In 1957 amazing things were occurring in the world but none as important as my connection with the old woman that lived next door. I was seven years old that year and she was ninety-seven. Let that sink in just a moment. She would turn 97 the same year Soviet Russia successfully launched "Sputnik," the first man-made satellite into space.
My history, my becoming aware of the world begins with the era of the hula hoop, the slinky, Old Yeller, cars with fins that made space-ships look slow, the cold-war, the baby boom, segregation, Eisenhower, erector sets, watching re-runs of The Three Stooges, and only 48 states in the nation.
I remember so well looking directly at her face, studying the wrinkles, spots and furrows while she spoke. Her words were coming at me but were heard as though filtered through the deep end of a swimming pool. I'm pretty sure she asked me what year I was born but I was lost for the moment in paying attention to her well-traveled old face when distinctly and clearly, I heard her say, "I was born in 1860."
Snapping out of it, my head darted back and forth a couple of times and I answered, "Wait, what, what did you say?"
Slowly and distinctly, she said again, "I was born in 1860."
Looking at my fingers and realizing I didn't have enough digits to count, my response was, "as in almost a hundred years ago 1860?"
Her body leaned forward so close we were nearly nose to nose, and she said, "Niney-six to be esact, be niney-seven in a minute."
My little seven-year-old brain had a flash of pictures of everything I knew about 1860. Which of course wasn't all that much but I'm sure the look on my face was just what she had hoped it would be - one of curiosity, wonderment and awe.
"When I's born, Abra'm Lincoln was elected Pres'dent of the U-nited States."
"Abraham Lincoln, the Abraham Lincoln? Nuh uh." I brilliantly responded.
"It's true," she said.
The 16th President of the United States, was alive and well when this old lady was born, and I'm sitting here talking to her. In 1860 there were only 33 states, the telegraph was a new-fangled method of long distant communication, trains didn't connect the east coast with the west, the civil-war would not start for another year and she was not spared being born a slave.
"Dang," I said to myself. Fireworks were going off in my head.
Mrs. Garrett was a light skinned negro woman. So much so, I didn't know she was an African-American. I saw plenty of black kids on the occasional visit of her relatives and should have been in and of itself a pretty big clue. My parents told me she was an American Indian, and I believed them.
My Dad kept all personal views about race and such to himself. I was aware his father, Hillard, my grandfather, had views I didn't understand, but the jury was still out on silent Bill, my father. My mother, grand-daughter of Irish immigrants on the other hand, didn't care about who her neighbors were as long as everyone kept out of our affairs. I thought it odd the old Indian woman had black friends and relatives and we didn't, but I was naive that way.
George Magielda was my best friend. Kenny Walker, the only black kid at Todd Elementary School, was my next closest play pal and there was no mistaking him for a native American. Ms. Garrett appreciated how the three of us played and wrestled around in the front yard and that my parents treated them like their own, she told me so.
At any rate, it was my understanding from my parents and relatives that asking her about whether or not she was colored or an Indian or part of each, was not appropriate and frankly none of my business. But I was seven - guess what happened?
Back to her being ninety-six and all that implied - her back story did not come to me all at once, she provided small tidbits about herself with timed precision over the course of the most fulfilling and interesting summer of my life. First, we had to meet, become accustom to one-an-other and trust each other. And we did in short order.
I didn't have to be older or educated to know to appreciate someone that old. The fact my little friends didn't get the significance of her age made me feel wise and informed and superior to them but that's generally how I felt most of the time. Not long after my family moved into the house on E 61st Street from our shabby top duplex on Hubbard Avenue she scolded me for cussing.
Peering over the railing from her rocking chair, she said, "boy, if I ever hear you cuss like that again I'll come off this porch and switch you like there's no tomara."
"Well excuse me Ma'm," I said mockingly, "but I didn't do any such thing." Not that I wasn't capable of it but I surely didn't get caught at it. The words had no sooner left my mouth when she stood up and in a slightly elevated voice gave me instruction not to my liking.
