Once upon a Time in Charlotte

My mother remembers sitting on the front porch of a red brick house on South Tryon Street in Charlotte, North Carolina, one morning in 1926 eating Grape Nuts cereal and pretending to order groceries on a toy telephone.

The place where her house stood is now a parking lot, or the weedy lot next to it, directly across the street from the Charlotte Observer.

Nothing that Mother might have seen from her house is left standing today, for Charlotte has not grown older, she has grown younger. She is a stunning and sophisticated city with a shimmering glass and steel skyline that befits the second largest financial center of the nation.

But Mother remembers that in 1926 when she left her house and turned right, the Cox bakery was about the middle of the next block up. If she turned left, and went to the end of the block and turned right, she came to a feed store. One day she was walking by the feed store when a man sitting out front invited her to sit on his lap. Mother did not want to sit in the man’s lap but she didn’t know how to say “no” to a grownup. When he ran a finger along the under edge of the elastic on her panty leg, she jumped down and ran home to tell her mother.

“Stay here. Do not leave this house,” her mother commanded and then she was out the screen door and down the front steps and walking down the sidewalk fast and hard. I can only imagine that what she said to the man was something like: “If you ever so much as look at my daughter again I will tell my husband and then you had better hope the police get to you before he does because I promise you, he will kill you.” Or words to that effect.

Mother thinks that from the front steps of her house she could see, at some distance beyond where the Charlotte Observer now stands, a train trestle. She recalls quite clearly that one rain-swept winter day, her mother saw a hobo shivering under the trestle and she hurried out to him with my grandfather’s only suit. Clayton was twenty-six at the time, and supporting his young family by driving a cab in Charlotte. He was not happy when Sudie told him she had given away his only suit. To a bum.

Mother also remembers that a crippled boy lived next door. His people kept several vicious German Shepherds in a pen next to the house, directly under the boy’s bedroom window upstairs. One night Mother was awakened by the sound of the dogs moving about restlessly inside their chain-link fence. On the wall at the foot of her bed she saw a halo of light from the street lamp outside. The heavy old trees outside were noisy with cicadas. Then she heard a thin, high-pitched wail. And the dogs exploded in a mauling, snarling, killing frenzy. The crippled boy had either jumped or fallen from his window into the dog pen. Mother could hear them killing him, her own screams shrilling in her ears.

The only sound at night there now is the swish-swish-swish of traffic below the Highway 277 overpass.

Early morning begins in Charlotte today with the noise of jackhammers and the snarl of leaf blowers, but Mother remembers the milkman at dawn, his bottles clinking quietly. She remembers the play of children through the slow, dreamlike progression of day to lilac twilight and fireflies. At the age of six, my mother’s two front baby teeth were missing. She had a small, heart-shaped face, hazel eyes, and a Buster Brown haircut, the silky brown hair swinging alongside her cheeks when she jumped rope. She wore little smock dresses and scuffed Buster Brown shoes. Her knees were always dirty.

In those days kids lived close to the earth. They interested themselves in small things. They squatted and poked at anthills with sticks. They fashioned playthings out of scraps of wood and tin and cardboard. They invented games, acted out stories of their own imagining. Mother, for instance, collected Lady Bugs, tucking them gently into little Diamond Match box hospital beds. When the Lady Bugs died, the matchboxes served nicely as coffins.

Today, sleek new cars, climate-controlled, stereos thumping, flash down South Tryon Street and fire engines and ambulances surge honking and screaming through the city, but on South Tryon in 1926, you could stand in the yard outside your house and hear the tinkling of a teaspoon in a glass of sweet tea in the dining room above your head. Sitting in itchy grass, engrossed in the delicate manipulation of flower stems to make dolls out of mimosas and day lilies, Mother could hear her mother’s voice coming from the open kitchen window, she could hear the sound of a lid dropped on a pot, and the fragrance of butterbeans simmering in bacon drippings drifted over her play.

After noontime dinner, the children took naps. At about 2:00 you would see them coming out of their houses, still groggy, taking the steps down off the porches one at a time. They might sit down dreamily on the last step for a moment until something caught their attention. They liked to see the tar truck coming. They liked the smell of the hot tar, liked to crouch at the edge of the road where it crusted and mash the blisters to hear the soft pop. Tar was their chewing gum.

On hot summer afternoons the plashing of water from the street watering truck brought them on the run. As the truck wallowed up the street, they danced, shrieking, in its cooling water spray.

Mother remembers playing outside after supper. Chasing fireflies. Sitting on the sidewalk under the light of a street lamp, scooping up silver jacks under a bouncing red rubber ball. She remembers mothers’ voices calling children in to their baths and to bed.

Mother is ninety now, small and uncertain on her feet. When she rises from a seat, it takes her a moment to straighten and find her balance and she needs my arm. She is, nevertheless, our beautiful, white-haired and bejeweled Grand Dame, and Grape Nuts is still her favorite cereal.

When she returned to Charlotte six years ago for the first time in seventy-eight years, I drove her to the place where her house used to be. We pulled into the parking lot across from the Charlotte Observer and I said, “The house was right about here.” Silently, Mother stared out the window of our car at weeds and concrete.

Months later, as I write this, I remember her small, pale face turned to the window, and I hope that the theory of multidimensional and simultaneous time and space is true. I like to think that as Mother gazed out at that empty parking lot, a six-year-old girl with Buster Brown bangs and dirty knees looked up for a moment from her mimosa-skirted ballerina, and stared back.

 

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