The best part of my growing-up years began on Columbus Day, October 12, 1957. I was in the third grade and my family – a family I created – moved into a brand new pink brick house on West 41st Street in Savannah. I had created the family two months earlier on the day when my mother, grandmother, uncle and four young cousins were piling into a station wagon with suitcases tied down on top of the car, heading back to Columbus, Ohio, a place I had lived for just one year before the summer of 1957. My clothes were packed and being loaded with the other suitcases.
I was expected to get in the car and head back to Columbus, a trip of at a full day traveling on mostly two-lane state roads. There were no super highways. The trip was a trek through North Georgia, East Tennessee, Kentucky and into Ohio to the north central part of the state. Not an ideal trip for a black family traveling through Appalachia in the 1950s, but it was a route that many of my family members probably made generations ago when most of my maternal grandfather’s eight siblings migrated north to Cleveland, Ohio.
Uncle Watson, the third child in the Walker family — my mother’s younger brother — had left Savannah after high school when he went to Nashville for college and medical school, and then service in World War II. By the early 1950s he and his wife, Juanita, were settled in Columbus, a city where he broke racial barriers as a surgeon, and where he became a civil rights hero. As a a school board member for 16 years and twice-elected board chair, Uncle Watson led the local public school system through desegregation.
I was never clear about exactly why in 1956 Uncle Watson needed to send for my mother – who, divorced, had moved for a job from Savannah to Fort Dix, NJ — and my grandmother, who had her own business and at the time was taking care of me in Savannah. I just know that Uncle Watson and his wife, Juanita, had four children — three boys and a girl, ages three through seven years old — who needed care for a couple of years. One version of the story I heard said Aunt Juanita went back to school in her native St. Louis to complete her nursing education, no doubt interrupted as they lived in Germany during the war, and while they built their family. Then there was the theory that they were separated when she left her family in St. Louis..
As adults used to tell us, “That’s grown folks’ business.” I never pressed for the real answer.
I became an only child who suddenly had “siblings.” Only children can be challenging. Only-child syndrome is a label given to people who do not have any siblings, or who were raised without siblings. Some of the characteristics of only-child syndrome include selfishness, an inability to share and difficulty making friends. We only children are protective or our personal space. My own personal space included time to sit alone and think, read and do creative things. Ultimately, I was an introvert for many years.
I was too young at the time to understand these only-child shortcomings. I suppose I learned more about it a generation later when my husband and I raised an only child. Was God forcing payback on my own only-child selfishness? A dose of comeuppance, perhaps.
Living with my cousins was an intrusion in my only-child life. When I arrived in Columbus, they were close and supportive of each other, and the three boys were, well, rambunctious. There was always noise in the house. My cousins came into my life with nicknames. Watson, Jr., was “Squirt;” Charles, pudgy as a kid, was called “Fatso;” James, named after our grandfather and uncle, was “Pee-bomb;” and Wilhelmina, the baby of the family, was “Nellybelle .”
“What’s your nickname?” one of them asked shortly after I arrived in Columbus.
“I don’t have a nickname. My name is Wanda,” was my simple reply.
The year in Columbus was tough for me. I recall on the first day of school, my cousins were supposed to be sure I was with them when they walked home. They forgot me. I was left standing in front of the school when they arrived home without me. Our grandmother sent them back to find me.
Many people in my generation say they lament the days when neighbors, friends and church members were empowered to discipline children they knew when they caught them acting out. We don’t see much of that anymore because some young parents may call the police if adults put hands on their children, or if we are caught telling them to stop bad behavior. It can be dangerous.
Like the day in Columbus, when there was a fight among my cousins and me on the way home from school. I don’t remember the reason for the fight, but we had the fortune — or misfortune — to fight in front of a house where a neighbor recognized my cousins and she had called our house before we got home. My grandmother took the call. When he came home that was one of the times Uncle Watson, a surgeon, meted out his version of corporal punishment by lining us up in the basement for punishment with his belt. He used to remind us what M.D. really meant in his case. It didn’t just stand for medical doctor. He said his M.D. stood for “mean daddy.”
For Christmas that year one of my gifts under the tree was a child-size iron and ironing board set (I’m not sure why because to this date ironing is one of my least favorite household chores). The little iron was a low-power toy with a real electric cord and the iron would get lukewarm for my pretend ironing. Today’s regulations by the Consumer Product Safety Commission would never approve of a toy like this. One day after some sort of disagreement with my cousins, one of the boys got a pair of scissors and cut the cord on my little iron.
