Father Son and Mary

Father Son and Mary


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



My proposal headed away from his desire. But that’s his mama in his head. She’s worried

him, with her loose talk, from around the time he lost his eye from a pitchfork. Five

years or about, his mama been prodding him about his “daddy.”



Father, Son, & Mary

The Marriage That Never Meant to Be 

 For George Graves (1845-1932)

By Rudolph Lewis


1 November 1927

He’s strong, steady, quick. But like his mama, he got no sense of humor. 

Here we been working together all day out in the field and around the house. I say a few words to him and he stomps off in a huff. Like I his enemy or mean him some harm.

I been good to him. Done done as much as I could for him and his brothers and his mama. He and his wife and his daughter now staying in my house. And he just steps off like hell was his companion, as if I had just punched him in his gut. Me a man eighty some years old.

What does a twenty-two-year-old boy know about life? Hard life. Real driven work. I saw slavery time with a man’s eyes and it weren’t like the history books paint it nowadays. Happy time in Dark Town. If it were up to the Confederates I’d seen many more years in the era of the chain and lash. But I was spared that outrage. Thank God . . .

Orange sun in the pine tops, going down. I slop the hogs. They rush to the trough in grunts.

He doesn’t listen to his own mind. His mama tugs at his heartstrings. He’ll be a support for her till the end. That’s no fault. But he’s got another life, a wife, and chillun coming. Why fight now his mother’s battles?

*   *   *   *   *

“Pompsie,” I said to him. “I got twenty-five acres here and a house. You can have it all for a price. As you see I’m getting up in age. I got two other chillun than you, two daughters and I got to live.”

My proposal headed away from his desire. But that’s his mama in his head. She’s worried him, with her loose talk, from around the time he lost his eye from a pitchfork. Five years or about, his mama been prodding him about his “daddy.” And what his daddy should do for him.

Pompsie has a mind for the land. And that’s good, he’s a boy after my own heart. Molly, Alice, and his brother Richard prefer the quick life of the city. I’ve seen that life. Spent thirty years in numerous towns and cities—Petersburg, Norfolk, Richmond–before Rachel, my darling wife, passed. I had no more use for the soft life after that. 

They care nothing for the soil, this black swamp land. They’ll sell it back to whites as soon as they get their hands on it. They hate backwater, country life, outhouses, and farm work. It is a past to put out of memory, a shuffling and grinning past better left dead. The urban now and big-time tomorrow is their cause.

“I can’t give you the land, solely to you. I wish I could. You know that wouldn’t be right.” He grew bolder and bolder in his resentment. Flashes of anger burst from his eye.

“You can do as you damn well please,” he says and stomps off.

*   *   *   *   *

The mule nudges me in the back. “How is it going girl.” I pull out a couple of ears of corn from the sack and lead her into the stall. I pitch a few forks of pea vines in after her.

This storm will pass. He’s a good boy. Deep down, he’s more like me than his mother. Steady, keen, a mind for his own business. But, like his mother, you can’t tell him nothing for his own good. Sometimes, that’s the way a man feels he has to be. A man’s got to learn in his own way, even if it be the hard head-thumping way. I know that for a truth. I have a few scars on my back.

My legs ache. My age is finally pulling me down to that soil I’ve loved all my days. I go to the shed and sit before the anvil. I look across the fields. This was a good harvest, all around. The Owen workers are still after the dry cotton. Not a penny to waste. 

Blue smoke from Mary‘s chimney against a dusky sky.

What a match, me a sixty-year old man and she twenty-five, thirty, maybe. My God she was sweet and tart as a wild grape. Divine as muscadine, a bluesman might say, with the light touch of a frost. 

It started out innocent enough. My only interest then was my grandson.

*   *   *   *   *

I straighten a few nails. The hammer rings far and wide in the twilight hour. Whip-o-wills summon the darkness. A bobwhite’s whistle brings on the quiet ringing of night.

A woman slender, small, black as an African. Her teeth like the moon and eyes the stars. Hair long enough to wrap around her waist. Hair like her mama’s. Both have Indian in them. From Across the River, probably. Carolina Cherokee. They’re a strange breed.

It was the way she walked, the way she carried herself that drew my eye. As if she had some great weight on her head. And she must show everyone that she had her balance. So much spunk. If she’d been a man she’d been a Napoleon, the circumstances right. She was a child of a new world of black freedoms. And freedom ain’t easy, as many found out.

Let me finish these few nails. . . . How time flies. This job’s got to get done. The metal bends under the hammer. Nice and easy. There you go. Good as new.

*   *   *   *   *

“Uncle George, you all right. I brought you some food. Chicken, greens, potatoes. Y’all did good work today, the barn’s nearly full with corn,” says Ella, as she hands me the tin plate.

