Remembering Della - Chapter One

I remembered Della.

Mama insisted it was impossible.

“Why, Ruth,” she said. “You were only a child, out running around, making mud pies, and getting into mischief. Don’t see how you can remember much of anything that happened way back in 1957, let alone some colored girl who worked for us—how long—a few months?”

I did remember Della Gaddy, however, quite clearly in fact, and with no effort at all, without even closing my eyes, I could see her face as plainly as if I’d recently bumped into her on the sidewalk in downtown Fairburn, Georgia, and we’d stood there, perhaps outside Amos Pharmacy, chatting in the noonday sun over the clatter of the Southern Crescent as it streaked past the depot, heading north toward Atlanta or else south toward Newnan and points beyond.

“You just think you remember that girl,” Mama said. “But then, you always did have an overactive imagination.” She glanced up from the afghan she was knitting for my sister Lena’s youngest boy Jacob and his wife, who were expecting their first baby in late October. “Still do for that matter.”

I looked at the skeins of yarn, all of them snow white, and I wondered why she didn’t use a pretty pastel. What about pink or blue or perhaps a combination of the two? What about yellow? Yet I didn’t question my mama’s choice in yarn. Evelyn Marie Caldwell didn’t like anyone questioning her decisions about anything, especially her own children. “Mama,” I said. “I’m not imagining it. I remember Della.”

“Suit yourself,” she said and shifted her gaze back to her knitting, the needles flashing expertly in her hands.

I stared at the neat part in the waves of her silver hair and thought how age had not changed my mama: she was still bound and determined to have things her way. And it didn’t matter that I was now sixty and a grandmother; Mama still treated me like a little girl. “Well, I’m not imagining anything,” I said, determined to be taken seriously but realizing my retort made me, indeed, sound like a petulant child.

Mama looked back at me and frowned, the thick lenses of her tortoise shell glasses magnifying her blue eyes. “Have it your way, Missy. You always were hard-headed, and I’m not about to sit here and waste my Saturday arguing with you.” And the entire time she was talking, her eyes locked on mine, she continued knitting and never missed a stitch.

I sighed and leaned back in the over-stuffed, paisley-print armchair she reserved for company as she set her rocking chair in motion with a shove of her foot. Of course, I thought, I should’ve known she would never admit I was right about Della. Hearing myself sigh again, I looked out the window at the immaculate grounds of Shady Oaks Retirement Village, where my mama was now a resident.

In the distance, beyond the manicured lawn and colorful flowerbeds, a ragged line of Georgia pines stood dark and still in the August heat, and somewhere to the west, thunder rumbled like the muted growl of cannons.

Closing my eyes, I recalled my Daddy once saying that thunder was the ghostly echoes of Sherman’s forces marching southward from Atlanta to the sea. I also recalled how it had been a day exactly like this—an early August day, thick with heat, and with dark clouds climbing the horizon beyond the farm—when Della Gaddy had come into my family’s life. I knew it for a fact, was as certain of it as I was of the sound of my own breathing and the measured beating of my heart. I also knew, however, that if I related this to Mama, she’d scoff, look at me in that way of hers, and once again tell me I was “imagining things.” Oh, well, I thought, yet another sigh escaping my lips, that’s just Mama’s way.

“You all right?” she asked.

I opened my eyes.

“With all that sighing you’re doing,” she said, “I thought maybe you were feeling poorly.”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Just a little tired.” I glanced back out the window, thinking how much more pleasant—as well as bearable—our visits would be if the two of us could ever talk about anything that actually mattered.

“What on earth ever made you think about that girl, anyway?” Mama asked.

And I had thought the subject closed.

“You say you remember Della,” she said, “and I was just wondering how come you were thinking about some colored girl who worked for us fifty years ago. Must’ve been something made you think about her.”

Shrugging, I said, “You know how it is. Sometimes memories just take you by surprise. You’re doing something and a sound, a smell, the—” I nodded toward the window. “The play of sunlight across the lawn can bring them rushing back."

Mama nodded. “Happens to me a lot, too. Has something to do with getting old.”

