Scott Russell Sanders | November 19, 2020
When I was a young boy, living on a farm on the outskirts of Memphis, every now and again my mother would send me next door with a tin can of lard for Mrs. Fox, who used it to make lye soap. As I crossed the pasture on my errand, I could smell bacon and pork chops from the can of drippings, so no matter if I had just finished breakfast, I would be good and hungry by the time I reached Mrs. Fox’s house. She always made a great fuss over me when I arrived, invited me into her kitchen and offered me whatever had come out of the cookstove that morning, more often than not a baking soda biscuit slathered with butter and molasses. As I gobbled it, she might say, “You look one biscuit shy of full,” and she’d give me another one. White-haired, hunched over and wrinkled, she seemed old enough to be in the Bible, but her laugh sounded fresh as birdsong. She also fed me stories about her family and hard times and dreams, story after story, until I figured I’d better get on home, and then she sent me off with two or three bars of yellow soap, which smelled of mint.
“Tell your mama I’m much obliged, honey,” she would say, and I would answer, “Yes, ma’am, and thank you.”
These memories date from 1950 and early 1951, when I was 5 going on 6. In the summer of 1951, my family moved to an Army base in Ohio. I never saw Mrs. Fox again, but I learned a good deal more about her from my parents. She would have been about 60 when I knew her, a widow, nearly blind from cataracts, living alone after her children and grandchildren had moved north. She was a devout woman, active in a nearby church, known to be a healer with medicinal herbs and the laying on of hands. Soon after starting first grade, I came to realize from the way classmates spoke about the school janitor, a dark-skinned man, that Mrs. Fox was what people called Negro, colored or Black — labels never used by my parents, who referred to her only by name. My father had grown up in Mississippi, my mother in Chicago, and both knew all the labels, polite and ugly, that were used to separate people based on skin color, but they made no such distinctions when speaking of our neighbors.
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