Category Archives: dementia

The magic in names: slavery and my family

noni mike_NEW

Michael and Noni

My brother Michael remembers Noni,  our paternal grandmother, asking him, “Don’t you think it would be just terrible if you had to go to school with little colored boys and girls?” This would have been in 1954, just after Brown vs. the Board of Education; Mike would have been nine at the time. He remembered thinking about the black boys he played with at the swimming hole and in the park — about Dave and Frank and Harry — and said no, he wouldn’t mind.   He thought it would be kind of fun.

By the time I knew Noni, she was slip-sliding down into the slough of senility, thanks to a decades-long drug habit. I didn’t dislike her, but I didn’t exactly love her either. Dementia is never endearing and perhaps I sensed the hostility between her and my mother, although I was not to understand the considerable animus between those two until I was an adult. And then there was Noni’s every-Christmas-without-fail gift to me — a set of three gi-normous old lady panties. This was a gift to which I took considerable umbrage. Did my grandmother really think my ass was THAT big?

If my brain were an attic, in one part of that attic, tucked away down under the eaves, you’d find a mildewed hatbox full to bursting with mouldering confederate money, a battered steamer trunk stuffed with moth-eaten petticoats and tattered ball gowns and, a musty, dog-eared history of the Eastern North Carolina branch of the Hardy family published in 1964 by one David Hardee. Hardee, Hardie, Hardy – we’re all the same family; it was just that some of us could spell and others not. Lately, I’ve been poking around in that old corner of the attic, stirring up dust, sending up ragged clouds of moths, sifting through old mouse poop in an attempt to understand my family in the context of history and of race.

Which was how I stumbled upon an inventory of the Bertie County, North Carolina estate of  my forebear William Hardy. According to a will drawn up in 1793, the estate included:

  • Farm equipment — saws, fire tongs, shovels, hoes;
  • Produce – corn, potatoes, salt, flour, flax, cotton;
  • Livestock – 5 horses, 34 cattle, 15 sheep, 14 sows, 65 pigs and 47 other hogs, 22 chickens, 25 turkeys and 47 other fowls, 4 stocks of bees, a yoke of oxen;
  • Books – a Bible, Prayer Book, 3 volumes of Mares arithmetic, Harvey’s Meditations;
  • Furniture – tables, table cloths, chests, 4 beds, 2 pillows, 12 chairs, pots, pans, candles, candle snuffers, candlesticks, glasses, plates, knives, forks;
  • Tools and supplies– one file, one surveyor chair, money scales, 5 spinning wheels, 5 pairs of cards, carpenter tools, 1 cart, 67 weight of pewter, 2 saddles, 2 bridles, 2 grindstones, tailor shears, looking glasses, mill picks, writing paper, 40 barrels of turpentine, 1 bag, 2 wallets, 2 towels, guns

It also included, “Negroes as follows: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew, Daniel,  Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Woman Bell, Woman Penn, Girl Rose, Girl Easter, Girl Polly.”

According to the will, the slaves were to be divided between William’s wife Sarah and his children. Only the sons got land, but everybody “received” one or two in slaves in formulations that read like this:

“Sarah Sutton received Matt and Simon and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 8 pence.”

“Lamb Hardy received his 1/6 part of the land, negro boy Daniel, and other sundries worth 118 pounds, 8 shillings and 12 pence.”

It was their names that got me. You don’t think of a slave being named Dave, for example, or Frank or Harry and yet Dave and Frank and Harry they were and Penn and Rose and Easter and negro boy Daniel . . . and they were passed down from father to child in the same breath as forty barrels of turpentine (William was a cooper by trade) or a yoke of oxen. According to a Census of Bertie County taken some 67 years later in 1860, Ellinor Hardy, Humphrey Hardy and Jason Hardy all owned slaves — 79, 33 and 39 respectively — but these were merely enumerated; they were not named. The fact that I know the names of William Hardy’s slaves makes them more real for me.   Whereas Noni lamented a future in which her precious grandson might have to go to school with nameless “little colored boys and girls,”  Michael knew the names of his playmates and did not find the prospect of associating with them in any way problematic.  There is a kind of magic in names.

family crestIf I believed in God, I would ask Him for forgiveness — for generations of my family going back three centuries, for my demented. racist grandmother, and for myself.   But I don’t believe in God, so, instead, I’m sending this out across the arc of history, across the span of 220 years that separates us in time: Dave, Frank, Harry, Tom, Abram, Ben Rofe, Wink Bett,  Brutus, Andrew,  Frank, Simon, Peter, Matt, Abram, Bell, Penn, Rose, Easter, and Polly,  I am sorry and I’m ashamed.

