An excerpt from
Another Way Home
The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family
The Lightning Fields
Human life…is a vale of soulmaking…soul as distinguished from intelligence—(individuals) are not souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.…How, but by the medium of a world like this?
After that August of the lightning, so many things would never be the same again. First of all, it was really hot that fateful summer, the air so stagnant and thick that everything went into slow motion, cooks in the kitchen, children in the yard, barn animals, even the sticky leaves in the sorghum fields. That's the way our mother remembered it, anyway, and that's the way people talked about it for a long time afterward. Second of all, this was 1913 in the Deep South river country, walking distance from the border of Mississippi and Louisiana. People were already upset because of the gathering talk of the conflict overseas, feeling what would be called Woody Wilson's War slowing its way toward them, and they dreaded any idea of so many of their boys being taken all that way across the Atlantic Ocean to fight against foreigners, called upon against their will to try out their honor against the Kaiser, whoever he was. Vicksburg was just up the road, and you could still talk to people who lived right there at the battlefield and remembered the sound of the guns.
Hundreds of brave Southern boys had gone down in glory at Vicksburg, fighting their hearts out under Admiral Pemberton and turning away Grant's Yankees not once but twice before they were finally overcome. There is a stone marker right in the center of Fort Adams, where people still board the ferry to ride downriver to New Orleans. It's carved with the names of all the Wilkinson County boys lost in that battle, and white people around there were still in grief over those boys, over the loss to their families and the loss of what they called the Southern Way of Life. The coloreds had a different eye on it, of course, not sharing in the general lament. They talked among themselves about Vicksburg and the whole War of Liberation, and to their way of thinking, General Grant's whipping the Johnny Rebs at Vicksburg had been a great day. Some of the older colored people had taken to memory President Abraham Lincoln's entire proclamation, the one that should have set the thing to rest once and for all. Abe Lincoln had a way with words a lot of the time, they thought—he looked like a preacher and sounded like one too, and what he said about Vicksburg and about their own Old Man River sounded straight out of the Good Book. What he had actually said was that "The Father of Waters," meaning the Mississippi, of course, "can again go unvexed to the sea." The situation they lived with was not so unvexed as all that, but everybody, white and colored alike, shared in this one resolution: yes, the War of the States may have meant different things to different races, but there wasn't one single family that was not relieved when the war was finally over and people could get back to living their ordinary lives.
And now while people still alive were still remembering everything about the War Between the States, they could feel in their bones the slow gathering clouds of another kind of war to deal with, and most people didn't understand why Southern boys, colored and white, might be yanked off the plantations again, leaving so many mothers without sons and young wives without husbands. Stories grew that way in that place, the public became the personal and vice versa, with people putting their stories together, collectively reshaping their shared and separate times. In that way, this new war growing around them that they were never to name as their own weighed on them like the heat all that summer, turning their spirits heavy and sodden. Instead of peace and quiet there on the Place, everybody's nerves got more on the edge. As children sat on the steps of the Small Houses, their voices grew more shrill, and in the barns the cows lowed interminably, resting on their haunches while the phaeton-carriage horses stood stock-still and rolled their eyes crazily at each other. And Miz Katharine—well, she got meaner. Miz Katharine was trouble most of the time anyway. But, my mother said, when the bad heat came you had to leave that old lady by herself.
That Tuesday afternoon, Miz K sat heavily on the big house veranda and fanned herself. She was my father's mother, a Virginia lady, and she was too proud or too fancy to use regular church fans, saying that she had no intention to advertise anybody's burial parlor. Rather, she kept her own special rose-colored lace fan close to hand. Somebody had brought it to her from overseas. That particular day, Miz Katharine was sitting there in her big old wicker chair with the green flowered cushions, fanning away with that rose-colored fan of hers, frowning at nothing or everything, when suddenly the air changed. You know from your own experience that it does that down there sometimes. In the middle of a long slow stillness, the earliest sense of a storm will make itself felt without any warning you can name. It's not the wind exactly. More of a prickling in the ears and the nose, like before you sneeze. That particular day, it didn't get cool, as people testified, but the air took on some kind of motion, just barely there but there, and a giant-sized zigzag of lightning out of nowhere flashed across the sky. "A good thing," Miz Katharine said. "Some rain is what's needed." Her son's crops needed it. She liked to watch storms anyway. Mamán said that without a husband around, that old woman had to take her excitement when she could get it.
