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Sunday, May 25, 2014

“Grandmother Julia”

"Julia McFadden Dingle Lemon - Circa 1951"

“Grandmother Julia”
Strong as any man’s, yet
gentle as a baby’s touch:
My Grandmother’s Hands.

Julia McFadden Dingle Lemon
May 25, 1895 – January 23, 1978
         It’s not like I ever consciously chose to become a writer. Writing chose me.  I fell in love with the craft in 1960 at the age of five when I began to write letters to my Grandmother. I have continued to write ever since.

If my Grandmother were alive today, she would be celebrating her 119th birthday. She lived her entire life in Claredon County, South Carolina, in a place called Manning -  a tiny little village 17 miles outside of Sumter. Manning is where my mother and all of her siblings were born and raised. I was born and raised in Philadelphia, yet I recall my summers growing up, going “down home,” to visit our relatives in the South, spending time on my Grandmother’s farm. She had a barn where she stored the tobacco once it was harvested. I used to call it Tobacco Barn.

Yes, grading tobacco at my Grandmother’s knees in the cool dark barn. Little six-year-old-me would peek out those barn doors and see the sun shimmering through the trees standing in the swamp. Handsome, statuesque pine trees, with their uppermost branches seeking the heavens. Needles from their lowest branches continuously dropped in silence, forming a blanket, a downy bed of fresh pine needles. That pine smell was intoxicating then as it is now…..

With patience and love, Grandmother’s huge wrinkled hands taught me how to grade the fragrant tobacco leaves into piles: A for best, B for good, C for fair – getting the crops ready to be sold at the market. That idyllic scene is still among my fondest childhood memories: so proud my Grandmother allowed me to help grade the tobacco. Outside those barn doors, the wagon was parked alongside the tree that yielded pears the size of grapefruits. Over yonder, in front of the house, visitors were greeted by the pump with the blue and white speckled porcelain dipper right beside it. You’d pump and pump and pump until the brown water turned clear, then you’d drink from the dipper.  Believe me, that was the best, most refreshing water that has ever crossed my lips. And Gyp, Mr. Preston’s evil white dog was always on guard – protecting the house.

I remember playing barefoot on the packed beige sand that was the ground. I remember my Grandmother gathering up the straw that had dropped from the trees and making her own brooms, which she constantly used to sweep out the sand that people tracked on to the kitchen’s hardwood floors from outside. I remember the ancient rusting car way over there and Mr. Preston’s wagon and his mule and the chicken coop and the hog pen and the huge aluminum tubs filled with scalding hot water, ready to receive the chickens after my Grandmother had either chopped their heads off or wrung their necks. My siblings and I would watch in fascination and horror. After the excitement settled down, after the chickens had finished running around with their heads cut off, after they had been soaking in the aluminum tubs, we would be instructed to reach in, grab one and pluck the feathers. And I remember “Pet” our pet chick that we kept all summer and fed her and watched her grow, and spared her from the dinner table.

Yes, yes indeed. My Grandmother was Julia McFadden Dingle Lemon. Her mother was also named Julia. I remember my Grandmother telling me that her mother Julia and her father, Joseph McFadden, had been slaves. Grandmother’s nickname was “Deet.” People called her “Miss Deet.” They also called her “Miss Julia” and “Aunt Julia.” Her first husband was Charlie Dingle. They had six children:  Elliott, Enoch, Charles, Jesse, Esther (my mother) and Rhoda. Charlie Dingle was the descendent of freed Blacks who were from Davis Station, South Carolina. My family knew for a fact Charlie Dingle’s ancestors were freed men because they had the receipts from when they paid the taxes on the land they owned. 

Grandfather Charlie died early, (and suddenly during the throes of the Depression), rendering my Grandmother a young widow and single mother. At the time of her father’s death in 1931, my mother was three and her younger sister, my Aunt Rhoda, was a year old. Talk about hard times. Talk about survival skills. Talk about faith in the Lord.  Merciful Jesus!

My Grandmother was a genius at saving money, making ends meet. She could make something out of nothing. She could find a way out of no way. She shrewdly held on to her land against tremendous odds in the Jim Crow South. My Grandmother’s example inspired all of her children. She instilled in them a powerful work ethic and a love for learning. She made sure they were all well-educated. She was a virtuous Christian woman who did not tolerate any nonsense whatsoever. She visited the sick, and was frequently sought after for counsel and advice.

