When I was very young, maybe 8 or 9, I made a couple of solo train journeys between Tampa and Savannah.
It wasn’t unusual at that time. My sister and cousin did the same, and probably plenty of other kids as well. The conductor on the Silver Meteor knew the drill: your mother would give him a little extra money, and he would keep an eye on you.
Our destination was our grandparents’ home in Savannah. We would visit them for a month or so in the summertime, singly or a couple at a time. ‘Big Mommy’ and ‘Honey’ were their names. Big Mommy wasn’t big and Honey wasn’t sweet, so the source of the names was a mystery, but there it was.
Fragments of memories:
Big Mommy making homemade biscuits from scratch every morning at 5 am.
Honey proudly pointing out the segregated water fountains and restrooms. He was an unrepentant racist of the old southern school.
Being given bus fare and and spending money (a quarter? a dollar? – can’t remember now) and going downtown, yes, again by myself. I saw a couple of movies. That memory is even more vague. ‘The Blob?’ Or maybe ‘The Day of the Triffids.’ Mostly though, I wandered around and looked at the parks and squares. Downtown Savannah was and is a mysterious and fascinating place.
Playing with my plastic army men (yankees and rebels, what else?) in the living room. There were not a lot of other kids around.
Honey was a plastering contractor. Sometimes he and his employees would come home for dinner. At noon. Say what? Well, dinner was what we would now call lunch. It was the main meal of the day, and they didn’t stint on the food. Around 5 in the afternoon, we would have a lighter meal. They called that one supper.
About those dinners: Honey was white. The employees were black. They happily sat down to a meal together, but they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing that in any other situation. Honey hated black people in the aggregate, but he liked these guys. Probably respected them too, because they were out there together doing what must have been really hard and skillful work. He wouldn’t have expressed that, couldn’t have expressed that. Never in a million years. Only much later did I start to understand the paternalistic dynamic that was at work there.
Speaking of the plastering business, I offered once to help. Honey was having none of that; there may have been scoffing and mocking involved. He wasn’t much impressed with me in general. He thought I was soft, which, compared to him, I was. Shit, compared to him, John Wayne was soft. Honey had gone hand to hand with the Germans, and so my experiences in playing Little League baseball didn’t cut any ice him, the tough old bastard.
Big Mommy was another story altogether. Sweet, funny and good natured, but with a little bit of a quirky edge. She had had an unbelievably difficult life. Honey was her second husband, and compared to the first one he was actually a pretty decent guy. Not a high bar: my birth grandfather was a mean drunk who let his family go hungry during the depression. Big Mommy held it together somehow, but her kids, my mother among them, never really got over it.
My mother had tragedies and difficulties of her own, on top of all that. She went on to build a good life in spite of it all. Or maybe because of it, who knows? In their later years, Big Mommy and Honey moved to Florida. They were of a different time and a different way of seeing. When they passed a few years later, their worldview passed with them. Or did it?
I loved them.
(c)2018 Mike Davis