Updated: Jun 24, 2020
| This is the 481st story of Our Life Logs |
In 1926, in the rural lands of Eaton, Georgia, my mother Catherine gave birth to me. Back then, there were no doctors and nurses, at least, not the way we think of them today. Only midwives delivered babies, even the white ones. The only midwife that worked in our county went by the name of Ma Carrie. My grandfather, Pa Doc, married her as his second wife and eventually she became something like a grandmother to me. When my mother’s labor pains began, Ma Carrie gave her a pint of white liquor to silence her cries of relentless agony. By God’s good graces, I survived, healthy and crying like any baby should. Ten years later, my sister arrived without making a single sound. She didn’t even breathe.
My mother didn’t have time to grieve over the loss of her stillborn child, though. The white man who owned the land forced her back to work by the next morning. I remember her clear as day, waking up at dawn, with her belly still swollen and round from the night before, as if she hadn’t given birth yet. Mama shuffled to the door, hunched over and struggling to stand. She could barely walk, her hands trembled as she reached for the door to our shed. Sweat pouring down her face even before the sun came up. I watched as she wobbled outside, much of the sky still covered in darkness but streaks of red lowered over the horizon. She closed the door behind her, leaving me alone in our hay bed. Being the daughter of a sharecropper wasn’t easy most days. I hated watching mama go.
Ma Carrie watched over me while mama worked the fields. She’d take some of the cornmeal mama had bought and boil it over the hot stove. Mama made only a dollar a day as a sharecropper and gave a portion of her earnings to the white landowner every month. Other black families had it worse than us. White men would come in the night and steal their money. I’m not saying we were any better off than those families. Most times we couldn’t afford any food and go to bed hungry.
In the rare instance that my mother did make a little extra, though, she made sure to buy cornmeal for me. A few times Ma Carrie stole a few eggs from the white landowner’s chicken farm and fry them over the iron pan. How she escaped without being seen I’ll never know. Though, I figured it had something to do with my grandfather’s reputation around town.
Pa Doc made sure no one messed with his wife or me for that matter. Both the blacks and the whites feared him. He never answered a single white person with “Yes, sir,” or “Yes, ma’am.” Pa Doc conformed to no one. Back then, black men would’ve faced cruel punishment for going against a white person, but my grandfather wasn’t scared of anyone. How he came to marry a kind woman like Ma Carrie, no one knew.
Whenever Ma Carrie would cook, she’d hum a simple tune, a smile coming to her thick lips. That day my mother left, Ma Carrie brought me over to the stove and taught me how to stir the cornmeal. She always said, “Nice and slow, with little bit of love.” Eventually, I started to hum the tune along with her. That morning, God had blessed us with full bellies and good food. For a minute, it took my mind off my mama.
She’d been gone all day, well into the late hours of the night. Usually, everyday she’d return home, sweat beating down her dark face. Her clothes smelling of cotton and sweet corn. On that particular night, though, she didn’t come back. Ma Carrie didn’t need to tell me what had happened to mama, I already knew. At 10 years old, you’re old enough to understand certain situations, even the harsh reality of death. Ma Carrie tried to tell me God had taken her to Heaven, that she could finally rest now, but I knew the truth. I knew who’d taken mama from me.
Like any little girl, I needed my mother. Ma Carrie and my grandfather, Pa Doc, took me into their care, looking after me as best they could. Ma Carrie even named me after her, adorning me with her name, Carrie. She’d cook me cornmeal and eggs some mornings. She said that food was a gift from God. On those days, I felt mama smiling down on me. My anger and grief turned to joy as I imagined mama walking hand and hand with me through the cotton fields.
Then tragedy struck again. In the year of 1940, Ma Carrie passed away. She died delivering babies well into her late 80’s. She hadn’t even lived long enough to see me grow up.
