Cora and Ben Johnston
Curtis and Martha arrived after dark in the Dodge packed full of as many cherished belongings as would fit. They would send for the rest of their things, when they figured out where the heck they would live. Curtis wasn’t certain how his folks would actually react to their arrival. In the meantime, remaining house belongings were stored in a friends warehouse locker.
Curtis’ mother Cora Johnston, was the daughter of a Methodist minister. His father Ben Johnston a businessman who had owned a Laundromat and a farm until bouts of ill health forced him to slow down.
“Daddy, this is my wife Martha,” Curtis said.
“Lovely to meet you Martha,” Ben was cordial with no visible reaction. “That sure is a perty dress,” he extended his hand to shake hers.
“Momma, Martha, Martha, Momma,” Curtis said, with a sheepish smile.
To Martha this first impression was critical and the fork in the road, where she would be successful or fail miserably.
“Welcome Martha to our home,” Cora said, “Now the first thing I gotta tell you is watch for the wasps. They’re in season right about now. They’ll surely pinch a plug right out of that lily white skin of yours,” she said, speaking rapidly with alarm in her voice.
Martha found her intense. She couldn’t decipher Cora’s huge smile, which may have masked terror and heartache at what her baby boy had done to her.
Being a preachers daughter or perhaps warding off uncomfortable silences, Cora had no problem filling silence with opinions.
“You gotta watch the gnats too,” Ben said. His demeanor was as Martha would have expected. She imagined him in an easy chair with pipe and slippers telling stories.
“Oh yes the gnats. There’s an invisible line where the annoying buggers will get you for the summer months,” Cora said.
“We ain’t in the gnat line I keep saying,” Ben snapped.
“People don’t want to live in the gnat area if they can help it,” Cora said, rolling her eyes at Martha.
“Gnats. Got it. I’ll definitely watch for those. Curtis was saying the closest town is Washington?” Martha asked. She didn’t see much except highways and road signs for the final two hour of their drive.
“Yes, Washington is a pristine place frozen in time. We were never in the way of any civil war battles if you can believe that. The armies fought all around us though. From Atlanta to the coast of the Atlantic. The coast down the Savannah River south was hit pretty hard. Lots of buildings got destroyed. Towns were either razed or have since gone to seed. Washington hasn’t lost its past charms,” Ben said.
“I don’t go in too often. He have farmhands who do the shopping and supplies. Lots of farmers selling on the roadside too,” Cora said.
“Oh that’s so romantic. I’d love to have lived here back in those times,” Martha said. She had always loved the rambling southern homes with pillars at the entrance she’d seen in old movies.
She didn’t know why Curtis and his folks all looked at each other incredulous than began to giggle.
Curtis blushed bashful while looking at her. Martha was paranoid she had said something wrong but she probably hadn’t.
“You would have loved the olden days. That’s probably because you are white Dear,” Cora said, with a dead-serious stare. There was silence until she couldn’t keep up her straight face.
Then they all howled with laughter.
“I think its Bedtime for Bonzo…! Shall we Martha?” Curtis said.
Upstairs soaking in a bath she pondered the bad first impression she left with the Johnston’s. Curtis’ folks were probably not so different from her own parents, with their precious foibles and annoyances.
They stayed in a dusty old room near the bathroom.
“Do you think they were completely taken aback by me?” she asked Curtis.
“Baby, maybe you were trying too hard. It’s very provincial here. Think of a village where everyone gossips. Remember they aren’t modern and worldly. They couldn’t get all the way to New York remember?” Curtis said.
He didn’t mention the first four years of their marriage where he hadn’t told them about her. Or during the following five years where he came down to see them without her.
“Just be yourself Martha,” Curtis said.
Was she coming on too strong? She hadn’t wanted to come across as a caricature asking those questions white people would ask. She had just read the book Black Like Me where a regular blue collar white guy goes undercover and scopes out the southern states in disguised in realistic blackface.
The next morning, Ben gave them a tour outside. When Eunice saw the house in daylight she was surprised it was so pretty, like a miniature Graceland. It had balance with extensions on either end and four grand antebellum pillars at the front. Adding to its mystique were years of overgrown wisteria and Spanish moss.
“I bet you never heard of rolled houses before, have you Martha?” Ben asked.