Grandmother Julia was a praying woman, a church woman, a revered woman in her community. My Grandmother’s life on the farm was keeping house, and cooking meals, milking cows, slopping hogs, picking cotton, harvesting tobacco, grading tobacco, picking pears, picking beans, picking peaches, keeping a garden, making preserves, churning butter, and so much more. My Grandmother supervised the farm hands, making sure they earned  -  and were paid for -  an honest day’s work. She insisted on heating meals for her pet dogs and cats, which she kept outside. She’d stir up a mixture of table scraps and warmed over grits from breakfast and feed it to them.

She was always making quilts and mending clothes and sewing dresses – fancy Sunday-go-to-meeting-dresses which she made on her manual sewing machine – rocking the pedal back and forth with her feet, keeping a steady rhythm – sewing along. And her seeing eyes! She could see everything from behind those silver spectacles. She had these high cheek bones and peaked lips. My Grandmother’s ears which I can’t even remember, heard everything – everything! Her voice was soothing -   such kind words she always seemed to speak  -  but then there was that unmistakable stern undertone.

And her laugh! I remember her being so tickled at me struggling, unsuccessfully, to milk the cow’s teats. Hard as I tried I never was able to get any milk. And I recall her expressionless face when the men slaughtered the sow, drained the blood from it and hung it to cure. Grandmother’s complexion was the color of coffee with just a little cream, dark and rich and brown. I remember her watching her beloved baseball games and greyhound races on television. She loved reading books and newspapers and writing letters.

And I also remember the neighbors from surrounding farms who couldn’t read or write bringing papers for her to decipher. Like back in 1970, when she filled out the lady’s census forms. It was a patient session of call and response. Grandmother would read the question out loud, the woman would answer and she would dutifully write down what she said. Her heart, her head and her hands were golden. My Grandmother’s hands were strong and capable as any man’s yet gentle enough to cuddle a baby.

When my mother was somewhere around 14, my Grandmother married Preston Lemon, hence, “Mr. Preston,” as we always addressed him. My Grandmother was a tall, healthy, buxom woman, with an ever present apron over her dress. By the time I came along, she had silvery snow-white hair. Her smile was a big wide grin that revealed perfectly even symmetrical false teeth and pink gums. Unless she was in her rocking chair with her slippers on, or dressed in her Sunday best, I recall my Grandmother’s feet were always shod in heavy utilitarian work shoes, so practical for a farm woman.

You came right into the kitchen when you entered my Grandmother’s tin-roofed house. I can still smell the biscuits baking on her colossal wood-burning stove. I can still remember how my sisters and I delighted for hours, taking turns combing our Grandmother’s hair into different styles while she sat in her rocking chair. That rocking chair was in her dining room. And so was her sewing machine. The dining room is where we typically all gathered. It’s where we ate all of our meals. There was a table and straight-backed chairs and a walnut china cabinet. She also had a black and white television set and a radio in there. Off to the side was the furnace. There were two bedrooms, right beyond the dining room, and a bathroom (which was an addition to the house in the early 1960s.)

On those rare occasions when we sat on the stiff furniture in the living room of my Grandmother’s immaculate home, she told us the stories behind all the faces of the photographs which she displayed on her coffee table. She had a piece of glass fitted over the coffee table to protect her photos. She would explain the genealogy in detail:  this uncle and that great aunt and cousin so and so and their children and their children’s children and on and on…

There’s one precious memory of my Grandmother I’m sure I will never forget. It was the fall of 1977. I had just graduated from college the previous May. I was living in an apartment off campus with my brother Alonzo -  substitute teaching while trying to find a job and get on with the next phase of my life. My Dad was taking a trip South. He left Philadelphia, swung by and picked me up in Hampton, Virginia, and dropped me off at my Grandmother’s for a week while he stayed with his relatives in Eastover, which is about 25 miles outside of Columbia, South Carolina. My Grandmother and I had such a good time that week– just the two of us. By then, Mr. Preston was living in a nursing home. We baked biscuits and ate them with her pear preserves. We talked about books we were reading and my ambitions to become a writer someday. She gave me a $5 bill for my graduation present and instructed me to save it.

On my last day there, she woke me up at 7 a.m. We got down on our knees and she led us in prayer. We were in the dining room, using the chairs as our pews. Although Grandmother Julia was a silver-haired, seasoned lady throughout my entire life, it never occurred to me she might up and die one day. Little did I realize when we knelt down in prayer, that would be the last time I saw her. She passed away on the full moon a few months later, while writing in her rocking chair. My Aunt Rhoda found the letter she had started on her last evening on earth. It was addressed to me. God bless you Grandmother. Thank you for all of your love, strength and protection. Happy Birthday. 

Just as I was putting the finishing touches on this story, my brother Alonzo texted a photo of himself in South Carolina, at our Grandmother’s grave, Pine Grove AME Church.  Asante Sana. Peace & Blessings Always.

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