10 – A sense of community: From what I can remember

A road similar to our gravel road

Looking back on my life as I grew up during the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s, I now realize that my world was exceedingly small. I want to take a closer look at the small country community to which I belonged. I’ve mentioned living on my grandpa and Sweet’s farm. I also mentioned that the farm was located down a gravel road off Highway 64. I want to talk a little about the community that lived down this rough and dusty route to nowhere.

Although we were somewhat isolated, there was a sense of community. There were six Black families who lived in the area. Among them were Sweet’s brother Jessie and sister-in-law Hattie. Jessie and Hattie lived on land that was part of the land farmed by grandpa and Sweet. It had been parceled into three separate areas. All the land had been inherited from Sweet’s parents. Sweet was the oldest of the siblings. I remember the Britts, and two other families that made up this small community of folks who did the normal things small communities do: borrow a cup of sugar when necessary, share vegetables grown in their gardens, visit without announcing you were coming…

At some point after my father died, my mother either bought or was given a house that sat at the corner of Highway 64 and the gravel road. I remember her having someone move the house down the gravel road to a spot in front of grandpa and Sweet’s house. She also had electricity connected to the house. This was made easier sense the house was on land just next to the gravel road. The gravel road had electrical service lines that ran its length. At some point, we got a television and a radio. I remember this house had a living room, a kitchen, and an upstairs room which was accessed by a small set of stairs that led up from the kitchen. Grandpa used his carpentry skills to add two bedrooms to one side of the house. This proved to be convenient for all of us. Larry, William, and I shared a room and our sister, Terri, born later shared a room with my mother.

We were still poor; however, I remember folks down this gravel road helped each other. Uncle Jessie had a pickup truck, and several of us would fill the back on Saturday evenings when he would make his weekly trip into town (Wynne). As a kid I remember these trips to town as being exciting. I would be given a few coins to spend on candy. We would hangout around the Western Auto Store, which was a kind of general-purpose hardware store and Steinberg’s, the Jewish-owned dry goods and grocery store.

Life was simple, as I remember it back then, but I do remember some complications that went with being Black. When we went to town, we had to observe the white and Black signs that separated certain services. And even where there were no signs, we had to be aware of certain protocols. For example, I remember Black folks going to the back of a certain restaurant in town to order food. I don’t remember the name of the place. I now wonder why we even ordered food from there, especially since a short walk across the railroad tracks to what was then called colored town would have given us access to Ms. Evalena’s. Ms. Evalena’s was a greasy spoon that made the best juicy hamburgers you could ever want. And you could walk straight through the front door. For some reason, I can still remember the taste of her hamburgers some sixty years later. Hot, spicy, juicy…yummy!

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

Music can cast a spell of its own

I had to run out to do an errand this afternoon, after attending online church services. When I got in the car, my radio was set to smooth jazz on satellite radio, as it normally is. I proceeded to my destination, unconsciously being soothed by the likes of Dave Koz, Acoustic Alchemy, Rick Braun, and other contemporary jazz artists. The ride to my destination was relaxing, as I seemingly, without friction, moved down the expressway without the least bit of stress.

After I had picked up the items, I went out to purchase and I was back on the expressway in my cruise mode, Dave Koz interrupted the groove with a talk about the value of music. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say he interrupted since it was his show.  He has this show that comes on SiriusXM Satellite radio each Sunday called The Dave Koz Lounge. Anyway, he made some reference to the times in which we’re living. Of course, he mentioned the coronavirus and the resultant stresses it has caused so many of us to suffer. When he started to talk about how music has a universal appeal and how it can bring relief from many of the things that trouble us, I consciously tuned into what he was saying.

I’ve been a lover of smooth jazz all my adult life. Jazz is a form of music that never grows old. Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ on Sunset, which was released in 1965 sounds just as contemporary as Norman Brown’s Up “N” at ‘Em released in 2004. This music genre seems to manipulate the atmospheric pressure around me as it changes, almost unobtrusively, my internal universe.

