Feature Section 2Tell Your True Tale

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By Tené Harris

________

There was something really peaceful about driving through this mostly rural area on a wide-open two-lane highway. The sky was blue with specks of pollen from springtime blossoms spiraling through the air. At 75 miles per hour, bugs spattered against the glass. It was warm but nothing like the heat that dominated June and July. I let the window down and felt the push of wind against my hand. It brought back childhood memories of family road trips.

As we neared Naples, Texas, the flat land shifted to rolling hills. Even the smallest of homes sat on huge lots. We got accustomed to the miles of land between one house and the next. At first glance, the tall commanding green things covering the landscape, resembled cacti. But they were pine trees, though not the kind you find in Oregon or California. They looked as if they were weeping. The breeze had finally gotten the better of my 6-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and she drifted off to sleep just as we neared Aunt Luanna’s house.

Both of my parents were from Texas. My brother and I were born on the Gulf Coast in Corpus Christi. Even though we moved north when I was young, I still felt a deep connection to the South. My mom and dad were part of the generation of blacks who left the South during the Great Migration in search of a better life. In 1964, my parents were married. That same year, my dad followed his sister’s advice and went to Michigan to take a job in one of the automobile factories that were booming. Once he was settled and found our new home in the same neighborhood his sister lived in, he sent for my mom, me and my brother.

Growing up, every summer my parents would load up the car and drive “home” to the south. In our case, that meant East Texas. My mom’s maternal family and my dad’s family were from the same little town, Dekalb. My mom’s paternal family members were from Naples. This was the family I knew little about and had come with my daughter to visit.

Living thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, now with my own family, I realized the importance of family history and wanted to share that with my children.

That morning, as we passed the landmark Aunt Oneida had told me to look out for – the steeple at Gethsemane Baptist Church – Jasmine shifted in her seat and her doll fell to the floor. The dirt was of vivid red clay. Maple and aged oaks stood guard. On the left side of the road, a sign read “Boyd Cemetery.”

I gently shook Jasmine awake. She stretched and yawned as she stepped from the car, wiping the sleep from her eyes. We walked across a field that led to a trail. When the tall grass and weeds grew high enough to reach her hip, Jasmine stood still and tears began to well up in her little eyes. My little girl who only knew a city life was scared. I picked her up and walked with her on my hip. I was feeling a little ambivalent myself, with the cemetery now in plain sight. I imagined all of my family members who had walked this land. My mom had spent summers on this farm and had shared so many stories about roaming the farm with her first cousins. They would sit outside their grandparents’ kitchen window eating fresh-picked fruit and mock their conversations.

I had come to this part of east Texas to meet a woman I had known nothing about a year before.

The trip grew from a call I made to my Aunt Oneida to invite her to attend my mom’s surprise 50th birthday celebration in California. She couldn’t come, she told me, because Aunt Luanna was celebrating her centennial that same weekend. I’d never heard of an Aunt Luanna. But meeting her, I realized, might fill out a lot of what I didn’t know about this part of my family.

Two concrete headstones stood in the cemetery. One read: “Mabe Boyd – 1840 to 1927.” The other read “Lou Boyd – 1853 to 1946.” Nearby was the headstone of Aunt Luanna’s brother, James Boyd, a World War I veteran. He died in 1994 at the age of 97. There was a huge concrete tomb with the name Napoleon. The placard with the last name and dates was worn. After taking a few pictures, we walked back to the car. The weight of Jasmine’s body began to tire me out.

We drove on up the road to a simple white house with an enclosed porch. A rusted old wagon wheel stood under the carport. We walked up the path to the porch and I heard a southern drawl that felt familiar.

“Come on in!” It was Aunt O.

There were lots of hugs and long glances, as we were introduced to Aunt Luanna and her daughter, Juanita, who lived with her. Aunt Luanna had long straight silver hair that was braided and pinned. We sat down and Juanita brought us sweet tea in glasses etched in a yellow and green floral design. Everyone laughed as Jasmine turned up her glass and said, “Yum!”

