The Eastern Shore of Virginia

Reginald Giddens, Rose Giddens Steele, Reginald Jr.Steele, Virginia Savage, Herman Giddens

Painter, VA

My mother’s family is from the Eastern Shore. A unique parcel of land south of Delaware and Maryland on the peninsula. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas were born further north on the Eastern shore of Maryland.

I spent summers on the Eastern shore visiting my maternal grandfather.   While my prep school classmates took exotic summer vacations abroad or experienced summer enrichment programs, I boarded   a Trailways bus  with a lunch bag to visit my grandfather. In the summer of 1963, when I was 7 years old, I purchased a postcard during a bus change/stop on the way. It was my attempt to document my “travels” during summer break. I sent it to my maternal Grandmother Eretta just to let her know that I was  thinking of her.  I did not remember sending the postcard until I had the occasion in 2009, to clear out her home after the death of my mother, who had  junk piled  her things after grandma suffered from dementia.

I cannot imagine what she thought when she received the postcard from me: various confederate flags of the South! Growing up in Harlem, I had no clue of the symbolism of  the Confederate battle flags.The first time I remember seeing the flag, and knowing  the terrorist history associated with the symbol, was within my first few days of arrival on campus at Princeton University.

I was surprised that  grandma had saved the postcard in a special place of correspondences received. There were not many cards that she kept; and I’ll never know why Grandma kept that card from me. 

When I hear a  screen door screech shut, memories of the Eastern shore flood my brain. As the Trailways bus pulled into the gas station at Exmore, Va, my grandfather, Reginald stood waiting with a wide grin on his face; looking dapper in his hat, short sleeved shirt, and perfectly pressed cuffed pants, neatly held up by a modest thin  leather belt.  When we arrived at his home, the screen door clacked and screeched behind us as we walked into the familiar kitchen which promised many meals  of good eating. 

Granddaddy and “Aunt” Myrt (my step grandmother)  got up early each morning before the rooster crowed.By the time  I heard the rooster crow, Granddaddy had already collected eggs to sell and prepare for breakfast; and he had completed most of his daily chores. Sometimes I woke up early enough to see him throwing the chicken feed to his flock.  

He and Myrt both made biscuits from scratch every morning for breakfast, but his were always better. He claimed that she was “stingy” with the lard. Some mornings we would eat  flour biscuits,  homemade  sausages  and cheese which  was melted on the stove served up with molasses. I can still remember the taste and the lightness of the biscuits l- a result of his perfect blend of lard and flour. Other  mornings, sweet potato biscuits were served with thick slices of fried bologna. 

Dinners were fresh vegetables of lima beans and home grown tomatoes, pork chops or  fresh killed fried chicken. He never let us see him kill the chickens and we never saw any trace of the crime. In fact, the only bad memory of  my time with him was when nature called and I had to use the dreaded “outhouse.”  It was years later when my uncle  Reginald Jr. installed indoor plumbing in the house for his father Reginald.  But during  those summers,  there was no indoor plumbing. Water was pumped from the well each day into  the enameled face basin for washing, sometimes heated on the wood burning stove, sometimes not. Then discarded out door. 

We kids always ate in the kitchen. Granddaddy would take his meals at the dining room table, but only after we had already eaten. He literally beamed when he looked at us and showered us with love,  RC colas, ice cream or anything that we might possibly want from the Bundix  store in Painter, VA. (We could not get RC colas in New York City. And my mother only bought cheap sodas on sale: 20 cans of the A&P brand for $1.  I was only able to get cokes during recess at prep school).

My grandfather drove a school bus during the school year, and in the summer took various handyman and painting jobs for the local white folk. He was an usher at the baptist church where he worshiped. And apparently was a mason; as I discovered some mason paraphernalia upon clearing out his home for sale after the death of my mother.

Black families on the Eastern shore worked summers  in the fields picking string beans, white and sweet potatoes and other crops. According to my uncle, Reginald Jr., ( knicknamed “June”) in the winters, work was scarce and the only crop available to be picked was broccoli. Black families relied on the credit obtained from Carlyle Williams’ country store for staples until the spring came and they worked to  pay off the winter debt. He remembered that  Carlyle Williams was honest  and kept a book of what the families owed. Many black families survived in the depression because of him; Carlyle Williams was “ a lifesaver for blacks, he helped  black people survive” recalled my uncle “June.”

Uncle June also told me that  many families had wood burning stoves to heat the homes or shacks were they lived. They would collect oak wood to burn in the stoves.  In the winter, white people could afford to  buy coal; while most blacks could not.  His father, Reginald Giddens Sr. worked for the coal company, and would often get coal free. At night he would “bank the fire with coal and wood, and the coal/wood kept the heat going through the night.”

I remember spending those hot summers reading any and all book I brought with me. However, the nights were surprisingly cool and my grandparents would burn the wood in the stove making the house unbearably warm. I learned very early  that when you opened the door of the pot bellied stove, you could release some of the heat which  radiated throughout the room and reduced the temperature of the room considerably, much to the chagrin of my step-grandmother.

My grandfather’s brothers were not middle class but proud hard working men. In later years, my grandfather’s brother Herman Giddens owned a country store. Reginald Giddens Sr. would purchase blocks of cheddar cheese, chunks of bologna and Karo molasses and syrup in cans for breakfast from his kin.  Billy and Bucky Giddens were the sons of Norman Giddens and operated a funeral home. Norman Giddens worked for the Railroad.

The dissonance  created in my grandfather’s  attempt to carve out an existence in Jim Crow America as a black man providing for his family; while having to  subjugate his manhood in order to peacefully co-exist with the white folk, often manifested itself in violence against his women. My grandmother bore two children from him. And, in spite of societal and economic pressures to marry him, refused to submit to a life of certain domestic violence and migrated to New York. 

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