In the south, whenever you meet someone new, you may as well accept it and be ready to answer. You are going to be asked, “Now who’s yor momma? Yor Granny. . . mmm-hmmm.”
Then, give it about 5 minutes of, “Do you know..? How ‘bout?” and you’ll be certain to find someone who at least knows of your kin. Most likely though, you’ll discover that your Uncle Ted is your ex-aunt Lilly’s mother’s first cousin.”
If you aren’t from the south, go on ahead and sit down till your head stops spinnin’. We can wait.
Down here, knowing ones kin is ‘a given’. Now I’m not just talking about knowing who your momma, daddy, siblings, aunts/uncles/cousins, grandparents are. Nope. I’m talking about knowing that your daddy’s momma’s daddy was a bastard. He was half Cherokee. His momma was a Cherokee wash-woman. Nobody seems to know any more’n that about it. And just to clarify, that wash-woman would be my great-great grandmother.
Every family has a “hushed” story like that. I was lucky enough to be born into a family that is overflowing with stories like that – on both sides: the Johnson’s and the Parrish’s!
We all knew that the Parrish’s had an Indian bastard.
It was also rumored that the Johnson’s had a black one; but my generation didn’t know about that one.
Now before you go getting upset with me, remember, this took place in the 1930s and that’s how everyone referred to race, so don’t shoot the storyteller-I’m just trying to set the tone and flavor of the times.
There was a name the kids in my momma’s generation heard only in hushed tones . . . Ruffin.
Whenever one of them asked about this mysterious person they were hushed and sent outdoors. This was especially painful in a summer thunderstorm or a cold winter’s rain, so they soon learned to stop asking. The mysterious Ruffin remained a mystery to my aunts and uncles.
One day as I was helping Momma around the house, she said to me, “Mr. Ruffin Johnson died. Did you hear that?”
Momma was reading the obituaries while I was scrubbing the cabinets with Murphy’s Oil Soap.
“Mr. Johnson? You mean from down the road?” I asked without turning around.
“Naw… black Mr. Johnson from Four Oaks; the one that helps out with the garden a little. The one that’s kin.” Mom said absentmindedly.
“WHAT?!” I sputtered. “What’s that you said? Ruffin Johnson, a BLACK man, is our KIN?!”
Are you sure you mean this side of the family? That’s what I really was wondering.
Momma was sitting there looking a little stunned at herself. “Never you mind.” She said, putting the paper away, indicating that this conversation was over.
I grew up thinking that the Johnson side of my family was a little more high class than the Parrish’s because I grew up knowing about my Great great grandmother having an illegitimate child. There were no stories told about the Johnson’s.
Anyway…let’s just leave it with saying that it would be less of a surprise for a (city raised) Parrish to get together with someone of a different race than it would for a (farm raised) Johnson to.
I finished my cleaning and went home, curious as a cat about my ‘Great-Uncle Ruffin”, but not daring to push the subject.
As soon as I left, Momma got on the phone with Aunt Dinah.
“Dinah! Ruffin Johnson died!” she said.
“How do you know?” Aunt Dinah asked.
“It was in the paper,” said Momma. “Sanders Funeral Home is doing the funeral, his visitation is tomorrow. Want to go?”
“Doris! We can’t go to that!” Dinah said surprised. “We’re the wrong color to go there, we’d stand out like sore thumbs.”
“Come on, don’t you want to finally see for ourselves if he’s kin? We can go about an hour and half before the visitation starts. No one will see us. Come on Dinah, it’s our only chance to know once and for all.” Momma cajoled.
So the next morning Dinah came over to the farm and after a bit of back and forth discussion, off they went to finally set the story straight.
When they went into the funeral home, in the parlor just ahead was an open casket and not a soul in sight. PERFECT TIMING! They scooted across the hall and went in. Momma stopped at the guest register.
“DORIS!” Dinah exclaimed. “Get away from that! You are not going to sign that register. Now hurry and get over here and come with me to look.”
So Momma and Dinah crept quietly over to the casket and peeped inside.
“Hmmm – he does have the Johnson nose and looks a whole lot like Uncle Harvey, so it must be true.” Dinah concluded as Momma picked up a funeral bulletin to carry home.
The next Sunday, the family mystery was finally laid to rest along with Ruffin.
Dinah and Doris told us all about their adventure and discovery that indeed Ruffin Johnson was Uncle Harvey’s illegitimate son.
RIP Great Uncle Ruffin. If you had born a little bit later in time, I might have gotten a chance to know you.