Kittie Howard

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Miss Kitty, Little Kittie, and Rush Limbaugh

In an era when adults were adults and kids were kids, I didn't know why my grandmother, mother, and father had to go to New Orleans for the weekend. A tinge of disappointment at not being able to see my grandmother in New Orleans disappeared when my sister and I learned we had our grandfather all to ourselves.

Pa stood over six feet tall, with a muscled leanness and angular features that made him appear taller. He was fair-complexioned, like me, with thick, light brown hair that he kept covered with a felt hat, a style popular in the Fifties. Life had added character to his face, little crow's feet, small wrinkles from squinting into the sun. It was Pa's deep blue eyes, though, that pulled you into an orbit of love and kindness and gentleness. He was a God-fearing man, a man of few words, but when he spoke, it was from the heart and from a sense of what was right and what was wrong.

Now, for all the many things Pa could do, there was one thing Pa couldn't do: He couldn't cook.

After a breakfast of burned scrambled eggs a definite problem existed. My sister and I were little whirlwinds, constantly in motion, and needed food.

So, mid-morning, just as starvation approached, Pa announced that we'd drive into town for dinner (which was lunch; supper was dinner). My sister and I perked up.

Then, the telephone rang. My grandfather's face soon broke into a wide grin. Miss Kitty had invited us to dinner (lunch). My sister and I clapped our hands with glee and didn't have to be told to comb our hair, wash our hands and get spruced up. Everyone knew Miss Kitty was the best cook for miles around, even better than the restaurant in town.

Miss Kitty lived in a shotgun house, painted a deep, deep red on the outside. The roof was a proper roof, not a painted tin roof, and symbolized hard work and frugal finances. (There were those within this twenty-mile stretch who gambled or drank away their money or were too lazy to work. A proper roof often covered the character of those who lived within the house.)

Now, for those of you not familiar with shotgun houses, they are so named because if the front door and the back door were open, one could fire a shotgun, and the bullet would fly straight through. Shotgun houses were narrow, with a lone window on either side of the front door, and with rooms off the hall that ran through the house. Many had small front porches.

If you've visited New Orleans, especially Magazine Street in the French Quarter, you've seen a shotgun house. Within the Historic District, they are protected, very much a lifestyle status symbol for young couples.

When we arrived at Miss Kitty's, it was like entering a Norman Rockwell scene yet-to-come. A white picket fence surrounded Miss Kitty's emerald green lawn. A panoply of colorful marigolds, petunias, and verbenas in well-tended beds wrapped around the porch.

Like my great-grandmother, my grandmother's mother, Miss Kitty wore a long dress (a calico print), and a bonnet, like pioneer women wear in Western movies. And, like my great-grandmother, Miss Kitty was a little stooped over and walked with a cane.

After the proper greetings, Miss Kitty ushered us into her immaculate kitchen. The most delicious chicken stew and homemade bread awaited us.

Miss Kitty didn't let age get in the way of her life. In 1950, Miss Kitty was between 90 and 93 years old. She wasn't sure about her exact birth date.

Miss Kitty loved children. She liked to sing fun songs where we kids would clap and sing the refrain with her. We didn't know what we were singing, but it was fun. Miss Kitty spoke fluent English, fluent French, and fluent Cajun French. But her first language was a language no one in the farming community recognized. Even Miss Kitty didn't know the name of the country where this lilting language originated.

You see, Miss Kitty had been a slave. She had been born in the United States but born into slavery.

Like her parents, she had worked as a slave, the officially listed property of what the law then recognized as the rightful owner.

Miss Kitty now lived in a neat house on a farmette on what had once been a larger plantation. Where she had worked as a slave.

