Birthday Memories – Part 6

In the summer of 1965 I was 12 years old. On this particular morning my family was asleep. It was 6:30 A.M. when I stepped into our back yard.

The doughty St. Augustine grass irritated my virgin feet too long the captive of black Keds. The uninvited crabgrass surreptitiously invading our lawn, unobserved by our 68 year old colored yard “boy” Aubry, vexing my feet reminded me that neither I nor the crab grass belonged here this morning. This lawn belonged to my paternal grandmother, whom I cautiously called Mammaw, for she resented being called anything that remotely betrayed her caducity. My cousins called her Granny, but this cognomen was even more unappreciated.

Nonetheless, she was my grandmother and I had to call her something. Thus I tried my best to lay claim to my grandmother by calling her Mammaw but I knew that she really belonged to an era and could never really belong to one little boy, no matter how congenital and fervent his claim was. The rest of the white world called her Helen while the African-American world called her Miss Helen. I don’t think I ever heard her called Mrs. Stobaugh.

I was James Parris Stobaugh named after my grandmother, Helen Parris Stobaugh, and I devoutly desired to be just like her?but who in McGehee didn’t?

I never knew what to call her.& The fact is, Sixty-eight but young far beyond her years, Helen simply never told me what to call her. She was so ubiquitous it was our duty to ascertain the finest name we could and then call her that.

While she never dyed her hair–she cared little what people thought of her appearance or age–Helen was immutable. And she knew it. She loved pretentious gardens and immaculate lawns.

Monday through Friday Aubry rode his bicycle to our property to care for Helen ‘s lawn and flower garden. Today I would hug Aubry and call him friend. Then, he was another colored man, a man with no last name, under the employment of my moneyed family for wages that were scandalously low.

A southern garden was both afflicted and blessed by a ten month growing season. It was constantly battling interloping Johnson grass and ravenous rodents. As a result, while northern flowers, shrubs, and perennials sported vivid colors vitalized by cool summer evenings and short growing seasons, southern Arkansas begonias and roses had to endure endlessly long, hot summer days. Their paleness was the result of too much sun, not too little. However, commitment to task assured ardent redolence if not inspired accretion.

I loved flowers. I loved my grandmother’s arsenal of yellow daffodils and I loved the skirmish line of Black-eyed Susans, that allegedly guarded my father’s tomato patch from unscrupulous felines and their hygienic practices, as much as I loved our luscious poor boys. If anyone asked, with fervent self-righteousness we both lied that Helen made us do it.

My embarrassingly small feet would do very little damage to Helen’s St. Augustine. Russell wore size tens and Ricky wore size eleven D’s! Russell could bench press two hundred and fifty pounds and Ricky had run for over a thousand yards last football season. I only sported eight or maybe an eight and a half if I could stuff paper at the end and I was cut from the football team. It was another of those things that made me different.

After less than two decades I already knew that I was different. For one thing, I liked to hunt game but not to kill game. This made me a human oxymoron. Among Southern notions of chivalry and manliness one planted gardens to raise crops, not flowers. One hunted to kill, not to admire nature. I had already displayed both derelictions.

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