by Jonathan McDaniel
My parents were born and raised in the suburbs of greater Memphis. News channels and billboards refer to western Arkansas and northeastern Mississippi, where state lines intersect at Tennessee’s southeastern corner, as “the Mid-south.” My father lived in a three-bedroom house off Highway 51 in Southaven, MS. The house, with its red bricks and white-painted wood paneling, sat on a one-acre lot with a tulip poplar planted in the front yard, like many of the other houses dotting the neighborhood streets.
His father still lives there today.
My mother grew up in a 1200-square-foot house in Whitehaven, a suburb in southern Memphis, about four miles from Southaven and the Tennessee-Mississippi border. She was born in 1957, the same year Elvis Presley purchased his Graceland mansion for $102,500[i]. Graceland is the only notable attraction in Whitehaven. Today, Memphians tell tourists on their way to Graceland to stay on the major highways that run through Whitehaven, and not to get turned around in its neighborhoods. I’ve only seen pictures of my mother’s childhood home. It sat on a slight hill, its perfectly rectangular foundation supporting the white panels and black shutters of its walls.
My mother’s parents died in Memphis.
In the early 20th century, Memphis experienced exponential growth in industry, and subsequently, population. The mid-sized port city on the banks of the Mississippi River sprouted skyscrapers and attracted workers for its cotton and lumber industries. With the increase in population, committees of financiers and business owners were assembled to commission city planning for the future. According to the Memphis Chamber of Commerce Journal, “The phenomenal growth and expansion taking place in Memphis demanded the services of a body of public spirited men to plan for the future, and correct present defects in our past growth.”[ii]
My parents lived in havens: Whitehaven and Southaven. I often wondered, havens from what?
“Present defects in our past growth” referred to a number of social and economic issues that came with the expansion of the city. Downtown Memphis boasted lively and spirited businesses, and the committees intended to maintain the urban business district’s vitality while commissioning effective zoning laws for the outlying suburban population.
Effective was subjective.
The black population had already formed neighborhoods in “the lower ground bordering on the drainage courses,” those “cheaper, less desirable sections of the city.” [iii] The new zoning laws would effectively keep the black population in these less desirable sections of the city, allowing for “natural” segregation within the city.
My mother’s parents moved out of their house in Whitehaven after their three children had married and moved away. When white families move out of their homes in Memphis, one of the most consistent reasons given is, “the neighborhood was getting bad,” usually said in hushed tones with a glance over the shoulder. My mother always maintained that her parents’ decision to move wasn’t driven by some underlying fear of black people in the neighborhood, but by an open concern for decreasing property values. “They knew the neighborhood was getting bad,” she told me, “but they knew if they waited they’d lose a bunch of money on the house.”
This made sense to me. I never heard my grandparents speak ill of a black person for ruining a neighborhood. To tell the truth, I can’t remember them speaking ill of anyone for any reason.
My grandparents’ new home sat on a hill in a quiet cul-de-sac in Bartlett, a suburb northeast of Memphis. I remember spending countless nights in that small, three-bedroom house when my mother was working late. My grandmother was endlessly patient with me; she never even raised her voice when I’d pester her for hours, playing imaginary basketball on the linoleum kitchen floor as she hovered over steaming pots of spaghetti noodles or collard greens. My grandfather sat in his blue recliner and flipped through channels on the wooden-box television set. I remember my grandmother asking him to take me to get the mail, likely hoping I’d find a tiny reprieve to my boredom. My grandfather slipped on his brown leather slippers and held the storm door open for me, and as I walked past I got a whiff of the cigarette smoke on his white undershirt, a smell he was always trying to hide from my grandmother. I walked with him, hand in hand, down the long driveway through his immaculately groomed lawn and arrived at the mailbox. He handed me a stack of mail, and I pinned it to my chest with one arm, and clutched his rough, leathery hand with the other as he led me back to the carport.
I grew up across the street from a black family on Harvest Knoll Cove in southwest Memphis. I played with the girls my age who lived in the house from time to time. I don’t remember their names, nor do I remember their father’s name, to whom I spoke maybe twice in twenty years.
A few years before I moved out, one of the girls, now a woman, had begged my mother and stepfather to take care of her two dogs until she could move out of her father’s house. Her father wouldn’t let them in the house, so they lived in crates in the garage during that blazing Memphis summer. My mother and stepfather agreed to keep them for a few weeks.
