1243 Walker Road
by Mary Johnson
I think back to the past of a place I call home, which most people would probably call a shack. I was raised at the address of 1243 Walker Road, Dover, Delaware. My grandparents raised me and my other six siblings. My grandparents’ names were Emily and Lindsey Bessix. Our house was made out of wood and the roof was tin. Sometimes I was afraid that a good storm would come and blow our house away.
You would always find a pail of water on the back porch for drinking. You see, we didn't have running water. All of our water came from a pump in the back yard. Our water came right out from the well. The cabinets and cupboards were built in the walls. We had two stoves; one was a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Next to the living room stove you would find a pail that held the coal. Our restroom was an outhouse in the backyard. If we needed to use the restroom at night we would have to use a chamber pot. Next to my grandmother's stove was a wooden table with seven wooden chairs. A white linen tablecloth covered the table which had a lamp filled with oil and wicker for lighting the house. Right next to the kitchen was a wood shed, where we stored wood and coal for the winter. When you would walk into our living room, there right in the middle of the floor sat a big potbellied coal stove with tin pipes connecting to the wall. Every window in the house had at least six square panes and on the living room wall was a hand painted picture of Jesus. Near the coal stove in the living room was a rocking chair, where every night we would set on a thick rug to hear my grandmother tell stories about our family history.
My grandmother would tell us stories about her childhood and ghost stories. Most of the stories were about my great grandfather who lived to be 110 years old and died in 1965. My great grandfather, as I remember, was a very tall man with long white beard like Santa Claus. The color of his hair was like a pearl. We were told stories about how their family survived the Great Depression and how she and her siblings got very little education. Most children from her time period had to go to work to help support their family. My grandmother and her five sisters got work with white families. The only kind of the work to be found was mopping and cooking on the farm. She told us that during the Great Depression they lived off the white man’s scraps. She explained that some parts of the pig or cow the white man didn't eat were thought of as trash. Some of these parts were the feet and tail, guts, ears, and tongue. For many years she told us that these parts were thought about as scraps, until white society realized that black people were using the scraps to feed their bellies. When white society realized they could make money on what they then thought were scraps, they began to charge black folk to get their scraps.
On rainy nights we used to sit around in a circle and our grandmother would tell us ghost stories. The ghost stories would usually be about a headless woman who walked around with high heels. She was looking for her head. As my grandmother told the stories, I could hear the rain hitting against the tin roof and the coals inside the stove popping and the oil lamp lighting seemed to be dimmer than usual. The house was so quiet I could hear the cracking or settling of the house. Every noise seemed to echo as my grandmother would say, “Sh, sh did you hear that,” and we would say, "What, mom?" She would respond, "Listen close, she's out there walking," and we would jump on our grandmother’s lap. Whenever my grandmother told us a ghost story, we all slept with her that night. She piled us in a full size bed, like a can of sardines. I remember three people would be at the top of bed and three at bottom of the bed. There would be no complaints, no requests to “Get your feet out of my face.”
Our home was located in the middle of very large lot. The front yard had many tall trees. When fall came the leaves would turn brown and orange and they would fall to the ground. When the leaves began to change color, it reminded everyone that winter wasn't far behind. My sisters and I would rake the leaves in several piles and jump right into the center of the piles. We used to play for hours in the leaves, and when we were done leaves and grass would be in our hair. Our grandmother would yell out the door, "You girl's better finish that yard; you don't want me to come out there." We knew just by the tone of her voice that it was time to stop playing and finish the yard work.
To the right of house was our garden. We planted cabbage, tomatoes, corn, lettuce, peas, and potatoes. In June every year my grandparents would pay someone to plow the earth so we could plant the seeds. I remember my sisters Tizzle and Rosemary and I would have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to begin the seeding before the sunrise. After planting the seeds, our job was to water the seeds, so they could grow. So, every day my sisters and I would fill water pails from the water pump. We would take turns using the pail, and row by row we would walk until the whole field was water. By the time we finished our breakfast would be hot and waiting on the table. On the table waiting for us would be pancakes, fresh ground sausage patties, and fresh eggs straight from our chickens, maple syrup, and milk in a tin pitcher.
After breakfast it was time to do our chores around the house. My older sister Tizzle would always get the dishes and the kitchen. Rosemary and I would have the living room. Rosie and I would pull the old, torn worn rug outside to the clothesline and beat the dust out of the rug with a broom. I liked cleaning the living room because we knew all the hiding places where my grandmother stashed candies from us. My grandmother alway had a tin can of gumdrops, orange slices, and peppermint patties, and she would hide them under the stove. As we cleaned, we ate candy but always got caught because she could smell the peppermint on our breath.