Music is a powerful force. Whether you’re moved by gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, country and western, whatever trips your trigger. Although I’m predominately a smooth jazz listener, I’ve been known to find myself getting into some of that Nashville stuff, that I call country blues. After all, when a person sings about losing their girl, but they’re okay because they still have the dog and the pickup truck, ain’t that blues?

As I write this, I’m listening to Norman Brown’s Radio station on Pandora. Both my mind and my fingers are engaged. My fingers are literally dancing across the keyboard. Aw, the effects of music. Can you think of a better time when we should all be doing something to take or minds (if for a minute) off what’s going on around us? So, put on your earphones, pop in those ear buds and turn up the volume. Let the right side of your brain explore and create an environment that has the potential for soothing whatever ails you.

I’m old and blessed…I hope you will be too.

9 – Closer to grandpa and Sweet: From what I can remember

Not Sweet, but this is how she did it

As I write more about events in my early life, I find myself remembering more detail, not always enough to tell a complete story, but more. After my father died, things took on a new flavor. There started to be a stronger bond between my mother and me that defined a lot of how my life unfolded until she passed from Alzheimer’s in 2018. I think this had to do with that oldest-child thing. I also recall a closer relationship developing with grandpa and Sweet during that time, more grandpa. I think I should honor them by giving their real names grandpa (Andrew Jeffrey) and Sweet (Emma Wilform-Jeffrey). I included Sweet’s maiden name (Wilform), because I might share a story or two about her side of the family as I go along. Remember, I’m writing this stuff as I remember it. I’ve intentionally decided to not outline anything before sitting down to the keyboard, or query anyone, who might have a better recollection than I.

I can’t help but romanticize a lot of my life before I turned twelve. After all, I was a poor little Black boy, living in the country, surrounded by little in terms of creature comforts, but despite the absence of material wealth, I remember being happy. Without any order, I remember:

  • Roaming through the woods with grandpa, picking wild blackberries
  • Eating watermelons on cool late summer mornings in grandpa’s watermelon patch
  • Helping grandpa feed and water the mules after a hard day’s work in the fields
  • Watching Sweet churn milk and making butter
  • Following grandpa into the woods whenever he went hunting with his 22-caliber rifle
  • Just being a country kid roaming freely without a care from sun-up to sun-down

There’s a song by the Canton Spirituals titled Mississippi Poor Boy that summarily characterizes my life during this time. The following is the introduction to that song:

I come from a poor family.

We didn’t have much

But the Lord’s been good to me

Verse

We were raised in a shack, ya’ll

Sometimes the clothes were thin

That we put on our backs

I look back now at grandpa and Sweet, and I’m amazed at how they had a talent for survival that many would hold in awe today. Neither had much need for store-bought food, except for flour and sugar. Grandpa would trap wild animals for meat, collect a variety of berries and vegetation from their natural settings, slaughter domestically grown animals in the fall, and salt the meat for storage in the smokehouse. And, of course, don’t forget this man grew a variety of foods on his little farm.  I can recall many times seeing nothing in Sweet’s kitchen in the morning, and mysteriously witnessing a bounty on the table for supper. She would, almost lovingly meander into the back yard and attract chickens to gather around her with corn. Once enjoying the non-GMO kernels, she would quickly snatch one up, wring the unwillingly sacrifice’s neck and cart it off to be dressed for supper. She’d also go out back to the shed where she kept an inventory of canned vegetables, select several jars to be cooked as side orders with the chicken. She had this skill for baking things from scratch that would put Julia Child to shame. As she labored, without complaint, over her hot, wood-burning stove, Sweet would sing old-negro spirituals, giving praises to God as naturally as she breathed His air.

Grandpa and Sweet. They just don’t make folks like that anymore.

8 – 1957 through 1959: From what I can remember

Type of lantern we used for lighting our house

The latter part of 1957 through the end of school year of 1959 were eventful times to say the least. As I indicated earlier, I missed most of the second grade due to illness. Years later, I questioned why the school didn’t provide me some kind of option for home study. I never got a satisfactory response to that question, so I dropped the issue. I know this may seem out of order, but I wanted to mention a practice that was peculiar to school systems in Arkansas during this time. Schools would break for a short period during the fall for crop harvest. During this time, children would be in the fields helping their families with harvesting the crops or working in some white farmers cotton fields for $3.00/100 pounds of cotton picked. I suppose the value of education was placed on hold for the local economy.

