farms of Mr. Scarboro.
In 1948 I was five years old and my mother had pretty well given up on keeping me home. Daddy said any of the neighbors would look out for me. Back then everybody in our neighborhood looked out for children if there was a need. There was no deep water for at least two miles and the dog would keep me off of snakes. Because of Daddy and the neighbors I enjoyed a lot of freedom. I had three older siblings but my closest was a sister and at that time her main interest was dolls. For my early life I had to either amuse myself or count on mama until I was past four and then I was allowed to go visit the nearest neighbors.
I had two close friends named Charles and Poodah. They were brother and sister and lived in the cotton field directly in front of our house. I thought it was so neat to live in the cotton. They had cotton on three sides of their house.
Charles was a year older than me and his sister was a year younger. We practically lived together during daylight hours. Their mother and father were both deaf and mute. They had met and married when they were in a school for death mutes I believe. Charles and Poodah had learned to converse by signing but I never could get it right and Charles had to talk to them for me when I had anything to say. I could yes or no by head shaking but there was no way I could co-ordinate my fingers to sign. Poodah was learning, but still Charles had to help her at times. Charles and his folks could talk a blue streak, even argue. You could tell by their vigorous movements and facial expressions when they were disagreeing. I adapted to his folks and some of the simpler signing.
At first I had been a little scared of his folks, because on my first exposure I was not aware of muteness. The first time I saw Mr. Lee he was running toward me making a strange grunting sound. I later realized it was to get my Daddy’s attention. Once Daddy acknowledged him he simply pointed to the woods behind us. Daddy saw the smoke and ran to his pickup. He sent me inside to tell Mama, and Daddy and Mr. Lee went to rouse all the able bodied neighbors to help fight the fire. When that was over Daddy explained about the Lee family and suggested I might pay a visit as their kids were about my age.
When first I went to see them we went to Aunt Kitty’s house. She lived directly behind them and frequently kept Charles and Poodah. Charles’s parents seemed to always have work to do. Aunt Kitty always had time for them. That day she had time for me too. Frequently we were sent there to get us out of the way. All the kids in the neighborhood had adopted her. We all called her Aunt Kitty. My Daddy and Mama even called her Aunt Kitty. It was a form of respect.
She was aunt, mother, grandmother, friend and healer to everyone for miles around and I guess I spent as much time there as Mama and Daddy would allow.
I don’t remember when she died because circumstances caused us to move before that happened. I’m glad now because I have no unpleasantness associated with any of her memory and her death would have been hard for me as it was for Charles. Charles and I stayed friends even though circumstances forced us to only meet rarely after we moved and even less frequently as adults. For awhile he lived in Pennsylvania and I lived in Washington, and then I enlisted in the Navy and for the next four years was all over the world. We met again accidentally right after I was discharged and I learned of the deaths of his aunt and his father. His mother had gone to live with Poodah in New York and he was living in Columbia, South Carolina but as soon as he got a stake together he was heading back to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Poodah came to see me about a year or two later. She was settling her mother’s estate and had been to see Charles. He was then living in Swansea, South Carolina. We got together again before he went back to the North. We talked about our childhood, his folks, mine, and of course Aunt Kitty and I came home and wrote this so I’d not forget again.
She was a colored lady and she was always described as a lady by who ever was speaking. She might be a black lady or a colored lady but she was always described as a lady. It was before words changed and took on new meanings and lives of their own. There were no Afro-Americans, no NAACP. The N word wasn’t always bad. Curse words in books were a letter and dashes. Bad language was not on TV because there was no TV. The KKK was a bunch of men so ashamed they hid their faces and were not from around here. It would be two more years before I would learn Charles and I would not go to the same school. It just never came up.
Aunt Kitty was a frequent source of help to anyone in trouble. She was a medicine woman and midwife, if one was needed. She kept a cow and she always had fresh milk and cake or cookies or biscuits and corn bread and if you behaved yourself she would let you help with her work and if you didn’t she would send you home with instructions to tell your folks you had been sent home and why. You did because it never occurred to you, you could do otherwise. It was a bad thing to be sent home from Aunt Kitty’s’. It was treated as a bad thing and you were lectured severely even if you weren’t spanked. You got the “I’m so disappointed in you, you ought to be ashamed” lecture and you didn’t ever want to hear that again.
Aunt Kitty was a wonder. She could take a throw away can and break a piece off any plant, get some of her special dirt and in no time have a beautiful new flower. Every thing she touched seemed to blossom and bear as if it was transformed by magic. She knew which herbs had healing and where to find them and how to use them; and she knew ways to heal hearts as well as hurts and her council and advice was sought often by people that would surprise you. I spent a lot of time there as a boy, any time I could contrive a reason or get permission. She had a fine voice and she loved to sing, old songs I think only she knew and I wish I’d paid more attention. I was very young and she was very old and it was a very long time gone by that will never be again.
I remember she kept flour in a huge can and she used to dump in the eggs and fresh milk and mix the batter rite in the top of the flour can and then bring the dough out and finish it on the board table. She kept chickens and she always had eggs. Daddy said her husband had “gone to glory” and her children were scattered “here and yon'” and for years he or one of the other neighbors looked in on her or brought her things from town. I’m sure her lot in life was a lot harder than I knew because I learned much later our lot was hard too but it seemed to me we always had enough of everything. I thought we were well off and Aunt Kitty was too. Looking back I think I was right and it just got turned around like so much of the world. I had to suffer through a lot and get a lot older to realize that having enough of everything should be enough. I remember her last advice to me was, “Don’t let other people make you as mean as they are.”
AUNT KITTY~PKA’s Advocate~August/September 2011