When I was a young boy, I would spend summers visiting my grandmother in Abilene, Texas. In the eyes of a six year old, Abilene was a veritable oasis of grass lawns compared to the sparse, dirt patch of my own hometown farther west. And the greenest lawn for blocks around belonged to my Granny. From early spring until the first frost of fall, Granny hand-watered her succulent St. Augustine grass. Granny took care of the watering, but Mr. Anderson took care of everything else.
Every Friday at 7 a.m. Mr. Anderson, my Granny’s lawn man, came to cut the grass. He was getting too old to do lawns but he would spend two hours or more pushing that mower along, row after row. Then, with only a short break for a drink from the garden hose, he began another two hours of the really back-breaking work, hand-clipping the edges along the sidewalk, flower beds and mesquite trees.
About eleven, my Granny would call Mister Anderson and me in for dinner. You see, In Texas back in the day, lunch was called dinner and dinner was called supper, the teachings of Mrs. Vanderbilt notwithstanding. Dinner on Friday always consisted of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, sliced bread and cream gravy. After washing his hands and face at the garden hose, Mister Anderson would doff his hat, enter the back door and stand before his place setting. It was always the same, complete right down to the salad fork, salt and pepper shakers and gravy boat, laid out on my Granny’s sewing table in the mudroom just off the kitchen. Mister Anderson would say grace over the food and then take his seat as Granny took my hand and led me to the kitchen table to eat our meal. I once asked why we all couldn’t sit together. She told me that was just the way things were and she gave me a stern look that told me never to ask that question again. You see, Mister Anderson was black, my Granny was white and this was 1962.
Once in a while, I would slip out to the mud room and sit with Mister Anderson while Granny put away the leftovers. He would tell me all about St. Augustine grass, Briggs & Stratton gasoline engines and whatever else I asked about. Once he let it slip that my Granny was his only white customer who would feed him dinner, much less let him into her home.
Forty-four years have passed since my last lunch with Mr. Anderson. He died before I was old enough to fully grasp the depth and complexity of racism in the South. It saddens me to remember the sometimes awkward, formal relations between him and my Granny. But, to be fair, those Friday dinners were shared with large helpings of civility, kindness, compassion and mutual respect. In the end this is what I remember and what I believe every time I look out at the tall green grass—that two senior citizens, both a little too old to change their ways, were able to do the best they could with the social tools they had to work with at the time.
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