A few weeks turned into a year, and my stepfather decided he’d take it upon himself to find a new home for the dogs. My mother told me he had a heated exchange with the woman’s father in the doorway of his house when he told them what he’d decided. I didn’t know whether or not the father objected to the idea, and couldn’t understand why he would, but I know from that day forward his family never returned my neighborly waves when we’d cross paths leaving or entering the cove.
In his book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, D.J. Waldie describes a man named Mr. H, whose yard is covered with useless junk for years. Finally, Mr. H’s neighbors call city hall to complain instead of confronting him, saying, “they don’t want to ‘make trouble.’” [iv]
A few years after the exchange between my stepfather and the man across the street, I went to get the mail and saw the man talking to my next-door neighbor, Manuel. While they talked, the man’s dog (one that apparently was allowed in the house) did its business on a strip of grass next to our driveway. He glared at me as I turned to walk back inside.
“I better go get a bag for this,” he told Manuel, purposely loud enough for me to hear.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said.
“No, no, I don’t want no trouble.”
“Really, man, it’s no big deal.”
“No, I don’t want your daddy coming to my house for this.”
Apart from my family and Manuel’s (he’d helped my mother with routine maintenance when she was single), the people in our neighborhood kept to themselves. Our homes lined up in the cove like cages in a pet store, the brick walls of our dwellings keeping us apart. We were neighbors but we were not neighborly.
My mother told me Whitehaven was a great place to live when she was growing up. I suppose, in those days, it would be categorized as “desirable,” a place situated on high ground devoid of drainage courses and sewer runoff and derelict homes with plywood windows. The few times I drove down Highway 51 (called Elvis Presley Boulevard in stretches of Tennessee) through Whitehaven, I wondered if those calculated racial lines were still in place, only black and white were reversed, and somehow Whitehaven sank into the earth and desirable became undesirable. The homes along main road were dilapidated and their yards were overgrown; in their driveways sat broken down cars on cinderblocks.
If Holy Land’s Mr. H lived in one of these homes, his “dead machinery” replaced with a Pontiac on cinderblocks and graffiti on his mailbox, I wonder if his neighbors would call to complain or offer to help, or if code enforcement officers would pay him a visit. I’ve heard stories of people in the wealthy suburban neighborhoods of Germantown or Collierville calling city officials from time to time. They complain about recycling bins on the street instead of the sidewalk; they complain about a neighbor’s tree invading their yard, its limbs hanging inches over the fence. Code enforcement officers pay visits to Germantown and Collierville. Code enforcement officers do not pay visits to Whitehaven.
When I was growing up, I often heard white men in suits refer to Whitehaven as “Blackhaven.” These were the same men who’d talk about, “the neighborhood getting bad.”
I wonder, if it weren’t for their black coworkers and pseudo-acquaintances, they’d just come out and say, “The neighborhood was getting black.”
I imagine my grandparents before they vacated Whitehaven and moved to the house in Bartlett with the long driveway and the carport. I imagine my grandmother wearing her cat-eye glasses and a youthful smile, gazing out the kitchen window as my grandfather mulched his tomato garden, beads of sweat settling on his sturdy arms.
I was thirteen when I walked past the baby blue Oldsmobile under the carport and into my grandparents’ kitchen. I was with my father, their ex-son-in-law who’d known them for decades and wanted to check on them since my grandmother’s health was declining. I sat at the Formica kitchen table, enamored by their ability to mingle like old friends, because I had never seen my father and grandparents converse for more than five minutes. I tried to avert my eyes from my grandmother’s hair, normally thick and curly, now pitifully thin and wispy from hours of chemotherapy.
Before I was born, my parents lived in a zero lot line house off Kirby Parkway in southwest Memphis. The houses in the neighborhood were perfectly uniform in size and placement along property lines, as though they’d been assembled on a conveyor belt and aligned by a taut string tied from street corner to street corner.
The house I grew up in wasn’t like the zero lot line off Kirby that I’d only driven past. The houses in my neighborhood were close enough to peer out the window and watch the husband and wife who lived across the street having an argument but just far enough so that you couldn’t make out what they were saying. The houses weren’t uniform, either. My neighbors next door lived in a large, flat-faced two-story home with blue paneling while ours was a one-story with red bricks and had a garage that faced our neighbor’s house instead of the street. The front and back yards of the homes in my neighborhood were large, almost the size of the yards of my school friends whose parents were married and drove SUVs and complained about their neighbors’ trees. The major difference between their neighborhoods and mine were the imaginary zoning lines that separated the desirable from the less desirable. The white men in suits would have said my neighborhood had been getting bad.
