Bridgeport, Alabama, 1898

Tommy Lee married Kathryn on February 8,1948, and the two of them moved from their “cute little bungalow” in Jackson, Mississippi, to an unpainted shack without electricity or running water at Route 4, Bogue Chitto. Tommy’s parents lived in that shack, his 72-year-old mother, Fannie, going blind and his 76-year-old father, Tom, becoming senile. The plan was for Kathryn to take care of  “the old folks while running a little country store that Tommy built in the front yard, and for him to continue working 55-hour weeks as a carpenter.

On March 1, 1949, Dr. Bob Massengill delivered their first-born at daybreak while a light snow fell. He remained my doctor until he died of a heart-attack at an Ole Miss game some eighteen years later. He stands out as being one of the few people I grew up among who had more than a high school education if that (my father dropped out in the 8th grade). Doctors were more approachable then, and my mother respected Dr. Bob in a way that she didn’t respect other men, so maybe that’s another reason I remember him.

Tommy’s younger sister, Annie Bel, lived within sight of our house, but she disliked Tommy and he prided himself upon his indifference to her, so her six children—who were the only kids I had to play with—disliked me. As alienation went, my mother did no better than I—with the area women, anyway—partly because she assumed that the short-pants she had worn in Jackson would be appropriate in Bogue Chitto. Since the neighboring women wore longish dresses, sometimes bonnets, and regarded skin as sin, it was a strange assumption that led to her being called “Tommy’s City Girl.” She always was exceptionally naive, which seems strange given that she was born to an unmarried fourteen rebel who moved her from pillow-to-post while working as a prostitute, a madam, a fortune teller, and a thief.

Kathryn had been married before to a man named Dustin who missed the birth of their second child because he was fifty miles distant in the bed of another woman. He died not long afterwards leaving Kathryn broke and with two children during the latter years of the Great Depression. She couldn’t support the children, so the boy went to live with Dustin’s sister in Texas and the girl with his brother in Mississippi while Kathryn strove for better times through her job at Sears. My father was supposed to insure those better times, but the caretakers of Kathryn’s children opposed the marriage because they considered Tommy scary if not insane. I don’t know the details of their complaints, so I can only provide a few possibilities, namely that he was bisexual, paranoid, morbidly shy, given to berating God loudly and with frightening profanity, prone to frequent bouts of irrational rage so intense as to threaten violence (which sometimes occurred before I was born), ran bootleg during the ‘30s, was married at least four times, and wore women’s clothes under his carpenter’s overalls. Given all this, the marriage looked like an act of desperation on my mother’s part, which seems likely given that she was a woman of 35 with little self-respect, two children, and no obvious affection for her husband.

When her children’s caretakers saw the shack that their niece and nephew were to live in, it was the final straw. The younger child, Jim Billy, was spirited away to Port Arthur, Texas, where he grew up, and his sister, Anne, was instructed by her aunt to say that she wanted to stay where she was. I’ve heard that a custody battle followed, and that the court agreed that the children were better off without Tommy in their lives, but I have no particulars. I never had a relationship with Jim Billy because he never wanted one. I did enjoy occasional visits with Anne, but the last one was in 1993 when I visited her at her home in Florida. We’ve since corresponded, but even that ended today when she wrote to say that I would not hear from her again. For decades, we had been bound primarily by our differences over religion, with her being a liberal Christian and me an atheist. Over those years, I perceived her as becoming more and more attacking. She consistently denied this, and I refused ever more vociferously to accept her denial, so it seems that she had had enough. She was the last blood relation with whom I had a connection. 

Carol Gay was born in 1954, and the five years between us constituted too big of an age difference for us to be playmates. Looking back, I wish I had found it in me to be her protector, which is my image of what a good brother should be, but it never occurred to me at the time. I just saw her as a shrill, sobbing, screaming, door-slamming, out-of-control hellion who left my shins black-and-blue with kicks that my mother expected me to ignore while she did her best to “get some food down the poor little thing.” Indeed, Gay looked like an anorexic long before most people had ever heard the word. Think Death Camp inmate, and that’s what Gay looked like except that Gay had hair—or at least she used to; I wouldn’t know anymore. I didn’t hate her, but I felt little affection for her either. The feeling persists, for we have not spoken in twenty years, and I have no thought that we ever will speak. The final blow to our relationship was caused by her disappointment with our father’s will, and the only way she will feel better about it is if I share the inheritance, the problem being that I had rather see the money burned than for a penny of it to go to her.

My Grandpa died in Whitfield State Mental Hospital when I was four, and I have but two memories of him. One was when he and Dad accompanied me as I searched the weeds and outhouses for my Easter Basket (Easter being a major event in my childhood), and another when he scolded me for eating chicken feed alongside the chickens. The sunshine of my life was my Granny, and I was the sunshine of hers, but I wish she hadn’t made a point of telling people that she loved me more than she had ever loved anyone, including her children and her other grandchildren, because it made my situation with my aunt and cousins more difficult. Aside from Peggy, I love Granny above anyone, although she died when I was twelve. I didn’t realize she was ¾ American Indian until I grew up because no one told me, and because, as a child, I didn’t think to connect her features with her ancestry. In the Bridgeport, Alabama, photo from 1898 (note the beehives in the left of the picture), she is standing next to my future grandfather, Thomas, who is holding their first child, Pat. His parents, James and Caroline, are seated. People sometimes comment on how unfriendly Caroline looks, but I just want to crawl onto her white apron because all I see in her face is sweetness. She died unexpectedly in 1908, three days after her husband’s death and 41 years before my birth. I grieve that I never knew her.

My Grandpa and Great Grandpa were Church of Christ preachers, and I have long wondered how they would feel about my atheism. If they did what Church of Christ people are supposed to do, they would hate and shun me, yet if they were open enough to meet me at a heart level, they would understand that I live by the best light I can muster based upon decades of diligent thought and study. Still, I worry about this. Just leaving the Church of Christ was enough to cause some people to turn against me, becoming an atheist led still more to drop away. As to true intimacy, Peggy has been the one constant in my life, and I trust that, as she is, so would my Granny and Great Grandma have been. If only they might still exist, and I might someday meet them.