By Rebecca Weisberg
Orange Beach, Alabama
The red dirt road was hard and dry like pavement, smooth under bicycle tires, but still dusty. Always dusty.
My white Keds didn’t stand a chance, and by summer’s end, they would be stained a brilliant shade of rust, no matter how many times washed. I biked this road many times a day, back and forth from my grandparents’ house to Aunt Jewel and Uncle David’s to the horse corral to bring my old mare George a carrot and to Grandpa’s barn to look for mice and his hidden whiskey bottles. On this day, I pedaled fast and a little farther to take a position on Great Grandmother’s porch swing to wait.
Aunt Clara was coming, and I wondered what book she would bring this time. Great Grandmother asked if I would read it to her, and I said I would if I could have a syrup cookie. They were as large and round as my chubby face, crispy on the edges and soft in the middle. Made with molasses instead of sugar, they were stored in a brown paper bag tucked away in a ceramic cookie jar made in the image of a cat wearing a tuxedo and sitting in a basket. She made a benevolent gesture of one cookie, with the promise of another after the new book was read to her satisfaction.
In my young mind, Aunt Clara was the most brilliant person I’d ever known. She was right up there with Einstein. She wore high heels, despite the fact that she was almost 6 feet tall in stocking feet and towered over her husband, Uncle Oscar, who was of Lilliputian stature. He was a barber and stood on a stool to work. Grandmother said he looked like a polka dot on the side of Aunt Clara’s dress. She was just barely over 5 feet tall herself, and in no position to be casting aspersions at another’s vertical challenges, but she said whatever came to mind and giggled when she knew it wasn’t appropriate.
Aunt Clara had a shock of thick silver hair and wore loosely flowing outfits. In my memory she looked much like Bea Arthur as Maude but with a sweet and encouraging disposition. She spoke slowly, pausing to reflect on what she might say next in her velvety Southern accent. Her speech was sprinkled with words I didn’t understand but would commit to memory so I could look them up later in the Webster’s. She and her two sisters, the oldest of eight children, the younger five boys, all went to college — at either Huntingdon or Livingston University. Aunt Clara said they had no intention of being farm wives and planned their escapes early.
“Just as you will do,” she said.
They finally pulled up in their long green car, Uncle Oscar barely able to see over the steering wheel, with Aunt Clara talking his head off, as she had probably done all the way from Tuscaloosa. He didn’t say much. I don’t think he really had the opportunity. I ran to the gate to meet them and their poodle, Faulkner, who licked the cookie crumbs from my fingers. Aunt Clara reached in her bag for my prize and held it to her nose to take a sniff.
“Nothing smells better than a brand new book!” she said.
The presentation of the books unfolded this way on every visit. The volumes changed over time, but never the delivery. At first they, were Little Golden Books and Doctor Seuss, then Nancy Drew, and one day “Where the Sidewalk Ends.” I would read during her weekend visits and provide verbal reports before she left. She asked questions, and if I struggled to answer, she would offer instruction.
I remember our conversations vividly although our relationship was cut short — first by Uncle Oscar’s death and then an illness that would bind her to a nursing home for a decade before she also passed away. We would sit on Grandmother’s back-porch swing, where she would receive my book reports in privacy, and answer all of the questions no one else would. She didn’t mind them and insisted that no matter how many times or who told me to stop, I should always ask my questions.
“This ‘children should be seen and not heard’ business is for the birds!” she said. “Do you know why I bring these books for you?”
“Because I like books?”
“Well, of course. But there’s another reason that you must always remember. The more you read, the more you will know. If you don’t know something, there’s a book that will tell you about it. You keep that library card current. You deserve to know everything, little girl.”
Through my earliest years, she poked a prodded around in my shy young mind. Questioning, guiding, and suggesting. Planting little seeds of possibility I would forget, only to remember many years later at the most opportune of times.
When I was around 8, she described something she called “the Southern discomfort.” She said people who read and question start to realize things — things about their families, friends, schools, jobs, communities, and the world at large.
“There will be times you’ll get this tight feeling in your stomach and your chest because you see or hear or sense something that just doesn’t sit well with your soul. Do you understand what I mean?”
I didn’t know Aunt Clara to be a churchgoing woman, so with all her talk of my soul, I was a little confused.
“Are there any children at school that are mean to other children, maybe those who look different?”
“Yes, ma’am! Michelle. She’s the meanest person I know!”
“When you see her acting this way, how does it make you feel?”
“Mad and sometimes sick.”
“That’s what I’m talking about, girly.”
She said this would happen to me more frequently as I grew older, was educated, and left my rural home. She said many people within our extended family did not value education. That many people where we were from had more concern about the soybean crops than whether their children were earning As. That many people had terrible ideas about our neighbors who were not white, those who weren’t “from here,” and even what church someone attended or didn’t. She disclosed that this thing I could hardly grasp wasn’t just a shortcoming within our little community. She said I would someday read about things that happened in Selma, Tuscaloosa, and Montgomery. She said I was too young to know the details of these things but that I should trust her when she said they were dark and ugly and terrible. She told me I would know these things one day, and they would be very difficult to understand, and I would struggle with the weight of it.
“You’ll go about your life, you’ll be a good person, but you’ll often feel that you’re stained by this place. Just like your sneakers. The red dirt … you really can’t wash it away.”
Her soothsaying all came to fruition. Seventh grade was the year we read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I sat in a school that was founded in 1969 as a “freedom of choice” institution — a segregation academy established for the express purpose of circumventing Brown v. Board of Education. While many such institutions evolved with the passing of time, as one holds out hope that all people and institutions will do, many remained unchanged. By 1982, the leadership of my school had done little to nothing to rise above its beginnings. So there I sat, in a classroom with 28 other children who all looked exactly like me, while we read about racial injustice in a little town called Macomb.
Aunt Clara, long gone, put her invisible hand on my shoulder. I laid my head on my desk and cried as quietly as I could.