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Sunday, March 21, 2010

Race Relations

Before I moved back to Mississippi from Los Angeles, visits home were exhausting. It was impossible to see everyone I wanted to see during the week or so I was here. Sometimes, I wouldn’t let people know I was home, as it was often just more than I could do to make time for a visit. Away from LA, all I wanted was to stay in the country where it was quiet and beautiful and serene. One of the people I always tried to see, though, was Dorothy Smoot.

Dorothy worked as a housekeeper for us for several years. She and her husband owned Smoot’s Grocery on the bluff. Dorothy was a sweet, good-natured woman who chattered a blue streak while she worked.

She was working for us when my sister came home from physical rehab in Jackson, where she’d been dealing with the grim reality of a spinal-cord injury. Depressed and upset with having to face a life very different from the one she’d always imagined, my sister was a captive audience for Dorothy’s chatter, and sometimes snapped at her.

But Dorothy meant well, and was doing things for all of us that many people wouldn’t have done, so I went out of my way to be nice to her. At first, I’ll admit it might have been simply guilt, but soon Dorothy and I got to really know each other and became friends. She loved me and I loved her.

When I brought my new baby girl home for the first time, she brought her own two daughters – Patrice and Kamill — out to the house. One was in junior college and one in high school. After her husband’s death, Dorothy did what she had to do to give her girls a home and an education, and she did a damned good job.

Still heavy with the weight I’d gained during the pregnancy, I started down the back stairs to meet them. About halfway down I overheard Dorothy talking to her girls.

"I wants you to meet Miss Elodie. She be so nice."

Smiling, I came into the kitchen to give Dorothy a hug and meet the two beautiful little girls of whom she was so proud.

"Oooweee! Miss Elodie, lookit you. You done got fat! Ain't she fat? Lookit them thighs! Don't she look fine!"

I’ve always had a problem with my weight. And a comment like that from anybody else would’ve made me burst into tears, but I knew she’d meant it as a compliment. I had some donkadonk in my badonkadonk. It was funny and sweet, and I laughed and agreed on how fine I surely looked.

Fortunately I'm not quite so "fine" anymore. Not that anybody would rush me off to the anorexia clinic, but at least I don't waddle. Her daughters were beautiful and well spoken and Dorothy had every right to be proud of them. They were both straight-A students and one of them had just gotten a scholarship. The other was about to join the armed services.

Dorothy always baked a German chocolate cake for me when I came home. I guess she wanted to make sure I kept my badonkadonk in good order. Over the years, we exchanged Christmas and Easter cards with pictures of our respective children and news of our families and lives.

In 2006 I came home to visit. I’d been home several times in the last couple of years and had been so busy with hasty family business and other long-forgotten excuses that I hadn’t called Dorothy. And I felt guilty about it. So on this particular visit, I’d just gotten home. It was Friday evening, and Daddy and I were driving around town.

I loved those drives with Daddy, listening to his stories. I’d bring a little voice-activated tape recorder and surreptitiously turn it on, and set it down on the seat between us, hidden under a magazine or a scarf.

“You see that house up there on the hill,” he’d say.  “Your great-great grandfather built that. It was a boarding house.”

Riding along, he’d point to another house: “The woman who lived there had a child that no one knew about.”

I’d heard the stories before, but I loved them even in the retelling.

“An old colored man told me that,” he’d say. "I used to work on the river with them years ago,” he’d continue. “They told me things they wouldn’t tell other white folks.”

“That reminds, me,” I said, “Don’t let me forget to call Dorothy in the morning. I didn’t call her the last couple of times I was home, and I feel bad about it.”

He promised he would.

Every morning Daddy walks down the long gravel driveway to the front gate to pick up the paper and get a little exercise and Saturday morning was no different. I was upstairs checking my e-mail when I heard the slap of the front-door screen.

"Elodie? Where are you?"

"Up here!"

Daddy came upstairs and handed me the paper, a grim expression on his face.

Obituary: Dorothy Smoot Natchez -- Funeral arrangements for Dorothy Smoot, 72, of Natchez, who died Thursday March 9, 2006, in Plano, Texas, are incomplete at Webb Funeral Home.

I looked up Dorothy’s Natchez phone number and called it. Her daughter, now grown and with children of her own, told me Dorothy had moved to Dallas to live with her, where she taught school. A few months earlier, she'd learned she had colon cancer.

"Mama was doing fine until just about a month ago, and then she just went downhill real fast."

“I was just about to call her to say hello,” I said, my voice breaking. “I was just going to invite her over to visit. Oh, I’m so, so sorry.”

Daddy and I went to the viewing the next day, and Dorothy looked good. I've always thought that was such a weird thing to say about someone who's dead, but you know, it’s comforting somehow to be able to see a person one last time and have them look in death the way they looked in life.

Her children were there and seemed genuinely pleased that we'd come. They made a big fuss over Daddy, who never seems to age, and who clearly enjoys being told so.

Although it had been a good seventeen years or so since they'd seen him, they knew him the second he walked in, and talked about how they used to enjoy listening to his stories, which were always entertaining and somewhat scandalous. They still are. I guess while I was in Los Angeles, he’d gotten to know Dorothy and her children even better than I had.

It was nice to see them. They were all grown up and had two beautiful children with them. Daddy and I were the only white people there.

Right after we arrived, a wizened old woman came in, pushing a walker accompanied by her son. She looked ancient and tiny and fragile. Tricia, the younger daughter, turned to her sister and said, "Oh, look, Kamill. It's Miss Elodie."

Well over a hundred years ago, my great-great grandparents were slaveowners. Thomas Rose was a master carpenter. It was he who designed and built Stanton Hall here in Natchez. Occasionally, he would give parties at his house for his slaves called darkey balls, inviting other slaves from the area. He had a daughter named Elodie.

I’m told that sometimes slaves would name their children after their owners, and I’ve heard that although I am one of only two white women in town named Elodie, there are a number of black women, most of them elderly, who also bear the name.

Standing there with the old woman, I felt a connection with history that was almost electric, one part guilt, but also one part kinship and the gladness that comes from knowing things can change. I wanted to say something to her, but she didn’t know me and would have only thought it strange.

We stayed a little while. My father spoke to several people he knew. Several came up to speak to him whom he couldn't place, but at 80 years old, that's to be expected. But they were glad to see him, enthusiastically shaking his hand and reminding him of how they knew each other. I was glad we went, and Daddy was, too.

We went out afterwards for a drink on the bluff overlooking the river, a shining silver ribbon down below.  We were in a building another great-grandfather had once owned, and watched as the sky turned that color of pink one finds on the inside of conch shells -- color and history all around us.
* Photograph, unknown.  I wanted to find a photo of Dorothy, but I haven't been able to yet.  When and if I do, I'll replace this one.