That was the kind of incident that led me to regret having to take on “siblings.”
After almost a year in Columbus, at the end of the school year, Uncle Watson loaded the family into his station wagon and drove us to Savannah to stay for the summer while he prepared to move into a bigger house for us to live in by the beginning of the next school year in Ohio.
I was happy to be back on my old turf, living in my grandmother’s house. I knew I didn’t want to go back to Ohio, a place with harsh winters, a house full of cousins and led by a man who did not spare the rod on bad behavior. OK, I was no angel. I remember many times when my grandmother sent me into the yard to “bring me a switch,” which I was expected to fetch from a bush and take off the leaves so she could spank me. But until 1956, I was living life as an only child. I liked it that way.
Before moving to Columbus, the city of my birth and the city I left six weeks after I was born when my mother brought me to Savannah resting on a train, I had been living in Savannah with my grandmother, in the big green cedar-shingled house next door to the pink brick house my aunt and uncle were building. She had given them the lot so she could keep them close by.
We lived in the green house — where my mother was born in 1929. The house where the 41st Street Community Club was founded in the early 1950s by a group of neighbor women who wanted to assure the continued safety and beauty of the neighborhood. The house where my grandmother took in boarders – all of them, like her late husband, my grandfather who died a year after I was born, male insurance agents working on assignment in Savannah at a time before local hotels opened their doors to the green money of black customers. The house where Aunt Catherine, my mother’s sister, was married in the living room in 1945, and where, as a child on hot muggy nights I used to sleep beside my grandmother on the screened-in side porch. The house where I learned to serve my grandmother’s bridge parties and garden club meetings and helped her by making tea sandwiches, mixing tiny green mint candies with peanuts, and punch bowls of frappé – a chilled party drink made of ginger ale and colorful floating scoops of ice cream or sherbet.
The house where I learned to sew after years of passing sewing notions like pinking shears, pin cushions and zippers to my grandmother, and threading needles when her eyesight became weaker and arthritis stiffened her fingers.
“You’ll be tall,” she told me, “and you’ll need to learn how to sew so you can make make clothes with sleeves long enough for your long arms.”
At the end of the summer, on the day of packing up for the trip back to Ohio, Aunt Catherine and Uncle Osie were standing around watching all the loading and trying to keep children from running into the street while the adults tended to more pressing matters.
Aunt Catherine, after many years teaching 6th grade at West Savannah School, was about to begin her first year teaching special education at Tompkins Elementary on Savannah’s west side. Uncle Osie was a mortician and funeral director who founded Williams Funeral Home in 1948. Shortly thereafter, he took on a business partner whose last name was also Williams, the husband of Aunt Catherine’s best friend. The partners were not brothers, as many people thought. They just had the same last name.
Together, Osie Williams and George Williams owned Williams & Williams Funeral Home on Gwinnett Street, on Savannah’s east side.
I stood on the sidewalk amidst the cacophony of laughter, childhood shrieks, the tooting of horns from cars with waving neighbors passing by and my grandmother’s admonitions to “keep it down” or “don’t run” while the car packing continued. I was silent, thinking, hoping for a plan that would keep me from having to get in that car for the long trip back to Ohio.
I walked over to Aunt Catherine and Uncle Osie.
“Can we talk on the porch?” I asked them, taking each by the hand and leading them up the steps to the porch of my grandmother’s big green house.
We three sat in the porch swing, which hung from heavy chains attached to the porch ceiling. I tucked my eight-year-old body between the two adults, poised for a grown-up conversation.
“You don’t have any children, do you?” I asked after we settled down on the porch, knowing the answer before I asked the question.
“No, we don’t,” Aunt Catherine responded in her soft-spoken southern manner. “God hasn’t blessed us with children.”
We were all keeping an eye on the car being loaded at the curb, with my four cousins still running around. It seemed nobody noticed the three of us up on the porch, hidden behind the big leafy plants rooted in huge cement pots, carrying on our adult conversation in the swing.
Uncle Osie confirmed his wife’s response, looking down at the children and probably relieved at that moment that God had not blessed them with so much childhood energy.
