I watched Danny get onto a bus at Aspiration Station on the last day of May, nineteen hundred and forty-three, and I watched him ride away into the sunset. My older brother was off to fight a war and he would die before I would see him again. Our mother, Marietta, came along to the station the first couple times, but then stopped doing so, saying she would rather remember my brother waving good-bye from the driveway. That memory would serve her well for the rest of her life, but would do little to ease the pain and heartache she would endure getting used to his absence. She would cry for weeks. Our dad would hold her and cry some too, while my sister would sit for hours staring down the hallway to Danny's room. My grandmother, Felicity, after watching her friends pass away over the years, would take my brother's death in relative stride. The dogs would sleep on his bed at night to be close to where he had been, and I would lose myself in writing.
Once I thought I saw his face as the bus pulled away, but it could have been anybody.
As a writer I didn't have much to write about in the beginning. I wrote about my mother, a song of beauty and devotion, of a love that knew no bounds, and about my father whose black hair would turn gray before its time from the weight of my mother's pain. He would leave us a year after Danny died.
Coming back from the station, I look for the church steeple I used to mark where I had left my truck. People had been visiting in the churchyard when I arrived, but now they stand in line on the walkway, moving slowly into the building. The small white chapel has a high roof, with bells inside the steeple that seem to ring with joy as a choir begins to sing.
I open the door to my truck and find a flyer someone has left on the seat, announcing that the Aspiration Teacher's Association would be giving a lifetime achievement award that night to a woman named Evangeline Cruder. I recognize the name from my Grandma Felicity's Civil War stories; she was the slave girl who was a close friend to my great-grandfather, Daniel. Evangeline had been a slave on the old Cruder plantation during the Civil War, around the time Grandma Felicity was born. Evangeline Cruder must be a hundred years old.
I push open the gate and enter the churchyard. The building is small, its white paint hardly visible beneath layers of Jasmine and Wisteria growing up its walls, while on top the brown shingled roof exposes itself proudly to the evening sky. Even though I am the only white person here, as I stand in line waiting to enter the church, I feel very much at home. Some people have made good use of the honeysuckle vines next to the gate, and the flowers adorn many a blouse and lapel.
"Gift o' God!" the woman ahead of me is saying, referring to the flower she has just inserted into her husband's buttonhole. "Gift o' God!"
"Has Evangeline Cruder arrived yet?" I ask the woman. "She was a good friend of my great-grandfather."
Before the woman can answer, the crowd becomes quiet as a very old woman steps to the porch railing. She is very thin, and she is the blackest person I have ever seen. Dressed in a brilliant white, ankle-length dress, she seems even blacker, and her gray hair is a wonderful halo around her face. Leaning over the railing she looks down at me as if seeing a ghost. She smiles, and when I go up the steps to the landing she walks into my arms and hugs me as though I am long-lost family.
After a time she leans back, her eyes wet with tears, and she whispers, "You are Daniel Howard's boy."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Daniel's Great-grandson, Jericho. How did you know?"
"I could see that red hair and freckles in the middle of a foggy night filled with the storms of summer and know you were related to Daniel Howard." Mrs. Cruder laughs, as do those around us, and I settle into our familiarity as she pulls me into another long hug. I had no idea the closeness between my great-grandfather and this woman, for I realize, in truth, she is hugging him. "Come in, come in," she beckons, taking my arm and leading me inside. People are moving about finding seats, and those already seated cool themselves with cardboard fans. A group of children has been seated in the middle rows, and a chaperone is trying to keep them still. The church windows are open so the people out on the porch will be able to hear. Evangeline introduces me to several guests as we walk in, some I already know from town, and we make our way toward a small stage.
"I knew your great-grandfather well," she says. "Daniel Howard was the most handsome, exciting man that ever lived, besides my husband, Little Moses, of course." The old woman studies my eyes. "Talking to you, my darling boy," she says, "is like having your great-grandfather looking back at me, just as though he never went away. I was in love with him, you know? Of course, I was just a child. What a time. What a time."