“Give me a minute Ella. Sit it over on the counter,” I smile at her. A good woman, strong, intelligent. Sturdy like she grew out of the earth. And pregnant again. Pompsie made a good choice. He’ll need her sturdiness in his frame of mind.

“How you doing this evening Ella. Pompsie eat yet?”

“I’m doing fine Uncle George. Naw, he got the gun and walked into the woods. Didn’t say nothing. But I ain’t heard no shots. Y’all had a spat?”

She’s a sharp girl. Quiet. Sees more than she talks. She’s got good folks. A mother above reproach and a manly father away in Waverly most of the time.

“No more than usual,” I answer her. Fathers and sons can’t see eye to eye, like men. “He’s bull-headed like his mother.”

I go to the pump and run water over my hands, and then my face and neck, and rinse my mouth and clear my nose. A cupful over my head and then my forearms. I stand. Thank you Lord for this day. Thou art a good God.

“Ella, while I eat could you start a fire in that pan for me and sit with me for awhile?” I uncover the tin pan, go to my chair, and begin my meal. . . .  He’s got everything. Youth and a good cook to boot. “My, my, Ella! This is tasty!”

“Thank ya, Uncle George. I’m glad you like it.” She gathers the pine kindling and straw, lights the fire, places a few more dry pieces on the flame. “That’ll catch now.” A woman who knows how to work. Yeah, he’s got a good one.

*   *   *   *   *

“Come Ella, sit down. How’s your mama Laura and your daddy TeeJay?

“They all fine. Daddy’s in Waverly. Hasn’t been home in a couple of weeks. Mama expects him soon.”

“You got a good daddy, child. Hard worker. Carolina boys are leaders of men. They know how to make money, and spend it too. Your daddy was smart to buy those seventy-five acres from Grey Lumber Company. Bought it and had no interest in farming. Your William could learn much from him.” I finish the vittles. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. I hands her the plate. She rises.

“Thank you, Ella.” She takes the plate, pumps, and rinses it clean and dries it with a towel. I light my pipe. She wants me to say more. “Come sit a spell. Come sit by me.”

I tell her I offered Pompsie the land and house for a thousand dollars. He could pay me so much a month until he’s paid the debt or as long as I live. He turned me down flat.

“Ella, I mean him no harm. He’s a good man, though a little sullen to my taste, and his own hurt. And a damn fool.” She nods, her elbows on her knees.

“Yeah, Uncle George. He can be. He can be when he wanna be.” Mistress of her own house, I knew that’d catch her ear, and her silent desire.

“Ella, look at me. I’m an old man. I was twelve years old in Cox’s Snow. And I have two chillun living. And a grandson. All grown making a life for themselves. This land and house is all I got. I want to leave them all something.”

Ella listens deeply, takes in every word. But it’s not the land, the money, I explain. It’s something deeper, much more than all that. It’s her soul at work. I mean his mother, Mary. How she stirs him.

*   *   *   *   *

I never meant Mary, his mama, harm nor hurt when she became my woman and bore me two sons. I thought of it as no light matter. Our difference in age was before us. And maybe my damnation, me a man of the church. It was a distance of thirty years, maybe even another life, when I lay down with her. Oh, my God! I’m lying if I don’t allow it was good, and as wonderful as I wanted it to be.

For an old man and a young woman, time is different. With my two sons, William and Richard, Mary had five chillun to mind, and poorer than a church mouse. I intended to marry her and care for them, including Charlie Scott’s boys Irvin and Joe.

I didn’t marry her, and there is the rub. And Pompsie’s hurt. His mama alone, in a manner, loose, with just her boys, to answer to. . . .

The full harvest moon is above the pine tops, white as a Klansman’s sheet. Ella with forearms on her thighs listens to my voice in the darkness of the shed. I lean back in my chair and pause. The fire crackles the wood. I light my pipe and puff a few bursts of smoke.

“Ella, I don’t want to keep you long.” She sat up. “I’ll make it short enough.”

I hesitated in my decision to marry her. But to be damned for that seems a tad unjust. I knew better to hunger after a wild woman. I doubt if she cared ever about me, or anything but her own interest. . . . Some call me dirty names. I know you heard the gossip. To them I’m shameless. A deacon at Jerusalem. Having children on his son’s woman. His grandson’s mama. A woman already with two boys by a married man. I was not a young man urgent to throw all caution to the wind.

We a long way from slavery, they say. Such low-life behavior, my affair with Mary, they say, is an outrage. Marriage may have made it right, respectable. But they can take to hell that high-horse nonsense. I don’t take to misery easily. . . . I too never had a daddy except in blood. Will Rodgers, a man out for a night of play. George Anna Graves, my mama, his available wench.