I glanced back out the window, watched sunlight dance across its panes. I wasn’t being exactly truthful. To be honest, I had been thinking about Della a lot recently and doing so intentionally, trying to recall everything I could, every little detail about the time she had spent with us. Why? Well, because I needed to remember. It was that simple. I needed to remember. And, granted, there was a good bit I did recall—though Mama would argue otherwise—but there were also blank spots—like scenes skipped over in a movie—and those blank spots haunted me, demanding to be filled in so I would know the entire story, not simply select scenes that might be have been shaped by my childhood perspective.

Perhaps it had been for less than a year, but Della Gaddy had played an important role in our lives, of that much I was certain. I also knew she had helped shaped the person I had become; and I had a strong suspicion that Della’s stay with us, albeit brief in terms of time, had exerted a long-lasting impact upon the entire Caldwell family. The problem was, however, some of the memories I had were disconcerting, even disturbing, and I had recently found myself wondering just how many of those recollections were true and how many were no merely jumbled and distorted images from the past. That was why I had broached the subject of Della Gaddy with Mama. I needed her input, having concluded that between what we each recalled, maybe I could arrive at a fairly accurate picture of what had actually transpired during the months following that steamy August day in 1957 when Della Gaddy had come strolling up our driveway and into the lives of the William Caldwell family.

And I meant what I had said about being able to recall Della’s face. But hers was not a face one would easily forget. That August afternoon when she showed up on our back porch steps and I first glimpsed her, standing there, head up and shoulders back in what I later learned was both pride and defiance, I thought Della Gaddy had to be the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. When I later mentioned this to Mama, however, she said, “But she’s colored,” tone of voice implying that since Della Gaddy was not white, her beauty was somehow invalidated; but we lived in the Deep South, during an era when many whites believed they were superior to other races, especially blacks, and I now know that Mama’s reaction was merely an echo of the times.

Even though it was 1957, and the winds of what would later become the Civil Rights Movement were beginning to stir up dust on the horizon, in Fairburn, Georgia, events like the 1954 Supreme Court’s decision to make segregated schools unconstitutional and Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery in 1955 had done little to erode a prejudice that was deeply ingrained and had been for centuries. If anything, those recent events had made certain white people, my mama included, even more prejudiced, because they suddenly saw blacks as “troublemakers,” with their demonstrations, marches, and demands for equality. Why, the whites wondered, couldn’t colored folks be content with the way things were and the way they had been in this country for generations? Why did they want to start trouble? Why did they want to destroy an entire way of life?

As for my attitude, well, it was 1957, so I’m not going to lie and say I was much different from all the other white people in Fairburn, Georgia. I was, after all, a white girl growing up in a place where black people sat in the balcony at the local theater, were forbidden to drink from the same water fountains, and had to use not only a separate waiting room but also a separate entrance in the back of the building whenever they needed the services of the town’s only doctor. Plus, black children attended a comprehensive school, which accommodated all grade levels and was situated on the outskirts of town far away from M.P. Word Elementary or Campbell High School, the two “white” schools. Even the churches were segregated. There were “white” and “black” churches for every religious preference—Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Seven Day Adventist, Church of God, even Jehovah’s Witness—and in rural areas, like Old Campbell County, located ten miles from town near the Chattahoochee River, it was commonplace to see a whites-only Baptist church, like Campbellton, and just down the road, within “hollering distance,” a blacks-only Baptist church, like Beulah, both congregations praising the same God, singing the same songs from the same hymnals, saying the same prayers, and using the same river for baptizing sinners, but never doing any of those things together.

Black people also lived in their own section of Fairburn. It was called “Lightning.” I don’t know why it was called that. It just was and had always been. And Lightning was an area of town where white people seldom ventured, although occasionally farmers or businessmen, like Charles Wingo, who owned the local lumber mill, might go there looking to hire help at half the wages they’d pay a white man.

So, as a child growing up in this atmosphere, I guess I came to accept the presence of blacks without accepting them as people, if that makes any sense; and even though Daddy always hired black workers on the farm, I really didn’t know anything about those workers nor did I care to learn. They were, after all, simply dark-skinned somehow alien beings I glimpsed plowing the fields, baling hay, or doing other jobs around the farm, and of no more significance to me than the cattle milling about in the pasture.

But I knew that all somehow changed when Della Gaddy came into my life because she had changed things forever.

