A Private Room
I met my children before they met me. You’re probably wondering how’s this possible. I didn’t think it was until I heard a voice that was as clear as a bell: “Go to the lake!” Now you’re probably thinking I must be crazier than a bed bug. I thought so myself. I’m just now coming to terms with it. It didn’t happen until my late husband and I had to confront a crisis. We’d made a great deal of sacrifices to own this here land and the children happened to come with the package. Whenever I think about it that Marcus Garvey saying comes to mind, “Folks don’t know themselves unless their backs are ’gainst the wall.”
So there I was, early in the morning around dawn, more than twenty years ago, sipping on Mr. Lemon’s juice. I’d like to call it lemonade with a kick. It’s what folks around here call moonshine. That’s right. I take a sip or two just to jumpstart my day. Some people drink coffee; I drink Mr. Lemon’s juice. I’m over eighty years old and have a right to eat and drink whatever I want.
I have visions. I see things. I’m a mother, but none of those children have come from my womb. I’ve reared them and taught them right from wrong, but their birth mothers have long gone for some reason or another. By the year of 1925, I wasn’t thinking of having any, especially after reaching the age of sixty. Humph, at that age no woman was thinking of having children. Many of my peers had already had grandchildren by then. I just knew once I hit thirty-plus that I might as well set my sights on serving the Lord. You see, I wanted to have children, but I just wasn’t able to. Folks said I must’ve had a dead womb or something.
So there I was sipping on Mr. Lemon’s juice, waiting for the sun to rise. It was on a cloudy day, late May. Spring had already sprung and the dew was so plump on the leaves and grass that you could almost drink it. On that day a squirrel ran underneath my dress. Now I’m much too old to be wearing short dresses; usually the dresses I wear hang down to my ankles. I guess that squirrel thought he could just hide there. Well, I almost leapt on one of the trees, except my knees hurt too much for it. Yes, Lord, that day was an odd day. I thought the Lord had turned me upside down.
As soon as the first light of the sun cut between the clouds, I heard a voice. Now I already know that folks are going to question whether I know the difference between hearing the Lord or the Devil. As I said, I was sixty then, and no spring chicken. Of course, I knew the difference! And when you hear the Lord’s voice, you know it ’cause it goes straight to your heart.
So there I was sitting on my rocking chair and in between the creaking of my floorboards I heard, “Go to the lake!” I jumped up like I saw a ghost. Now I don’t believe in no haints, but that voice was just as clear as a bell. I am a law-abiding, God-fearing woman. I’m not the type that dances in the aisles of the church and claims I got the Holy Ghost. Oh no! That’s not me. I’ll sing along and tap my knees to a church hymn, but that’s as far as I go. I’d always question Miss Ethel Mae, who would shake her rump on cue around 11:30 a.m. Between you and me, she ain’t got nobody’s Holy Ghost, just trying to get the reverend’s attention. How’s someone going to have the Holy Ghost every Sunday at 11:30 in the morning? I know, ’cause I always check my watch. As soon as the second hand hits the number six, there she goes strutting down the aisle, swinging her arms and legs. I’ve been to church all of my life. I’ve been saved since I was in my single digits and the Holy Ghost has never made me jump out my seat.
But when I heard the Lord’s voice that afternoon, I jumped so quick that my tin cup full of corn liquor spilled all over my dress. I must have smelled like the still itself. I was afraid I would awaken my husband, Louis, but he slept like a rock. I think it was all that action he had the night before at the still. Hmm, humph! I wasn’t born yesterday, and as the saying goes, “Every shut eye ain’t sleep.” But that’s another story.
The Lord’s voice had such an urgency that I threw on my fishing boots, looked for the chicken livers I usually store in the back of the icebox, threw them in a white bucket, and grabbed my fishing pole. My husband didn’t even stir. Good, because I had to make haste, before the sun fully came up. It was a cloudy day and it’s best to fish when it’s cloudy. No one was out that early. It was an odd day, because I noticed everything around me. It was as if I had awakened with brand new eyes. The colors were brighter and even the town’s dirt road was a pleasant brownish orange. Now I know our road is reddish brown, but on that day it was a bright orange.
