If you got close, you could smell the sweet putrid liquid in my grandmother’s snuff pot, a Christmas gift from one or another of her seven children. The shiny gold spittoon sat on the floor beside Mam-maw’s rocker where, as far as I knew, she spent almost all her waking hours, tatting and spitting tobacco. The tiny jets from her mouth kept the drumbeat of the long Sunday afternoons when everyone— my mom and dad, aunts and uncles, cousins and sister— would pack into her living room to brag, joke, and affirm their knotted connections— none nearly so beautiful or delicate as the lace always taking shape in Mam-maw’s hands.
My dad’s mother and my Uncle Don’s father were brother and sister, as were Dad’s father and Uncle Don’s mother. Dad and Uncle Don then married sisters. When Don and Poss (his wife, my aunt) had a son, his mother— jealous, the story goes— adopted a baby the same age. Later, Sharon came to live with my aunt and uncle: Don’s sister now a kind of common-law daughter. Sharon was my babysitter and I loved her. After Sharon got pregnant in high school—protesting that this couldn’t be because “nothing went in”— she went away to have her baby, and never returned. That was life in 1950s Charlotte.
Mam-maw lived in an old house on the western side of the city. Her husband died young, but left behind a railroad pension that supported the family: his wife (Nina Belle), four sons, and three daughters (Lena Vern, Irene Fern, and Gladys Roseland). An eighth child died a few days after she was born. Only Irene went by her given name. Mom was always “Teeny,” as in “teeny baby”— tinier than her nine-months-older sister, “Poss,” short for “wet possum.” There was also Tatter who lived with them . . . just because. The double rhyming names seem comical now. Then, the names, nicknames, and near-incestuous relationships were just the way things were.
As Mam-maw’s neighborhood desegregated, her grown children told themselves the neighbors “looked out for Miz Miller,” but still they worried. Mam-maw did too and supposedly sat up until dawn each night watching a single channel on her black-and-white TV. How this changed anything, I don’t know, but that was the explanation for her odd hours. Racism lived in the assumptions, the hand-wringing, the silences, and seemingly required no explanation.
I think back now to all the questions I didn’t ask, all the illogic I accepted at face value, and wonder: How did the raucous Sunday afternoon’s at Mam-maw’s coexist with the social cauldron just outside the house? I still know only that they did live side-by-side, at least during those long Sunday afternoons.
I vaguely remember comments I now would connect with the tensions at South Mecklenburg High in the wake of the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that upheld bussing as a tool of school desegregation—and an unnerving sense that a broader world, a little frightening, existed just outside the cocoon of my knotted family.
Mam-maw sat in the silent center of that family, but I never really knew her. There were always so many people, so much noise and commotion, and she didn’t say much— anything, as I recall. Maybe after raising seven children largely alone, you just want to sit. I do have a pink sewing box she gave me— broken and misshapen, and now repurposed as a yarn basket. Although the most likely grandchild to learn to tat from her, and not just because I look like her, I never did. Still, here I sit at my laptop, with a half-cup of coffee the color of Mam-maw’s spittle, planning my next knitting project, probably lace, hoping to make something beautiful out of my life, and wondering how the hopes, fears, joys, and regrets that Mam-maw twisted and pulled into her lace doilies find their way into my own creations.
Sue Books is a professor in the SUNY New Paltz School of Education where she teaches comparative and international education as well as honors seminars on work and on education and poverty. She is the editor of the book Invisible Children in the Society and its Schools (Erlbaum, 1998/2003/2007) and the author of Poverty and Schooling in the U.S.: Contexts and Consequences (Erlbaum, 2004). In recent years Prof. Books has taught and conducted research in South Africa and Russia as a visiting scholar, and in Iceland and Brazil as a Fulbright Scholar.