Son of Henrietta
Chapter 1: Henrietta and Malcolm
I was born Malcolm Nathaniel Martin Turner. My mother said she named me this because she did not want me to have to live up to any lofty expectations. What was she thinking; the first three names in itself has all but kept me out of cooperate America. She would be quick to point out to me, as I often was ridiculed in the all white private high school she couldn’t afford to send me to, “If I made it through the 60’s and 70’s, then you can take them picking at your name!”
The truth behind my name, as I later found out as a teen, was that my father did not think that I was his son and wouldn’t show up to sign the birth certificate. So to keep me from having any part of his name, she gave me the name I bare today. Some may say that my mother was being vindictive; I say that she was being Henrietta.
Henrietta Johnson Hall Turner was not your average woman of color for her time, or any other time for that matter. She claimed that as far as back as her ancestry went her folks were never a “white man’s” slave. She would often say that “Malcolm, boy your folks are African and Indian, we just got more African in us than Indian.”
She was a beautiful woman. Tall but not too tall and solid but not fat. Fair skinned enough to make white folks comfortable and black folks excepting. My mother would complain that it was more black folks than white that would ask her whether or not she was white or black. To this she would say made her madder than hell.
Eventually she claimed that all the Indian that was in our blood had evaporated due to all the sweating done from working on our land and the only thing that kept the blood from completely leaving their body was their hair. Which she says explained our unique hair and skin color. Both my mother and I had red hair; a fact that did not make things any easier for me as a kid. Not that I am complaining about my upbringing. As a matter of fact, my earliest memories were quite fond.
As I recall, we lived in one of the finer homes on Cotton Street. The area was located in an all black part of the town of Albany, Ga., which still to this very day I call home. The house was brick with yellow shutters. There were two columns that introduced visitors to the house. The porch was screened in which kept out the mosquitoes and flies during the summer. A ceiling fan allowed for long afternoon talks between my mother and her friends. Wall-to-wall carpet inside of the house kept our feet warm on cold days and nights during the winter months. Not that I would know how cold the floors were, since my mother screamed at me to keep my socks on my feet during any season throughout the year.
I had a room to myself which was filled with books and some toys. My mother did not allow a television in my room but she did give me an old record player. My closet was filled with clothes and I had shoes to wear for all occasions. There was a guest room which was used by family members and friends who stayed overnight. The room had all the accommodations of one that was occupied daily. The only setback was that my bedroom and the guestroom were joined together by the same bathroom; which meant that I had to keep the bathroom clean and free of the few toys that I did have. It had its perks though. On days my cousins and I played cops and robbers we could sneak from one room to the other if we were quiet enough. There was a living room that had a sofa, love seat and bed that let out. A floor model television and a record player that was mostly played for my mother and her friends made this my second favorite room in the house. My favorite and the most gorgeous room in the house was my mother’s room. Her bed was bigger than my bed and the guestroom’s bed combined. It had four solid oak posts that were all taller than I was. The head board was made just for her. Her dresser was antique with folding mirrors and numerous drawers on it. The room had a large suede sofa and an ottoman set that was white and seldom used. Of all the beautiful things that adorned the room, it was the aroma that left a lasting impression on my memory. Upon entering the room, the smell of perfumes and lotions lightly flirted with your nostrils. This pleasant smell was mixed with the scent of incents that ranged from Jasmine to Lavender. However my favorite incents was Money House. This was also my mother’s favorite since she claimed our fore fathers more than likely came up with the scent but had it stolen by the white man. As wonderful as this smell was, it would often be the cause of many of the whippings my mother gave me. One such incident with the incense almost got me killed.
I was in the 3rd grade at Martin Luther King School in Mrs. Brown’s class. Mrs. Brown taught an English class that had only the students who were deemed accelerated learners in it. Up to this point I was a straight A+ student. On this particular day, Mrs. Johnson told me to stay after class because she wanted me to relay a message to my mother. Naturally my heart began to race while my mind began to try and think of anything I may have done to catch the ire of my favorite teacher. Only thing I came up with was Mrs. Johnson telling me to stop chatting with Maggie, who was the object of my 8 year old affection. As my classmates exited out of the door, Mrs. Johnson closed the door behind them.
“Malcolm, have a seat please,” Mrs. Johnson said with a stern voice. Mrs. Johnson had been teaching for 31 years, 21 of those years were taught at M.L.K. She would tell us in her soft but commanding voice that she taught many of our parents. To say that Mrs. Johnson was old would be an understatement; she was a relic.