“The only rolling I could think of would be a log cabin. We have plenty of those in Canada,” she said.
Curtis smiled at her, then at his father.
“In the old days Mr. Planter here lives in a modest house. Once he’s wealthy he cannot leave his farm but needs a bigger house. He might buy up another house or two for cheap and get them there houses moved and tacked onto his original house,” Ben said.
“How ingenious, like adding an extension by using another house. I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Martha said.
“Nothing gets wasted around here,” Curtis said.
“Why go through all the hassle?” Martha said.
“A few reasons. They could make a really grand home out of two or three rolled homes to make it larger as the family grew but also mainly to show status,” Ben said.
“To prove how successful they were. How do you even move a house?” she asked.
“It took a lot of manpower to roll a house. They used logs, servants or slaves, mules and horses. The original footprint of this place is near two-hundred years old. This house here is made up of three. Those two west and east were additions. That was how the Johnston’s did it anyhow,” Ben said.
“Eunice, the funny thing is the two houses that were added have different ceiling heights and floor levels so upstairs you go up a few steps to Will’s room and down a few to Ma and Pa’s, because the floors don’t line up,” Curtis added.
Beating Cora to the punch, Ben took the reins on dinner conversation right out of the gate, “The thing down here is we don’t mean to be unwelcomin’ but nothing stands between us and our history. People don’t remember Jim Crow and Civil Rights like they should, ’specially the young,” Ben said, as if he’d told this one before.
After nearly a week in and Cora was more comfortable with Martha around too.
“But black folks up North cannot fathom living here. They think we’re a bunch of old fashioned relics,” Cora said.
“The blood is in the ground we walk on. For most old-timers round here, history lives in parallel to images of being beat down. There’s nothing worse than being set free and then treated worse than before,” Ben said.
“I just tell ‘em they won’t understand racism unless they spend some time here. You see, for black folk the South is our homeland. Most folks ain’t dreamin’ of Africa no more. We been long divorced from all that. This here is as close as they’re gonna get to their roots,” Cora said, on cue like a good old married couple.
“Sure, you can let it go but what’s an easier way to brand the lower class, than by using skin color. To this day, dark skinned people are judged like book covers. The anger comes from a real place,” Ben said.
“They was playin’ possum,” Cora said.
“That means pretending not to understand,” Curtis translated.
Martha looked at Curtis.
“That’s why we could never bring ourselves to venture visiting you in Harlem Son. It would have been something to see though,” Cora added.
“You both make nostalgia seem beautiful. Let’s talk about the good things. Make no mistake Martha, it is dangerous down here even today,” Curtis said.
“Come now Curtis, your father isn’t sugar coating anything. He knows all about the devil’s rage full stop. They taught us in school, we wasn’t as good as a white person. I can track down the text book,” Cora said. She looked at Martha for the first time.
“Cora. Hold your horses, what’ya telling Martha all that for?” Ben asked.
“Quit yer bellyaching. She’s got to know the truth if she’s gonna take care of your son. This ain’t the city,” she said.
“Now don’t be getting too big for yer britches. You have an audience now but it ain’t Martha’s fault,” Ben said.
“That’s okay Mr. Johnston, I want to know everything,” Martha said.
“Mrs. Johnston, I would never claim to know what you’ve gone through but I do feel it in my gut hearing your stories,” Martha said, feeling the words as she expressed them. “I want you to know how grateful I am to be here with you and with Curtis of course.”
“Things are changing some,” Curtis said.
“You’re right Ben, I get carried away sometimes. Martha dear do forgive me,” Cora said.
“Of course Cora,” Martha said. She had to act fast and get in on the conversation, “I am haunted by an invisible affliction of fixing what I see wrong. Ask Curtis. In New York for example, we protested the city and their plan to carve an expressway right through Greenwich Village. It was a lot of trouble and took us several months but in the end it worked. Imagine a bunch of immigrant women banding together in protest,” Martha said, bravely adding her two cents. She felt blessed for the opportunity to dip her toe into the conversation. Should she have stayed quiet?
“Sure, immigrants but were any of them black?” Cora asked, with a painted on smile.
Martha had it in herself to stand up to principles she believed in but for the first time a seed was planted. Was it worth spending all of her energy trying to convince Cora of anything. To convince anyone of anything? Letting people’s opinions exist and wash over her was the seed that had been planted.
