by LOUISE CANFIELD-SANDER
My aunt Lavinia had a jagged scar on her forehead, just below her hairline. She called it her “Memory Scar.” But she would never explain what she meant by that. In spite of her eccentricities, or maybe because of them, she was always a favorite and I spent a fair amount of time with her just before she died. One morning near the end when, I brought her morning tea, quite unexpectedly, she said she was ready to tell me the story of the scar. Of course, I was anxious to know. I sat the tray on the bedside table and took a chair near the bed. She told me she called it her “Memory Scar” to remind her of the day she didn’t run away. I asked her what that meant. And then she told me the most outrageous story.
You’d have to know my Aunt Lavinia to understand how ridiculous the story was. She was the embodiment of the southern lady. Never smoked or drank. Went to church every Sunday, crocheted baby blankets for charity and was famous for her fresh coconut cake. Never said a curse word in her life. Distrusted Catholics and voted Republican. I never heard her say a cross word to anyone, anyone that is, but her neighbor Miss Bernice. A little dotty, in other words.
The way she told it, she left her favorite shawl behind at Sunday School that day and on her way to get it, while walking toward 16th Street, she heard children screaming. She hurried to the corner where she saw Sherriff Pruitt turning the firehose on some black children, one of them being Tyrene Watson, the grandson of her beloved longtime maid, Tish Rice.
There actually was a demonstration in Sugarmill Junction. I’ll give her that much. On Sunday, May 20, 1962 to be exact. I was away at college at the time, so I didn’t see it myself. There was a short article in the New Orleans Picayune giving only the bare details, but nothing in the local papers. When I came home for the summer, no one in the family, or the town for that matter, wanted to talk about it. All anyone would say was that a bunch of “outside agitators” had caused a ruckus near the Wellsprings Baptist Church and made a mess at Aunt Lavinia’s. But Aunt Lavinia had a very different story.
When she saw Tyrene being hurt, she said something just came over her. She ran right into the crowd and started kicking Sherriff Pruitt and swatting him with her handbag. She says he was trying to grab her when a rock hit her on the head and she fell. Supposedly that’s where she got the scar. But it gets weirder. She said she got up and ran toward Tyrene, but before she could get to him, they arrested her along with a lot of black people, put them in the paddy wagon and took them to jail. To get the full impact of how crazy this is, you have to realize that it was 1962 and Sugarmill was Segregation City. Opposition to integration was the norm; the party line being that it was all just a stunt by Northern politicians to get black people to vote for them. Certainly Aunt Lavinia had made her views on the topic abundantly clear. She, along with all the ladies of the First Baptist Missionary Society, was firmly in the camp of “Separate but Equal.” So the idea of Aunt Lavinia, 95 pounds maybe, if she was dripping wet, charging running and screaming into a civil rights demonstration to rescue a black kid? Well, by this time, I’m rolling my eyes.
But the best is yet to come. She says she was taken to jail and put in a room with the women and girls where they were all ordered to strip. Yes. That’s what I said. Strip. Then after they put themselves back together, supposedly they were marched off to lockup where they were kept until someone came to bail them out. No water the whole time and it was hotter than blazes that day. No way they could have treated anyone like that and gotten away with it. Even in the sixties. The civil rights lawyers would have had a field day!
Eventually, she said Miss Emma Goodwill came to get her out of jail. Now springing someone from jail is the kind of thing Miss Emma might do, all right, assuming Aunt Lavinia was in jail in the first place. Miss Emma was a force to be reckoned with in Sugarmill. But she and Miss Emma were hardly friends, so it seems odd that she would have come to Aunt Lavinia’s rescue. Anyway, she swore Miss Emma drove her home and when they got there someone had painted “nigger lover” in red paint on the side of her house, and left horse manure on her doorstep. And most hateful of all, tried to poison her little dog Pee Wee. She adored that pesky dog. Luckily for her, in addition to being a snippy little cuss, he was a picky eater, so he didn’t eat enough of the poisoned meat to kill him. In fact, he outlived Aunt Lavinia.
Now here’s the real kicker. According to Aunt Lavinia, Miss Bernice, who lived across the street, saw three men putting paint on Aunt Lavinia’s house and came running out of the house yelling at them at the top of her lungs. That would be like Miss Bernice. She was the nosiest old biddy there ever was. So when she wouldn’t shut up, the men forced her back in her house and beat the living daylights out of her. Her maid found her several hours later, barely alive. She recovered, but was in a wheelchair the rest of her life. She never told anyone who the men were and she never again spoke to Aunt Lavinia. She’d look away every time she saw Aunt Lavinia coming. I saw her do it when once when I took Aunt Lavinia shopping. There definitely was some kind of feud between them, but who knows what happened? It could have been about anything. They fought like cats and dogs all their lives.
But I will say this. Aunt Lavinia changed that summer. It was like she was a different person. I don’t know; maybe the injury to her head was worse than we thought. She stopped going to First Baptist where she’d gone her entire life. She said she wasn’t welcome there anymore. But she was getting old and was probably just confused. She quit going to Vonda Fay’s beauty salon every Thursday, and her friends stopped dropping by. But they were old like she was, and none of them got out much. We just put it down to old age.
Now here’s what I think happened. She walked past the demonstration and was horrified by what she saw. She would have been; she was such a sheltered little thing. It was hot, so she probably had a little sunstroke, passed out and hit her head when she fell. And while she was out, she must have dreamed the whole thing up. In all the confusion, no one probably noticed, and she just picked herself up and went home. The mess at her house? Who knows. Maybe it was “outside agitators,” and she was just unlucky.
There’s just one loose end I can’t tie up. And that’s how close Aunt Lavinia and Miss Emma were after that. They always knew each other, of course, but they were as different as night and day. Miss Emma was a retired English teacher. Her grandfather, Judge Whitworth, was one of Sugarmill Junction’s founding fathers. Poor Aunt Lavinia had to quit school after 8th grade to help around her family’s cotton farm. They didn’t socialize. But after that day, they were thick as thieves. They used to disappear together now and then and wouldn’t say where they were going. There were all sorts of rumors, the most outlandish one being that they were attending NAACP meetings over in Mississippi. Someone said they saw them in a meeting in Biloxi. That’s ridiculous. Aunt Lavinia at an NAACP meeting? No way. They might have gone to Biloxi, all right, but if they did, I’ll bet you it was to the casinos. They both loved their card games. They did have that in common. Still, it’s hard to believe that was enough.
Aunt Lavinia stood by her story until the day she died. No matter how many times I asked her. But how could it be true? A sweet little old lady like Aunt Lavinia who wouldn’t hurt a fly, hit in the head by a rock trying to save a black kid at a civil rights demonstration? And then becoming a closet civil rights worker? C’mon. Give me a break.