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The Care and Feeding of Southern Children
by Elizabeth Arant West

I wonder why, after over fifty years, I still remember all of their names -- that series of black women who came to our house in Memphis for $4 a day plus carfare and watched after my brother and me while my mother worked as a registered nurse. We lived in one of the newer working class subdivisions of cookie cutter tract houses sprouting across the Mid-South like honeysuckle. The buses ran to within three blocks of our house; that was the way these women got to work.

There was Edith, Odessa, and Geneva, but my favorite was Annie Mae. Annie Mae Lumpkin. I think one reason I liked her is because her name made me think of pumpkins and Halloween and trick or treat.

She was in her 60's and I was only 4 years old when she used to come. After she set our lunch out in the dining room, she'd take her own lunch and eat at the kitchen counter, seated on an old red wooden step stool that looked like it might collapse under her girth. She'd say "Grace" over her food and also drink a beer with her lunch. My mother was always quite amused by this, the praying over beer, but of course, it meant nothing to me. I couldn't understand why she just didn't eat with us, beer or not.

Annie Mae was very patient with me and yelled at my brother, Donny, if he picked on me. We had an aluminum bowl with carvings on it that Mother kept nuts in, still in the shell. We didnít have much counter space so the bowl sat on top of the refrigerator. There were walnuts and pecans and Brazil nuts, which my daddy referred to as "Nigger Toes," and I had never heard them called anything else. I favored those the most and was always glad to have someone who could crack the shells for me since I couldnít do that sort of thing myself.

Mother was from Iowa. You may wonder why this matters right now, but I'm here to tell you it's because she didn't feel the same way a lot of other people did about black people. At that time they were called "Negros" or "colored people" in polite society in Memphis, and those were the only terms she would allow my brother and me to use. She couldn't stop my father from using the more pejorative term, "nigger," but we were definitely forbidden to use that word.

Imagine my dilemma when I had a craving for some of those nuts in the bowl about 8 feet above me and the only person I could ask to get them for me was Annie Mae. If there was such a thing as "political correctness" back there, back then, it was of course not something I was privy to.

When appetite won out over tactfulness, I gave it my best shot with this humble request:

"Annie Mae, would you reach up there and get me some of those colored toes?"

Her toothless mouth flew open, the snuff dribbled down the side of her face and she howled out a laugh like I'd never heard.

"Chile," she sputtered, "them's 'nigger toes.' I calls em that mysef and you don't need to worry about hurtin' ole Annie Mae's feelings. Let's us both have some right now." And she reached up into the bowl like an aging black giant and scooped up a handful of the nuts to crack and eat. She was still laughing when she handed me my first cracked nut.

I couldn't remember anything ever tasting so good.


Elizabeth Arant West was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, during the era of Elvis, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Vietnam War. She graduated from Memphis State University in 1967 with a degree in journalism and no prospects of a job in her chosen profession. A year later she was in Vietnam working for the American Red Cross as a recreation aide and later program director, providing recreational activities to enlisted personnel in country (Donut Dollies).

After a year in Vietnam, she left her precious Mid-South and moved to California where she still resides. The proud mother of a 26 year old daughter, she has continued to work in public service and spent the last ten years of her career as a senior policy consultant for a state senator in the California Legislature. She is semi-retired and lives in Sacramento, California.


Read another of Liz's stories here: A Vietnam Christmas

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