Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.
— Marcel Proust
I was twelve years old when Grandma Davis, my dadʼs mom, died. I didnʼt know her very well. She lived in North Carolina, and we lived in Mississippi. There were hundreds of miles between us. I donʼt remember her ever coming to see us, or our ever going to see her, though we must have done so at least once, for I do have some memories of her. For instance, I remember her coming up behind me in a store once and popping a gumball in my mouth. The way she did it surprised me, and I swallowed it whole. I got scared, and worried that perhaps the gumball would plug me up somehow, and I would die in an explosion. It seemed to me like a terribly embarrassing way to die. Another time, she told me that she liked boys better than girls. At first, I liked that, being a boy; but when I thought of Sarah, my younger sister, it seemed unfair. Itʼs the earliest time I remember thinking that maybe grown-ups weren’t always fair. Everything else I knew about Grandma Davis, I had learned from Mom and Dad.
When Grandma died, my parents decided that Dad should go to the funeral alone. Sarah and I had school, and Mom had to work. He was gone three days. He brought back only one thing I remember, Grandmaʼs Bible. He showed Sarah and me where Grandma had recorded our birth dates in a special section between the Old and New Testaments. In the back of the Bible were reproductions of famous paintings of many of the Bible stories. I remember one of them in particular. It was a painting of the first plague, the one when Moses turned the water of the Nile into blood. It had a caption under it that read, “All the waters that were in the river were turned to blood.”
A couple of weeks after Dad got back from Grandmaʼs funeral, I overheard him tell Mom that Grandmaʼs house would need to be cleared out. He asked her if I could come and help him. She said yes, but that she would need to talk to my teacher first. The next day when she picked me up after school, she had me wait in the car while she went in and talked with Miss Lott. When she got back, she told me that Miss Lott said it would be good for me to go with Dad, and that I need not worry about any of my schoolwork. I would be out of school only three days. Miss Lott told Mom that she thought that what I would be doing with Dad was more important than my schoolwork.
The night before Dad and I were to leave, Mom helped me pack my suitcase. I was surprised when she put in my Sunday clothes and shoes.
“What do I need those for?” I asked.
“Dad wants to take you to Grandmaʼs church on Sunday. He wants to show you where Grandma is buried in the churchyard, and then you guys will head back home.”
Dad and I got up early the next morning; even so, Mom was up before us. She had made us breakfast, and packed some food for us to take along. “The Davises always travel on their stomachs,” she said. After breakfast, Dad and I carried our bags to the car. Mom came out with us. I got in the car, rolled down my window, and she leaned in to kiss me. “Take good care of your dad,” she said. She waved to us until we drove out of sight.
Once we got on the highway, Dad told me that we would be going through four states – Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and North Carolina. That was more states, he said, than I had ever been through in one day. We would stop for lunch in Birmingham. There was a truck stop there, he said, that had the best coffee in the world. I turned my window vent in so the air would blow on me. I liked the feel of it. Outside of Jackson we passed vast fields of cotton. Clouds cast moving shadows over the fields, and large farmhouses sat way back off the road.
Around lunchtime we pulled into the Birmingham truck stop. It had a huge diner. There were stools with red vinyl seats running the length of a long white counter at the back wall, booths along the two side walls, and several tables along the front windows. We sat down at a window table. Almost as soon as we sat down, a waitress stopped by and asked us if we would like some coffee. Dad looked at me. I nodded. He said, “Yes maʼam. Weʼll take two coffees, please.” She dropped a couple of big plastic menus on the table and said, “Iʼll be right back with your coffees.”
On the menu, in thick black letters, it said, “Breakfast Served 24 hours a Day.” Dad looked up and asked, “Know what youʼd like?”
“Dad, it says here that they serve breakfast 24 hours a day.”
“Well, even though itʼs lunchtime, do you think it would be OK if I got the buttermilk pancakes? It says they come with strawberries.”
The waitress was back with our coffee.
“Iʼll have a burger and some fries,” Dad said, “and my boy would like the three buttermilk pancakes with strawberries.”
I put some cream and a lot of sugar in my coffee. Still, I couldnʼt get it to taste right, but the pancakes were delicious. When we finished, Dad looked at my nearly full cup of coffee.
“Didnʼt you like the coffee?”
I looked at it. “I liked it. Itʼs just Iʼm not really that thirsty,” I said, finishing my second glass of water.
“Well, letʼs make a pit stop, then head ʼem up.”
Once we got back on the highway, Dad asked, “What are you doing in school these days, learning anything interesting?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, we just learned something very interesting. Have you ever heard about genetics?”
“Hmmm,” Dad said. “A little bit, but itʼs been a while.”
