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From Day to Day and Term to Term




The mantle over the fireplace at my parents’ house is a gallery of candid photos and formal portraits spanning nearly 70 years.  On either end are my and my brother’s bronzed baby shoes. I take down each item and remove the dust that has collected since the last time I performed the ritual, paying special attention to the expressions on each face and contemplating the story that each tells.  It is easy to get lost in the memories.


Dusting finished, I sweep. The broom makes a swooshing sound as it glides over the wooden floor creating a pile of sand that has hitchhiked in in the thick tread of work boots, half of a straw wrapper, and something else that I don't immediately recognize.  It is a piece of paper, rectangular, slightly larger than a dollar bill, the color of weak tea. I pause my sweeping to pick it up.


It is a witness summons for Bulloch County Superior Court.   It is dated August 29, 1961.  The blank for the witness’s name is filled in with a perfect cursive hand to read, “ Mrs. Willie Bradley.”   My grandmother.  Written in pencil at the top is “Mikell Street,”


Daddy is close by. “What is this?” I ask him, holding it out to him.  “Have you seen this before?”


“It must have fallen out of my Bible” he offers.  I smile, understanding immediately that this piece of paper is important because, when one is Johnny Bradley, the Bible is the place where one puts important things.


Reading the summons through, I have so many questions: What had Grannie see or heard that made her a witness in a criminal case?  Who was Marion Bennett?  Why would she get just one day’s notice of the trial?


Before I can ask Daddy those questions, along with how it came to be in his possession, this piece of paper that is over 60 years old and that, in the strangest of ways, presaged the profession to which I would give so many years of my life, he says, “I remember Mama showing me that. She was crying.”


Crying is a part of nearly every story that we tell about Grannie.   She cried when someone arrived, when someone left, when gifts were exchanged.  She cried when pound cakes fell, when the sound of an ambulance’s siren wafted through her back door from the highway, when her little dog Missy went missing.  She cried more than anyone I have ever known, her tender heart simply incapable of holding the wells and waves of emotion she was constantly experiencing.


Knowing all that, still I ask, “Why was she crying?”


“She said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’”


Grannie grew up hard, surrounded by poverty and violence.  She was born before the words “world” and “war” became capitalized and before women could vote.  She was a sharecropper’s daughter who became, at 16, a sharecropper’s wife.  She picked cotton in the south Georgia summer when she was eight months pregnant.


She knew self-reliance and physical labor.  She knew to be careful of those in authority, including men in uniform appearing at her front door commanding her to lay all other business aside and threatening a $300 penalty for failure to appear.  She knew to be afraid, afraid of so many things, including perhaps whatever it was she meant by the “this” she didn’t know how to do.


So this is why she cried.  And, now, from a place of privilege I rarely remember, so do I.


Copyright 2024


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