After his brief tour in WWII, my grandfather started a career as a sharecropper and would use his ten children as field hands. Life on the farm equipped the kids not only with agricultural skills but carpentry, auto-mechanic, plumbing and a host of other handy talents.
They raised cows, pigs and goats in a section of land called “Blacksville.” They made much of their money from their cotton and soybean crops, as well as corn, sorghum, wheat, okra and cucumbers.
As the eldest boy, my father started driving a tractor at 5-years-old when he was too small to see over the steering wheel. He’d have to start the tractor in gear, stand up to reach the pedals, and cut the gas to make it stop.
In 1966, the children helped to build their family home after my grandparent’s stopped renting from the farm owner’s land. The Lake clan could build whatever they put their minds to: deconstructing cars and tractors for fun, just to see whether they could put them back together again.
In 1982, the old house was moved to it’s current location on Highway 17 and totally remodeled. Most of the Lake siblings had moved to Minnesota by this time, leaving Jerome to do much of the work with the contractors. A second level was added to the house, as well as a den and attached garage. For 28 years, “The House” went untouched. The wallpaper, carpet and furniture remained the same.
After years of prodding from the Minnesota crew, my grandfather and Uncle Jerome agreed to allow the house to be remodeled again in 2010. My family put in new floors, bought new kitchen appliances and painted the first floor bedrooms. They hired a contractor to install new cabinets in the kitchen while they put in tile floors on their own. The bathroom was totally redone, with dual sinks added, a tile floor, new bathtub and toilet, and a sliding door separating the sinks from the interior of the bathroom.
On the morning after my grandfather passed, I limped to the bathroom to bathe and tame my fro for the day. The pain in my toe was so severe I couldn’t completely put on my left house shoe. I had to walk around with it only half on, making a shushing noise as I walked across the new floors.
I undressed, started the water and climbed into the shower. As the warm water hit my feet I felt a burn in my left big toe. At this point, I was blown away. “Really? WATER is hurting me?” So here I was, standing in the shower at an angle because I couldn’t take the burn but I couldn’t cut my shower short, as I needed to fully wash the previous day’s travel funk and grief away.
PMS and a long car ride equaled swollen feet. I thought whatever was wrong with my toe was being further irritated by water retention. I decided I’d go buy some water pills before I worried my dad about seeking medical attention.
After I’d gotten dressed and thrown my hair into an afro puff, I went to find my dad. To my surprise, he was still planning to drive to Atlanta the next day for the wedding. I was ready to call the bride and apologize for causing her to be a bridesmaid short, but my dad didn’t seem to have even thought about not going on. The plan was to head down to Atlanta on Wednesday and come back on Sunday, the morning after the wedding. This way, I wouldn’t miss my Thursday hair appointment or any of the pre-wedding festivities.
The rain finally stopped as the family started to get up and move around. My dad and I went to Fred’s Dollar Store to get my water pills. We left there to find food and ended up at the Hickory Hut, a restaurant in town known for their fried catfish. We walked in and it felt like I had walked into a Ku Klux Klan meeting. We were the only black people in sight and everyone turned to look when we entered the room. Swamp boots, overalls and hairstyles pumped full of hairspray reigned in this place. Not only were we the only non-melanin deficient folks, we were clearly Yankees. Can you say awkward?
I thought the food was pretty good, although the sweet tea was watered down and barely sweet, but the fish wasn’t fried hard enough for my dad’s liking. Neither of us finished our meals and took the leftovers back to The House for the family. It felt good to be out with my dad, just me and him. We didn’t talk about anything in particular but it was nice to get away from the black cloud covering the plot of land out on Highway 17.
When we got back to The House, I had work to do. My Auntie Lois charged me with helping her write the obituary. I’m the niece with the journalism degree, so, I guess it was only right. My Uncle Robert brought a bag full of obituaries from his house for us to use as templates. It was fascinating going through them all. I didn’t know the vast majority of the people whose obituaries were found in the bag but there was one for my favorite aunt, Claudette, my cousins Tangie and Justin, my grandma Sarah, my great-uncle Joe and my own mother, Joyce.
Looking at my mom’s obituary hit me square in chest. My eyes watered as I looked at the brilliant photos on each page. I remembered how stressful it had been for our family to write her obituary. I ran my fingers over the cover photo, longing for her presence.
As I continued to view the obituaries, I read my Aunt Claudette’s. “Who wrote this?” I asked. “Joyce helped to write that,” my Auntie Lois responded. I smiled. I could hear my mother’s voice clear as day as I read her writing.
My Uncle Kenny made the layout for my granddad’s obituary on his lap top and I sat down to fill in the missing pieces. The first issue was we had to find a picture to put on the front. My aunt went looking in my grandpa’s bedroom for some pictures. “All the pictures I can find, he has a jheri curl.”
“Aw naw! We aint doing no jheri curls!” my dad said. I thought I was going to lose my life laughing. “Surely somebody has a recent picture of him,” he said.
We called other family members to see if anyone had a picture we could use. Each one said they would look but we never got a satisfactory answer, which was odd because we have regular family reunions and we take a LOT of pictures.
I went to my computer bag, pulled out my digital camera and looked through the photos. I found one from the last family reunion in 2010. My brother and I flanked my grandpa on both sides. My hand was placed on my grandpa’s shoulder. It was a damn good picture of him but my freaking hand was in the way! If we couldn’t get around my freshly manicured hand, we’d have to use a picture from the 80s. This would never ever do.