For several miles I’d noticed a blue jay perched on top of a tree branch and I even saw a gopher burrowing a hole into the ground. Now if any of my neighbors would read this they would say, “Lord, Lillian Meacham has lost her mind!” I wasn’t crazy; I was just awake. Not the kind of awake when you get out of bed. I felt more alive than I’ve ever felt. I felt as though I was the only one walking down that road. So as soon as I reached the lake I looked around to see if I would see anything strange or maybe meet Jesus walking on water, but I saw none of that. As usual, the white public boat waited at the shore, there for anyone who might need it. I got in and looked around to see if I’d see anything strange. Still nothing. I got in the boat and thought I’d be transported to somewhere. Again nothing. So, I oared to the center of the lake, hooked the chicken liver, and cast my line.
As soon as the bait sank, the sky turned pitch black. It was so black that I could hardly see my hands. Everything went still and silent. I didn’t hear singing birds, chittering insects, or soughing winds. The only thing I heard was my own breath. I felt as if I were in a private room. The air felt cool on my skin and the water a dead calm; not even a wave lapped about. I didn’t even smell a fishy scent. I have to admit whenever I get out of sorts I’d recite the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters…” Then the lake turned shiny like Mr. Bailey’s wife’s jewelry. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. The water had a silvery film to it and a strange light beamed from its center. I looked to the sky and saw pitch black. I looked to my sides and saw nothing but black. Everything was black, except for the light in that very lake.
So there I was in my boat floating on this silvery liquid. My heart was beating as fast as a jackhammer. Now I have nothing but faith in God, but I have to admit at that time a little more fear did creep into my old bones that day. I thought the lake was going to swallow me whole, and when I reached for one of my oars, I saw something in the water. It was me, but it wasn’t me at that moment. It was me on a clear sunny day, sometime in the future. I was smiling and hugging a little girl as if I was posing for a picture. Now I have heard of miracles, but on that day that was a miracle straight from God. I took my fishing rod and swung it, but the rod just swished through the image. It was real all right. It was just as real as you and I.
Now I had to get a good look at the girl to see if I recognized her, but I could not recall ever meeting her. She had ashy knees, but she was a pretty snaggletooth, a scrawny little thing with a pecan complexion, and she had dimples when she smiled. And Lord, did she have a lot of hair. Now I don’t like to question the Lord, but I wondered why I was standing there with this little girl taking a picture. Then just as soon as I blinked my eyes, the image faded. The sun cut through the clouds and it felt like it was shining directly on me. I don’t like to question the Lord, but when I saw that image I wondered how could I have children at that age. God wouldn’t drag me all the way out here just to show me that I was taking a picture, would He?
I was about to row back to shore when a catfish bit my bait. Well, I’ll be, I said. It was a big one, because I had to put my back into it to reel it in. That was a sign that it must be God. So there I was returning back home with a fish as big as me in the middle of morning. I was in deep thought. Yes, Lord! I kept thinking how I was going to take care of this little girl, when I had never raised any children. For over forty years Louis and I had been living in this house near the woods by ourselves and no one has ever bothered us, except Mr. Bailey. He’s the landowner. Now that’s another story I need to tell, ’cause they go hand in hand.
We were sharecroppers, and being a sharecropper limits you to a small amount of freedom. We could hardly do anything. It was Louis’s wish to own his land and it was his great-grandfather’s wish for his closest kin to own it as well. You see Louis’s great-grandfather was the only Southern master that agreed with President Abe Lincoln and thought it was right to give at least two hundred acres of his land to his kin, but not without a price. In the will, it stated that Louis had to come up with at least three thousand dollars to own it. You’re probably saying that’s not a lot of money, but in the early 1900s three thousand dollars was worth a mint. Louis was motivated and he sought to buy his own land from his third cousin, Mr. Bailey. You know how things happen. Mr. Bailey’s lineage is from the master and mistress of the plantation. It’s not a foreign thing for a slaveholder to have children with his slaves, you know. Mr. Bailey was from the white side of the family and sought to make sure the black side didn’t see a dime of it.