The driveway to our house sloped at a steep angle leading to the front door. I remember one Christmas, we opened the door to help my aunt, uncle, and grandfather bring in gifts and trays of food. My grandfather, in his seventies then, slipped on a patch of ice and fell violently on his back, dropping a tray of deviled eggs and skinning his elbow. I remember him saying he was okay after we’d helped him up, and that we should sprinkle cat litter on the ice.
That was only the second time I’d seen my grandfather so vulnerable, so helpless against what he couldn’t control. The blood on his elbow proved he was breakable.
I sat at Grandma and Papaw’s Formica kitchen table, flakes of its surface chipping off every day, and stared at the array of lunchmeats and flower arrangements on the counter. I kept my mouth shut, careful not to bother those with a funeral to plan. Papaw wandered back and forth from the kitchen, looking for something to do, trying to stay busy as I did as a child all those years ago. My mom told him to sit down, that she and the rest of the family could take care of everything. He went and sat in his blue recliner. Five minutes later, he stumbled into the kitchen, placed both hands on the counter, and dropped his head. He had become undone. He wept shamelessly, uncontrollably, embracing each of his daughters at the same time. “It’s so hard,” he said. I’d never seen Papaw shed a tear.
I watched the nurse wheel my grandfather down the hallway. She told my mother and me that he tried to get up the night before. He fell, and gashed his forehead on the chestnut dresser in his rented room. Blood was still drying under the bandage. My mother brushed his red hair back.
“You’ve got to be more careful, Daddy.”
He smirked, but said nothing.
My grandparents were members of a large Baptist church in Memphis. My grandfather worked as an usher and my grandmother worked in the nursery. When my mother was working late, my grandfather would drive my grandmother and me in his Oldsmobile to Wednesday night services at the church. The church served food before the service; my grandmother would lead us through the line and tell me to thank each person who spooned mashed potatoes or placed a piece of chicken on my plate. Before we ate, I’d place one hand in my grandmother’s and one in my grandfather’s as my grandfather said the blessing. He ended each prayer the same:
“Bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies. In Christ’s name, Amen.”
There was a stench of peroxide and mop water, and the hallway was drenched in pale-yellow light. The walls were plastered with crayon drawings of flowers or monkeys or sunsets. My mother passed one of a lighthouse.
She smiled. “Oh look, a lighthouse.”
Lighthouses were my grandmother’s favorite. She had paintings and statues of them all over their house in Bartlett; many of them she’d bought when they still lived in Whitehaven, when my mother was still a girl. My mother had taken the statues and paintings and arranged them on the piano or hung them on our living room walls. My grandmother had been gone for two years then. I remember being glad she wouldn’t see that lighthouse. I was glad she wouldn’t see her husband in a blue-spotted gown, wearing a bloody bandage. He was a stranger then.
My mother brought a prepackaged cup of honeydew melon from the cafeteria. My grandfather stared through his hollow eyes at the open window. A mindless, empty gaze. One by one, she fed the sweet cubes to him. He smiled after each bite. He tasted something familiar.
I hoped that somewhere deep inside the labyrinth of his mind he had stumbled upon a memory he could make sense of, a memory of my grandmother cutting up a fresh melon and sitting down at their kitchen table, each of them taking turns picking juicy pieces from the bowl.
Bless this food for the nourishment of our bodies. In Christ’s name, Amen.
We take things from our past homes in order to picture how they were arranged in the settings of our perfect memories. My mother knows where each and every lighthouse sat in her childhood home, because she can now pick them up and study them. I remember the images of my grandfather in his blue recliner because his blue recliner now sits in my living room. These lifeless details of the past somehow convince us that because we have them our past is still teeming with life, that living blood still flows through veins we carved out in the walls of homes we once inhabited.
If we can’t touch these things and imagine them where they once were, we ought to remember nothing but a series of bare walls and desolate rooms with a roof overhead, situated on a street without a name in a neighborhood that’s long since gone bad.
Jonathan McDaniel is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago’s Nonfiction Writing program, where he also teaches first year writing. He lives with his girlfriend and watches too much basketball.
[ii] Brownell, Blaine A. “The Commercial-Civic Elite and City Planning in Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans in the 1920s.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Aug., 1975), pg. 350
[iii] Brownell, Blaine A. “The Commercial-Civic Elite and City Planning in Atlanta, Memphis, and New Orleans in the 1920s.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Aug., 1975), pg. 358
[iv] Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, D.J. Waldie. pg. 20 (section 41)