By Liz Mellen
Georgia, Section 2, April 17. 2015
Weekends we were en famille. That was a relief from the somewhat alien world of schooling in Georgia. Every other week, there was the church service across the street, my father up front conducting the service, preaching and afterwards connecting to people, along with my mother. I loved that. We had returned now to a situation which, while I had no distinct memories, I knew well up to when I was 3 ½. A house, a church just across the way, a father very present, a public figure, as well, in the weekly services and us a family of interest. I had known such a coherent settledness, however dimly remembered, before torn from it when the long period of un-settledness began–of going to China/not going to China and of living in too many places. There was relief for me in the return in this Georgia setting to a condition, a family and home status quo after so many years. I relaxed into it, coming to a realization in later years of the reason for this wounded child’s sense of relief and satisfaction.
I recall my 10-year old judgment of the music we sang in that church sanctuary–southern hymns often in sentimental three quarter waltz time–different fare from words and music in the regular Methodist Hymnal drawn knowledgeably from church music through the ages to which I was accustomed, and understood to be the standard. I was judgmental about it, today thinking I may have picked up some superciliousness about it from my mother and older brother. But no, I really got weary of those tunes and simple words, longing for some complexity, however meaningful this music, sung in community, can be.
On alternate Sundays we were off together in the car to churches in neighboring small communities: Bethesda, Raleigh, Harris, and County Line–in me still, that rhythmic set of names: Bethesda, Raleigh, Harris, and County Line–and the adventure of unpaved red clay roads. On the most exciting, we continually crossed the same un-bridged, meandering stream, the car splashing and jouncing through the water each time the stream appeared. I could see my father enjoyed splashing through and the fun and novelty of it for us younger children. We saw green kudzu, introduced to control erosion now a run-away plant spilling over everything. It is funny that I remember none of the churches. Only one rural homestead of a cordial family whom I think we visited often at all distinct in my memory. Here I encountered at first hand a three-holer family outhouse, the third hole, smaller, for children, and also the Montgomery Ward catalogue hung up by a string, convenient for use as toilet paper. I knew these people were poorer than us. Behind their house was a lovely, large area shaded beneath a great trellis. Hanging there at hand for picking and eating were the bunches of sweet green scuppernong grapes.
We made a special church visit to a Black church, though surely we said colored, or Negro. We could easily connect, I see now. The historic Methodist Episcopal Church split in two, north and south, over the issue of slavery in 1844. In 1938 the Methodist Church South and North were re-united, becoming The Methodist Church, but only through a racist compromise– the southern Methodists in the re-united church being allowed to retain their separate ‘Central Jurisdiction’ for black Methodist parishes in the south. My father, likely at the instigation of my adventurous mother, simply would have contacted a fellow Methodist pastor in the Central Jurisdiction pastoring near by, to say that our family would like to visit their congregation. My memory of the visit is of a small place, the courteous treatment of us and of the music–the complex tunes and harmony of spirituals, which caught me up–better fare than the schlock music beloved by the folks in church across from our house.
NOTE: The separate Central Jurisdiction was finally abolished in 1968.
I do not remember much of family life in our home in the parsonage provided for us to live in across from the church–is this blocked out?–remembering rather some details about the place. Was I happy? A few years ago my older brother told me that when he had visited there at times after he gained post-polio capabilities our parents fought a lot. That would have been my mother finding fault, and my father having his complaints with which I became familiar in later years. I don’t remember and may have blocked out that social dimension of life within.
Physically, I recall it as an unpretentious place, like most southern houses poised above a crawl space, and instead of a furnace in a proper basement, a brown metal kerosene space heater in the living room, its hulky presence breaking up the social space. I remember a record player there, and my parents playing Paul Robeson records, the sound of which I associate with my father in his own resonating deep bass in other settings later singing “Water Boy” and “Old Man River.”
Off to the right was my parents room, beyond that, the room where I and my younger brother slept in a bunk bed. My sister’s bedroom was a small room beyond the living room in the other direction. We walked by her bed to get to the kitchen. We had electricity, but not a refrigerator, our food kept in an icebox instead. That was fun and different, like pioneer days. A man would deliver a big chunk of ice and shove it into the upper section and we had to be sure to empty the melted ice water in the shallow pan below it. Nor could the church supply us with a washing machine. It took me some time to take it in, and then only peripherally, happening mostly as it did, when I was in school so I would see it only on occasion, that our clothes were washed by hand on a scrub board by a Negro woman, outside the house in the back yard. I remember the clothes hanging on the line. Someone else’s pioneering labor.
Weekends gave me some free time. I enjoyed roaming around the area on our side of town. Farther down the red dirt road, there was a big saw mill operation, and mounds of sawdust left from the processing of pine logs into lumber. Oh what a terrible smell came off that pile of hot moldering sawdust. I know that peculiar smell to this day. Once a man who was working there spoke to me, quite pointedly, said I should be very careful, wandering around alone. I was doing nothing wrong, but I felt accused, made to feel uncomfortable about myself. I told my mother and got the impression it had something to do with my being a girl. I recall the feeling of unease. I had no words or concept for a veiled accusation that if something were to happen it would be my fault as a girl child out exploring and my resentment of that accusation. Blamed in advance for something that might happen to me? Something wrong with me? my body?
to be continued