I suppose I may have taken some liberties with this month’s Carnival theme of “What if . . . ” I don’t know exactly what happened when my great-great- grandmother and the son of a former slave owner who lived next door absconded to Texas from Georgia in 1884. But what if it happened like this:
Sitting and sipping tea in the mid-afternoon, she had decided that this would be her last argument with her son — absolutely the last. He was the oldest son; normally she would admit that he had a right to call the shots about what was left of his father’s property. But her late husband Larry’s will had given everything to her. Susan Francis Thweatt Birdsong was a good businesswoman. She was not about to let her lazy son with his pie-in-the-sky ideas drive the family further down. And then there was the not so small matter of his, well, lifestyle.
Her son would be by the house in about an hour and Susan would be composed and ready for what she was about to do.
Three miles in distance, but many thousands of measures away in all other respects, Pres Birdsong moved pensively about his ramshackle farmhouse as he waited for his younger brother Al to arrive. Al was four years younger but these brothers had always been close. As children, Al had frequently been ill and had to get up often at night. Pres would have a premonition that Al was going to be sick before it happened, and could alert his parents.
The brothers had enlisted in the 5th Georgia Infantry during the late war, and had been captured together at Greensboro, North Carolina. And now Al was his brother’s last ally in the family.
However flawed his brother’s idea about buying into the railroad might have been, diversifying their holdings was a pretty good idea, Al thought.
Albert Hamill Birdsong was also his mother’s last line of communication with his brother. Al lived with his mother on the Black Ankle property while Pres was stuck out at Hootenville.
As he paced about his house awaiting his brother’s arrival, Pres thought about what he might do if his mother turned him down this time. Why, he would go to Texas, of course, and join his cousin Tom! And, by golly, he would take Matilda with him!
This was just the sort of impulsive decision-making that his mother found so objectionable.
Pres did not know if he and Mattie would have an easier time in Texas than they’d had in Georgia, but it was worth a try. This was especially true if his mother left him with nothing. He knew he could not live without Mattie. Curiously she was more like his mother than either of them could possibly know.
Albert arrived directly, and the two brothers climbed into formerly county-owned surrey that their father had used when he was sheriff of Upson County, and they headed off for Black Ankle.
At the end of their half-hour ride, Susan greeted her sons each with a dry peck on the cheek and a hand touching their arms.
“Ma,” Pres said as he took off his hat. He addressed her as if they were competing merchants.
Susan opened the substantive conversation.
“Pres, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this,” she said. “And I’ve talked to Mr. Brown and Mr. McCullough about it.”
Pres opened his mouth to say something, but his mother held her hand up.
“There simply is no room for discussion. The railroad company is on the verge of bankruptcy, and we would simply be foolish to sell what little land we have remaining or to mortgage what little land we have remaining to buy into that kind of company.”
Pres started to say something again. But Susan raised her voice over his.
“I said there was no room for discussion, Pres.” Her voice was calm and measured.
Pres thought to himself, “I’m not surprised. I expected this.”
He stood up and knocked the dust off his hat.
“Well, Ma,” he said, “if you say there’ll be no discussion, there’ll be no discussion. I’m off to Texas.”
That Pres might actually leave the state of Georgia was something that had not occurred to Susan Birdsong. She was stunned by what seemed to be the imminence of his departure. In that moment she lost her composure.
“Not a moment too soon,” she said shrilly, “and take that colored woman and her bastard with you!”
George Preston Birdsong stood up, cocked his head to the side and stared for an instant at his mother. Since he was leaving anyway, he might as well tell her.
“That bastard is your grandson.” He put on his hat and walked out the door. Al stood there in disbelief.
He went across the room to his mother and said, “Ma” softly. For a moment, he gathered her into his arms. Then he, too, was out the door.
Susan Birdsong sat back in her chair, sipped her tea and wept.
Whenever he traveled with Mattie, Pres had to take extra precautions. For example, if they were headed further west in Georgia, she would play the role of his maid. With her light tan skin and gray eyes, Mattie easily could pass for another race. But this trip would be the greatest challenge they had ever faced.
Atlanta was about 100 miles away. There were hazards going there both day and night. The daytime hazards were law-enforcement; the nighttime hazards were lawlessness. Often the same individuals were involved both day and night. This time, however, he decided to leave after dark. They could make it just as the sun rose over the train station in Atlanta.
In Atlanta, Pres purchased train tickets for himself, Mattie, and Mattie’s son Otis. In typical fashion, Pres had decided that they would go first-class.
Al had come along, originally just for the ride to Atlanta. But then, in Pres-like impulsiveness, he decided to go to Texas, too.
The trip would take them from Atlanta to Austin, Texas, and then from Austin to the small town of Cameron, Texas, about 60 miles northeast of Austin.
As Pres and Mattie and Otis approached their compartment, the conductor standing nearby said, “I know that y’all know that colored folks have to ride in second class.”
Pres glanced back at Mattie, who held ten year old Otis’ hand tightly. Otis was a shade darker that Mattie, something the little-educated Pres couldn’t quite understand.
“She’s not colored,” he said, so quickly that he surprised even himself. “She’s Spanish.”
Mattie lowered her eyes in a submissive gesture and pulled her shawl tighter.
“Really?” the conductor said, “Let’s hear the sin-you-ritas say somethin’ in Spanish.”
Mattie raised her eyes and looked directly at the conductor. She said, “esta noche, y todos pueden ser español.”
An observer would have had a hard time telling who was more shocked: the conductor or Pres.
Then Mattie, with her eyes still locked on the conductor’s, said slowly, “Que su madre ser asolada por un millar de moros en el infierno.” The conductor’s face turned a deeper shade of red. Although he had not understood a word she had said, he had decided that he he liked the way she she said it.
The conductor actually tipped his hat at Mattie and said “Y’all have a nice trip.”
April 1, 2009 Wednesday at 7:49 pm