"Go over to that tree and pull off a switch. And you better make it a stout one or I'll give it to ya-what-for on the legs." I had never been switched before but I heard stories about it and I knew I was too old and could run too fast to be switched by the likes of her.
I don't know why I said it, but I did, my face scrunched up in a puzzled fashion and I replied in a challenging manner, "why don't you just come down off that porch and try it." Oh shit.
She stood up like a jack rabbit and I darted the other direction straight for my back door duly reported the incident to my mother. Thinking I better tell her what happened before the meanest woman I had ever met, so I thought, gets me in trouble for something I didn't do.
Mrs. Garrett, as I learned later was a tad bit hard of hearing and she truly thought I said a pretty bad word. My mother told me to be tolerant of old people but made me very much aware if I needed to be switched, she would let the old gal do it and left it at that. I had come to expect swift justice from my mother and believed her.
My first encounters with Mrs. Garrett confirmed she was watching and listening from her porch to what we did and said as we played in our yard, all while sitting there quietly rocking and keeping busy with knitting and clipping coupons and such. Every so often I would look at her and our eyes would meet. Once she even smiled before she looked away to pay attention to whatever else it was that kept old women busy and at the same time stealthily paying attention to what kids like me were plotting. The outcome of our first meeting would not have foretold we would become friends but the universe had other plans.
She didn't talk much, hardly at all really about her parents and what she knew about their life - I surmised it was not for my understanding. I do know she married a cowboy that mess'd-round on her so she got rid of him and married a law man in Kansas that was part Indian from Oklahoma and moved on from there.
That was just the beginning. In one sitting she regaled me with the abridged version of her adventures in horse drawn wagons and her association with people from all walks of life, such as the likes of Isom Dart, Nat Love and of her many kind and generous interactions with the Melungeons of Appalachia that called her one of their own.
Like Mrs. G, Isom Dart was born a slave. He though, became a desperado and a cattle rustler and gambler. His gang of desperados were ambushed by a posse of some sort and killed. Dart was spared because he found and hid for hours in a nearby grave. Surviving that, he went straight and rode the cattle range hiring out as a bronco buster and cowhand. In his later years he took back to rustling and was killed at the age of 51 in 1900 by the bounty hunter Tom Horn. Speculation had it Horn was paid to kill one of Dart's gang members, Matt Rash, then laid in wait for Dart as well because there were warrants out on him. Horn was never charged for Dart's murder but was hung years later in 1903 for the murder of a sheep herder's fourteen-year- old son. Mrs. G was 40 when Isom Dart was killed and 43 when Horn was hung.
Nat Love was born a slave in 1954 and left his native Tennessee in 1868 for adventure in the west. He worked as a cowhand in a vast area encompassing Texas, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and states adorned by the Rocky Mountains. She assured me he had quite the man's man story, being captured by and escaping Indians, witnessing and participating in gun fights and riding with the likes of Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Kit Carson and Jesse James. About the middle of his life, Love left the cowboying business and took a wife and a job as a bank guard and as a Pulman porter before he died in 1921 at the age of 67. Mrs. Garrett was 61 years old at the time of his death.
I was spellbound by the very thought of her encounters with the likes of them, people I hadn't heard of, yet (in)famous in their time. She revealed to me how it was necessary to discuss things quietly among her folk back in the day, how she survived reconstruction of the south (whatever that was) and how exciting it was to be around for the invention of the telephone, phonograph, photographs, movies, automobiles, airplanes, vaccinations, atom bombs, and so forth. She had at least one recollection for each topic mentioned.
At every sitting, thousands of miniscule explosions would go off in my head. It was easy to launch into my own imaginings about her adventures as though I was there with her. I was hooked - that summer, that porch and that old lady was my entire world.
Part 2 of Mrs. Garrett's Front Porch
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