“I like it a lot. It teaches about how we get the way we are—whether our ear lobes are attached or not, if we have freckles, our eye color. For instance, did you ever wonder why I have blue eyes and you and Mom and Sarah have brown ones?”
“You know what? I have wondered about that.”
“I know why. Itʼs from my genes. It takes two genes to make your eyes, I mean their color. I got one gene from you, and I got one from Mom.”
“Now brown eyes are what they call ʻdominantʼ; blue eyes are called re… regressive… retro… something like that. Anyway, like I said, I got one gene from you and one gene from Mom.”
“A pair of blue genes, huh?”
“Kind of. Letʼs say brown eyes are a big B, and blue eyes are a little b. You got it?”
“Big B brown, little b blue. Got it.”
“Now the dominant genes determine the color of your eyes. Thatʼs why theyʼre called dominant. They dominate. So, if I got a big B from you, and a little b from Mom, or the other way around, it doesnʼt really matter, then my eyes would be brown. But theyʼre not. Theyʼre blue. So, what do you think happened?”
“Dad! No. Be serious. Iʼm not adopted. It means you gave me a little b, and Mom gave me a little b. My eyes had no choice. They had to be blue.”
“Like your grandmaʼs.”
“Grandma had blue eyes? I didnʼt know that.”
“She did. So what happened to Sarah?”
“Well, her eyes are brown. It means that you, or it could be Mom, gave her a big B. Oh, also, both of you could have given her big Bs.”
“Jimmy, that is very interesting.”
“I think so.”
“What about Sarahʼs smile?”
“It looks just like Grandmaʼs. Whereʼd that come from? Is there a smile gene?”
“Hmmm. I donʼt know. Iʼm not sure really. We didnʼt learn about smiles. When we get back, Iʼll ask Miss Lott.”
I was feeling sleepy. Dad said I could put the seat down and rest if I wanted to. The next thing I knew, it was night, and we were pulling into Grandmaʼs driveway.
The next morning, Thursday, we did all the rooms in the house except the two bedrooms. On Friday, we did the bedrooms. Grandmaʼs was the hardest one for Dad. Most of her personal things were in it: photographs of her wedding, baby pictures of Dad, her jewelry and knickknacks. In addition, she had a big closet full of dresses and shoes. They were old-fashioned, suitable more for dress up or wearing in a play than for everyday use. We folded them up and packed them neatly in boxes for the Salvation Army. Dad had decided to donate most of the furniture to the Salvation Army as well, though there were a few things that some of her friends had been promised. In the afternoon, they stopped by and picked them up.
Saturday morning, we tackled the last thing, the garage. There were many old tools in it that had belonged to Grandpa Davis. A man who owned an antique store stopped by and bought them all. That was helpful since it cleared out most of the garage. There was a small storage closet that had a few boxes in it, filled mostly with loose papers, old notebooks, and newspapers, that sort of thing. The last box was a blue milk crate that sat at the very back of the closet. When I pulled it out, Dad got excited.
“Jimmy, do you know whatʼs in there? My old comic books. You should go through them and see if there is anything you would like to keep. There should be some Superman and Batman comics in there, as well as Richie Rich. I always liked Richie. He was the worldʼs richest kid.”
I sat on the floor with the box in front of me and carefully removed each comic book, placing the ones I wanted to keep in one pile. At the bottom of the crate was a postcard resting face down. I turned it over, looked at it a moment, then handed it to Dad.
“Whatʼs this?” I asked.
Dad looked at it, then he looked at me.
“Itʼs a postcard made from a photo of a lynching, Jimmy. I didn’t know Grandma still had it.”
The postcard was a picture of a slender black man hanging by a rope from a pine tree, his feet several inches off the ground. His eyes were open. His hands appeared to be tied behind him. He was fully clothed. The ropeʼs noose had tightened about his neck causing his head to be twisted at an odd angle. Several people, all of them white, stood around looking at the dead man; there were men, women, and even children. One of the children stood out more than the others. She was a young girl, about eight or nine years old, in a white dress. She was standing just to the side of the hanging body. Her dark hair hung down her front in two neat braids tied with ribbons. She appeared to be looking at the photographer, smiling, like you would smile for any photograph, as though the photographer had just said “Smile,” and she had done so.
“Jimmy, this is going to be hard to understand. The girl here,” he said leaning forward and pointing to the girl with the braids, “is your grandmother.”
“I donʼt understand.”
“Well, like I said, this will be hard to understand. There was a time when people would execute black men in public, but not just men, they also executed women, sometimes even children, who were accused of a crime, many times without a trial. Sometimes, the crimes the person was accused of were serious ones, like murder or rape; but it could also be something as simple as seeming to be disrespectful. Do you know the word ʻrapeʼ?”