I don’t remember when, but at some point, during this time we moved to grandpa and Sweet’s little farm. I do remember my father moving a house that had been used as a grain storage facility to about three hundred feet or so behind grandpa’s house. Unlike when we lived across the way from Grandpa Ulysses and Grandma Katherine, this new place had no electricity. We used kerosine lamps for lighting.  The place had a front screened porch, a large room considered to be a living room and a separate room for a kitchen. We had beds in the living room area, along with seating for spending time other than sleeping. It was during this time that I began to form a stronger connection with grandpa and Sweet. They had electricity and a radio. I remember spending lots of time at their place listening to the Lone Ranger, Amos and Andy and other popular radio shows. Grandpa loved listing to baseball games.

Images of running through grandpa’s fields and trapsing along behind him as he plowed with his mules are still fresh in my mind. As I said previously, I have no such images of spending time with my dad. My youngest brother William was born in November of 1958, giving my parents three sons, Larry, William, and me.

I suppose the fall of 1958 was going well for me in school. I think I finally got over repeating the second grade. It did seem, however, that the group with which I started elementary school was far off someplace doing things that third graders do.

The spring of 1959 was certainly eventful. There is one thing I do have an emotional response to even to this day. I remember playing in the yard one day. It must have been after school. Here’s where my memory gets cloudy. For some reason, I remember my mother being at grandpa’s house, out in their yard doing something. A pickup truck pulled up and shortly thereafter my mother gave out a loud cry. A few minutes later grandpa, Sweet and my mother sat me and Larry down to tell us that my father had been killed. He had been plowing in a rice field. When he proceeded to drive over a levy, the front wheels of the tractor flipped. The tractor landed on him, trapping him under its full weight.  I was eight years old; Larry was three and William was still a baby. Although Grandpa Ulysses and Grandma Katherine had died before their youngest son, this was my first real emotional experience with death. At this age, I knew that death meant I would never see the person making the transition again in my lifetime. The Spring of 1959 was like the start of a new chapter in all our lives. My mother at twenty-six, was left with an eight-grade education and three sons to raise.

Type of tractor my father was accidentally killed driving

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

7- A couple of foggy years: From what I can remember

To this point, I’ve tried to recall as much as I can about my life from the time of my birth to six years old. In this piece, I’m going to attempt to share some memories about the period of six years old through seven. As I’ve gone through this exercise, I’ve used not only my mental capacity to remember, but also smells, and even emotions. You might wonder why depend on things other than mental imagery. Speaking for myself, and you might experience the same, whenever I think of times gone by, my memory is often triggered by feelings. For example, the year I turned sixteen, held a certain amount of excitement that went hand in hand with things like learning how to drive and getting my driver’s license. The year I turned sixteen was more than just a matter of chronology, it was a year of several milestones, defining moments, that transitioned me to memorable points in my life.

I started elementary school at Childress Elementary in Wynne, Arkansas in the Fall of 1956. Wynne was, at that time, a small town of about 4,000. Situated between two geological features, the Arkansas Delta and Crowley’s Ridge. In 1956, the town had only one traffic signal at the junction of Highway One and I believe what’s now Hamilton Avenue. (Anyone who reads this and remembers differently, I will not be offended by a correction.) In the 1950’s, Wynne was distinctly segregated. I believe there were four wards or sections that divided the town. Two railroad tracks, one running East and West and the other North and South, formed the outlines of the wards. The ward consisting of the Northwest quadrant of town was all Black. Black folks referred to it as across the tracks. At six years old, I had little consciousness of the segregated environment in which I lived. There were colored and white degrees of separation everywhere: public water fountains, medical clinics, interstate passenger buses. Black folks customarily went to the back doors of white folks houses if they had business to conduct. There were social lines of demarcation that created a Black and white world, and the two hues never overlapped.