After the Civil War, the plantation owner's widowed wife had deeded this parcel of land (and given an unknown sum of money) to Miss Kitty. She had built the shotgun house, the house she wanted, and established the life she wanted to live. Miss Kitty had never been known to lose her temper or speak poorly of others. She never gambled or drank or smoked or ran with loose men. Miss Kitty was known as a good wife and mother, a hard worker, a person of good character, attributes anyone with any sense values. (This is not to say Miss Kitty was perfect; she'd have been the first to say No Way. Like everyone else, Miss Kitty got through challenges, sometimes of her own making, when days seemed without end, and she wished she had said or done otherwise.)

One of Miss Kitty's grown sons, with his children, also lived on the property. They worked hard to maintain a house garden, a chicken coop, and raise a few cattle for market. But it was too much for one person, even if kids helped, so farmers and cattlemen in the area, like my grandfather, volunteered their skills. Not so much with money. Miss Kitty didn't suffer financial problems.

But those who volunteered wanted Miss Kitty to enjoy her home, her flowers, her immaculate lawn, wanted Miss Kitty to maintain her high standards, wanted Miss Kitty to remain part of a community where it was common for people to help each other. Those who helped Miss Kitty knew she had been a slave, knew it hadn't been right, and felt they had a certain responsibility to ease a long-ago wrong.

Ironically, one of Miss Kitty's neighbors belonged to the KKK. No, this family didn't help Miss Kitty. But, in an era when the Klan used intimidation (and worse) for a land grab, the Klan left Miss Kitty alone.

Several years later, when Miss Kitty still lived in her house but needed a live-in relative's help to walk about, I asked my grandfather why the Klan hadn't targeted Miss Kitty. I can hear his reply now, "Miss Kitty was stronger than the Klan."

It wasn't until I was in high school, when I had accumulated more years and experiences, that I could understand the thin veneer that had separated sanity from insanity along that twenty-mile stretch of road. It was then that I realized that a certain type of Southerner knew (and knows) exactly what he/she was (is) doing, exactly what he/she was (is) saying.

I learned that Southern whites speak another English, a coded English, that is subtle and very layered. Some whites outside the South have learned this English, this English that uses the Constitution to validate racism and hate and discord and jealousy. Professors of this language, like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, speak this coded language fluently.

Let me be very clear: Southern whites know each other very, very well. Within five minutes of meeting another Southerner (whether from Louisiana or not), I can tell you that person's politics, religion and overall character. Likewise, they know where I'm coming from. And, yes, there are times when we lock horns. And, yes, there are times when I walk away, just don't go There, because I can feel that physical danger lurks.

I felt trouble when I was out campaigning for President Obama. In one 'bubbha' neighborhood, two middle-aged white women, independent of each other, told me they were voting for Obama, that their husbands weren't and "to get out of here; it's not safe." But I decided to continue with my list. As any Southerner will tell you, there's a difference between feeling trouble coming and feeling danger lurking. (And nothing happened.)

And, so, I'm sending this posting to the St. Louis Rams. When Rush Limbaugh announced that he was part of a group that wanted to buy the Rams, the team said No, we're not going to work for a bigot, we're not going to be muscled slaves, we're not going to be owned by a guy everyone knows is The Man.

My blog is small, not even an Internet blink in a stratosphere of blogs. But I can hear Miss Kitty's lilting singing, see her thin face crinkled with laughter, see the wisps of grey hair beneath her bonnet, feel her long fingers cupping my chin, feel her soft, watery eyes looking into my soul and know she'd be happy this posting will have wings and fly. Thank you, St. Louis Rams. Like Miss Kitty, you're a class act.

I'm also sending this blog to Rush Limbaugh. You see, on a small table in the living room, Miss Kitty kept an American flag, neatly folded into waxed paper and tied with string. Each Fourth of July she proudly flew this beautiful flag -- the flag my father fought for on Iwo Jima, my husband in Vietnam -- in front of her house.

Miss Kitty, the former slave, wasn't an American citizen. Unlike Rush Limbaugh, the American citizen who hasn't done much besides sit in front of a microphone and spew hate, Miss Kitty wasn't filled with anger. She only had good things to say about the United States of America.

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