“Would you like to have a child?” I asked them, pumping my little legs so the swing would sway ever so slightly.
“You want to live with us?” Aunt Catherine asked, tears welling up in her eyes. “We’ve thought about asking your mother to let us take care of you,” Aunt Catherine said. “We just weren’t sure she would agree …”
I cut her off; that’s all I needed to hear, jumping down from the swing and leading them by the hands down the steps.
“Let’s go tell them,” I said, eagerly running ahead, not risking the chance that they would change their minds. “I want to live with you. You can be my new parents.”
“Glooo-ria,” Aunt Catherine called to my mother in a sing-song voice, interrupting my mother’s packing duties. “Wanda wants to stay here with us,” nodding down to me indicating that I had asked for this change of plan.
My mother and my grandmother stopped packing up the car and glanced at me for a moment, and then they resumed their packing, pretty much ignoring the news they just heard. When the car was packed, the suitcase with my clothes was either in the back or tied down on top of the station wagon.
“Get in,” my mother said, indicating an open back door for my four cousins and me to pile in.
“I think she’s serious,” Aunt Catherine said. Not another word was said to me. After some adult whispering out of my earshot, and when all my cousins and the traveling adults were in the car, they drove away, leaving me behind. I took my new family by the hand and led them into the pretty pink brick house that was almost completed.
The typical mid-century house had a large galley kitchen with a dishwasher and a garbage disposal – something unheard of in our black neighborhood in the 1950s – and central heat! Every room had a window air conditioning unit, making this the only air conditioned house on the block. The living room had a fireplace, trimmed floor to ceiling with the same pink brick that was used on the outside walls. I would later learn that the fireplace was fake — a focal feature just for show.
The dining room had a large picture window that looked out onto 41st Street. A few years later, after he suffered a debilitating stroke, my uncle would sit in a recliner in front of that picture window — partially paralyzed and speechless — waving to passersby and sometimes motioning them to come inside to visit with him. Many obliged, including some he did not know. It was that kind of a friendly and trusting era.
The dining room also had a crystal chandelier. I would later come to despise that chandelier because it became my chore to clean it a couple of times a year by taking each crystal piece off and dipping it into a tub of water with bleach, and then put it all back together. It was an all-day chore that kept me in the house instead of playing outside with friends.
The three bedrooms were served by a single bathroom with 50s–style pink and gray tiled floor and half walls, pink fixtures and wooden cabinets painted pink. The large screened-in back porch would later be walled in for me to use as a playroom, study space and a place for my friends to hang out and listen to records.
The house had a second floor with a wood-paneled office area (we called it the “study”), a bathroom and a floored attic for storage. It also had a walk-in closet built not for clothes, but lined with bookshelves for Aunt Catherine’s many schoolbooks and teacher files.
I led my aunt and uncle down the hall on the first floor of the almost-completed house and picked out my bedroom. The room had four windows and was intended to be a sitting room or den. I claimed the space as mine, which I said I wanted to be painted blue.
“Every room I’ve ever slept in has been pink,” I said. “I want blue walls.” I was too young to know that pink was for girls and blue was traditionally a color for boys. I no longer wanted to wake up to pink walls.
After the tour, just as we were walking out of the unfinished house, the Ohio-bound station wagon pulled up. They had left thinking they would return to an emotionally overwrought child standing at the curb where they had departed and aware that her family members had left her. They had driven around the neighborhood for a short while and they were back to pick up the last, obstinate child who said she wasn’t back going to Ohio.
“She is serious,” Uncle Osie told my mother. “She wants to stay with us — forever.”
After some adult conversations on the sideline, someone retrieved my clothes from the car. There were hugs and kisses and then I was left standing at the curb with my new “family.”
I was an only child again.
My mother and my grandmother had always been mother figures in my life. I wasn’t looking for a new person to call “Mother” or “Mom.” Aunt Catherine knew that she would always be Aunt Catherine to me.
“Uncle Osie, may I call you ‘Daddy?’ I asked. He pulled me into his strong tall frame and hugged me as hard as I had ever been hugged.
I had a new family, a new home and, finally, some peace and quiet. It never bothered me that I called one parent “Aunt” and the other one “Daddy.” This was MY family and I used the names I wanted to use.
We three lived in the big green house my grandmother left behind from that August day until Columbus Day, when we moved into the new pink brick house and I took possession of my blue bedroom.