Martha and Curtis Johnston
The history of the Johnston household was patchy at best. Martha and Curtis could manage a long while without disturbance but Eunice would never say her family had been close knit growing up.
When Martha and Curtis arrived in Montgomery circa 1970, they had been selective about what church they would belong to, given their mixed race. Churches were suspicious of the connections shown on Curtis’ credentials from New York, Atlanta and Kansas City all the way down highway 61 to New Orleans. He had known some of the liveliest characters.
Church officials had questions on why he, with his U.S. Navy success up north, would choose to move his white wife and no children south. The South was MLK land, Gone With The Wind, antebellum pillars, segregation, peach cobbler, rednecks, Christians and the klan.
One could reason he was simply up to no good.
Once accepted by First Baptist the Johnston’s were loyal ever since. “It was a good thing too! We were shown the ropes on dealing with dumbass country boy antics, rednecks, neo Nazis and klan enamored by exciting self-promotion rallies. We learned white folk didn’t mess with the black folk of First Baptist, no Sir-ee, Bob!” mother had said.
The so-called supremacists and klan hobbyists were ignorant to progress and kept oblivious on purpose. For decades Montgomery had enjoyed relative harmony with unofficial laws like don’t ask, don’t tell and stick to your own kind which only kept people apart.
It was called voluntary segregation to scholars but to Eunice it was called the way things were. How could she stick to her own kind? How could she trust anyone’s opinion or advice? It left her in a conundrum of which side of the fence she should lay down roots.
Curtis a former Navy Ensign now worked at Berry Plastics a factory known for making freezer bags, ice cube trays, brooms and other cleaning equipment. He would bring home wonderful multi-colored plastic brushes and other goodies Eunice could add to her trunk of science experiments.
He didn’t complain about work except he despised carpooling to Gunter Park with a few other fellows. He left mornings to avoid traffic on the single lane highway out of town. He said he fantasized about honking a foghorn at the slow idiot drivers who tailgated but wouldn’t pass. She would giggle at how he could spin gripes into entertainment.
Eventually he became plant manager and she only saw him on weekends except one time he took her to work with him. She watched while he tested the boiler water by reading how the little vials changed color. She imagined him as the actual wizard in Wizard of Oz! He had an office overlooking plant operations below. On the wall was a girly calendar and locomotive train poster, his desk covered in paperwork and plastic brush prototypes. His colleague Nelson stopped in to shoot the breeze. Eunice thought he sounded like he was a character from Mary Poppins but later discovering he was South African.
On lucid days Martha told stories of her old life which gave Eunice a glimpse of how her skin had toughened up after moving south.
Martha was no longer the arrogant girl too good to work in factories like her alcoholic mother. Instead she’d developed quick thinking and practicality in life’s challenges. After meeting Curtis she left Montreal and set up their home in Harlem almost overnight. Martha said if she had learned anything in the South, it was that heat slowed down the pace of life to a crawl.
After a decade or so in New York they left in a beaten up Dodge. Martha wasn’t exactly welcomed by Curtis’ folks in Georgia. “His momma was fit to be tied. She’d tell us point blank, ‘You’se kids better think about moving on from here lickety split!’ And you know what Eunice? She had fear in her voice. Afraid of what people would think. Although your father claimed she was a loving woman, my first impression was she was rude and irrational. She didn’t want any trouble,” Martha said.
“It was because you were white, right mother?” Eunice asked dryly unable to imagine why her grandmother would be so frightened.
“Yes of course it was because I was white Eunice! You really are a distant little thing sometimes,” she laughed.
“Grandma Cora treated me better once her health returned. I had no idea one day I’d have a beautiful baby girl to show her. You were stunning and she adored you Eunice,” she said.
Martha wasn’t always well enough to tell stories. It was difficult to say if the various anti-depressants prescribed by multiple doctors were friends or foe but recently Eunice noticed she seemed more confused. One time she asked, “What do the meds actually do? What do they feel like?”
“I used to feel so many emotions all at once. At least your father always said so. Now I don’t get upset or angry at all which is good I suppose. I don’t get into a tizzy over silly things or overly excited or happy for that matter. I am alive Eunice. Sometimes I think I am only just living,” Martha said.
Eunice didn’t think it sounded all that bad.
“I remember rolling myself off the bed crashing to the floor hoping to shock my body into getting up and making tea,” Martha said.
Martha lived a quiet humble existence in her bedroom, knitting baby clothes for the church bazaar or doing crosswords while simultaneously staring at the television.
Eunice sensed a calm aura around her. Perhaps her mother was a real life angel and had mastered the art of accepting her lot in life. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Eunice could relate to her mother’s trauma. Her peers mocked her in class if she mentioned Civil Rights referring to her parent’s involvement. They’d look confused when she got upset at their racist jokes and say, “but Eunice it’s okay, you’re not really black.”
“I’ll have to carry around a picture of my parents in my wallet as proof!” she remembered saying to trusted friends.
While she constantly defended herself, peers with deeper complexions were defending their right to live with racism she was largely oblivious to.
Her quickness in defending her heritage wasn’t just pride in her roots but the embarrassment of being associated with whites.