Downtown Wynne Circa 1950s

To reiterate what I mentioned earlier about my memory being assisted by senses of emotion, I distinctly remember being nervous on my first day of school. I don’t remember how my mom and I got there, but I do remember feeling like I had been dropped off somewhere that definitely wasn’t home, with a bunch of kids and adults I didn’t know or trust. Of course, that predicament corrected itself over time. Many of those kids are still around as adults, some still reside in Wynne and others are living their lives on some portion of God’s green earth miles away from that tiny hamlet called the city with a smile.

Looking back on my experiences in the first grade, I remember reading about Dick and Jane and other prime-reader characters, who didn’t look like me, and had no relevance to the life experience of a poor Black kid living in Cross County, 1950’s Arkansas. I do, for some reason, remember the little white characters we read about seemingly jumping off the pages, coming alive and bringing joy to the little Black boy living in a piece of world carved out for him by nonsensical laws.

I slightly remember the excitement I and the other kids in my class had about being promoted to the second grade. I also remember how my advancement through the second grade was hamper at some point midway through the year. I was sick with one illness after the other, which caused me to miss a large portion of the second grade. It came as quite a shock to me when school officials told my mom that I had to remain in the second grade for another year. Seeing others with whom I started my elementary-school journey leaving me behind was emotionally troubling to say the least. For some reason, it still tweaks my emotions sixty-four years later. Isn’t it funny how long-term memories can influence you as if they just happened? They still produce sounds, smells, and images.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

Real Freedom

I’ve heard many times the difference explained between joy and happiness. You probably have too. Happiness is based on circumstances surrounding us. Because circumstances are subject to change with the drop of a hat, our happiness is tentative. On the other hand, joy is fed from a state of mind deep within, anchored in faith in God, who remains constant. When you remain faithful to God, it doesn’t matter the never-ending shifts in circumstances, you’ll remain joyful. You place stock in the promises of God. You see them as something in which you can always rely.

I often hear people of faith, at least people who profess faith, tout their faith in God with vocal vigor. Yet, I see some of these same folks wallowing in melancholy at depths of depression experienced by individuals who have little to no knowledge of God. Do these folks enjoy the freedom they boldly profess, or are they simply extolling some party line to portray the image they’re expected to?

We all have an internal voice that taps us on the shoulder to gain our attention, to provide commentary on situations we encounter. Some of us have healthy voices, fed by good information, provided by family, teachers, the church and others concerned for our development of sound principles by which to live. Unfortunately, some of us have unhealthy voices, fed by images of victimization, helplessness, insecurity and so on, which tells us that it makes no difference what we do, the world is against us. The former instills a sense of freedom; a sense that challenges the world places before us are opportunities for growth and victory.

For those of us who have been exposed to the Christian tradition by way of family or evangelism at some point in our life, we have access to tenants of faith that gives us reason to face all challenges with hope for better. We live our best for the moment and have hope that things will always get better. But even if they don’t, we are thankful that we are yet here to live through every challenge that lies before us. This is the essence of freedom and joy, or is it joy and freedom. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg proposition. You can’t have one without the other, but you’re glad to have access to both. I’m a Christian, and I’m not that familiar with other faiths, but I suspect there’s some element of that in all.

Most of us who have deity-centered faith, are confident that our minds, our bodies, our spirits are free to exist and thrive in any set of circumstances the physical world presents us. We believe with strong conviction that we aren’t alone, and that support from our Creator is always there even when we can’t see it. After all, how could we still be here if God wasn’t providing every element for our existence. Isn’t God, the Creator providing the energy, the mechanism for all components of the universe to continually function in balance with each other?