Mamán herself did not like storms. She had a bit of African remembrance in her still, and thought in some hoodoo kind of way that big lightning and thunder meant God had his teeth on edge with somebody or something. So when lightning came, with that sky-breaking crack of thunder following on its tail, all the children came inside and found something to do with themselves so as not to pay too much attention to the storm coming at them. It was a little scary even if you didn't have too much African mind about yourself. That day it was truly fearsome, because the sky turned such strange colors. One minute it was blue-blue, like a wildflower, heavy and so slow-feeling you could almost feel the thickness. Then the lightning came, sudden as first blood down a girl's thigh when she turns into her womanhood. And then the light changed, just like that, from blue-blue to a kind of sick-looking green with streaks of red in it. It just got darker until it was almost night-black, and all the while there'd come these lighted-up flashes and boom-boom sounds, cracking open the thick quiet all across the Place. The hard rain that soaked everything out there was an afterthought, really.
People had different ideas about the time of day, but it seemed to have been somewhere in the late afternoon, because nobody was thinking about supper yet. Miz Katharine just sat out there on her wicker chair and watched it all, not caring that everybody with any sense had gone inside. She did leave off from fanning though, and started up humming the way she did when she thought nobody could hear her. The funny part was, she would hum colored people's songs, church songs that her cooks sang in the kitchen. She just took those songs to memory without thinking about it. If she had thought about it, you can bet she surely wouldn't have learned those songs. She did not like to have any more to do with the coloreds than she had to just to keep the Place going.
Because the air was so strange, those tunes moved right through the space in between the Big House and the Small Houses, and all of the people heard her humming, and some of the old people started to sing the words themselves. Not Mamán, though. She didn't sing. What she remembered was the humming. Aunt Calline remembered the song as one of those Lord-Jesus-help-me songs, and Lil Aunt Nettie remembered exactly, she said, that the song Miz K was humming was "Way Down Yonder by Myself and I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray." You couldn't argue with Lil Auntie about things like that, so that just became everybody's recollection.
Anyway, that humming was the last sound people remembered coming from out of Miz Katharine's thin tight lips for the next three days. After Mr. Miles, our father's colored foreman, came riding up on his horse with a face nobody would ever forget, streaking wet with rain and crying, even though grown men didn't cry in that part of the world, to carry the news to that mean humming woman, she never spoke a word for the next three days. The news was this: that her only son, our father, had been struck dead by lightning, sitting on his horse Rafe, under a tree.
Miz Katharine Shepherd didn't say one word when that message was brought to her by Mr. Miles, whose life had been spared because of this rule: No colored person could get under a tree when a white man was there seeking shelter. So Mr. Miles had been on his own horse, some distance from the persimmon tree that drew the lightning, and he just got soaking wet. Now he actually got down off his own horse, crying, and then walked fast up the steps to where she was sitting and got down on bended knee carrying that heavy news to my father's mother.
People said Miz K almost died on the spot, and that it was her heart that broke in two inside her body that stopped her windpipe from moving so that she couldn't speak any words at all that frightful night. They thought with the whole place in such terrible grief, people running all over every which way, repeating the news over and over to anybody they could find, that the words to speak might come back to Miz Katharine in a rush and that she would run across the field screaming out the name of her only son, screaming against God or screaming for some kind of help from Jesus, but she didn't. She got up from her wicker chair and turned into the house she lived in with her son, and she walked into her room and lay down on that big walnut bed, the same one she slept in by herself every night of her life except when she went to visit her sister's family back in Virginia. People talked about how she turned her head to the wall and never let loose one word for three days, even after the sun came back out. She never got up to view her only son's body, which had been brought in by his foreman. Not even after the white burial parlor people had laid him out on a cooling board in the back visiting room, where he lay looking perfect and just like he always did except with his eyes closed.
Word got around about two strange things. One was about that: Arthur Shepherd, laid out as he was, looked so untouched, like he was just sleeping, not black and blue from being knocked off Rafe's back by that bolt of lightning—not a lightning burn on him anywhere you could see. People pondered what that occurrence might mean. Some old people on the Place said that the man must have been taken up by an angel. This was because he was known to be a good white man, good to us three colored children who bore his name, not hiding anything from anybody, and he had built us our little house on the Place, close enough so he could walk over and visit us when he wanted to. He was pretty good to the people who worked for him too. Because his people had come from England and he had a cousin over there named Sir Henry Hook Shepherd and everybody knew about that, and because he spoke softly and different from the other high-toned white people around, even differently than his mother, who just had a Virginia whiny-in-the-nose manner of talking, most people agreed that he was a good white man.
Still, Lil Auntie herself never did like him much. She said he wasn't really all that free-handed, and that you had to really make yourself a case to get something if you needed it, so it was clear as day to her that he wasn't taken up by any angel. She said she had heard before of other people, white and black, good and bad people, who got struck down by lightning and ended up with not a mark on them. But there were a lot of the shout-in-church-type people on the Place, the ones that Lil Auntie and Mamán said you should keep a little distance away, handling them with a long-handled fork. Those kinds of people still said that good man's spirit was taken up into those big dark rain clouds by an angel, no doubt about it, so quite naturally his remains looked perfect.
