Summers last a long time in the south. Not as long as California. But long just the same.
I spent most my summers out of the house, away from the farm, after I did my morning choirs, that is. Cow still needed milking, chickens feeding and eggs found. As long as I did my choirs for a few hours in the morning no-one seemed to bother me much about anywhere else they didn't know I was.
I spent a lot of time with the old blues man and his family. During the week it was usually just me and him. Some nights he would go to town and sing at a local bar. I was told not to go down the day after he would play at the bar. The day after that would often smell of stale perfume and whiskey and old people sex. I remembered enough, enough flashes from my early years came back, I knew the score. I pretended I didn't . It made him feel better to keep me 'innocent of such things' as a child should be.
On the weekends women, men and children came over. Women cooked meals. And Sundays the whole family was over, cooking, cleaning, fussing, fooling. I loved it. It truly felt like home, like a family should. So warm, so loving, so filled with laughter, and anger at times, and caring. I liked that part the most , the caring. That and the good good food and music. Here, it didn't matter what you looked like, too fat, too skinny, too dark, too light, pretty , not pretty, you were all family, even when you weren't.
From ages 10 to 13 this is how I spent most of my free time. With my 'true' family. I felt I was misplaced. I finally found them. I learned to play. Playing the blues, playing gospel, and just playing in general.
The old man taught me how to play chess. We played almost every time I went over. He said he wanted to make me a world champion like Booby Fischer. Every time I played it got harder for him to beat me. He kept telling me how smart I was. He was the only one who did. I held on to those words for dear life at times. There are things people say to you good and bad that get ingrained into you so deep. He said these words over and over to me, every time we played. He ingrained that I am smart into me deep. I am very grateful he did.
I remember I just turned 13. My boobies started coming in a few months before. They were sore and boys would grab them just to be mean. The last one who did ended up with a shiner . As I said he was the last one who did. They thought better of it after that.
I was getting so self conscious of my changing body. I just started my woman time. I felt gross. My body was attacking me on so many levels, I smelt now, from everywhere. I took baths more often. Grandma told me my woman time was dirty. That I had to stop playing with boys and men now that they were evil and would lead me to sin. Nothing good would come out of me growing up, she would say to grandfather.
Luckily I still had my real family. The women there, they told me it was an existing time in a woman's life. That I was now a woman, I have entered into the sacred realm. I must act more lady like around boys and men, because they are now looking at me differently. That I had the power in the word 'NO' and I should use it often. They told me it was God's gift, the woman's time. It means I was able to have babies now. But the word 'No' was also my gift, just because I can doesn't mean I should. They said "Keep your legs locked at the knees when I walk or am with a boy or man. " I thought it was a weird way to walk.
The granddaughter I meet the first time, Hope, and her sisters, Faith and Love, made me a beautiful dress. It was yellow with butterflies of different colours on it. It was puffy in the bodice to give room to my growing breast and never showed them off too much. It flared when I spun. It had a pretty bow that tied at my waist.
They said "since you are a woman now, it was time you had a pretty dress. All women should have at least one pretty dress." I kept it at the old man's house. I would wear it there when it was time for Sunday family day. I would get there early, I even went to their church with them. It was so different than mine. There was a lot of singing and dancing and joy. Then back home to make Sunday dinner with the women. They would talk woman talk in the kitchen, so free and open. I learned a lot from them. Such joyful times.
When I would leave I would change back into my overalls and run back across the fields and streams, miles to the farmhouse that held little love or joy. Back to being scolded for being out, and straight to bed, no supper.
Months had gone by, summer was going by, it was now fall. One night , the night before Halloween, Hell night some say, I went over to play songs and chess with the old man. I had learned his last trick on the guitar. I mastered it. I was so happy with myself, proud even.
"That's it youngin', you have mastered all I know in music. Don't you go playing any honky tonk places now, at least not on the nights I am there, yeah hear." He said with a smile and a wink. He seemed tired tonight.
" I will make sure it is on nights you are not there. Got it."
We laughed a little. By then I had started making my own blues songs up, based mostly in the loneliness I saw in my mother back when I was young. The desperation for love. The old man, Moses, he thought I was talking about my own desire for love. I had no desire for that cursed thing yet. I saw how badly it hurt my mothers at the commune. I saw how it kept the women in Kentucky tied to their apron strings. Though I also saw how my real family here acted with love, when you were still in love after being married 20 years. How they still drove you crazy. There was a different song here with this family. One that flowed without trying to brake you. The one at my grandparent's house was always trying to brake you. Stopping to short, starting to quick. A song that sounded like a car backfiring.
