Friday, October 27, 2023
Friday, September 8, 2023
of 1912—Choctaw County, Mississippi
Oleta Ruth Greene was born on the
banks of the Yockanookany River, Choctaw County Mississippi, in the spring of
1912. Born to Miss Mavis Collins and Mister Lewis Greene. Oleta’s father was a
man she never knew by anything other than Mister Greene.
On the night she was born, the
father-to-be stood in the Yockanookany River up to his calves, cold water pouring
in over the top of his boots. Gripping one end of a hoop net with his left
hand, the river holding the other, fighting him for the right of possession.
With his right, he held Mavis’s hand, for balance, and comfort. He had told her
to stay in the shanty, not to come down to the river. He could handle the nets
himself, been doing it for most a lifetime. It was near time for the baby to
come, she should stay. But there she was, prostrated on the bank of the river,
her face twisted with the pain that comes when birthing a baby.
“I’m gonna fetch some help, Mavis,”
he promises her (his promise coming as the baby’s head was crowning and Mavis
was cursing the gods).
“Don’t leave me here,” she
cries, “Lewis, you son-of-a-bitch, don’t you leave me.”
Climbing out of the river, he dropped
the net and then her hand. “Mavis, I’ll be a back with some help. I
Mister Greene made off with Mavis and
her half-born baby on the muddy banks of the Yockanookany. He was never seen
Mavis lay on the ground staring at
the night sky, rain mixing with the tear-streams running down her face. A dejected
melody offered by the river completes this melancholic scene. Long-spun Spanish
moss hangs from a goliath oak tree. A southerly breeze cavorts with the rain,
prompting the mossy shadows to wave like the arms of a fortune teller stealing
the last nickel from P.T. Barnum’s sucker. As heavy bottomed clouds trudge
across the early morning sky, Mavis bears down with strength delivered by the
same God she cursed, presenting her baby to a silent world. The newborn slides
between thick thighs and into the numbing waters of the Yockanookany River.
Days later, Mavis lay on the filth
laden floor of a one-room shanty with a new baby at her breast, wondering whom
Mister Greene had been going to fetch help for. It sure the hell wasn’t
A story of fatherless generations embarked
that night on the banks of the Yockanookany River. Spineless men destined to
follow Mister Greene’s muddy footprints into the unknown. Cowards who tremble
at the words—responsibility, commitment, sacrifice—runaways never looking back
to see what has become of—Oleta, Clarence, Elizabeth, Otis, and Elijah.
Fathers without names. Children
In 1915, Mavis heard that Mister
Greene was living high on the hog in Chicago. She packed up everything she
owned and stuffed it into a canvas bag. Everything except her determination,
that she wore on her face. With three-year-old Oleta Ruth tucked under her arm,
she set off for the Windy City in search of her baby’s father. Mother and
daughter made it as far as Peru, Indiana before being thrown off the Atchison
Topeka & Santa Fe Railway because, according to two gentleladies from St.
Louis, “the child smells like shit.” Peru, a city of five square miles,
was recovering from the flood of 1913. High waters had delivered massive
destruction to most of the town, leaving behind few accommodations for
vagabonds such as Mavis and her child.
A local farmer pointed her east, “Head
down the road a bit, the circus people make camp there when winter comes. Peru
Circus Farm is what the locals have come to call it. Don’t know if they farm
anything, but they won’t turn you away, colored, or not. They don’t judge
others. Most locals don’t like them being here, but they good people. They’ll
help you. Go on down there.”
The farmer had been correct. The
circus owner, an Irishman named Millard Murphy set up a shelter for Mavis and
her daughter in an empty railcar smelling of hay and manure. He showed Mavis
how to burn wood inside an old, galvanized tub to keep warm, warning her more
than once to never let the fire jump out of the tub. Every morning, Mavis found
a plate of buttermilk biscuits, two slices of bacon, and a tin cup filled with goat
milk set just inside the railcar. Sitting with her back against the oily and
splintered wall of the boxcar, she held her daughter as they watched the circus
people move around with purpose. On some mornings, they would stop and smile a
friendly greeting or kneel and make silly faces at the girl. They never asked
her questions or pried where strangers should not pry. They never even asked
her name. Often, Mavis would carry Oleta into one of the big barns where they
would sit for hours watching the animal keepers care for the horses, elephants,
and big cats. But never getting too close. Mavis taught the girl the names of
all the animals. Showing her how make the sounds of the cats and the elephants.
Life at the circus was meager yet filled Mavis with new hope.
In spring of 1916, as President
Wilson was sending troops south in pursuit of Pancho Villa, Mavis Collins was
hired by the Senger Dry Goods Company, Peru’s largest employer at the time. It
was the first and only paying job Mavis ever held, earning her enough money to
keep food in their bellies. Never losing her determination to get to Chicago
and find that sorry bastard, Mister Greene, she set aside a portion of her
earnings each week. With the circus camp closed until winter, Mavis and her
daughter slept where they could, never calling one place home. Come winter, she
returned to the circus camp and slept in the warmth of the world of boxcars and
circus animals. In January 1925, her last winter on this side of Heaven, Mavis
died from pneumonia brought on by too many hours of sleeping in boxcars and
owning only one threadbare coat. Standing between a sad-faced clown and the
bearded lady, young Oleta Ruth watched her mother take her last breath. Ten
years after being thrown off the train because she smelled like shit,
thirteen-year-old Oleta Greene was alone.
If you were to ask any of my children what colloquial truisms they recall their father uttering as they passed from toddler to young ad...