He kept Louis and I on a string with a deal he made with us. He said we could occupy half the land just as long as we turned over the crops. He also said if we made enough money, we could buy our share. That wasn’t the original agreement, but since Mr. Bailey held the deed, we had no other choice but to agree to his terms. Yes sir, he made it hard on us. As soon as we made some kind of decent profit from the tobacco, Mr. Bailey took it all. He said, “Well, I got to charge you for the seeds.” Then he took ten dollars for that. Then he said, “I got to charge you for the fertilizer.” He took twenty-five dollars for that. The next thing we knew, he was charging us for the tractor drivers, the gas, the horses, and the mules. Now all the profits that we had made dried up in one instant and next thing we knew we were owing him. That’s how Mr. Bailey kept us under his heel. We had no money to buy anything. We could barely take care of ourselves.
So, there I was many years ago, walking back to a land that wasn’t ours, knowing that I would soon have to take care of a child. It wasn’t that easy to accept another mouth to feed, but seeing that image of me in the lake, looking gratified and all, gave me something to look forward to.
When I returned home, Louis was up and about. His eyes must’ve popped out of his head when he saw that huge catfish. I just nodded, smiled, walked into the kitchen, and started breakfast. I fried the catfish, made a heap of biscuits with gravy, and scrambled a few eggs. It was a good thing Louis chopped enough wood, so I could cook such a breakfast in my potbelly stove. I was expecting company, but I just did not know when. Each time I tossed another log into the fire, I kept telling myself to trust the Lord. Louis gave me a letter as soon as he sat down at the breakfast table. It was from his great niece, Ethel, asking me to take care of her little girl. I didn’t even flinch when I read the letter, because I had already prepared myself.
It was as if I had a crystal ball at that private room at the lake. I didn’t even bother putting up the food as I usually do. I just sat and waited. Sure enough a few hours later, a car drove down our dirt road.
The car door opened and Ethel and her little girl climbed out of the car. She was a scrawny-looking thing, that little girl. Looked like she hadn’t eaten in months. Her hair was a mess and her baggy clothes were filthy gray. I just shook my head once she stepped onto my front yard. But Ethel, humph! Now she was citified and all. Straight from the North! That’s right. Her clothes were reeking of the City! Lord have mercy! And she looked like she didn’t have the time to be taking care of no six-year-old girl. Despite what folks say, that it’s much easier to live in the North than the South, it’s a bunch of nonsense. I don’t know how they do it, living all on top of each other. And they call that civilized? I know life was hard up there for her. If it wasn’t, Ethel wouldn’t be down here begging us to help her take care of her litter.
The girl looked like the spitting image I saw at the lake hours ago, except she had a little more meat on her bones. Yep, everything from her head to her toes was the same! I just nodded, looked at her, and said, “Go on inside and place your bags in the settee area.” She stood dumbfounded as if I had spoken a foreign tongue. “Place your bags in the room to the right.” She was as timid as a chicken walking through a den of wolves. I pitied the small thing, for all that hard city living must have affected that child. “And when you’re done, head to the kitchen and get yourself some breakfast.”
I didn’t have too much words for Ethel, as she was the one doing most of the talking. I listened to as much of her “yang-yang” as I could muster.
“Oh, Aunt Lillie, it’s so hot down here,” she said, fanning herself with her hand. “I forgot how hot it could get down here. In New York, we hardly feel the heat, because of the tall buildings and all. You sure look good . . . Aunt Lillie . . . We hardly have the time to sit around the heat, since we’re so busy. We. . . have so much running. . . the city is such a hard place to live . . . and I’m so grateful you . . .”
“What’s the girl’s name?”
“Oh, her name is Madeline, but we call her Maddy for short.”
I watched Ethel cram as much catfish and eggs into her mouth as if she were in a race. Right before walking out the door she had the nerve to turn around and give Maddy a quick hug and say, “Don’t worry, I’ll come back for you.” Now I knew that woman wasn’t coming back for that little girl, but I guess she had to say something before walking out that door. I felt so bad for that little girl that tears almost rushed to my eyes, but I had no time to cry, for God had given me a great task and that was to take care of her.
“How old are you, child?”
Barely parting her lips, she said, “Six.”
“I can’t hear you,” I said, raising my voice. “What you say?”
“I am SIX!”
“Now that’s better,” I said. “You listen to me. We don’t have no time to feel sorry for ourselves. You hear? You got a long life ’head of you and you’ve got a lot of work to do.”
When I said the word “work” her eyes popped right out of her head.