“When a man forces a girl to make love to him?”
“Right. Itʼs a terrible thing for a man to do. People would get really worked up about it. If they could, they would take the person accused of such a crime and hang him.”
“Without even having a trial?”
“Without even having a trial. I guess they thought it wasnʼt necessary.”
“Do you know what this man did, and why Grandma was there?”
“No. I donʼt know what he did, or what they thought he did. I didnʼt ask Grandma, and she didnʼt tell me. All I know is that Grandma was visiting a cousin. Her cousin told her a black man had just been hung and asked her if she wanted to see him? So they went to have a look. A few days later, in the drugstore, Grandmaʼs cousin saw the postcard and bought it for her.”
“Donʼt you think thatʼs weird?”
“Yes. Weird that Grandma went to see a dead man, and that somebody took a picture of her smiling and made a postcard out of it?”
“Yes. It is, as you say, weird.” Dad paused, then said, “I donʼt really understand it.” He paused again. “Would you like to keep it, or not? Think about it. If not, let me know in the morning. Iʼm burning some old papers and trash before we leave.”
That night, we slept in Grandmaʼs bed. I was having a difficult time falling asleep.
“Was Grandma a good person?”
Dad turned on his side and faced me in the dark.
“The postcard bothering you?” he asked.
“Yes, Jimmy. Grandma was a good person. She helped many people, and she was a good mother to me, a very good mother.”
“Dad, would you mind if I donʼt keep the postcard?”
“Of course not. I understand. Weʼll burn it in the morning.”
The next morning, I gave Dad the postcard. After breakfast, he put it with the trash in a barrel in Grandmaʼs backyard. He let me light the fire. After it burned down, we showered, dressed, and drove to Grandmaʼs church.
A deacon met us at the door.
“Good morning Mr. Davis, Master Davis,” he said. “Please follow me. We have a special place reserved for you two up front. Pastor Williams has prepared words in honor of Mrs. Davis, and the choir has put together a musical offering in her memory.”
During the sermon, Pastor Williams told several stories about my grandmother, some of them funny, some of them sad. When he finished, he turned briefly to the choir, then back to us, and raising his hands palms up toward the ceiling said, “Please rise and join the choir in the singing of Mrs. Davisʼs favorite hymn, Farther Along, by brothers W. B. Stevens and J. R.Baxter.”
I remember the chorus:
Farther along weʼll know more about it;
Farther along weʼll understand why;
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine;
Weʼll understand it all by and by.
After the service, Dad and I stood at the door with Pastor Williams and spoke with people as they left. Then we walked around to the back of the church to the cemetery. Gravestones were scattered along a hill that rose slowly up to a copse of trees. We walked to the trees. Beneath them, Dad showed me Grandmaʼs grave, the red-brown earth dried out in the heat. At the foot of it was a bronze-colored plastic marker from the funeral home that said, “Lillie Davis —1895-1962.”
“Iʼve ordered a granite marker, but itʼs not ready yet. Weʼll all come up, you, me, Mom and Sarah when itʼs ready.”
We stood together for a few minutes. Dad placed an arm on my shoulder. A warm breeze rustled the leaves in the trees overhead. I could hear a mourning dove calling its mate.
I donʼt remember much of the ride back home. I was busy thinking, about Grandma, a black man, a postcard, the church, a hymn, and Grandmaʼs grave. We got back very late Sunday night. I went straight to bed. Mom didnʼt get me up for school. I didnʼt wake up until after lunch.
When Sarah got home, she came to see me.
“Hey big brother.”
“Hey little one. You look taller.”
“Thanks. Did you have a good time?”
“I donʼt know if I would call it a good time,” I said. “It was good to be with Dad of course. But I think I would call it more like an interesting time.”
On the way home, I had decided to not say anything to Sarah or Mom about Grandmaʼs postcard.
“Did you bring me anything?” she asked.
“I did,” I said, handing her a small blue crystal horse with a white mane. I had found it on Grandmaʼs chest of drawers and asked Dad if I could give it to Sarah. “Be careful with it,” I said. “Itʼs special.”
She took it from me and held it up to the sunlight. Rays of blue light sparkled on my bedroom walls.
“Wow,” she said. “itʼs beautiful. I love it. Thanks.”
I looked at her. She was smiling.
“You know what,” I said, “I think you inherited Grandmaʼs smile.”
In a way, I thought that was true; but in a way, I hoped it wasnʼt. I would ask Miss Lott about it tomorrow.
Gershon Ben-Avraham grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. He currently lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel with his wife and the family’s collie “Kulfi”. His poem “The Kabbalist” earned Honorable Mention in the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His short story “The Janitor” will be published in Issue 18 of Jewish Fiction .net due out in September.