I tell her, "Grandmother Felicity speaks of those early days as the happiest of times."
Evangeline laughs. "That's because she wasn't born untit was almost over. I remember little Felicity; she was a good baby. I rocked her to sleep many times. Is she still with us?"
"She's living with my family. Did you know my dad built our house directly on the site where the old Cruder plantation big house used to be, before it burned down? All he had to go by was that picture down at the courthouse. We even used the original chimneys."
"I remember those chimneys," she says. "Two went up through the bedrooms and the other one came up through the kitchen. I think I would like to see that old place again. I've always been afraid to go by; there are ghosts buried there you would not believe."
"I'd like to hear about them. Are you going to speak tonight?"
"Yes, I believe they want me to say something about the plantation days. To be honest, I wasn't sure I wanted to visit the past, but now that Daniel's great-grandson Jericho is here, I know everything will be fine. Do you know much about your great-grandfather?"
"I know he was in a duel."
"Yes, well, that about covers it. His whole life was a duel." Mrs. Cruder shakes her head at the memory, and looks away for a moment. "So," she says, returning, "You've built your new home on the Cruder land. I'm glad your family ended up with the property."
"Well, we'd certainly love to have you come out some time, have some dinner with us. You and Grandma Felicity would have quite a reunion."
"This is true. Tell me, Jericho, are those four Magnolia trees still growing in the back yard?"
"Yes, Ma'am, they are. They're huge now; we've got nothing but shade in back of the house."
"Daniel and I planted those trees one night after everyone else had gone to bed. He was nine and I was six. It was a full moon and we sneaked out back and planted them in a ritual that we made up as we went along. Each tree was to serve as a Spirit to protect the yard. And you know what? Up until the end of the war, there never was so much as a bee sting or skinned knee in that back yard. I know it was because of those trees. By the time I was fourteen, they had grown as tall as Daniel."
"They're as tall as the house now."
A woman comes from the crowd and offers Mrs. Cruder her arm.
"Margaret, this is Daniel's great-grandson, Jericho. Would you believe? And Jericho, this is Mrs. Samson, President of the Teacher's Association."
"Glad you came down, Jericho," the woman says. "If you want, you can sit on that first pew over there in the place reserved for Mrs. Cruder."
"Thanks, I will."
Mrs. Samson helps Evangeline up the step and onto the stage, and I make my way to the vacant spot on the front pew. The pulpit has been moved off the stage and replaced with an easy chair. Mrs. Cruder sits down as the Matron lifts a microphone from a table, and her words become amplified through a small speaker somewhere off to the side. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I am glad so many of you could attend our ceremony tonight. If everyone is ready, we will start the proceedings." The Matron turns to Evangeline. "It gives me great pleasure to introduce a woman who has been an inspiration to all of us for so many years. We have heard Evangeline Cruder's name in our homes all our lives, at the supper table, or around the evening fire before prayers, and every time her name is mentioned it is spoken with pride. Mrs. Cruder worked her way up from slavery and through the school system, to spend her life in the teaching profession." The Matron lifts a plaque from the table and hands it to Mrs. Cruder. "The Aspiration Teacher's Association is honored to present you with this plaque, a small token of our appreciation for sixty years of service. We hope it will always remind you of those you have helped and encouraged along the way, by your life and your wonderful example."
Evangeline Cruder holds the plaque up so all can see. The room resounds with Amen's and light applause.
"As you can see," the Matron points out, "we've invited some of Aspiration's young people to this event. It would be a great honor, and an education for these children if you would tell us some of the things that happened when you were a growing up on the Cruder plantation."
The old woman acknowledges the children with a nod, as she gives the plaque back to Mrs. Samson. Taking the microphone in hand Mrs. Cruder looks out over the audience. "Thank you all for this wonderful gathering," she begins. "It is so good to see old friends again. I guess you've noticed that good-looking, redheaded young man who has joined us today. That's Jericho, Daniel's great-grandson. If you know anything at all about the Cruder heritage, you've heard about Daniel. I'll try to tell you something about him as well as the rest of the family."