Since Ethel practically ate everything, Maddy didn’t have a chance to eat a morsel. I had no choice but to make something else to eat. Besides, Maddy looked like she could have used a little meat on her bones.
“Go help yourself,” I said, pointing to a basket full of fried chicken.
Maddy walked with her head down and folded her hands on top of the table.
“What you doing sitting around looking lost for?” I must’ve startled the child. “You better get something to eat.”
At first her little fingers clutched a drumstick and then she looked from side to side before she bit into it. “It’s okay. Go ’head and eat,” I told her. And eat is what she did. I had to make sure I made some potato salad and biscuits, because that girl would have eaten the entire basket of chicken.
Well, I didn’t have to do too much talking, because relaxing is what she did. She almost slept the entire day away! No sir, not in this here house. You’ve got to earn your keep! Maddy was lazy. Every day we’d wake up at least five in the morning to pick our crops of cucumbers, cotton, and tobacco. We had a goal to keep, because we didn’t want to keep owing Mr. Bailey. After all, Louis said his great-grandfather wanted him to own his land. He knew Mr. Bailey had to keep his word, because it was written in the will. It said that his land would go to his children and Louis was his great-grandchild. Just none of Louis’s lineage could afford it.
Sharecropping is just a stone-throw ’way from slavery. We got a pittance for all our labor from sunup to sundown. We might have earned less than five dollars and seventy cents a week. And if we earned that, it was a good day! Most times we got nothing, but we managed. Louis always got hot under the collar every time he talked about Mr. Bailey.
After a few months since Maddy came living with us, my husband went into the moonshine business with Mr. Lemon and made a mint, selling hooch to everyone who had a thirst for something harder than water. It was during prohibition and all of those liquor stores and bars were shut down. Yes sir, Louis made a nice piece of change from those stills. He made so much that he was able to purchase the land from Mr. Bailey and buy a Cadillac.
Whoo wee! Then Mr. Bailey saw our car parked in our front yard, and if a face could turn beet red, that’s what his face turned into. There he was rocking back and forth on his horse. But once Louis handed over all of the three thousand dollars to purchase the land, Mr. Bailey almost fell over. He couldn’t believe Loius had earned that much money. Now I don’t understand how he was all a sudden ignorant of how my husband made money, because he was there buying moonshine, too. Everyone was buying from Mr. Lemon and my Louis. The whole town practically drank from Mr. Lemon’s still. My Louis was so good in math that he could calculate large numbers within seconds.
So there he was presenting the money to Mr. Bailey, but Bailey didn’t sign the land over to him right away. “Not sure how valid this is,” Mr. Bailey said, reading the will. His hands shook like he had the palsy. “I gotta make sure this is legit. I don’t trust it.”
Louis didn’t get upset. All he said, “By all means, Mr. Bailey, do what you need to do.” He said it with a smile and pocketed his money. A few days later, Louis was summoned to the Office of the Clerk of Circuit Court of Roanoke County of Virginia. It was a proud moment for us. We had our chests stuck out like peacocks. We got in our Cadillac dressed in our Sunday best and rode on down to the clerk’s office. Louis had just bought that car. He was one of the few who owned cars in Maple Springs, Virginia. So there we were driving on down to that clerk’s office to check on the legitimacy of our will. Now we knew our papers were real as the real McCoy itself, but we went down anyway. We parked right near Mr. Bailey’s horse and wagon and walked inside the clerk’s office to see how the clerk made Mr. Bailey sign the two hundred acres over to us.
It was a mighty day and on that night we had a big party to celebrate. We invited all of our friends and townsfolk to come over. Lord, it was a good night. I made fried chicken, potato salad. Sally Mae brought over pickled pig feet and Mabel made dinner rolls. Iona made chocolate cake. Katrina made blackberry cobbler and sweet potato pie. With a few drinks and a squint, Louis started to look like the slave master himself, except with a darker hue. We all laughed at that. Yes sir, it was a good night.
So there we were sipping on Mr. Lemon’s juice, laughing up a storm. We must’ve drunk a whole slew of moonshine. Everything was forgotten, the crops, the deed, the will, the sharecropping, the work, the sweat. . . everything until we heard a heavy knock at the door. As soon as we opened it, a rush of heat practically singed our eyebrows from the burning cross sticking in our front yard. Lord, have mercy on me! It was one of the most frightening days of my life. We all ran to the well to draw buckets of water to put the fire out. We finally smothered the thing until our house was covered in a cloud of smoke. That was the largest cross I have ever seen. To me, it looked larger than the world itself, especially with the raging flames and all! That cross didn’t come without a voice that said, “You uppity negras gotta know yer place!”