Two antique oval pictures hung on the wall. As I looked at the man and the woman in the pictures, I recalled the meticulous calligraphic script of the names in the large wooden family bible that Aunt O had shared with me just the night before. I knew that the man was Aunt Luanna’s father, Mabe Boyd, and the woman, her mother, Lou Boyd. This was the first time that I had seen a photograph of family members from the late 1800’s. I could see the resemblance between Lou and nearly all the women on my mom’s side. My middle brother had eyebrows just like Mabe. They were both attractive and you could tell from their clothing and the way they were groomed that they lived a good, comfortable life.

Aunt Luanna was small but strong. She lived on the Boyd Farm practically her entire life, with the exception of the occasional trip to Dallas to spend time with her daughters and one lone trip to Los Angeles in the late 60’s. Life in Los Angeles had gotten the better of one of her daughters, so she went to bring her back home. The hustle and bustle there was too much for Aunt Luanna. The quiet Boyd Farm with clean air and fresh running rivers and lakes, fruit trees, vegetables, poultry and cattle, was the only world she knew. At night, you could see every constellation, and the full moon was majestic.

As she spoke, I remembered my first drink from a well as a child. Lowering a wooden bucket with the tin can tied by twine, down to the water source and then turning the wheel to pull it back up, seemed like a lot of effort for a city girl, until I tasted the ice cold water. It was heaven, especially in the Texas heat.

Aunt Luanna talked on. The Boyd Farm covered most of the northwest corner of Cass County. Back in the day, it was full of fruit orchards, a blacksmith shop, a syrup mill, a smoke house, livestock, acres of vegetables, a schoolhouse and natural hot springs and creeks.

Several hours passed. Finally, I asked Aunt Luanna if I could come back the next day.

The next morning, we found her sitting on the enclosed porch with her food in a small stainless steel bowl and a paring knife. She no longer had her teeth, but she seemed to be enjoying every bite.

With her permission, I videotaped our conversation sitting on the porch. I asked her to tell me of her childhood on the farm. “There was always plenty to eat and plenty to do,” she said. They went to town a few times a year for cloth, coffee and other items they didn’t produce on the farm. Practically everything else they needed, they produced on the farm. Her mother kept the children healthy with castor oil and lemon several times a week, especially during the winter months.

Aunt Luanna began to talk of her father. Mabe had arrived in east Texas from Georgia, a freed man, in about 1859. He was a skilled carpenter, shoemaker, blacksmith and farmer. Over the years this man somehow amassed close to one thousand acres, 600 of which remain in our family. No one knew much about his parents. Some speculate that his father was a slave owner and that had something to do with his ability to purchase and retain so much land in east Texas. Truth is, we’ll never know. Too much time has passed and older family members have died.

But we know that he built a school for his own children and other black children in the area. She pointed it out, an old building hidden among tall weeds. “He called it Celeste School. I went there with my brothers and sisters,” she said. So did other black kids from the area whose parents were sharecropping on farms owned by white people. Mabe also built the home that housed the teacher he hired to instruct the children. Her home was miles away in Marshall, Texas. Back then travel was precarious on the dirt roads. The last teacher hired was Mrs. Dean, Aunt Luanna remembered, and the last students attended Celeste School during World War II. After that, more schools were built and the state of Texas took over the Celeste school in a different location.

I listened to Aunt Luanna tell the story of Mabe, her father, and wished I knew more about him, what made him so focused on self-sufficiency and education. Yet as she spoke, I realized his importance to the family, this relative of mine I’d never heard of.

Aunt Luanna lived to 106. We kept in touch through letters, as we promised we would. And I never forgot the story of her father, Mabe, and her mother, Lou. We were carrying Mabe’s legacy forward in many ways. His descendants are now college graduates in 11 states and two continents. We are teachers, engineers, authors, television writers and producers, military officers, computer network managers, nurses, business owners, longshoremen, and lawyers.