The second strange thing was that Miz Katharine would not listen to anybody tell her how it happened, how her son had been riding across his own fields when the rain came down, and he had stopped under a tree no different than he had done a hundred times before, except this time this one streak of lightning just aimed itself right at him, cutting through that old persimmon tree like a strop-sharpened knife. Everybody wanted to tell her their version, but Miz K just kept her head turned to the wall, and if people would come in she would throw up her hands like the colored people do when they're saying "Lord Have Mercy," but she didn't say the words, just put up her hands, and people would leave her alone out of respect or fear. Some people thought she had gone silent crazy like Miz Louann down at the Pond, or like Miz Rachel over to Longmont, and wouldn't ever talk again. The coloreds on the Place were more than a little scared of any kind of crazy white people, especially when you didn't know what they might do if they came to.
While she was still in her silent grief, all of Miz Katharine's relatives came streaming in from Virginia, where they had named a whole town after the Shepherds over a hundred years ago. The whole place seemed almost like a party, with so much coming and going and cooking and men drinking, and heaps of flowers everywhere, arrangements of Broken Wheels and Bleeding Hearts and Flowering Crosses of all different sizes. But it was not a party, and the white burial parlor people were there every day, making arrangements for a really big funeral without any instructions from Miz Katharine. That lady had long before written out her will and last testament, and left a copy of her handwritten directions for her own funeral service, express written out selections for hymns and prayers for her own funeral, all while she was still alive. She had left the whole list with Lawyer Bramlette on her sixtieth birthday. That's the kind she was. No colored person would ever invite the attention of Death that way, and a lot of white Christian people wouldn't either. But anyway, they used those directions to put together a funeral for my father, fitting for a man as important as her son, a man whose family had owned seven plantations up and down the Natchez Trace and all the way alongside the river down to New Orleans, who got struck down when he was only forty-one years old and surely Death hadn't crossed his mind yet.
The big question was could Miss Katharine be roused back to speech for the funeral of her only son. Well. Something or another got to her, and, waking up on the funeral morning, still silent as a spook, she all at once came back to herself. She got up and washed and put up her hair and put on a long heavy black dress. Then she put a hat on her head and drew a net-veil over her face, which was as white as an onion under that veil, with its black specks like pockmarks dotting her cheeks and chin. People knew every detail because, of course, the colored maids were the ones to help her get dressed. Those gossiping house-Negroes attained greater importance than they had ever had or expected to have, because they and only they could tell the real story, and everybody was dying to hear it all.
All of those coloreds who worked in the Big House, the cooks and the carriage drivers too, half of them our family, filed into the big double parlor, which was all set up with chairs, and took their places at the rear, behind the distant family, friends, neighbors, and everybody else who was white, and behind Mamán and Mama Emmaline and us three children, dressed in our best. I had a ribbon pinned to my hair because I never did like the way I looked in my Sunday hat. Miz Wilkie from down near Longmont Plantation played the rosewood piano, one sad-sounding white hymn after another, and everybody sat in their seats, leaving the first three rows free and empty so when Miz Katharine walked in with her sister and her nieces and nephews, she wouldn't have to brush up against anybody's knees or trip over anybody's long funeral dress. Then came my father's sister, Miz Margaret, who had had a falling out with Miz Katharine a long time ago, over something people clicked tongues about. That one had moved way up north of Natchez and never had come back until this day, so people were entirely interested in her, and surprised that she looked pretty much the same. Then came some other family members from Natchez, from New Orleans, and from Virginia.
When Miz Wilkie finally broke into "In Heavenly Love Abiding," our father's other family on the Place came walking in lock-step, like in a wedding procession. Miz Louise, the strange silent woman Miz K had brought down from Kentucky for our father to marry after our mother died and who never talked much to Miz K or anybody else, marched her three little children directly up to the front across the aisle and sat all of them down, staring straight ahead. Mamán had told us that Miz Louise had been sent for and put before our father because Miz K was determined that he should have what she called "legitimate heirs." Anyway, he had married her and they had had three popcorn children, one every year in a row. Miz K got a little nicer to us after the legitimate heirs came along, but that Miz Louise just turned her face away whenever we came into her view. We played with her boys afternoons, anyway, when she was taking her daily rest, and now they waved at us on the way down the aisle. Nobody had to help Miz K, though you might have thought so. She proceeded in slow and straight, the last one in the marching line, which would make her the first one on the edge of her row.
