September 2006

Comeyuh Come Home

Author: Natalie Daise

The Greyhound bus ride had taken about 24 hours, most of them uneventful if you don’t count the wild-eyed man peering over the stalls in the women’s restroom during the layover in Washington, DC. I re-read Scott O’Dell’s children’s classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins, because it seemed appropriate and tried to memorize Francis Thompson’s poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” in its entirety because I thought it might do me some good. The bus was heading for Florida. I was getting off in Beaufort, South Carolina. I had no expectations or knowledge of this place— just that the people here “talked funny and wore loud clothes,” as reported by a relative who had visited once.

When the big grey dog crossed the invisible Mason-Dixon line without incident (like the appearance of a horde of maniacal, hooded men with torches), I relaxed a little and looked out the dingy windows with some interest as I watched the landscape change. So this was “The South,” that place of my parent’s stories. I’d put in two weeks—three weeks tops—before I moved on to someplace else.

If you had asked why I was going to Beaufort, my response would have been that I was needed to help care for my sick Grandmother. That was true at the time, but it was also a convenient explanation. There is much that my explanation leaves out. It doesn’t include, for instance, the suffocating weight of the man pushing me against the cold kitchen floor. It doesn’t include the sound of my pleading that bounced, unanswered, off the ice-coated windows. It doesn’t include the humiliations brought by the judicial system or the withdrawal of the religious community that had defined the boundaries of my life in the place I had called home. It tells nothing of the deep depression and fear that settled around me, making me incapable of leaving my house, opening the drapes, or answering the phone. There is nothing in the story of the sick grandmother that speaks of the effect that a stunned and disillusioned daughter, who never sleeps, has on her father’s new marriage, or that I boarded the bus on the very day that my attacker began his sentence (plea-bargained to an easy few months), or that the ticket, bought for me by a relative, was only one-way. I said good-bye to no one. My grandmother’s illness gave the journey an end. A destination. Gave purpose to what was, in fact, flight. I could have been going anywhere.

The Greyhound bus that pulled into the cinder block station on Boundary St. on April 14, 1983 had rolled into town right down Ribaut Road where the azaleas were doing their best to show off in every possible variation of pink. It was a striking contrast to the grey, sludge-edged puddles that herald spring in northwestern New York State. The sun was shining. The air was damp and salty. I had, if not a sense of anticipation, at least a sense of change. I entered the bus station lobby dragging one large suitcase and found a seat amidst a group of young bald men. ‘We’re the rejects,” one informed me, “the ones the Marines don’t want.” He laughed loudly and a few others joined in. I got the impression that none of them thought it was really funny.

My Aunt picked me up about half an hour later. My father’s baby sister, Willie Dee, had married one of those Geechees years ago in Boston and he’d brought her back home. I didn’t know them well. Up until Uncle Simeon got the urge to “go home to his people,” they had lived with their two sons and my grandmother in Tucson, Arizona, so we only saw them once every few years or so. The year that they had been back home had been a rough one. Their youngest son, my cousin Kevin, died of misdiagnosed meningitis within months of their arrival, and my grandmother, overcome with grief, began to fail: first her spirits, then her kidneys. I was the runaway relief pitcher.

We didn’t talk much on our ride to Grandma’s. We passed over the Woods Memorial Bridge, visions of O’Dell’s blue dolphins swimming in my head, and then made a right turn behind the Red and White Supermarket to a Ladies Island community known to locals as Hazel Farm. Grandma lived in a little red and white striped trailer tied down behind a straight old pine tree with peeling bark. It was located in the back yard of my uncle and aunt’s house, a small, brick ranch style crammed with foster boys, herbal remedies, grains bought in bulk, and books on natural healing and Bible apologetics. Dull Spanish moss, looking like something out of a gothic movie, hung off the limbs of the old oak trees surrounding the back yard. Strange insects were creating a racket.

Inside, I had a small cubicle with a cot (it was a tiny trailer). The little crank-operated window looked out on a wobbly wire fence and an overgrown empty lot. I unpacked my suitcase into the open shelves along one wall of my “room.” The first night I lay on the cot, curled carefully on my left to avoid the large dip in the center, and watched the largest roach I had ever seen make its way casually across the ceiling. When it opened its wings and actually flew the rest of the way, I jumped up so fast my heart almost stuttered to a stop. I seriously considered re-packing my bag immediately and hopping the next bus out. The few roaches I had encountered in my life up till then DID NOT FLY. It seemed, coupled with their humongous size, an unfair advantage.

