Mama packed a cooler filled with corned beef sandwiches and sweet tea for the ride. She also packed saltine crackers just in case Lizzie felt sick in her belly from the car. Mama said that crackers always helped sour belly because they would sop up the sourness once they got down there. She made for certain that she brought a bag of the sweet mints that Daddy liked. It was a long drive from Goose Creek, South Carolina to Uncle Buford and Aunt Sophie’s house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Mama didn’t want to keep stopping on the road. Not that she was in a hurry to get there but it would take us a lot longer if we stopped every single hour. Besides, it was dangerous for colored folk to stop in places where white folks still thought slavery was in effect.
Even though Daddy’s ‘68 Chevy Impala was two years old, it was big enough to hold us, and our entire world as we knew it then, inside of it. Daddy drove, of course, and Mama sat up front with him. She never looked at him when he spoke to her along the way. She answered his queries, always in agreement it seemed, by humming or nodding. She stared out the window the whole ride, as if she was there with us, but not. I could see her face in the rearview mirror and every now and again she’d catch me looking at her. She’d give me a pacifying smile that made this journey seem alright. When she didn’t see me looking, I could see the despair hidden underneath.
The three of us sat in the back seat and it was miserable. The car was hot and miserably so. We were all packed up in the back like bread stuffed in a basket. It was only three of us, but it felt like five on account of how Johnny could almost be two whole people in his own self. He was that way because he always got extra helpings of Mama’s spoon bread, being that he was her favorite and all. He slept most of the way there and every now and again, his head would topple over like jello, making his whole body lean into Lizzie. She would moan and push him off.
The seats were leather, but not real leather, and because it was June in the South, our moist legs stuck to them like chewing gum while our shirts stuck to our backs like plastic wrap clings to a bowl. There was no air condition in that boat-sized car, and Daddy wouldn’t let us open the window all the way while we were on the highway—which was most of the ride—on account of it being too loud. Mama never objected.
“Just a crack. You can open it just a crack Jilly,” he said to me, “just a lil on your side too Johnny,” he said to my older brother.
I hated the ride, and the whole way, I wondered why we had to leave South Carolina. Why we had to leave our home and our friends and our family and our church and our pastor and our yard and our Fridays at the penny arcade and our Saturdays at the 25 cent movie theater. I wondered why we had to leave our whole life, our entirety of existence in Goose Creek, and grudgingly take it all the ways north to Philadelphia.
Where the south was warm dew in the morning and sweet tea in the afternoon, Philadelphia, to me, was breeze that’d cut you in the morning and concrete buildings looming over you at night. Was there even grass there? Why would anyone want to go where there was no grass? But Daddy made the decision, and Mama did what Daddy said to do. He didn’t go about asking. He went about telling.
“Mavis, ain’t nothing down here for us.” “Right time we start life fresh and new.” “Ain’t no decent work down here so we’ll head up north to Buford’s for a lil bit.”
The twelve hours it took for us to drive from Goose Creek to Philadelphia, we stopped three times. That was only to use the toilet at the gas station while Daddy was filling up the tank.
I remember it clear like new glass. I remember looking at the tree lines on the Interstate and remembering when it changed and there weren’t any more trees, just buildings. And I remember thinking how hard it was going to be in Philadelphia and being angry that we had to go.
I thought Mama felt like this too. She didn’t say it, but her face did. I wanted to tell her I knew how she felt, because I felt the same way. But children are supposed to be seen and not heard. That is the way it was in the South. If Daddy said we was moving, then we was moving. Period. No questions asked, ever. We weren’t going to know the why.
All of our family stayed in the South. Daddy and Uncle Buford were the only two who migrated north.
Uncle Buford followed his lady-love. She was from New York City and moved further north to get away from her family. Her parents weren’t too keen on boys from the south as suitable partners for their only daughter. They were more inclined toward a boy from the city who had sound education with an honest job making a decent wage to support her. No boy who came from a farming family of field workers would be good for their girl. So, Uncle Buford left to be with his Sophie, because she loved the city and he loved her. Though she loved Uncle Buford in kind, she did not love where he came from.
Daddy left for reasons we didn’t know. He more so ran from Goose Creek. It was so fast and in such a hurry that us kids, even Mama, didn’t have time to think about it. For Johnny, it was a new adventure, so he didn’t care neither way. Lizzie, well she was too young to even understand. I was the only one who was sad to go. Well, me and Mama. She was braver than I was, never frowning nor sulking during the ride. She stayed pleasant, even though she was sad to have to leave her family behind. Her mother and her sisters were all in Goose Creek. Not to mention if she wanted to visit her Granddaddy’s grave, she’d have to drive all the way back down. Even though Mama was unhappy about going, as a southern woman, she understood that you just did what your husband said to do.
This not knowing always bothered me, but I never called up the nerve to ask. Not even when Daddy was sick. Not even when he was dying. Not when Mama got sick. Not when she was dying. What was he running from? It was really strange and peculiar, but I never questioned.
On a Thursday night, some forty-one years later, as I was watching Meredith Grey and Derek Shepherd officially tie the knot, cousin Dot called inquiring about whether or not I heard from a lady named Patsy.
“No Dot. I don’t know any Patsy. Is she from back home?” I said to her.
“Well, thing is…I think you should give her a call.”
“For what? Who is she?”
“Here is her number. Write it down. You got something to write it down?”
“Dot! What’s this all about?” My tone rose slowly like bread baking.
“Jillian, just give her a call. Please. For me.”
“Dot.” I laughed softly. “I’ve got better things to do with my time than to call on strangers. Especially if I don’t even know what I’m calling them for.” There was an inflection of frustration in my voice. “What am I calling her for?” I demanded.
“You’re so bull-headed.” She scoffed. “Just like your Daddy.”
“Listen. Give her a call if you want. I think you’ll find it a little refreshing to hear what she’s got to say.” There was rustling in the background and the hard sound of a door slamming
“Dot. What on earth is going on?”
“Jilly, I got to go. These little ones is running mud all through and out my kitchen. I’ll talk to you later dear. Love you. Bye.” She hung up the phone.
Instead of calling this Patsy person, I called Lizzie to see if she knew anything about what Dot was talking about. Everybody knew that cousin Dot had a tendency to exaggerate and make things more fanciful than they really were, out of sheer boredom. The most exciting thing she had going on was those grandkids that she had running through her kitchen dragging mud in and out.
Lizzie told me everything that I didn’t want to hear. “You should call. What could it hurt? If Dot is telling you to call, but not saying why, or who she is, let’s just play along and call.”
So I called.
“Hello. Hi…aah…may I speak with Patsy?”
“My name is Jilly. I believe she knows my Cousin Dot.”
“Oh.” There was silence for a few seconds and then she spoke again. “I didn’t think you’d call.”
“I’m not really sure what this is about. And I absolutely don’t want to come off as rude, but I’m not familiar with who you are or how we know each other.” I waited for what felt like hours for her to respond. “Hello? You still there?”
“I’m here. No. You don’t know me but…I’m your sister.”