I do not mind the talk so much. That can be lived with. I am deaf in one ear and it’s a fact people always gone talk. And much of the time don’t know what in the hell they talking about. They talking for fun and spite, and mean nobody any good..

As you know Ella, Mary‘s sons are about a year apart. How could I marry her after Arthur came? Deacon Robinson’s boy. And damn if I was going to marry her after Percy, the pink spitting image of Marvin Owen. I got some pride, too.

*   *   *   *   *

I get up from the chair and stretch my back. “Ella, I know you need to get back to the house. Pompsie waits for his supper.” She said goodnight and marched up the hill. A sixteen-year old woman, a child strong as a man. My fool son doesn’t know he already got much more than I ever had.

I light the lamp on the shelf. Turn the wick high. I hammer a few nails straight. Put them all in my apron. I roll the wheel into the shed. The metal is loose in several places. I spin the wheel. A mosquito takes a little blood. I swat it away.

It’s so easy to slide down from one’s perch. Is my life to be summed up by the epitaph: “A reverend and a fool are two sides of a coin.” Or “Here lies a cuckold.” “Hypocrites wear strange masks.” What a tangle!

In the lamplight the nail goes true. The metal band tightens. Again, I nail. Again. My work is near done. It slips me now how Mary Lewis and her hair became entangled in my arms.

*   *   *   *   *

Her first born named for my son Edward. Little Eddie, I call him. Edward, my son and a city man, was too busy to stay in touch with Mary or his son. And then he disappears. Dead as far as anyone knows. I helped Mary with the child. I wanted to do the right thing. It was a joy to sit with Miss Betty, Mary’s mama, and play with the child, our grandson. And Mary liked that, respected that, admired me that I took an interest in Eddie. And took me for a fool, I believe.

A good-looking black-black woman around can make a man change his mind, how strong his mind is or how good his religion is. It is David’s sin. I am a witness to that old saying — A woman who opens herself so readily to men has a charm. The Scott boy, a married man, came after Edward’s neglect of Mary. And then she had three chillun. Charlie Scott was purely a case of over-reaching, of a kind of spite. Mary believed she could make the man leave his wife.

Mary was young with what folks called an old soul. She was young enough to be my own daughter. But I didn’t feel like an old man and I didn’t feel like I robbed no cradle neither. She was a woman beyond her years. Quite experienced in deceit. Maybe that’s how she created her excitement. She knows men like Marvin Owen knows customers in his store. Knows their need and how to satisfy it. But always holding back.

*   *   *   *   *

I worked sixteen hours a day, even into my sixties. How many young men could last me in the sun and the thick heat of the day? I knew how to work and I knew how to live. What was sixty years to me? I only began to live forty years ago when freedom came like a whirlwind out of a blue sky.

I was not dead, waiting to be buried. I still felt the fire and urge of youth. And I responded.

The more I was around the child. The more I wanted Mary around. And then came the moment. I felt the way a man feels when he doesn’t want to be alone. I felt edgy.

It was a spring evening. Flowers were abloom, trees were in the bud. A light breeze of freshness and the calls of birds one to another. I invited Mary into the kitchen for tea. She knew I wanted her. She had worked hard, though subtly, to get me to my state of desire.

I can’t recall all that happened. . . . Mary was in my arms her tongue searching. In bed her energy and excitement . . . turning, insinuating in my arms. She was mine. My strength matched her passion . . . we a tangled web of sweat, pleasure, and desire.

The storm of our lovemaking shocked me and made me feel more alive than memory. Only later, did I realize how much I needed and wanted her. All of her.

After years alone I felt good with a woman in my house. A young woman beautiful and strong, like a morning hot coffee. To cook my meals, to clean my house, to set things right, more often than I wanted or needed. In sickness or health, a woman is God’s blessing.

Mary dropped by regularly, and stayed longer each time than I wanted. I began to want more and more time alone, more time to sort things out. I kept silent and did only what needed to be done.

*   *   *   *   *

I was weighed down by my choices. But the night was purple bright, blanketed with stars. I stood there alone. My vision passed from the sky to the light at Mary‘s window, back to the ground I stood on.

Mary and Deacon Robinson. . . . And at that moment I was weak in my legs, weaker than I had felt for a long time. Weaker than after you’ve slaughtered a man for the first time. And I cried out, “O God, hold me up.”

I know Mary Lewis will strut up and down in my mind and conscience, ever and a day. That’s my destiny and I can’t get around that. I’d never be free of her insinuations and indictments. My passion for her was more than the lust of an old man, rather a craving for a new life.

For a man who lives in the world, there is never enough time to set things right. A man still has to live until God calls him home. . . . And he should live with all the joy he can master. When Pompsie learns that lesson he’ll understand.


written about 1997

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I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 16 June 2008 




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