In our backyard we had pigs and chickens. We had ten pigs and about twenty chickens. Each was housed separately. The chickens were in the hen house. There were two different colors of chickens, red and white. My grandparents never bought eggs from the store because the chickens laid eggs. There were brown and white eggs. My sister Tizzle refused to eat eggs unless they were brought from the store. Every Easter our grandparents would give us a pretty little baby chicken, small and yellow like a banana. One day my sister saw my grandfather ring the neck of the chicken to kill the chicken for dinner and from then on my sister would not eat chicken anymore. It seemed strange because every year for winter we would send our big pig to the slaughterhouse to eat over the winter and my sister had no problem in eating pork chops or other meat from the pig. I guess it might have been because she didn't see the pig slaughtered.
Getting ready to go back to school after Labor Day was a very businesslike time around the house. I can remember my first year of school, entering the first grade. Two days before Labor Day we all piled in our 1960 ford to drive into town. This was the day every one got new clothes and shoes for school. It seemed like every year we would go to the same shoe store and buy the same shoes. My sisters and I had two choices, black and white, and oxford or penny loafer. We used to hate our choice of shoes but our grandparents loved them because they lasted a long time. We all had three pairs of shoes, one each for school, church, and for play. If we weren't able to go to the shoe store my grandfather would take a string and measure our foot and take that to the store. The only time we could wear our good shoes was going to school or church. As soon as we got home, we had to put on our playing shoes. I remember my first school dress was a red and blue plaid. The night before school, we pulled enough water from the pump to put in to a round tub and heated it on the stove, so we could take a bath. After all the girls finished taking our bath, it was time to fix our hair. My oldest sister would have the task of pressing Rosie’s and my hair. She would take a metal comb and place it on top of the kitchen wood stove to heat it up. Tizzle would take the hot comb in her hand and place it between toilet tissue to make sure the comb wasn't to hot for the hair. After my sister finish pressing our hair it was time to curl our hair. To curl our hair she would put the curling iron into the oil lamp glass shade to heat it. Our hair would be pressed and curled and last thing we would have to do was tie our hair down with stocking caps. Yes, a stocking from a pair of my grandmother’s panty hose that wasn't useable anymore. I can remember how we all looked forward to the first day of school so we could show off our new clothes. As usual, my grandmother would have a hot breakfast ready, such as hot homemade biscuit straight out of the oven, eggs, and bacon or oatmeal on a cold morning. Around 7:30 a.m. the big yellow bus stopped in front of us house and we all entered with our new book bags and wearing our new clothes.
After all my oldest siblings left home only Rosie and I were left with our grandparents. On rainy days my youngest sister and I would play dress up with my grandmother's clothes. Rosie and I would go up into the attic with our cut up dolls and our regular dolls. We would have to climb a flight of steps and with every step we made we could hear the squeaking steps that were in need of repair. In the attic, there were old worn chest drawers and a Chester trunk shaped like a treasure chest. The attic had two windows. One window faced the front of the house and the other window faced the back yard. As we approached the attic, there was the smell of mothballs. Rose and I would go straight to the large Chester trunk. In the Chester trunk were many goodies: our grandmother’s jewelry, hats, shoes, and dresses. I used to pick out the biggest hats with flowers attached. The flowers were always a bright color like the women wore in the 1930s. We used to put the corset on and pull it tight like we saw our grandmother do. There were slips that were called candy canes. These slips were made with material that made the dress expand like a balloon. I can remember the slip would make us itch because of the roughness of the material against our skin. Then it was time to pick out the shoes for our outfit. Our shoes were always high heel shoes. The heel was as narrow as a pencil. We would try to walk in the shoes and couldn't without wiggling and falling over because the shoes were too high and too big. Then my grandmother would yell "What you girls doing up there?" and we would say, "Nothing, Mom."
In the attic we would cut up our grandmother’s old clothes to make baby clothes for our dolls. I would make the clothes and my sister was the hair designer for our dolls. We would play for hours as the rain poured outside. Rain would be tacking against the tin roof and windows. There was a table near the front window with three chairs that were in need of repair. As we played we heard the steps beginning to sneak and we knew our grandmother was coming to check on us. We quickly started to put the attic in some kind of order before grandma reached the top step. Most of the time our grandmother would have a tray with two cups, hot water in a teapot, and hot apple dumplings straight from the oven. My grandmother brought new smells into the room, spices like nutmeg and all spice. She would place the tray on the table and go back down the steps, but not without reminding us to make sure we girls put everything just like we found it. Rosie and I would place our dolls in the chairs at the table and pour tea into our play cups .We would have a tea party all dressed up like grown ups.