“I still don’t see how you can remember much of anything at all about Della Gaddy,” Mama now said. “But since you’re so bound and determined to talk about her, go ahead and talk.”

I was momentarily at a loss for words, given this compliance was not in keeping with my mama’s character, not in the least.

“I declare,” she said, shaking her head. “You come marching in here and almost the first words out of your mouth are about this colored girl. You bring up the subject, and when I try to have a conversation about a subject you brought up in the first place, you sit there all tongued tied.”

Now, Mama, “ I said. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”

“Surprised? By what?”

“By you agreeing to talk about Della.”

“And just why is that so surprising?” she asked. “Since you seem to have your mind all set on discussing that girl, then I reckon I don’t have any say in the matter, now do I?” She glanced down at the flashing knitting needles. “I guess talking about a subject I see no point in talking about beats me sitting here watching you pout.” The needles clicked, punctuating each word, “Yes, ma’am, you come see me for the first time in three weeks and all you do is sit there and pout.”

“You know it hasn’t been any three weeks,” I said.

“I know no such thing,” she assured me.

In retrospect, I then had to admit she was right. “Well,” I said, “maybe it has been three weeks, but I did call you last weekend. Remember? Told you I was keeping the children for Clarice while she went to that conference in Orlando.”

Pursing her lips, Mama said, “Seems to me, you could’ve brought my great-grandbabies to see me.”

“But when I called, I told you they wanted to go swimming then go see the new Disney movie that was playing at the Mall Cinema,” I said, although I could tell from her deepening pout that Mama figured I had probably coerced the girls into doing those things instead of coming to see their great-grandmother.

“All right, maybe you did call, ” she said as she leaned back in the rocker. “And speaking of Clarice and my great-grandbabies, when are they coming to see me?"

“Clarice said she’d try to come in a week or so. She’s teaching a summer course at the college and doesn’t have a lot of free time, what with work, the children, and all.”

Mama nodded, appeased for the moment at least. “Well, tell her I’ll be expecting her.”

I assured her I’d do exactly that; then I tried to redirect our conversation to the original topic, none too subtly I’ll admit, by blurting, “Now can we talk about Della?”

Frowning, she said, “What I want to know is why you’ve got this sudden interest in that girl?”

“Remember two weeks ago when Sissy, Lena, and I cleaned out the attic?” I asked.

The attic to which I was referring was the one in the house on Henderson Mill Road, where I’d grown up and where, after Daddy had died, Mama had remained until two years ago when she’d decided the place was simply too much for her to take care of at her age and the money she could get for the farm would purchase a lifetime apartment at Shady Oaks, where she would be taken care of in her “declining years” and not be “a burden” to her daughters. Not that the farm had sold as quickly as she had hoped, and Mama had been withdrawing money from her savings account to make monthly payments on the apartment. But a little over a month ago, the real estate agency handling the farm had finally found a buyer who wanted the entire 860 acres; and the sale had provided incentive for my sisters and me to clean out the attic, given it contained, among assorted accumulated junk, quite a few family “treasures” in the way of old photos, records, and memories.

“Yes,” Mama said, nodding. “I remember.” She squinted at me. “I’m not senile, you know.”

“Well, when we were cleaning out the attic, I started thinking about the past, and that’s what brought Della to mind,” I said. “But even though I remember certain things, sometimes I wonder if what I’m remembering is right.” I shrugged. Sometimes I have these flashes and—”

“You mean hot flashes?” Mama asked. “Thought you were way past that.”

“I am,” I said. “I’m talking about flashes of memory. Remember what I said about how memories can just suddenly pop into a person’s head?” I leaned forward, touched Mama’s hand. “I’ve been having those kind of flashes, and that’s why I need to know about what happened during the time Della worked for us. Please, Mama, let’s talk about Della.”

For the first time since I had arrived, Mama laid the knitting needles in her lap and her hands were still. “All right,” she said and sighed. “If that’s what you want, we’ll talk about Della Gaddy.” She glanced out the window, where dark clouds were now building in the west. “Trouble is,” she added, “I don’t know rightly where to begin.”

“At the beginning, Mama,” I said. “Just start at the beginning.”

Remembering Della - Chapter One


Lafayette, United States

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