At that time, I was in my mid-teens, no longer a girl but not yet a woman. Not only that, but my life became confusing. My mother’s husband, Mayon Banks became my guardian shortly after the passing of Ma Carrie. Before mama died, I’d only seen him hanging around our shack a handful of times. Though he never came to see me, only mama. I didn’t care much for him, anyway, he was no kin to me. My real father passed on long before mama gave birth to me. When Ma Carrie and Pa Doc looked after me, Mayon Banks didn’t come around but once. He’d tried to take me away then, but Pa Doc managed to scare him off. The second time, there wasn’t anyone around to protect me from him, or so I thought.
Fortunately, one of my mother’s sisters, Aunt Anna, came and rescued me from that man. Like my granddad, she had a sharp tongue and Mayon Banks surely got an earful from her. She’d known of his weakness for young girls like me and was determined to get me away from him as far as possible. I’d been thankful for it ever since.
Back in those days, the mother’s sisters usually cared for the children and passed them around. My mother had four sisters, one of which was institutionalized by my grandfather. I lived with three of my remaining aunts, never really feeling at home with either of them. My stay with Aunt Anna, unfortunately, lasted a short period of time, as she lived a care-free and simple life. My mother’s youngest sister, Aunt Ethel, who had a girl of her own, named Mattie-Bell, took me in for some time before passing me on to Aunt Rose and her children in Macon, Georgia.
She’d sown and stitched my clothes for school, as many of the mothers often did for their children. Sometimes Aunt Rose even let me cook breakfast, allowing me to make my favorite dish, boiled cornmeal and fried eggs. I’d still hum that song Ma Carrie taught me all those years ago while I stirred, wondering if she were at peace, like mama. I thought I’d finally found my home, that I didn’t have to worry any more. But as I became a young woman, well into my early 20’s, the world started to change around me. My aunt’s house no longer felt like home to me and neither did Georgia.
During the Great Migration in the 1950s, I left the rural south as freed blacks and moved up north in search of dreams, hopes and most importantly, freedom from whites. My new safe haven became Cleveland, a place where I could start over new and call my own. Jobs didn’t pay much here back in those days, but I made an honest living from cleaning houses for Jewish families. Many of the women who moved up north cleaned houses for a living. It was better than picking cotton in the hot fields all day.
Before migrating to the north, I worked for a white landowner and picked seeds out of cotton for days on end. The afternoon sun would beat down my back and sweat pouring all down my body. At 20 and having just birthed my first child, times in the south had become unbearable. I had no choice but to leave, for hopes of a better life.
My life in Cleveland consisted of more than just having a decent job and child, though. I met a man from the war named Rudolph. After he got released from duty, we got married. Shortly after, we had more children and our household grew just a bit bigger. I lived in a house full of children with the first man I ever loved. Finally, a place of my own that I could finally, and truly, call home.
Just as Ma Carrie taught me how to cook cornmeal and eggs, I later passed the tradition on to my children. With the changing times, the name obviously switched to grits, our new norm. Still, I taught my kids how to cook grits and eggs the way Ma Carrie showed me all those years ago. A country lady holds true to her roots. Nothing but real, churned butter and milk for the grits and a side of seasoned eggs. As I taught my children how to stir, I’d tell them to always remember my mantra. Whenever life tossed them around from place to place, a pot full of grits and eggs will always remind them of home.
This is the story of Carrie Hill
Carrie grew up in Eaton, Georgia, as the daughter of a sharecropper. Her mother Catherine died in the fields after giving birth to her sister, at which point Ma Carrie, her grandfather’s second wife, taught her how to cook cornmeal (grits) and eggs. The dish stayed with her throughout her life, helping Carrie overcome tough times through her love for cooking. Still to this day, grits and eggs is her favorite breakfast meal and often, she’ll sneak a pinch of salt into her grits. Not only is her cooking legendary, but she also made a positive impact on Black History. Carrie became one of the six million African Americans to migrate north during the Great Migration of the 1900s. Because of her courage to leave the rural South, her family has been able to thrive freely in the north. She is the mother of nine children and the grandmother to several grandchildren, more than we can count. At 94 years old today, Carrie has the quick wit of her grandfather and aunt but the compassion of Ma Carrie. She is a true pioneer of history.
This story first touched our hearts on January 9, 2020.
| Writer: Aja Dandridge | Editor: Kristen Petronio |