When winter came we knew snow would be coming right after Thanksgiving and that Christmas would be coming soon, too. Weeks before Christmas we started giving our grandparents our wish lists. My grandmother used to tell us that we better be good if we wanted Santa to stop by. I remember my sister and I would be extra good. Rosie would walk around singing the song, Santa's Coming to Town. On Christmas Eve my grandmother would be in the kitchen all day. The smell of pies and cakes would be flowing through each room like water through a pump. Outside, the snow would be falling on the holly trees with red berries. What a pretty sight. In the morning we would see red Cardinal birds sitting on the branches that were covered by snow and icicles hanging from the edge of our roof. Our back yard would be completely covered and right in the middle the very tall pine tree next to the back door had branches weighted down with snow. Standing straight across from the big potbellied coal stove stood a fresh cut pine Christmas tree with homemade decorations.
Rosie and I would make strings of popcorn and paper chains to go around the tree. We would hang our stockings on the side of the stairs. Our grandparents never put presents under the tree until Christmas day, and once in while my sister or I would look out the window for Santa. Rose and I would try to stay up and wait for Santa and my grandmother would say, "Santa won't come until he knows that every little girl and boy is asleep." So, we made hot chocolate and left cookies for Santa and off to bed we would go. Many times Rose and I would pretend to be sleep and crack open the door to peek to out watch for Santa, but we always got caught. The next morning we would wake up and under the tree would be a load of presents. We got dolls, a tea set, puzzles, clothes, and money from our oldest siblings. There was so much to eat on Christmas: turkey, ham, yams, kale greens, cranberries, macaroni and cheese, peach cobbler, white potato pies, and all different kind of cakes. All around the house were bowls of various candies and nuts. My oldest sister and brothers would all come to dinner with their families and the house would be filled with joy and laughter.
Then, all the snow would melt away and summer would be upon us again. Every summer my grandmother would organize the family reunion at our home. We always looked forward to the reunion because Rosie and I were the youngest so adults would always give us money. One of my grandmother's sisters had eighteen children. This great aunt named some of her children after the days of week. All the women worked in the kitchen making their favorite meal. Children weren't allowed in the kitchen while they were cooking. My aunt's favorite meal to cook was chicken and dumplings. Boy, did she pile on the black pepper! My uncle would go to the hen house and get two chickens and ring their necks and chop off their heads. He would take the chickens and put them in a pot of hot water so he could pluck the feathers from the chickens in the backyard. People as far as Denver and as close as Maryland would fly in for this event. Outside in the backyard, we had 12 large tables positioned under a large shade tree, and inside the house was a table for the elders of the families. What I liked most is that we children had our own table. This would allow us to have fun and not hear, "Take your arm off the table or sit up straight in your chair." Each table was set up with a variety of foods fit for a king. There was so much food that my grandmother didn't have to cook for week. Much of the meal was divided among family members. My grandmother and her sisters would tell stories about their brother Uncle Frank and sister Aunt Jane. As children we were always afraid of Aunt Jane because we were told stories about how she had sewed her husband to the bed and beat him with a board with nails in it and then set him afire. The truth was that Aunt Jane’s husband was very abusive and he may have deserved it, but we still stayed far away from her. Uncle Frank stole the land, from my grandmother and her sister Louise, that their mother left them after she died. Uncle Frank convinced two of his women friends to pretend to be his sisters and Uncle Frank sold the land. My grandmother and her sister got together and they beat the hell out of him. All my great aunts and uncles including Uncle Frank would sit around all day laughing and talking about the good old days.
I have been told that home is where the heart is and my heart and mind will always be fixed on 1243 Walker Road. My ex- husband used to tell me that you can take the girl out of the country but you can't take the country out the of girl. In most people’s eyes we were poor, but in our heart we had more than most people. We knew that we were loved and wanted. The only thing a rich man or woman has that we didn't have was a big house. We might not have had the all the modern things such as TV, running water, gas and electricity, but we never lacked for food, clothes, shelter, heat and most of all hugs and kisses. When I think back to my past tears come to my eyes because to have a life like mine is only in fairly tale books. I will always remember my grandparents’ words. "Those were good old days." How right they were.