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It’s where my Grandmama Sadie lived... so did most of her sisters and brothers.. the Wilkersons...Sis Jessie, Uncle Bud Wilkerson, Aunt Ida Garrett, Aunt Mary Rogers, Aunt Sallie Allen..and my grandmother, Sadie Carver. By then, that’s all of the 13 that remained.. A small southern town, Roxboro in the 50’s and early 60’s was about 25 years behind the rest of the world.. and 15 years behind Raleigh. Our family would drive over one Sunday a month.. head up Highway 70 from Raleigh, past the cow farms, past the Angus Barn Restaurant, past the Jack Tar Motel with its multicolored windows and sparkling aqua pool..alongside Durham, then turn right onto Highway 158, pass the backside of the big mansion of Mr. Nello Teer, and cruise up towards Timberlake.. where a sign said Tom Thumb the tiny famous Circus star... (and I thought, fairytale character) lived. I’d practice my math by counting the cows grazing along the two-lane highway, and my reading by reading aloud all the billboards... or playing the Alphabet Game... looking for words beginning with each letter... in turn...from A to Z.. always hard to find the Q’s and Z’s... but sometimes I did it.. vying with my two big brothers to be the one to win.
The first few years.. in the late 1950’s... we’d go to Grandmama Sadie’s little frame Sears Robuck house on Old Durham Road (she said they called it Miz’ Carver’s Road)... right next to the Home Oil Company and nestled up alongside the railroad tracks. As we walked into the front door, entering the cool dark hallway of the little 4-room house, we were suddenly enveloped with a quiet calm.. and the smell of pastewax and her Coty face powder.. (in it’s round orange and white box with the pink powder puff.) While my grandmother and parents talked.. or ignored each other, I’d spend the quiet afternoons playing with some new kittens she’d adopted or rolling my brother’s little tin cars or the little metal walking people across her painted plank bedroom floor.. which tilted at about a 15 degree angle.. She always had a box of toys for us to play with...
Off her little screened-in back porch was a tiny yard, sheltered by a large weeping willow tree and filled with a 10-foot long grape arbor which had two lines of scuppernong grape vines that grew upward and met in the middle to form a tunnel-like walkway. I’d pretend the grape arbor was my princess castle as I played my little princess dramas and ate grapes right off the vine. Under the maple tree was a tiny pile of clean white sand.. my sandbox... which she would take from the driving paths at the Burchwood Cemetery.. just down the road... where my granddaddy Exie was buried in 1950.. leaving her a widow at 53.
Sometime in the late afternoon.. or earlier, we’d hear the long wail of the Southern Railway train coming down the tracks from Roanoke, Virginia.. or up from Durham. My brothers and I would run outside and stand by the side of the tracks and watch the train go by.. counting car after car... Starting with the two or three engines, we’d count the box cars, tankers, freight cars, flat cars, rarely but sometimes one or two passenger cars, and finally the red caboose. Trailing at the end of the train, I loved its little back door off the observation deck, and the tiny curtained windows.. it seemed just like a playhouse to me. We’d wave wildly throughout the passing of the whole train.. and grin and jump up and down when the train men waved back at us. So when we came to visit her, there was always something to do.. And we felt so loved and safe.
I first started spending one week with her each summer, when I was about 3 or 4. At first my two brothers stayed with me...until Wayne stopped coming and then Doug. We’d spend the days playing.. sometimes with the neighbor children, or get in her old black 1941 Ford Coupe and drive over to visit her sisters and brother.. all around Roxboro. Those years she worked next-door at the Home Oil Company, answering the phone and taking orders. When we visited her, my brothers and I just played in her yard while she worked next door. The year my big brothers no longer came, she took me with her... along with a box of toys. I spent the day with my own little pad and pencil... answering my toy phone, taking messages and heating oil orders for my dolls.
When I was about six she moved in with her sister, Aunt Mary Rogers, who had a big rambling farm house several miles outside of Roxboro. Two storied, gabled, with a wrap-around porch and geraniums, petunias, and zinnias lining the porch and walkway... the old place was home for the two widows for over 20 years. The house still stands, inherited and lived-in by some of Aunt Mary’s many children and grandchildren. My week-long summer visits with Grandmama Sadie while she lived at Aunt Mary’s are vivid memories of sunny days, flowers, and life in a sleepy southern town.
There were always playmates at the house.. my cousins Jinny Lou and Leigh Rogers, Sally Margaret Clayton, and Mary Elizabeth and Nancy Rogers.. who lived next door.. Mary Elizabeth and Nancy were 2 and 4 years younger than me. We played together every day, and had great times playing make-believe, swinging in the 3-person plank tree swing, playing with our dolls. I was the bossy older cousin, but in stature, I just was even with my little cousin Nancy.. who idolized me. Mary Elizabeth tried to compete, but she was reduced to going along with everything I said, or else being left out. Generally, she was a good sport about it. I was pretty bossy, imperious, and remorseless. There was always some new idea for make-believe, and I know we laughed and had fun, so I hope she made her peace with it.
