Childhood idylls

Mockingbirds don’t do one single thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one blessed thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.
— Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

As children in the small community of Dillingham in Big Ivy, my sisters and I enjoyed a sheltered, isolated and seemingly idyllic existence. Rarely did world events and the scars of prejudice overtly touch our lives, or so we thought.

Growing up, we tagged after our father. He wasn’t a lawyer like Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem’s father in the American classic, To Kill a Mockingbird; he was a farmer and a carpenter.

I remember one hot summer after a day of plowing in the fields, my father let me ride our neighbor’s mule back home. He put a tow sack on the mule’s back, hoisted me up and led the mule up the road to our neighbor’s house, where I again stepped into his hands. It was a grand adventure for me, though I was so scared I could hardly breathe the whole time, feeling the mule’s prickly mane against my bare legs.

After a hard day’s work on a job, Daddy sometimes brought home the remains of his lunch: saltine crackers, a bit of leftover horn cheese, maybe an extra can of vienna sausages. Like Boo Radley, the recluse in Lee’s novel, our father would lay those treasures in his sawdust-filled cap, which he’d place on the kitchen table where he could find it when he got ready for work the next day. My sisters and I would snatch up the goodies and divide them among us for a “feast.”

There was no Boo Radley in our midst, but we did have a fellow who loved watches; he wore an armful of them that he constantly showed off to everyone, though no one was sure if he could tell time. He could not “talk plain” and wore a hearing aid that folks said he often turned off. He did odd jobs in the community: hauling pulpwood, nailing boards, putting up tobacco, cutting briars from the pasture. For a while, he and his wife were inseparable: She’d come with him when he worked for my father, and we would sit on the porch and chat. She talked with a pronounced stutter and loved to chew gum and pop it. They eventually moved “to town” (Asheville); sometime later, he returned alone. We’d see him walking up and down the roads with his oversized umbrella, en route to church services and revivals.

Once, while visiting an uncle who lived with my grandmother, an apparition suddenly appeared at the corner of the porch and walked toward us. We fled from the “haint” and were half-way home before we heard our grandmother whooping and hollering. When we looked back, we saw her slapping her apron with her hands, shouting to us to come back—it was only our uncle with pie dough on his face. He’d cooked up this prank while preparing to bake a blackberry pie in my grandmother’s Warm Morning stove.

The community was mostly white people, though my grandmother knew a woman named Brownie who lived on what was then called “the island”—the black community, I later learned, much like the one in To Kill a Mockingbird. I understand they even had their own church on the island. I wonder if my grandmother ever took her children there the way Calpurnia, the black woman who cared for Scout and Jem, took them to hers.

Another black family lived up a different branch. Two of the brothers helped neighbors work tobacco or kill hogs. Once Daddy brought one of them, who sported gray hair and whiskers and loved children, to the car to say “hey” to my oldest sister and me when we were very small. We hid on the floorboard, never having seen a black man before. Some years later, my youngest sister saw the same man at a neighbor’s house and hugged his neck.

Like Scout and Jem, my sisters and I often eavesdropped on adults, hearing whispered words about taboos like “mixed blood” children. Supposedly, anyone with “an ounce” of black blood was assigned to the black school. And whether I saw it or imagined it, the image of a small, white bus carrying black students up the road to their small, segregated school is forever fixed in my mind. In my mind’s eye, I see a small, red-haired, seemingly white child sitting on the bus, head held high, as it passed. The child’s father was said to be white; the mother was a red-headed black woman. The child had been forced to go to the black school, though “she looked as white as any other white child.”

The image haunted me then, as it does now. It’s a poignant reminder of “good” people’s unintentional cruelty and “blind spots,” as Atticus says in the novel, whose moving plea for tolerance and justice makes it eternally relevant.

[Poet Nancy Dillingham is a sixth-generation Dillingham from Big Ivy.]

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