We put down our guitars. He gave me that old one, cleaned it up, put new strings on it. We polished the rust that shellacked it, it is still different shades of rust and that is just like me. It fits me well, like my tailored dress. Faith had painted a butterfly on it when we were done polishing. Marked it as mine.
I set up the chess board. Moses put on the radio. We played 3 games.
While we played we talked.
"Tomorrow is Halloween. It is the time when the spirit world and our world is the closest."
I looked at him. I always thought it was about candy, but I had heard this one before.
"I aways think of my late wife. She was so beautiful. She died on Halloween. I think it was a real easy crossing because of it. I could feel her kin in the room. The ones that had crossed before. The room was real cold for 3 hours before she left. It was a warm Halloween, too. It had to be 90 degrees outside, there was no way all who sat with her needed sweaters, but we did. It was that cold in that room. She was hot though. I miss her something terrible this time of year."
He would always talk about his wife , with such love and longing for what have gone in his eyes this time of year. The day after Halloween, he would not bring her up again until the next October. I have been through this 3 times now. I always listen to him intently. Ever year the story of the cold room is the same. Sometimes he feels his cheek brushed when he tells it.
Tonight I thought I felt someone brush my cheek then putting their hand on my shoulder. It gave me the shivers. Ghost stories will do strange things to you.
The third game I won. Again I felt pride.
"I always said you were smart." Moses said as he started putting away the board.
"Hey! Aren't we going to play another game, you just let me win."
"Honey, I have never been THAT nice to you. You won, fare and square. You can beat all my tricks, all my strategies. You need someone smarter than me. That way you can beat that Bobby Fischer, than you can show them boys how smart womens really is. Because the old blues mens, we know, why do you think we sing about women all the time. I never let anyone win, unless they earned it."
I was disappointed. It was as if I climbed to the top of a huge mountain i had been looking at all my life and now that I was at the top, I had no idea what to do. Our friendship was based on 2 things, playing guitar and playing chess. It was our special thing. Now at the to of the mountain I didn't want to get down. At the top of the mountain, I saw no other mountains around.
One thing permeated my soul. WHAT NOW? I felt lost.
It must have showed all over my being.
"Girl, what you down about? Now you can come to me with new songs and tricks you have learned. But tonight I am tired." He smiled.
"I want you to promise me something, child." He said as I started getting up.
"I want you to play at my funeral, and don't let anyone tell you that you can not. You play any song the spirit moves you to play, promise me."
I stopped, never really seriously thought about him dying before. "Only if you promise to play mine." I tried to laugh it off.
"Butterfly, I am serious. I will never live to see your funeral, god willing, and that is the way it should be. Promise me." He was very serious now.
" Yes, I would, nothing could stop me." I said somberly and I hugged him around the neck.
"Children are born, the old ones die and in between you try to get by the best you can. Some better then others. It is a long strange trip. And before you get off that train, you hope you can pass on what you learned to one of the young ones. That's way they can build on it. That's how the wheel eventually became the car. It is the way God made it, who are we to question his plan. And when we are done we get to sing on the clouds and look down on the ones we left behind. I can;t wait to peep on people in the bath. HA HEE HAR." He always laughs at his jokes about being a ghost getting into mischief.
"Go home child, your grand pappy has no idea where you have been all these years, has he? Don't bother answering, just go home, I know he doesn't."
This shock me. I thought something I never thought before. He thought I was ashamed of him, of them, he thought I was afraid to tell them because they are black. Oh, no. I am not like that. I didn't tell them because I didn't want them to take this special family away from me.
"I loved you all too much to share you with them."
"I know child, and we loved you too much to let them know either. They are not like us, you and me. I know it is not shame, child. I just thought you should know I knew. Now go home. "
I smiled and started my run back. I felt uneasy. All this talk about death an funerals.
The next day I was getting my costume together. A farmer. Yeah, they didn't ever want to spend too much on me. I wanted to be a ghost at least, but grandmother said our sheets were too nice to cut up.
I went over to show Moses my costume for the Halloween dance, and to see if I could wear my dress instead. There was no answer at the door.
He must have been out. I wanted my dress so bad. And my guitar. Maybe I could be a country singer. Loretta Lynn, yeah. I knocked again. No answer.
A cold breeze chilled me.
I decided to get my dress and guitar. I opened the door, he never locked it. I yelled. "Moses you sleepin'?"
No answer. I went for the bedroom to get my dress. I went to the closet. Found it quick. But there was a strange smell. I wondered if some cat killed something and left it to rot. I took a look in the closet. I didn't see anything, until I turned around. This room was sure cold.
You are with your wife now and all your kin that went before.
I grabbed my things. I ran out the door. I cried all the way to Hope, Love and Faith's house.