Every afternoon around one, my grandmother would say it was ‘nap time’. We’d retire to her sweltering apartment upstairs and strip down to our slips before laying down for our nap on her double bed in the ‘side bedroom. I never slept a wink, but spend the lazy hour daydreaming, listening to the hum of the rotating fan, and watching the golden dust motes swirling in the air. When nap time was over, we’d both get dressed and go into her little kitchen for Coca-colas. I’d sit in the tippy bent-wood kitchen chair, dressed in my flouncy summer dress and ruffled petticoat, swing my feet.. white socks and black patent leather shoes not able to touch the floor for several more years... and carefully drink my iced half-glass of Coke in the forest-green glass she always used. The tinny, acrid drink stung my nose and made my eyes water.. and chased away the afternoon grogginess of our daily quiet time.
Set in the eaves of the high pitched roof, Grandmama’s bedroom had a triple window on the gable side, with three panels of white, sheer, Victorian-style lacy curtains. The old turned-wood double bed (the one she was born in) took up most of the room.. a low oak dresser with a big mirror... quicksilver black-laced from age... stood against the wall at the end of the bed, facing it. Beside the bed, a little oak two-door cupboard was stuffed with all of her important things...medicines, letters, nail files, newspaper clippings, bible quotes, the latest The Upper Room. On the wall facing the triple window, her tall, narrow wardrobe...of dark stained plywood, held her soft, flowery dresses... pleated, belted, and cuffed... with pearl buttons. All handmade on her oak Singer treadle sewing machine...standing sturdy and dependable on the opposite wall.. by the window. A delicate carved oak ladies' rocker that must have been 50 years old then... one cracked leg lashed with a leather thong... was placed beside the wardrobe and faced the bed...(everything faced the bed). A floor lamp stood beside it. Even though she had the front room, with her two easy chairs flanking the marble-top table, I imagine she sat in it, rocking a little... reading her The Upper Room booklets, Reader’s Digests, letters, and her bible. The corners of her bedroom were stuffed and stacked with fabric, bags of stuff, hat boxes, magazines... things she needed. The floor was carpeted with a rug of purple cabbage roses.. which had been her living room rug at the old house.. .
From a farm matron in Caswell County with her own 6-room house, farm acreage, and married to a store manager in 1950... in 5 years she had transformed to a widowed, car driving, encyclopedia sales woman, turned secretary, turned substitute school teacher... who lived in two rooms in the upstairs apartment of her older sister. Though I often heard her fuss at others, I never heard Grandmama Sadie complain about her life. I still cannot smell petunias without remembering her clear blue-gray eyes, stocky, blue-haired, personage... a powerhouse of fortitude... strict, church-going, and filled with family-centric love and pride.
What I never knew.. because she never spoke of it and had sworn everyone to secrecy.. was that she wasn’t my real grandmother. She and my Grandaddy Exie had adopted my father in 1928 when he was 4 years old. I was so surprised when Mom told me.. soon after Grandmama Sadie died in 1978. All those summer weeks I spent with her... she’d pull out my father’s baby picture and show it to me..as if she’d been there when he was born.. He was round and fat with bright black eyes...and wrapped in a fur bunting like some tiny prince.. which was how she treated him. Her only son, Bobby.
The other family tree is set in Granville County near the town of Oxford... two of it’s branches are my father’s birth parents, Harvey and Ann Greenway. They had three other children besides my dad before they divorced... First, Zelma, then Clara, then Dad (born John Harvey Greenway, Jr.), and then baby Frances. We learned all of this years later when we were in our teens... Dad’s sister, Clara.. 5 years older, tracked him down when he was 28 and introduced herself and the rest of the Greenway family. My Dad had always thought he had memories of another mother, father, and sisters.. but Sadie and Exie insisted he was wrong... No one ever said exactly how it happened, and he stopped asking and we didn’t know to ask. But we visited Harvey’s new family.. over the years.. met the children with his new wife, Esther..We were told they were some sort of relations.. cousins or something.. it was vague. So we didn’t really understand who they were... until later.
Somehow, Ann, who was first married at 14 and had little education, ended up getting married a total of 6 times... But in 1928, she couldn’t find a job in little Oxford, couldn’t keep her kids, so she put the older two, Zelma and Clara, into the Methodist Orphanage at Oxford (until she married again a few years later), baby Frances went to live with relatives, and 4-year-old little John Harvey went to live with a childless couple, the Carvers, with the stipulation that she never come back for him. Records seem to indicate the Carvers never went through the process of actually adopting him legally, though they did change his name from John Harvey Greenway, Jr. to Bobbie Carver.
Still, Sadie insisted she gave birth to him... recounted what a good baby he was...and she had the baby picture to prove it. So years later, when I think of all those Roxboro cousins I played with, bossed around, and formed bonds with.. I am confused by the connection.. or non-connection.. the map of a family tree. Am I on it? or not. Now, I tend to think not.. not for either family...the Roxboro clan who made room for us; nor the Oxford clan who gave us up, and when we joined back in, never quite fit. More real are the memory snapshots of a dusty attic bedroom... the smells of a farmhouse flower garden, the shadows of a Sunday afternoon...the dotage of a lonely old lady. That is my heritage. Like a row of pinwheels spinning in the wind...
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