The second day into my first week in Hazel Farm, my aunt dropped me off downtown on her way to work. Leaving me on the corner at the foot of the bridge, she said she’d pick me up at the end of the day. I walked along Bay Street and in and out of the little stores that lined it. I bought some colored pencils and pens and a drawing pad. I ate ice cream. I sat in the swings on the waterfront and sketched pictures while I watched people and pets and boats go by. I didn’t see any dolphins. But here is the strange thing. While walking through the Old Point I began to feel as though I was being watched. It was early afternoon. There were very few people about, and yet I felt it—that sensation one gets when one is the focus of unseen attention. I would glance suddenly over my shoulder, peering into the dark shadows under porches. I saw no one. But I couldn’t shake the feeling—or the voice—that crept into my consciousness and would not leave: It’s about time you got here, it said. What took you so long? Being the pragmatic fundamentalist I was, this was unnerving. But I wasn’t frightened. I wondered who could have been waiting for me, and why.

Getting to know my family brought its own wonders. My Uncle Simeon was a singularly optimistic man. He could not be convinced that Things wouldn’t All Work Out For The Best and that the Love of God did not Conquer All. Seeing that he lived in a 3 bedroom ranch with 5 boys and his wife, had just lost his youngest son and was nursing an ailing mother-in-law, while working two jobs, growing a church and trying to build an addition to the house by himself, this was some view. He held firmly to it. Frequently, after I’d gotten Grandmother tucked in for the night, he would walk across the dark yard to the trailer to sit up and talk until the wee hours of the morning. He always talked about the same thing. Love, he said, is what it’s all about. God’s love for us. Our love for Him. Our Love for each other. That’s what it’s all about. It’s the only lesson we have to learn. He was pretty dogmatic about it. Seeing that I was an insomniac and there was no TV, it didn’t matter much to me what he had to say. I had nothing better to do. But I didn’t believe him then.

Sometimes, when I’d walked across the yard to their house in the early evening he would tell stories of plat-eyes and hags and coach-whip snakes. I’d laugh during the telling, but walking back across that unlit acre of weeds later on, the blackness so dense I could feel it press against my skin, I would breathe quickly and quietly, watching from the corner of my eye for sudden movements — or unexplained sounds, of which there were always plenty.

When there was nothing I needed to do around the trailer or house, I’d ride sidekick with Simeon wherever he needed to go. We’d visit church or family members or other folk in the community who were ill and needed herbs, fresh carrot juice, enemas, or prayer. All of which he believed in strongly. Sometimes he would go get herbs from one of his sisters who lived in the Indian Hill community on St. Helena, and who collected the plants herself. One sister once told me that cayenne pepper tea cured painful cramps. After trying it, I was convinced. Pain is a relative thing. We occasionally rode out to Cornbread’s place to see if there were any spare parts for one of Simeon’s cars. My Uncle planned to consolidate the pieces of the many old cars scattered around his yard into one new car that worked. He believed in this, too. It was during one of these trips, the back of the aging van filled with lumber, spare parts, or produce, that my Uncle first said to me, “You know, you don’t have to leave.” It was coming up on my third week on the Island. I had never thought of staying. I didn’t know where I would go when I left, just that I would. I didn’t have a paying job. The future was a blank slate. “You don’t have to leave,” he said to me, “we take care of each other here.”

Over the next couple of days, while caring for Grandmother and walking the dirt roads back off of Meridian Road, (where I sometimes felt as though I’d stumbled into a rerun of “Sounder”) I thought about the option he had offered me. The option to stay. To not run any farther. To find out who was waiting for me and why. Finally, I picked up the telephone in Grandma’s trailer and used the rotary dial to call home. “Send my stuff,” I told my Daddy, “I’m staying here for a while.”

We put in a garden that summer, my Aunt Dee and I. We tilled and planted and weeded and watered while Grandmother sat in the yard in an ugly vinyl kitchen chair and hollered orders: “Don’t plant them peanuts so close together! Pull them little suckers off the corn or you won’t get any good ears!” My feet, in the open sandals I wore, were baptized by fire ants and my arms and legs were spotted by scars made worse by my vigorous scratching. We harvested baskets of okra, several fat ears of corn, at least a bushel of peanuts and rows and rows of glossy green sweet potato vines, with nary a root beneath them big enough to cook. We were immensely proud. My Aunt and Uncle and cousins and I sat on the front porch in straight kitchen chairs eating watermelon and cantaloupe and waiting for the heat of the day to break. And I knew I was home.

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It has been more than 20 years since I came home. My friends up North think of me as a Southerner now. I’ve even been known to wear loud clothes and talk funny now and then. But around here, of course, I’m still a Comeyuh. Another hundred years here won’t change that, despite that fact that I married one of those Geechees myself and have given birth to two children who are related to half the folk on St. Helena Island. But I am home nonetheless. I finally found out who had been waiting for me and why. It was about time I got here. There were stories to tell. And as I’ve told the stories I have discovered it was my voice that was waiting to be found in the cool shadowed places under porches and at peeling, blue-trimmed windows. My voice, moving with small suddenness in the velvet blackness of night; my voice, unclaimed, waiting to be given breath and song and heart, was waiting for me here. At home. And as my Uncle said, I don’t have to leave.

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