My baby brother, Ben, and our brother, John, and I were sitting with Mamán and Mama Emmaline, arranged in the third row of chairs from the rear by age, with John at the end on the aisle. What I shall never forget was this: the words Miz K spoke then, before she started her long walk up to the front of the parlor to take her last sight of her only son looking perfect and peaceful in his casket, before anybody moved from their seats in their own rows, Miz K spoke her first words in three days. The words came out so loud and sharp, like a clap of thunder, that nobody moved after she spoke, for what seemed like a very long time. I remember the feeling—how hot and uneasy the air felt, and how quiet, like before the storm. What Miz K said when her voice finally came back to her at the front of that room full of flowers and mourners was fateful. Those nine words were repeated nine hundred times all around to the Pond, all over to Fort Adams, up and down the Trace, and probably all the way to Virginia. From behind that spotted black veil every single person heard it. What she said was, "Let John come up and look upon his father."
Then my brother John, the one who everybody on the Place knew our father loved the best of anybody, his firstborn son, excused himself and marched up to the front in lock step, just like the rest of the family, and did just that. He didn't lay a flower or anything. He hadn't come prepared for that. He just looked. The thing I can still see when I close my eyes is watching my brother John, who everybody, white and colored, had to acknowledge was the spit and image of the father who gave him his name, walk so straight with his shoulders so square in his dust-colored tweed Norfolk jacket with the belt across the back. Nobody said anything. That whole room full of people just sucked in their breath along with everything they wanted to say and did say later on, and they watched in the heat and the quiet. After a while, Miz Wilkie got herself going and began to play another hymn.
When they wrote our father's obituary and all about the funeral and everything in the newspaper, not one word was written about what had happened.
That story, which is still talked about nearly a century later, is preserved only in the oral history of the Place, and it has been passed on in stories told by both races. Of course, Uncle John and my mother couldn't stay in the Small House after that. After the grieving period, everyone knew. Mamán knew it and Mama Emmaline knew it, and they started preparations for the two oldest to leave the Place. Being the baby, Ben was thought to be safe at home. People knew Mamán was getting old and needed somebody to run errands and help with things. So Ben stayed and lived out the rest of his life near the Pond. My fifteen-year-old mother was packed off to New Orleans with her cousin Irene, who was almost exactly her age. They would be nursemaids in the Garden District. They were spirited girls and looked forward to this new adventure.
My mother's brother John had been declared officially white by their father, who, we presume, had called on old friendships or paid off doctors and lawyers to get the records altered, aiming to keep his son away from the disgraceful conditions of the colored army. Since John could go anywhere he wanted, he went first to Chicago and then to Michigan to make his fortune, living as a white man but never turning his back on his family. In his old age he came back all alone to the Pond, dying of tuberculosis, and occupied for a short while a neat little wooden house near where they had been raised. I was just old enough to be taken Down Home for his funeral. Somebody set his house on fire just after he died, and all of his pictures and things were burned up.
One day a few years ago, when we were retelling this story for the thousandth time at my cousin Ben's big rambling house on the green campus of the state university where he taught, Ben leaped up and brought out this faded sepia-tone photograph of Uncle John, posed straight and smart in a tweed Norfolk jacket. And there all the stories became real.
Lightning can indeed strike twice. On a trip Down Home many years later, we learned this truth. Two old people down in the country told us the story. One was ninety-six-year-old Cousin Excel (not really family, but a part of the colored life on the Place and somebody who had known the Shepherds and the Lehmanns), and the other was ninety-three-year-old Miss Josephine, a white woman whose family had run the Pond Store after my mother had gone North and who still had every ounce of her wits still about her. They both told this tale that had been whispered about behind closed doors for nearly a century. Subsequently we asked about it in several different places, and the truth was right there in the collective recollection. Everybody knew that our grandfather had been struck dead by lightning—that was enough drama to last people on the Place for a long time. But then, not a year after that fearsome event, the our grandfather's very grave was struck by lightning, and his headstone was split in two.
We were not given to discern the implications of this extraordinary occurrence, for when she told of it, Miss Josephine just looked at me sidewise and asked "Are you superstitious?" When I answered in the affirmative, she nodded and averred, "All the colored people are superstitious, aren't they?" You couldn't push her one step farther on it then. She just sighed, firmly closing the subject: "I don't think I want to talk about that any more at all." As to Cousin Ex, who was getting just a touch vague—and everybody said wasn't he entitled in his old age—he just said, "Well, it could mean one thing, and then on the other hand, it could mean something else altogether." He couldn't be moved to say anymore either. We got news just three months later that Cousin Ex had died, his stories buried right there with him on the Place.