There must’ve been at least fifty of them in white robes and pointy hats, sitting on horses. It was the KKK, all right. We all knew Mr. Bailey was part of the Klan. It was a good thing our car was hidden behind the bushes. No one dared to say anything at that moment. We all stared at them until they rode away on their horses into the pitch darkness. You think my Louis was scared? No siree. He just figured if the law said this was our land, then this was our land. He had the papers to prove it, too.
A few hours later, Louis rushed out the door. He didn’t even wait till the sun came up. No one went home that day; they stayed inside the house and prayed. They all were too afraid to venture out, but not my Louis. I always refer to Marcus Garvey’s saying, “Black people don’t know themselves unless their backs are ‘gainst the wall.” Well, there was no way I could sit still either. I kept thinking since I had that vision of Maddy at the lake that I would be able to inquire about our land. I needed answers.
As soon as I saw a glimmer of light in the sky, I slipped out and grabbed a fist of land from our yard. I didn’t have time to put on my boots. The dew was so thick that you could have sliced through it. This time I didn’t see no gophers, no birds, no nothing ’cause my eyes were full of tears and my chest was full of rage. I ran barefoot three miles to my private room with the Lord. I got into my white boat as usual.
So there I was in the boat early in the morning long before anyone thought about fishing. Besides a hot sunny day is not a good fishing day, but there was not one single family out there, except for the Jenkins. They must have slept by the lake to escape the heat.
I sat in the boat and paddled to the middle of the lake, then I threw a fistful of land from my yard. As soon as I did, the sky turned black just like it did when I saw the image of Maddy. My boat rocked from side to side and a big wave came out from nowhere to swallow me up. Now I wasn’t expecting this at all. I thought I would get a calm answer just like before, but the boat rocked so much that it capsized, throwing me into the water. There I was, holding onto the edge of the boat with my fingers turning raw. I happened to look over my shoulder and saw an image of Louis being swallowed up in a funnel of water. When I tried to reach out to him, the sun came out and the image disappeared. So, there I was hanging off the boat, looking stupid as can be.
Essex Jenkins swam out to get me. “Aunt Lillie!” he said, yelling, and diving into the lake.
By the time Essex reached me, I had already climbed onto the boat.
“You all right, Aunt Lillie?” he asked. He swam, carrying me and the boat to shore.
The cat had got my tongue that day. For once I was at a loss for words.
“My wife and kids were escaping the morning heat and then all of a sudden we saw you hanging off the boat.”
“Did you see anything else?”
“No, ma’am, that was all we saw,” he said, grabbing my hand.
I just shook my head and climbed off the boat.
“Wait, Aunt Lillie!” Essex said, running after me. “Do you need help getting home?”
“No, I’m fine,” I said, walking surefooted. “Go on now. I got some business to tend to.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with his hat in hand. “But don’t you need to dry off?”
“No, I’m all right, son.” I nodded. “I’m in God’s hands!”
I had to get home quickly before anyone realized that I’d been missing. But it was too late. Jethroe was on the porch waiting for me with a rifle on his lap.
“Lord have mercy, Aunt Lillie!” he shouted, standing up as if a bolt of lightning had hit him. “You could have been killed out there.”
“Not if the Good Lord willed it,” I said, quietly, walking into the house.
Looking at me from head to toe, he said, “Did you jump in the lake or something?”
I just looked at him and the look I gave him made Jethroe afraid to ask me any more questions. He shook his head and knew better than to argue with me, but he did say, “Your husband gave me strict orders not to allow you out of my sight.”
I just nodded and then pivoted to look at the damage the KKK had done to our home. Red paint had been splashed onto the pillars and posts of our porch. It covered some of our windows. Our crops were pulled up and strewn all over the place. It looked like a tornado tore through our land, but it didn’t disturb me as much as the image at the lake, swallowing my husband. I already knew what was going to happen.