Mrs. Cruder bows her head and closes her eyes for what seems like a long time. Whether intended as a pause before proceeding or as a prayer, soon everyone in the church has their heads bowed as well. Then she begins to speak. "I guess a good place to start would be when my mother and I first moved to the Cruder plantation. I was five, my mother, Sasha, was eighteen. Mama was a handsome woman. She was of average height, had large green eyes, and being originally from the sugar islands instead of Africa like my father, her hair was naturally straight. She let it down at night, but in the daytime kept it held up in a large red bandanna. She had a wonderful smile, and I was proud when people said we looked just alike.
We were purchased by Maxwell Cruder in the winter of 1850, as a gift for his new bride, Mercy Howard, a woman he had met on a horse-buying trip to New Orleans. Mama and I arrived at the farm the same day his bride got there, with her son, Daniel, who was eight at the time. Maxwell Cruder, known as the Colonel, had a ten-year old son named Ransom by a previous marriage. Master was not really a Colonel, but he looked enough like one to warrant the name. With his white suit, white hat and long white mustache, and his white Arabian horse named Lady, he was the perfect example of the Southern plantation owner.
"You older folks in the audience tonight will remember the legacy of Colonel Maxwell Cruder as being that of exceptionally benevolent man, especially where his slaves were concerned. Although he detested slavery, he knew the South could not exist as a cotton empire without it. When he bought a slave, he considered that slave to be his property just like his horses and cattle, and the slave's name and price went down in a book just like the other animals. But, to understand the man, you have to understand that he also treated his horses and cattle well.
"His protest would be to actually pay his slaves a portion of the profits for their work. Not only were we never to know the sting of an overseer's whip, we were given an equal share in a third of the income from the crops we produced. This was unheard of, definitely a radical idea at the time, but it led to the Cruder plantation being one of the most successful farms in the state of Louisiana. Even divided among a hundred slaves, the arrangement was impressive.
"The Colonel stretched the rules even more by allowing his slaves to use that money to eventually purchase their freedom. When a slave bought his or her freedom, their price being what the Colonel had paid for them, they were indeed given the status of a freeman, along with papers to prove it. They were welcome to leave the plantation and seek their fortune elsewhere if they wanted. But, even after the war was over, the road north was long and hard, with nothing but suspicion and a wary eye for the black man every turn along the way. But if a black person had papers, signed by the man who had previously owned them, they had a chance of beginning a new life. The laws were based entirely on ownership, and the papers you possessed showed that the white man who had owned you had chosen, in effect, to sell you to yourself. And it was legal. Those who did leave the Cruder farm were never heard from again. Whether they just never looked back or they met a tragic end was never known to those who watched them leave.
"I only knew I was a slave because Mama told me I was. Daniel told me, too, but I didn't believe such a thing until Mama confirmed it. I thought all slave children helped themselves to the food in the pantry, and it wasn't until I saw children on other farms eating out of troths, scooping mush into their mouths with their hands, that I knew my life was different."
The young people sitting in the middle pews behind me, at first so fidgety and restless, were now settled, listening intently, their eyes wide open.
"That any slave would be thankful for kindness," Evangeline Cruder went on, "which should have been our birthright, can only makes sense if you were there. I won't begin to honor slavery by looking for someone to blame; it happened, and it will happen again. But on the Cruder farm things were different.
"I had heard about slave whippings from the neighbor kids and visitors, but I never allowed myself to believe that something like that was possible. It wasn't until I was twelve that I witnessed the cruelty of a bullwhip, and before I tell you my own story, I must tell you about that night. Though the memory is sad, it is tinged with a strange, melancholy sweetness, for it was also the night I met the boy who would become my husband."
About the author:
I'm just a retired artist, writer, musician living in the woods outside Gainesville, Florida. My band, Lightnin' Harpo, still plays the local clubs, and there are some good examples of my digital art on my web site: www.rudyyoung.com. Also, I have lots of music and artshow video's on YouTube. Keeps me working.
© 2011 Word Riot