“Mama. I told you in my letters how Martha set up our home in Harlem. And then went hog wild with our apartment on the Lower East Side. I didn’t even blink and it was done,” Curtis said.
In her opinion he exaggerated a little but Martha was deeply touched that he noticed and acknowledged.
“Cora, there were plenty of black women native New Yorkers, from down here, Jamaica and Africa too. City hall knew they did wrong already, we ladies made them understand years of retaliation in protest would not be worth their investment,” Martha said.
“Well I see we have a quiet but awfully stubborn woman here. I like that,” Cora said. She looked at Martha and held her stare. A tenderness passed between them the men would never understand.
Early the next morning she went walking the grounds to gather her strength back. The swirling conversation and learning so many new things had left her spent.
They had opinions about everything inside and outside their household. How was it that everyone was an armchair psychologist?
Martha was disillusioned at gaining such wisdom from the likes of Jane Jacobs and Angela Davis yet felt like a stupid little girl with Cora’s chatter and opinions.
Curtis joined her near the apple orchard.
She didn’t say much to Curtis out of respect but of course with ten years of marriage he picked up on it, “Just think Martha. Ma was snipping at you just like she does all of us. You’re now a part of the family, being nagged to death,” he said, ribbing her.
“You are a mind reader. Are we really going to live here. I heard you all discussing things the other night. Maybe Atlanta is better suited for us,” Martha said.
“Maybe it is. Let’s sleep on it a few nights. I’ve got some feelers out. I’m going to call one of em right now. How about you take a drive on your own and see what you think of this country life,” he said.
“Alright. Let your mama know I’ll be back for lunch,” Martha said.
It was the best advice she could get. From then onward when she felt overwhelmed she planned to step out of the swirl. When she got fed up with thinking about her race and his race, she found solace on those drives or walks.
If folks didn’t know her she could hit pause on being married to a black man and simply blend into a crowd.
Martha had lived so many reincarnated lives already; a childhood with alcoholics and poverty, and a mixed union with three unique experiences in Montreal, Harlem and midtown Manhattan. She had jettisoned to the conservative south to do it all over again.
At first she questioned how she would ever fit in. Then decided she couldn’t deny identifying as black inside, given the cultural influence of New York and the company she kept with Curtis and their circle of friends for over a decade.
The closest thing she experienced to racism herself, was when she was out in public with Curtis. The questionable stares and eye rolls saying, you don’t belong here white bitch!
Hopelessness faded as her battery recharged. So what if she couldn’t pass as a black imposter in Harlem and it was absurd to think she was passing for a white stranger in some Georgia town.
Thinking too hard messed up all she thought she knew.
She found those small towns too sterile and strange with the only people of color serving whites.
She had to be cautious not to perpetuate a stereotype that southern white folks were all dumbass rednecks. She also had to be careful, she didn’t arrogantly preach to educate white people on how to behave.
Let it be, Martha.
They were seated on the front balcony. Curtis and Martha in rocking chairs, Ben on the wicker love seat while Cora came out with a tray of fixings for iced tea.
“Pa can you tell us the story about how you inherited this place outright?” Curtis asked.
Oh no. Martha wanted to disappear into the clapboard, still fearful and uncomfortable being present when personal topics were discussed.
“When the last Johnston passed, eleven years ago now, he had it in his will to us. The families had become so intertwined under the name Johnston that the parcel of land was left to us,” Ben said.
“Penance alleluia,” Cora said.
“That’s a beautiful thing. Forgive my naiveté but my I ask how there were white Johnston’s, then Afro-American Johnston’s?” Martha asked.
“Oh that’s a good one,” Cora said, “it’s the first question I asked Ben when I met him.”
“Way back, when they were freed our ancestors hadn’t planned a surname. It wasn’t the norm but they took on the Johnston surname permanently. This probably appalled freed slaves of the time who knows. Most chose brand new names or names with meaning like Free-man or New-man or opted for Washington or Jefferson after a founding father,” Ben explained.
“Thank you for telling me all your stories Ben, Cora. It truly is wonderful to have my eyes opened up to a whole other side of the world. We live so separately,” Martha said, holding Curtis’ hand as she spoke.