Katrina tried to feed me a slice of her sweet potato pie, but I had no appetite. The food from the night before twisted inside my stomach. I clutched my Bible onto my lap and rocked back forth and waited. I said silent prayers until I heard, “BOOM!” My husband’s automobile careened into our pear tree in the front yard. I ran out to find my Louis bent at the wheel with a noose tied around his neck.
Everything went black right after that. Someone must have caught me before I fell to the ground. I wailed as I watched Jethroe cut the noose away from my Louis’s bruised neck. As they laid him in bed, they saw a few papers crumpled in Louis’s fist.
I could barely look at my husband’s face. One of his eyes was missing, his broken nose was pushed to the right side of his face, his front teeth were missing, and his breathing—Lord have mercy—sounded like a broken accordion. And with a whisper, he managed to say to me, “God fooled them, Lillie. Rotted rope.”
“Please don’t talk, Louis!” I didn’t know what else to say. I just looked at him and said, “The Lord will provide! The Lord will provide!”
Then he motioned for me to come closer.
“They all thought I was dead and walked away,” he said, touching his neck. “They wanted me to swing over the deed, Lillie. Take the papers.”
Looking down at his right fist, I pried open his fingers and saw the deed in our names: Louis Emmett Meacham and Lillian Anne Meacham of South Hill, farmers, are now the sole proprietors of an estate in fee simple. . .
I couldn’t believe my eyes. Every inch of our land was described on that little piece of paper, all two hundred acres of it. When I looked up, Louis bunched his eyebrows. “I don’t want you in this here house alone.”
“I’d be fine, Louis!” I said. “I’m in God’s hands.”
He took his last breath right after that.
“Oh Jesus!” Katrina cried, buckling down to her knees.
“God,” Jethroe said, grabbing a rifle. “I’m going after that son-of-a-!”
“You ain’t going after no one!” I said, standing over my husband’s broken body. “The more violence you bring to them, the more violence they’ll bring to us.”
Mr. Lemon and his posse continued to talk about retaliation and how they should shoot and kill Mr. Bailey and his Klan. As I said I am a God-fearing woman, but at that moment I thought about it myself. I can shoot a rabbit a mile away and I wouldn’t hesitate to put one in Mr. Bailey’s hind. That’s right, I said it. But then we thought how they would retaliate against us and how we would invite the Grim Reaper himself to our doors. I already had a child to take care of and didn’t want to put her in harm’s way. Then I thought about it and said the best revenge was success and no matter what they did or will do, they can’t take my land away from me. And when I laid my husband’s body to rest, I vowed to the Lord, I would stand tall even in the Devil’s den.
So, when I returned home, I saw Mr. Bailey and his Klan again, but this time a storm brewed. I shouted, “Get off my land!” As soon as I said that a bolt of lightning almost hit Mr. Bailey’s hind. Well, ever since then, I had no more trouble from him or his stupid Klan.
A few weeks after Louis’s funeral, I decided to visit the lake again. I cast my line in the middle of the lake as I had done before. The sky had turned black and I only heard my breathing and nothing else. I brought the Bible with me just in case the water had other thoughts. Everything seemed calm just like the first time I saw Maddy’s image, but this time I saw myself surrounded by a host of children, about eighteen of ’em. There were more than a few boys and girls smiling in the sun and there I was standing in the midst of them and my plaits beneath my straw hat were significantly more silver.
I studied every single one of their faces and knew who they were before they stepped onto my yard. Everyone from the big city New York had heard how I had taken care of Maddy and that I had plenty of land. The next thing I knew I was seeing more cars coming down my dirt road than Clifton Wheatley’s store.
I call these children special packages from God. Johnny had a mole above his lip and was as ornery as a fox. Esther and Laura were two pretty girls with long pigtails. Charles was chubby and lazy as can be.
Our land became fruitful, so fruitful that I no longer had to work and nor did I make my children work. The only work I asked them to do was to get an education, because education is true freedom. As for me, I now own jewelry as shiny as Mrs. Bailey’s, but I hardly wear it, you know.
After the children grew up and left, every first Saturday of the month of June, a child of a child I raised would come and stay the whole summer with me, and I made each and every one of them call me grandma. Because each child I’ve already seen before in God’s Private Room. Therefore, I figure, they got to be my own.
[Check out Adanze’s back porch wisdom here]