And now it’s high time I clean out that bloody attic.

 

 

Reality Therapy

Noni . . . on her way out

Noni in better times

When my father was a child, my grandfather – Pops — served as foreman for a construction crew that traveled all over North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland building Texaco gas stations. My grandmother and their two boys – Dad and Clyde Junior — traveled with him, living in rooming houses along the way; it was my grandmother’s job to cook for the crew. “What was Noni like?” I once asked my father. “You know. Before?”

Dad shook his head sadly. “She was very capable . . . and warm-hearted, hospitable.” He added, “I wish you could have known her then, when she wasn’t this way.” By “this way” he meant, “senile.”

Noni was not all that old when she stepped out for lunch and never came back – in her early sixties, about the age I am now. The reason for her early-onset dementia was fairly straightforward. When she was in her forties, she underwent an operation for phlebitis. The doctor prescribed morphine for the pain and, “Do no harm” notwithstanding,  kept on prescribing it. Noni became a  morphine addict, which, as it turns out,  does not promote brain health. In not very much time at all Noni effectively pickled herself.

Throughout my childhood and several times a day, Pops would announce that it was time for Noni’s medicine and off the two of them would repair to his study where he would, essentially, shoot her up. It was treated very nonchalantly, by which I mean doors were not shut. At the time I thought it was creepy – it involved a hypodermic needle, after all, stuck in parts of your grandmother’s body that grandchildren do not wish to contemplate, much less view – but I did not at the time realize that Noni’s “medicine” was, in fact, morphine, nor did I realize how common morphine addiction was among white  women of her generation until I was researching the topic for Paper Son, one of the short stories in The Uncharted Heart – it was, in fact, a virtual epidemic, albeit a hidden one. I suddenly saw Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in a whole new light; as it turns out, it’s the story of my father’s family set in mid-twentieth century working class North Carolina.

I  only remember one instance during my teenage years in which Noni appeared cogent – probably because it was such a rare event. Pops had just concluded a tall tale and Noni piped up,  “Anybody believes that, stand on your head and I don’t see no feet!” Silence.  Everyone turned to look at her.  “What?” she said and went back to being not there.

Most of the time Noni sat on a urine-infused sofa in the living room looking blank. Every fifteen minutes or so, she would lurch to her feet, exit the living room, turn right down the hall, traverse my grandfather’s study, enter the kitchen, duck into the pantry where she would take a slug of bourbon from the bottle stashed there, return to the living room via the dining room and resume her seat on the redolent sofa, where she would twitch a couple of times before sinking once again into catatonia. That was how Noni rolled. She would only come back to life when it was time for us to leave. Then she would rouse herself and, no matter what time of day or night it might be, say, “Are you sure you won’t stay for lunch? There’s plenty of bologna.”

This woman provided one quarter of my DNA. (Or something like that.  I’ve never properly understood DNA.)

Pops and Noni.

Pops and Noni.  By this time Noni’s pretty cooked.

My grandparents both lived well into their nineties. They spent the last five or so years of their life in different wings of a nursing home. Pops was frail but, like my own father, mentally sharp. He resided in the unlocked ward and had a great old time, acquiring a girlfriend named Bunny and editing the home’s newsletter.

Noni was placed in the block of rooms set aside for people with dementia. My brother Peter and I visited her there in the mid-eighties. A sign on the door to her room read, “Mrs. Hardy is undergoing Reality Therapy. Please ask her what day of the week it is, what year it is and who is President.”

“Hey, Noni,” we asked. “Who’s President?”

Noni shook her head. “Why does everybody ask me that?” Then, “Harry S. Truman.”

As we were waiting for an elevator down to the main lobby of the nursing home, I said, “What do you think about this Reality Therapy business?  Do you think it’s doing Noni any good?”

The elevator arrived. We entered it. The door ground slowly closed the way elevator doors do in old folks homes. Peter looked solemn. “Don’t see no feet,” he said.

STORY PORTAL

Past Due is a story about a senile old woman, her housemaid and a whole lot of chickens coming home to roost.  I did not base Miss Bob on Noni, but Noni does inform certain aspects of her character. It appeared in the Dalhousie Review in 1992. To read it, click on the title.