Doesn’t real freedom come from believing that no matter what happens, the Creator of all that we see and can’t see is in control, but not controlling? In other words, God’s providence is ultimate, yet God grants us free will.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

Six- a few things not so clear: From what I can remember

This exercise is proving to be good for me in many ways. One is that it’s forcing me to think about my past. I don’t think I’ve given enough thought to how important my past is. (That might be true for you, too.) I realize that a healthy mental attitude is to live in the present. After all, the present is all we can see, smell, touch, hear. It’s strongly connected to our senses. It’s all around us, giving us every opportunity to capture and create, using our limited capabilities. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m certainly not talking about living in the past; however, a survey of it just might explain a lot about ourselves, how we evolved into who we are, the lenses through which we view the world, our strengths, and our short comings.

I mentioned previously that my life before the age of six has been difficult for me to remember in any form akin to HD. Mental images flicker in shades of gray, or my olfactory senses power up to smell  cinnamon whenever I think about my fraternal grandmother. There are other things I earnestly wish I could remember more clearly, not having to depend on others to fill in the gaps of my story. There’s only one person left to assist me anyway, Aunt Mary, my mother’s sister. Aunt Mary is one of a pair. She had a twin siter, Aunt Lou Della, who died from cancer in the late 1980s.

One thing that’s troubled me all my adult life is the lack of memory I have about my father. He died when I was eight years old. I’ll tell more about that later. I’ve never heard anyone say a bad thing about Hosea Long. I carry the same name, except I have a middle name, which spares me the burden of being referred to as junior. Dad, or daddy is what my children call me. I take it as a term of endearment; an intimate reference to the one who’s been with them through every twist and turn of their development. I can’t say that, dad or daddy, about my father. (I’m not sure sometimes what to call him?) Father seems most appropriate, since an intimate connection isn’t at the ready for me to call on in my memory. I don’t think he was a dead-beat dad from what aunts, uncles and others in the family older than I have to say about him. I can only surmise that he probably left the bulk of the parenting responsibility to my mother, and that it all worked out well in the end.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to generate memories of my pre-six-year-old experiences with my uncles, and aunts. They’ve told me stories about how hefty I was as a baby; how I refused to walk until I was almost two years old. I think that was a strategic decision on my part. Why walk when others are more than willing to tote you wherever you need to go? I’ve seen the one picture of me as a baby. I was indeed a large one. I think everyone dotted on me, since I was the first grandchild of grandpa and Sweet. I draw that conclusion from the stories everyone used to tell me later. These were heartwarming stories, not over-romanticized, but interestingly absent of the struggles I later come to understand my family went through during that time.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

From what I can remember: 5- some thoughts about grandpa’s farm

When I decided to write this series, I realized that chronological order wouldn’t be the most important consideration, although I’ve maintained it fairly well to this point. When I begin to talk about grandpa and Sweet, my mind is flooded with countless images, colors, smells, sights, sounds. My senses are titillated, and a variety of adventures are splattered on the walls of my memory like a collage of magazine clippings from early 1950s rural Arkansas. The colors have no sense of chronology. For some reason, memories of my fraternal grandparents (Ulysses and Katherine) become less crystal at this point in my life. I do know that they died in the early 1950s. I’m not sure which order they transitioned. That’s certainly something I could research, but keep in mind, I’m writing this series based on my ability to siphon memories from my challenged memory engrams. My life experiences with my family, as I remember them is the important exercise here. Others, outside of my family, who might have tangentially influenced the journey will be mentioned only when necessary.

I do remember spending time with grandpa and Sweet. I remember sleeping on a bed they had in the living room. My mother would let me stay with them sometimes. With only three rooms in the house, they had to make good use of all the space that was available. It’s funny how some folks are making such a big deal out of the tiny house movement these days. It seems more a matter of lifestyle choice now rather than necessity. At this point, it was just the two of them living in the house. All their children are now grown and struggling to make a living on their own.

This would be a good time to tell you more about the little farming operation my grandpa managed. Lest you conjure up some notion that he must have been doing well, since he had a farm, I’ll say this from the start: This wasn’t an income producing venture that allowed grandpa and Sweet to have healthy bank accounts. Grandpa was farming eighty acres with two mules, while all around him farming had, and was, becoming more technology based. A white fellow, by the name of C.T. Gibbs, ran a huge farming operation that just about surrounded grandpa’s. Three of grandpa’s sons worked for Gibbs. Understandably so, the little eighty acres and two mules were barely enough for sustaining the lives of grandpa and Sweet.

