By Elizabeth Mellen
When I was nine years old, we landed on a red-dirt road in Warm Springs, Georgia. The road sloped down from the highway, that is, a two-lane narrow paved road which curved itself through the grouping of village store fronts and their boardwalks, proceeding through with no apology and out to the countryside beyond. It was fall, 1946 and I was very glad to be in this place after so many years of going to China and not going to China and going to China and not going, of living in New York and then Kansas, in New York and then Kansas again. We were together now, in Warm Springs, GA, mother and father, four children, and a car, a miracle after the war years without.
It was a white, one story frame house just across the red-dirt road just as it should have been from the white, frame Warm Springs Methodist Church building. Just beside the house, another road dropped down suddenly, to a railroad track. At the crossing stood a white X-shaped wooden sign with ‘RR Crossing’ in large black letters on it and beside it, a horizontal sign bearing the word “Bullochville.” I liked it then, still do, that the name Bullochville was still present in this place which carried the moniker ‘Warm Springs,’ for our life there really partook of both of this layered town’s identities.
Without question we were there in Georgia on account of the upper and newer Warm Springs layer. That fall, in the first weeks of his freshman year in college, my brother had come down with polio, and this was the place par excellence for treatment. In the late 19th century, the pleasant, tepid springs in Bullochville, attracted visitors. It was easily reachable by train from elsewhere in Georgia, and became something of a fashionable Spa, with a nice hotel. The advent of the automobile meant people could travel anywhere and everywhere, however, and this nice place on the railroad line drifted into obscurity. But in the 1920’s and 30s, with FDR’s own discovery of the waters’ soothing effect on his own disability, his continuing visits and the Roosevelt presence in town, it underwent a change. By the nineteen forties, Bullochville was better known as Warm Springs, its residential polio treatment center funded by the March of Dimes famous nation-wide. We knew that place of care and rehabilitation where my brother was, as the “Polio Foundation” or just ‘the Foundation’–that complex of white, low-slung buildings and green lawns spread atop a pine-covered ridge and reached by a road winding up from the highway. As far as I was concerned, the activity up there was pretty much removed from town life.
To that life we were also connected, and more closely, in my own experience. When my brother got polio, my Methodist minister father for a while ceased his work with the church’s Board of Missions to seek pastoring work in the U.S. He was delighted when the Bishop of Georgia appointed him to the Warm Springs Methodist Church, charging him also with care of a circuit of smaller near-by churches and responsibility for conducting services in the Foundation chapel one Sunday afternoon a month. Thus for a while we northerners/mid-westerners–with a father born and raised in China who had just returned from China–had an opportunity to taste and be part of local life in the segregated white south, living in that white frame parsonage across from the church. There were few opportunities to learn of the colored south, the lives of people from whom we were kept quite separate by custom, enforced arrangements, and constraints invisible to me.
Weekdays my life consisted of a trek up the dirt road to the highway, then on the boardwalk along the storefronts, downhill to a paved road on the left, which led up hill to the one-story brick grade school, with its central entrance and the hallway inside to classrooms on the left and right. I learned at some point that Eleanor Roosevelt had a role in getting that school building constructed, and also a new building for the colored children. I remember little of 4th grade life, aside from its being associated for me with the sing-song ‘toodums’ and threedums”– times tables, like this: “Toodums tu is four, fourdums tu is eight, threedums four is twelve” etc. with that southern rising inflection on the ‘is’ which I found charming. I was also conscious that my younger brother was in a room not far from mine in the that school. As he was 4 years younger than I, I suppose that at 5 he was in the kindergarten class.
At noontime we filed across to a smaller separate building for a federal government-subsidized hot lunch for which we paid 10 cents or so. Two things stand out about that daily lunch hour. First, I found it quite, quite wrong that we left sitting on their haunches in that hallway in the main building a group of really poor white children, some of whom went barefoot the whole winter long, eating their cold lunch out of bags from home. Is that not amazing? On a different scale, entirely, Oh! how I hated this horrid vegetable . . . rutabaga! . . served at least 3 times week. The taste, the smell. . .even the name, its ugly sound.
One day we were lined up to file down the hall and into the assembly hall. I was astonished. Up there on the stage was my mother, who led us in singing songs. An astonishing thing because I had never known my mother other than close up, around the house, cooking, at arms reach, directing our behavior, being mother. It was my mother in another dimension. Today I wonder why on earth she had not told me she would be doing this, had not confided. I note it and feel bad about her not connecting, not knowing she should. I did surmise that she was acting out of a sense of responsibility to bring some music into that stark school curriculum, a sense of calling and the power to bring it off. Was it her own charisma, or some status relating to my father that allowed her to persuade the school powers, offer her services and assume this role? Today I feel bereft because of her lack of connectedness to her child, her failure to see that I would be experiencing a shock and not protecting me from it in advance, not grasping that I needed to be forewarned, needed for her to confide in me, to connect with me about her plan. How very like her.
End Part 1