Driving to our grandparents’ place in Greenville Texas back in the late 1950s, my sisters and I had a car game we played: First one to spy grandma’s house, say Aye! I even remember their address: 2920 Bourland Street, an old-fashioned frame house with a front porch swing and a backyard addition where Miss English, a spinster schoolteacher, resided. A kindly soul, when we arrived for a visit, Miss English always stopped in after her day at the local blind school (or was it an asylum of some kind?), wearing what I later learned were called “sensible shoes.”
My grandparents, Isaac P. (“Zeke”) and Nina K. Elder, were born in East Texas around the turn of the 20th century. Their place contained treasures, of course, among which I do not include my grandmother’s boiled custard dessert, a culinary relic that always struck me as far too much labor (hours of stirring, stirring, don’t let it burn!) for the bland-tasting results.
A favorite corner was my grandfather’s storeroom closet where he kept a wide variety of stringed instruments, including a Gibson harp guitar, several mandolins of different sizes, a broken fiddle, a small xylophone, and a few harmonicas. As I came to understand it, my grandfather had the curious job of sorting mail on the local trains (600 pieces an hour was the pace!), back when the U.S. Post Office used mail cars. After sorting the next town’s mail and then somehow handing it off as the train went whizzing through, Zeke was free to strum and sing as he liked for the next little while. (Visions of Jimmie Rodgers here.)
I didn’t get guitar or mandolin lessons from him, but he did somehow compel my sisters and me to each learn a different vocal part on “Silent Night” (a tune I have disliked intensely ever since), my sister Kay on soprano, my sister Mandy on alto, myself a somewhat recalcitrant tenor, and granddad a resonant bass. He would sing each part with us and then we would harmonize. Painful as this introduction to part singing might have been, it somehow led me years later to join madrigal groups where I discovered Palestrina and Byrd, a different level of the vocal game entirely.
With nothing beyond a high school education, Zeke was also something of a reader. I had no interest in the Baptist Church materials (copies of “The Upper Room” devotional, etc.), but he also owned several New Yorker cartoon anthologies and one or two collections of Ogden Nash, in the pages of which (I do not exaggerate) he had carefully penciled through any instances of “hell” or “damn”.
I frequently pored over a 1929 copy of Robert Ripley’s bizarre “Believe It or Not!” anthology, pages from which still haunt my imagination. The mummified Jeremy Bentham! The Fork-Tongued Fraulein of Frankfurt! The Lighthouse Man of Szechuan Province! (Bored a hole in his head and wears a lighted candle in it!)
A few children’s books were around which I remember mostly for their Southern, old-timey atmosphere: Miss Minerva and William Green Hill, Penrod and Sam, and the cartoon book called Texas History Movies, a red-faced nativist take on the state’s history produced by the editors of the Dallas Morning News in 1926. Need I add, these titles also shared a plentiful dose of racism, a large subject I was still trying to comprehend at the time.
After all, my grandparents were residents of Greenville, a town notable for its extraordinary sign—hanging over the main street downtown from the 1920s to the late 1960s—reading: “Welcome to Greenville: Blackest Land, Whitest People.” Apparently it was Governor John Connally (of JFK assassination fame) who quietly advised the local town fathers in the mid-1960s that the sign should come down.
The place was also known for a horrendous racial crime, the lynching and immolation of a black man in 1908, when my grandparents would probably have been young teenagers. I was not yet aware of this local history, but I vaguely recall my grandmother telling me—possibly as her reaction to the 1908 atrocity—that she was opposed to capital punishment. She then added, perhaps predictably, “I just don’t believe in mistreatin’ ‘em.”
My grandparents are long gone, but I continue to have a small, somewhat pesky connection to Greenville in the ownership of two very small town lots I inherited from them. I’ve not been to Greenville, located about 50 miles northeast of Dallas, in many years, but I know it has suffered from a combination of high crime and low incomes.
From the God-like views available on Google Earth, I can see my two empty lots, filled with weeds, looking like somewhere in rural Algeria. As I receive annual tax bills (about $100) from the city of Greenville, I have literally tried to give the lots away, all to no avail. From here in my long-time Midwestern location, they are unshakeable reminders of a place in Texas where a shameful darkness once surrounded a part of my childhood.