Helen

Robert Flournoy

 

© Copyright 2011 by Robert Flournoy
 

 

Photo of a dead squirrel.
 

It is a hard thing for people now to understand living in a 1000 square foot house in the middle of a sea of cotton and corn, with the nearest paved road 5 miles away. Or how a 4 and 1/2 foot 10 year old child could get lost in 11 foot tall corn. Only a call from the farm house porch kept him from walking in the wrong direction, the sound of his uncle's voice giving him saving orientation. And who was to know that the "cotton dust" used so liberally on that corn would not only kill all of the birds, but would eventually cause the leukemia that would take his grandmother's life before its dioxin was discovered to be deadly.

The boy would walk the dirt road that ran beside the house about 300 yards to a little shack, that served as a country store where soft drinks and various potted meats and pickles and crackers and such were available.

And, for some reason, the old black man who ran this enterprise sold BB's, which turned a dull walk in the fields and woods into an adventure for a boy with a Red Rider Carbine air rifle, who aspired to be stalker and hunter.

There were always elderly black gentlemen lounging in the shade of the store's overhang, conversing and trying to beat the heat. They were kind to the boy.

One day as he trudged up the dusty road in 95 degree August heat, gun in hand, seeking BB's, one of these men asked him if he could inspect his coveted rifle. The boy sat down beside the man, and watched him take a little kit out of his faded overalls, and proceed to dismantle the gun, and oil every part, reassembling it like a magician,in the eyes of the young hunter.

Handing the rifle back to the boy, the man informed him that it would now shoot more accurately, and, more importantly, with more power. And it did, or so the boy thought, and he bounded in the fields with a renewed confidence.

At sundown, sweaty and exhausted, he would go back to the house, where his parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and grand parents were readying supper.

Always present in that old farm house was Helen, a serene, smiling black woman who was a constant fixture with his grand mother at the sink, or the stove, both of them laughing like sisters. The house was small, and the demands of cooking, and cleaning were certainly within his grandmother's abilities to handle alone, but like most farms in the south in the early 1950's and before, black women were a warm presence in those little homes, and had been since the end of the Civil War, when master and slave found themselves side by side digging in the dirt to merely survive, such was the desolation that the war had brought to the land.

Helen loved them, and they loved her back, respecting her as an aunt who was free to discipline and guide all of the children during their formative years and youthful foibles. His family pictures, frayed, and faded black and white shots always, always, included the gentle face of Helen in their midst. In the many such photos from those days, in every farm family photo album there is the serene presence of such ladies, wise and gentle. They were family, pure and simple, as hard as that is for the modern liberal mind to come to grips with.

The prejudiced minds of those who did not experience that bygone era will try to dismiss the sincere honesty of those photos, stubbornly trying to assign some kind of subservience to the black faces staring out at them. They cannot fathom the truth, that is pure love, so out of synch is it with what they have been led to believe.

So, it was Helen who, after a lucky shot with my BB gun brought down a squirrel, showed me how to clean it, and cook it. We ate it together on the back porch on a crisp Autumn day, the memory of which sits in my mind as real 60 years later as a photo on the mantel.

I cherish it as closely as I do the letter that my grandmother wrote to me while I was in Vietnam. At the bottom of the letter there is a simple addition that reads, "Come home to the family, Bobby. I love you, Helen.”

Bob Flournoy is a published author (Southern Cultures Magazine, Spring 2004, Dispatches (MWSA magazine), and Just A Little Rain (memoir).  He lives in Franklin, TN with his wife Lorrie. They have two children, Brent, and Madison. Bob served as an army officer with the First Cavalry in Vietnam, and is currently retired from the corporate world so that he can write, and paint.

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