[photo added soon]
I drove my Daddy out today to catch a ride for a weekend deep-sea fishing trip â€“ his first in about 30 years. Small talk with him has a way of turning into big talk â€“ the kind that Iâ€™ll turn to over and again.
We passed a field where a man used to keep burros. For as long as I can remember the man had kept burros in that pasture and there wasnâ€™t a one to be seen. I pondered aloud about it, and Daddy didnâ€™t have an answer for me. I joked to him that Iâ€™d keep a burro if I had a field to put one inâ€¦thought it might give me reason to more frequently wonder about life from a perspective of short stature and a slow paced life, and I said so. And Iâ€™d name that burro John Henry, if I had one. Then my Daddy laughed in a way that he thought he was keeping to himself.
I reminded him of a family picture of his great-grandma, Mammy Liz, who, as family historians had it, served as a midwife in Stokes County, NC for a long time. She rode her big mule, John Henry, on such calls to help her laboring neighbors, and the picture caught both their images. Daddy didnâ€™t rightly remember ever having seen that picture, and the conversation turned more into what he didnâ€™t remember precisely than what he did â€“ either through the fog of old age and underexercised memory or never having known the full truth. He said,
â€œYou know, your Mammy Liz had six children â€“ all illegitimate”…
and we let that statement hang in the air between us to ripen for a bit.
Late 19th century rural social and cultural norms would not have gone easy on Mammy Liz if that were the truth. To have had six illegitimate children, she evidently didnâ€™t much care one way or another. She raised them all to raise their own.
I replied that it would explain a hell of a lot why Iâ€™d never been able to make sense out of how this one was related to that one when last names never quite matched up to the stories told and lineages recounted. And it certainly didnâ€™t help matters when one child took his motherâ€™s name when another took the name of his motherâ€™s mother instead of rightfully making his real daddy a touch uncomfortable with the truth. But all of this was the small talk.
The big talk dripping like a leaking pack house roof from that exchange was that Mammy Liz did what she damn well pleased whether or not it suited another soul. And she had a mule named John Henry that took her wherever she needed to go.