Each year, when planting season arrived, grandpa would use all the meager profits realized during the previous year’s harvest season to by seeds. He also made it a habit of saving seeds from the previous year to plant truck patches (larger than back-yard gardens, but not large as a field of corn). These truck patches usually contained peas, sweet potatoes, beans, greens, and other staples.

Grandpa also had hogs, a couple of cows, ducks, and chickens. The fowl roamed freely around their little compound. These animals, along with canning fruits and vegetables, and storing smoked meats in the smoke house were the elements that provided a self-sustaining environment. In later years, I began to realize that their lifestyle had been influenced by a long history marked by the need for self-sustainability. These were people who had gone through the great depression, as well as the rationing of food stuffs that occurred during World War II. Grandpa couldn’t read or write. He made an X for his signature. Later, when I learned how to read and write, I would joke to myself that grandpa must have marked a unique X. How else would he recognize it as his later?

I do remember enjoying being on this little piece of land, which had been handed down from Sweet’s family. Life for these beloved grandparents was hard work, but I never heard complaints. Of course, I was too busy playing, enjoying one adventure after another. I had no idea that we were poor.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

From what I can remember: 4-just before six-year-old

To this point, I haven’t mentioned too much about my mother’s parents. I’ve already stated that they were much younger than my father’s. My maternal grandfather was born in 1902. I’m not sure when my maternal grandmother was born. If memory serves me well, she wasn’t that much younger than grandpa. I use the term grandpa here for a lot of reasons. One is that this man, Andrew Jeffrey, was a beacon of strength and wisdom in my life. I’ll talk more about that later. My maternal grandmother, Emma, was called Sweet by everyone. I never understood why though. I assume that was a term of endearment given to her by grandpa. She was a strong, tough disciplinarian, which made it difficult for any of us grandchildren to reconcile what sounded like a term of endearment, Sweet, with her iron will. Through all her tough exterior, the love for her family was evident in all that she did.

To get to grandpa and Sweet’s place, you had to go up to Highway 64, turn left in the direction of town, Wynne, drive a few miles before turning left and continuing down a rough gravel road a mile or so. At this point, you would arrive at the eighty-acre farm, on the left, they owned. There was also another route where you would go in the opposite direction taken to drive to Highway 64 from our house. This route was shorter; however, the gravel road soon turned into dirt after leaving our house. The entire route was very undeveloped, even in comparison to a county gravel road. This was the route you would take if you wanted to go by foot.

As I try to recall details about grandpa and Sweet before I turned six, I’m only able to paint foggy pictures. What does come to mind are pictures of grandpa working his eighty acres with two mules and farming equipment being pulled by them. They lived in a three-room house (living room, bedroom, and kitchen). You might say the house was a part of a compound. It sat amongst a barn, a smoke house, a chicken coop, a hog pin behind the barn and an outhouse far behind it all. The eighty acres, the roughly constructed building, all were an example of self-sufficiency in early 1950s Arkansas. It all seemed so large back then. I remember when I left home to go to college, the place didn’t seem so large. Grandpa had no formal education, but he had a basic understanding of math and carpentry, which sufficiently equipped him to build his house and surrounding buildings.

My mother’s family was small in comparison to the thirteen children my father’s parents had. There were six kids. That seemed small back then to what country folks normally had. I used to hear it said that country people had large families because they needed ample hands to work the land. I’m not sure how true that was.

As I look back now, I do realize that most of my time, during the first six years of my life, was spent in a cocoon of comfort provided by my family. These weren’t the best of times for Black folks, but as a child the poverty and all the unequal treatment reserved for us was not a part of my life, yet.

For some reason, I do remember Weeping Willow trees. There was a big one in grandpa and Sweet’s front yard. This was the place to be during those hot days of summer, when the heat and humidity were brutal. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the moisture from the trees gracing my skin.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.