All that, I realized, started with Mabe and Lou Boyd, freed slaves who arrived in east Texas from Georgia with skills and a view of the future they could build with school and land.

That day, I wasn’t ready for our trip to end. As we rose to leave, Aunt Luanna took Jasmine by her hand and pulled her in close. She looked into her eyes.

“Don’t forget me,” she said.

______

Tené Harris was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. She has worked for 30 years at KCET in Los Angeles. She owns Sweet Beginnings, a bakery. She is also a government analyst with the state of California, and a freelance writer/producer. Contact her at mysweetbeginnings@gmail.com.
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By Fabiola Manriquez

She took her time walking across the room, scanning the computer lab as though preparing for battle. When she finally reached my desk, she handed me a referral from a government program she was forced to enroll in and said, in a low voice, “Hey Miss. I’m here to get help with my Math and English, so what do I do”?

I was recruited into the tutoring program by my trigonometry professor at East Los Angeles College since I often enjoyed assisting classmates. I remember Flaca sitting in front of the computer simply staring at the screen. I thought she was struggling with the operation of the computer. I learned later that she would come to class intoxicated and brought her happy juice. It was a thirty- two ounce soda mug with alcohol but because it had no aroma of alcohol I didn’t know. It was also a little strange that she preferred wearing her slick shades in class. I thought the computer screen was too bright for her. In reality, she was loaded and she hid behind them.

I had a feeling that she wanted to improve her life since she was attending this class. As she behaved, I continued to assist her and in time we became friends. We talked. I asked what her favorite drink was? With a naughty smile she looked straight into my eyes and confessed that she enjoyed her alcoholic beverage while she worked on her lessons. This situation was new to me, so I said nothing. Over the weeks, we talked a little about college studies and concerns about the weather as I tried to figure out what to do.

When I felt more comfortable with her, I finally addressed the issue of coming to class loaded and bringing her happy juice. I could have lost my job if my boss found out that she was drinking in class, but my heart told me to stay quiet. I told her that I needed her help. We would work as a team in order for her to stay in the class since it was mandated by her program. I asked her to pretend as though she was doing her work by hitting the computer keys every few minutes. I also asked her to stay awake because her snoring might disturb other students and attract attention. I suggested she refrain from bringing her favorite drink to class, which was better enjoyed outside class.

With time she stopped bringing her mug and, eventually, began to complete her lessons. But she kept her shades on.

Flaca was raised by both her parents as an only child for a decade, followed by a brother ten years younger and by a sister four years after that. Before the arrival of her siblings, she and her parents had money and time enough to take camping trips, go bowling and to the movies. Her father worked in the roofing industry and she was his assistant for a while. However, he always wanted a son and he taught her to work and play sports as if she were so.

But she reached her teenage years as her parents were occupied changing diapers, and working harder than ever. “I felt as though my brother and sister stole my father from me,” she told me.

At fifteen, she was searching for attention and began to hang out with the neighborhood gang. After school, she and her comrades would put their lunch money together and would pay a local wino to buy them a six pack, which led to a twelve pack, and eventually to cases of beer. They began breaking into newspaper vending machines. From there, she began using drugs. She even smoked Angel Dust on the lawn outside the East Los Angeles Sheriff station.

Her parents talked with her about her mischief, beat her, threw her out of the house, but gave her chances to return home. Her troubles kept growing. She would behave for a while but it didn’t last long, and her defiance would intensify.

She was expelled from Schurr High School, attended Vail Continuation High School and was expelled for fighting. She was in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Eventually, she was sent to the Mira Loma detention facility in Lancaster which gave her much needed structure. There she completed her G.E.D.

