I was only ten years old, living in a small town in the Florida panhandle, when I first met Leroy. The year was 1951. Leroy was an old, silver-haired black man – tall, thin and quite bent – who came to my mother’s house each Saturday to work in the yard that year. He started working for our family sometime around March, after the azaleas bloomed. Each Saturday he wore pressed jeans and a fresh white shirt that would be covered with red dirt at the end of the day.
It never occurred to me to find out how Leroy arrived, or how he left. There was never a car in the driveway. He was just there, out in the back yard where he was supposed to be, when I’d wake up on Saturday mornings. I never saw him leave, either, or knew when he left. It never once occurred to my young mind that it might have been difficult for him to get to our house. He was just there, where I knew he’d be, in our back yard.
After having breakfast I’d get myself dressed for the day, mindful of the Florida heat. I went barefoot, except on Sundays for church. Each Saturday morning my little black and white English bulldog, Queenie, waited by the cool back concrete steps in the garage for me to come swinging out the back door to grab my blue bicycle with the white basket, complete with pink artificial flowers around the front. I felt like a princess when I climbed onto my beautiful new bike. Queenie would try to hop up but of course couldn’t, but she loved to go for rides with me in the basket.
I’d lift her up, place her in the basket, sometimes wearing my doll’s clothes with a baby’s bonnet tied around her small head, and off we’d go. Our favorite mission was to ride to the corner grocery store, two blocks away, to buy two loaves of Wonder Bread for my mother. This seemed to be the thing I was supposed to do with my Saturday mornings, just the way that Leroy worked in our yard every Saturday.
We’d put the bike away, Queenie and I, and go say hello to Leroy. He’d smile his wonderful big grin, stoop down to pet Queenie, and then pause to wipe the sweat off his brow. It was always with a clean handkerchief from his pocket. Leroy didn’t have all of his teeth, but that didn’t matter to me. He had all of his heart and that’s all I cared about.
“Good morning, Miss Ruthie,” he’d say to me. “And good morning to you, too, Miss Queenie.” I’d smile and Queenie would wag her tail. We loved being with Leroy and would help him with the yard work. I helped more than Queenie, of course, but she was very good at supervising. We’d pick some beans, rake up pine needles, mulch in the flower beds, and do anything else Leroy thought needed to be done. One particular afternoon, after Leroy had been there several hours, my mother called to me from the kitchen.
“Ruthie, come wash your hands for lunch and tell Leroy his lunch is ready.” I quickly did as asked, washed my hands for lunch and went to get Leroy. “Lunch is ready. Momma says to come on and eat.” I held the back screen door open.
Leroy looked at me with his big brown eyes, the whites faded now to a pale yellow. He shook his head from side to side, saying no. He wasn’t taking one step into the house.
“Yes. Momma says lunch is ready. Come on. We’re gonna be in trouble if you don’t come on.” I grabbed his hand and pulled him up the steps, through the kitchen and into the dining room.
“Lord, Lord, Miss Ruthie. I not ‘possed to be in here. I not ‘possed to be in no white woman’s house. You gon git me in a mess o’ trouble. You gon’ be in trouble too, Miss.”
I looked at him, and didn’t understand. “No, Leroy. Momma said to come and get our lunch. It’s ready.”
It was then that my mother came back into the dining room from the hall way. Only then, when I saw the look of shock on her face did I realize the truth. That Leroy was not supposed to be standing in her dining room. That I was in trouble for bringing him inside. And that we were both, just as he’d predicted, in a mess of trouble.
You could’ve heard my mother shouting at Leroy from next door. “What’re you doing in here? What’s the matter with you? You know better. You’re never supposed to be in here! Get out to the back steps where you belong. And don’t you ever come in this house again!”
For me, I got a quick slap across the face. “How dare you bring him inside this house!”
Leroy turned to go. I felt like asking him didn’t he care that I got slapped, but I guess he was just glad that he didn’t get slapped. The tears spilled down my cheeks.
I went out the back door with Leroy. He was the only friend I had, other than Queenie.
Leroy sat down on the back steps. He put his hands together, as if he were praying, then hung his head. I just cried. Queenie came to lick my hand.
“I’m sorry, Miss Ruthie. I knew. I jes’ knew. I wuzn’t ‘possed to be in there. I’m sorry, Child.”
I wiped my face, with my mother’s hand print still burning my left cheek. “I know, Leroy.”
My mother opened the back door, nearly pushing me off the step when it opened. She handed me a plate of hot collards and buttered cornbread, and a glass of cold iced tea.
“Here. Give this to Leroy. And tell him to stay there and eat. You come in now and get your own lunch.” She didn’t seem a bit sorry she’d slapped my face, and I still didn’t know why. I handed the plate to Leroy. There wasn’t a napkin.
“I’m sorry, Miss Ruthie,” he repeated as he took the plate.
“It’s okay, Leroy. I’m sorry, too.”I opened the screen door, leaving him there with Queenie, to begin eating his lunch. In a few minutes I opened the screen door again, this time with my own plate of collards and cornbread in one hand, with two napkins and my glass of iced tea in the other.
Leroy smiled at me and shook his head again.
I smiled, too, and sat down on the back step beside him. That step always felt cool, especially when I was barefoot and wearing shorts, but that day it felt especially cold. I handed him a napkin.
Leroy took the napkin and looked down at me, with years of wisdom in his eyes. “You gon’ git in a mess o’ mor trouble. You know that, don’t cha?”
I leaned over and bumped him on the shoulder, making him laugh. He shook his head.
“Lord, Lord, Miss Ruthie.”
I laughed too. I could swear Queenie wagged her tail.
“I don’t care, Leroy. I just don’t care.”
As it turns out, I did care about the lessons I learned that day from my mother. They just weren’t the lessons she wanted me to learn.
Leroy never came back to our house after that day and my mother never mentioned him again. Had I known then at my young age just how much it had taken for this kind and bent old man to show up at my mother’s door step every Saturday, in his clean, ironed white shirt and pressed jeans, with the way he had been treated and the lack of respect shown to him by my family, I might very well have slapped my mother right back. I only wish he could know how much he had impacted my life, and wish with all my heart I could sit down with Leroy once more and read him my story.
# # #