This summer I visited my grandparents in rural Alabama for the first time since I was pregnant with my oldest child. Before you think I’m heartless, I have seen my grandparents many times since then when they came to visit family or friends near us, but I was not ready to take my girls on such a long road trip.
After driving all day, my grandfather greeted me with the injury he’d just incurred chasing a horse off his property through the woods and eventually stumbling in a creek, while in his house slippers and no belt. This was strange for many reasons. For one, before this trip I could probably fit in a pamphlet all the words my grandfather had ever spoken directly to me . Second, though their home is pretty rural, my grandparents in their pastoral careers were basically city folk until retiring when I was sixteen to warmer climates and to be nearer my uncle. My grandpa has had about as much experience with horses in his eight-three years as I have, which is none. Someone’s horse had escaped from a local farm and destroyed my grandpa’s bird feeders, ate all his peaches, and left lovely piles all over his yard for four days straight. As grandpa seriously told his tale, I was able to keep from laughing and sincerely expressed perhaps he should no longer chase horses. Grandma shared my concern and said she had been about to call the police and hospitals to hunt grandpa down.
My urge to laugh mixed with concern continued, as after dinner Grandpa attempted to put cartoons on for the kids. He and grandma put Cartoon Network on, because hey it has cartoon in the name and it would probably never cross their minds that there would be such a thing as very adult cartoons. The show had some demon thing that gave birth to another demon it named Penis. As my mom shouted, “What is this!” my grandpa just laughed, because he can barely hear. So I decided it was bed time for me and the girls.
I woke up the next morning to, “Get out of here! Get!” and knew the horse had returned as I laughed to myself. We tried to get grandma or grandpa to play Uno or Go Fish with us to no avail, but grandpa did set up a pool about the size of a small washtub for the girls, who spent the whole time shooting water squirters at each other, me, and the house. Grandma made us the canned food I remembered, but I actually let myself enjoy the heated roll of processed turkey or the bologna and American cheese I normally would snub.
After dinner we took a walk with grandpa that quickly got interesting. First off, my children were handed umbrellas to keep the sun off. Yeah, sharp heavy things for the girls to carry the whole time we’re walking, that was going to go well. On the walk I was told who lived in each house and almost stopped in my tracks as grandpa said, “And a colored family moved in there.” I have not heard the word “colored” except by a villainous character in media set before the 1970s, so to hear that come out of my grandpas mouth was quite a shocker. While as far as I know there is nothing inherently evil about the word (although it is wholly inaccurate, as no one I know is translucent we’re all “colored”) the history of how that word was used screams racism to me. I still refuse to think of my grandpa as racist. For almost all of their careers, my grandparents served the urban poor (code for black) and during all my wedding mess I was cautioned, but they were at my wedding and ultimately supportive.
I had another unpleasant surprise as grandpa started talking about the towns swimming pool situation. “That there is where one of the swimming pools was. There were two, one for the white side of town and one for the black, but the blacks wanted to be able to use this one too. So the town shut both of them down and filled both of them in. Its a shame really.” Now this wasn’t ancient town history, but something that had transpired since he had been living there in the past decade. Seriously? This stuff is still happening?
At the end of the walk grandpa introduced us to his nearest neighbors, whom I noticed were not introduced as colored, although they were black. When the middle school teacher mother came to the door, I could tell she was thinking, “Great the crazy old white man is back.” Grandpa introduced us and awkwardly dropped into the conversation that I was married to a Nigerian. As grandpa continued to Nigeria name drop every time we met someone, including total strangers, I got the feeling my children’s bi-racial appearance was being explained. As if marrying an African American instead of an African would have been less acceptable, but because Wole was African the kids and I were legitimized.
The next day I received more colorful history as grandpa drove us around town. I rolled my eyes as grandpa showed some of the old slave school houses and defended, “The slaves were treated better here than other places. They even made sure they had schools!” The Jim Jefferies stand up routine on gun control mocking the argument, “I’m a responsible slave owner. I’m trained in how to use my slaves safely. Just because that guy mistreated his slaves doesn’t mean that my rights should be taken away from me, ” immediately popped into my head.
The excitement continued as we rolled into the carport and mom nonchalantly mentioned, “There’s your horse.” Sure enough a beautiful red horse with a dark mane was casually standing in the yard. The girls and I got him an apple and had grandma call the police, while grandpa held him by the little bit of rope still on his bridle. He loved the apple and shortly I grabbed him a bucket full of water, while grandpa continued to hold on and be ridiculously hot. I offered to hold him, so grandpa could cool off for awhile, but he insisted I would not be able to hold him, although I would like to believe I am just as strong as an 83 year old man. Eventually the police came and the excitement of the day was over and my severely overheated grandpa was put to bed.
Later grandpa the kids and I went to the park and I saw the gentle loving guy beneath the gruff exterior. He let my four year old spin him around on the merry go round and spun them when they were ready. Then he sat down with me and started a conversation I was not expecting. “You know I have a wheelchair in the shed. I’ve had it for a long time for whenever your grandmother got too bad to walk. I’ve asked her to ride in it, so I would have company on my walks, but she always says, ‘I’m not that bad yet.’ I wish she would let me push her. Its lonely walking by myself now.” I almost cried at the beauty of this partnership that has lasted over sixty years and is so strong my grandpa doesn’t even want to be away from his love for the thirty minutes to an hour he walks each day.
The girls will always remember this trip for the time they spent with their great-grandparents and the horse, okay mostly the horse. I’m glad they got to spend that time, as did I, but I’m perhaps not so glad to see first hand just how sad and backward the race relations in rural Alabama still are. I can only hope with each new generation the relations improve.