Once on the outside, she worked at the Sears Warehouse, then as a mail clerk at Wells Fargo Bank, followed by a printing shop. Then

in her mid-twenties, she began using heroin. She met Sheila at a party and grew as addicted to her as she was to the drug. They became lovers and sold heroin together. Addicts, called Sheila with their orders; Flaca made the deliveries. “It was just like delivering pizza- like a franchise, in a way,” she said. Sheila was her immediate boss, but there were other distributors above her.

Flaca and Sheila shared the upkeep of the house and expenses for about a year. Then one night, Flaca stayed out all night. Sheila and she argued. The next time Flaca stayed out all night, Sheila kicked her out. That proved lucky, as a few days later cops raided the house and arrested Sheila.

Flaca moved back with her parents. At this point, longing for children, she decided to take a break from women. Her next door neighbor, Smokey, was a longtime friend and they kind of messed around when she was younger. He was eleven years her senior, had a good heart, was handsome, masculine and was right on the other side of the fence. He had also served in the Vietnam War. The proposition was simple, she told him: I need your help to have my children. He would not have any responsibility or claim to them, but he could see them from next door. With time, he fathered her two sons. He also was in and out of jail and survived working odd jobs, then died from a bleeding ulcer soon after the birth of her second child. He was found on the lawn of what is now the East Los Angeles Library.

Meanwhile, Flaca continued making poor choices. She was stabbed twice, took part in drive-by shootings, kept drinking and using drugs, and was in and out of jail. She was respected in the gangster community since she did bad things in a big way.

Years of abuse wore her down so that she lost her eye sight for a year. Consequently she was unable to work and went on government aid known as SSI in 1991 at the age of 31. Her parents didn’t condone her behavior, but they loved her and cared for her two sons.

After a year of therapy she regained her eyesight. One morning while visiting a friend, she realized that she had not drunk or used drugs the night before. For the first time in decades she was able to think with a clear mind. Because she qualified for a free bus pass, she got on the bus after visiting with this friend to be alone and think. For a week, she left her parents’ home early and rode the bus all day. Those bus rides were a turning point.

She began to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and tried to stay clean and sober. She relapsed several times, but eventually held to it.

As years passed, she learned a more structured lifestyle. She began by taking her sons to school regularly and picking them up afterwards. As time went on, she befriended the principal of the same school as he later invited her to enroll in parenting classes. Flaca learned how to kneel down and look her children in the eyes when she spoke to them. She became skilled in establishing parameters when giving her boys a choice when selecting things. She was taught the value of punctuality, whether it was to arrive at school on time regularly or returning library materials by the due date.

When her sons were toddlers, she entered them in baby contests and won several times. Later, she enrolled her boys in baseball, soccer, karate, and taught them to bowl. The year that her sons played peewee baseball was the first time in the league’s history that both the coach and the assistant coach were women. Flaca was the head coach as the team made it to the playoffs.

She learned to use the libraries, and showed her boys how to do the same. In the annual school fundraiser she sold candy for her sons and was the top seller for three consecutive years. The first year as the top seller they won tickets to Knott’s Berry Farm and the second year, tickets to Disneyland. Flaca already had experience selling things. Candy sales came easy to her and it was legal. “No one was shot. No one got killed,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a real mother.”

I remember the year she first came in for tutoring telling me about selling enough candy to win bicycles for her sons.

Two weeks before her father died, he told her to go back to school and become a rehabilitation drug counselor. She’s doing that now, working on her degree at East Los Angeles College.

It’s been 21 years since she first showed up in my class. I have watched her all that time.

I see her on campus now, an adult finally, and no longer in her sunglasses and khaki shorts that meet her tube socks at the knees. She is usually with one of her sons, who is also a student. I see them after class, walking together slowly toward the parking lot.

___

Fabiola Manriquez grew up in East L.A., where she still resides. She loves to teach Math and English, and hopes to complete a Master’s this year. Through the TYTT workshop, she discovered a deeper joy and beauty in the formation of storytelling.
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