“Yes mam,” I replied hoping that she was not going to give me bad news.
“How is Henrietta doing,” she asked?
“Who,” I answered while racking my brain trying to figure out who was Henrietta.
“Oh I am sorry, how is your mother doing,” she asked with a visibly flustered face. Up until that day I did not know that my mother had a name besides momma. This was due to the fact that I was never in my mother presence when she was talking to an adult. I thought to myself, my mother’s name is Henrietta.
“Mrs. Johnson mother is doing fine, I replied. “Am I in trouble,” I asked trying to sound apologetic and nervous as possible at the same time.
“No son, you are not in trouble. As a matter of fact I have wonderful news,” she answered. With these few words she instantly relieved me of the fear of having to walk to the switch tree to pick a switch, which was just one of my mother’s choices of punishment. Mrs. Johnson continued. “You have been chosen to possibly be in our gifted program, and we need your mother’s approval,” Mrs. Johnson said as she opened one of the drawers to her ancient desk.
My relief now turned to excitement as I assumed what Mrs. Johnson was pulling out of her desk drawer was my initial gift for being a selectee in the gifted program.
“Is it a toy soldier, I innocently asked Mrs. Johnson.
The educator almost lost her composure again and tried hard not to laugh at the question that was asked. She must have thought twice about my being selected to be part of the gifted program.
Removing her glasses and regaining her full composure, Mrs. Johnson explained to me what the term “gifted” meant and handed me a letter (the letter that I thought was a toy soldier) which was intended for my mother to receive.
“Let your mother know that I will stop by this evening to explain the letter and see what she thinks about the program.”
“Yes, mam,” I replied almost half-way down the wall. I was excited, no I was gifted, and this I know would make my mother proud. This would also get me the toy soldiers.
It took me only a couple of minutes to catch up with my friends and older cousins who walked us home from school. Mike and Jacob, my cousins, were in the 6th grade but still went to the elementary school. The 6th grade was not part of the junior high school at the time, which made most of us scared to venture beyond our part of the school playground.
“I’m gonna tell your momma you had detention with Mrs. Johnson,” Mike teased. Mike was the older of my two cousins. He was also the meaner and darker of the two.
“I’m not in trouble, I’m gifted,” I said, trying not to sound afraid while tucking the letter in my pocket.
“You better hope you aint in trouble or your mother will beat your ass,” Mike said trying his best to upset me.
“Leave him alone Mike, he aint in trouble,” Jacob said as he moved in between me and Mike. Jacob was almost an inch taller than Mike yet they were the same age. He was much lighter than I was and had green eyes, which must have made him sympathetic to my troubles.
“Didn’t you hear him say he was gifted, or maybe you don’t know what that mean,” Jacob said, while sticking his foot out in front of Mike almost making him trip.
Mike caught his balance but looked like the winos we often see on our way to church on Wednesday nights. We all laughed and made our way to my house on Cotton Street. We passed Shiloh Baptist Church which sat on the hill looking down at the lowly streets beneath her. We passed Mr. Mike’s Wash House, where I would often go and get cigarettes out of the machine, (this is when it was legal to smoke on planet earth). Finally we passed my favorite place on the street besides my own, Mrs. Anne’s house. Her yard was filled with all the plums, bullets, pears, and vegetables that a group of adolescents craved. Mrs. Anne seemed to always have the aroma of food steaming from her kitchen window. Mixed that with the sweet smell of all those fruits and vegetables, her yard very tempting; our own Garden of Eden.
“Hey yall, let’s sneak through Mrs. Anne’s yard and grab some of her plums,” Jacob said already eyeing the green prize.
“I need to go home. I have to tell my mother I’m gifted.” I said hoping they’d take my side.
“Come on Malcolm you gotta go with us, your momma will kill us if somebody saw you by yourself on the road,” Jacob said trying to keep me from whining.
I was almost about to start to whine, when Mike surprisingly said that he did not want to go.
“Jacob we better not, aint that your momma car parked in Auntie’s house,” Mike asked while squinting his eyes into the hot Georgia sun.
Mike was right. Three houses down and parked in my momma’s drive way was a green 1982 Chevy Malibu. This car belonged to Jacob’s mother. Upon recognizing the car, the three of us took off in a dead sprint, of course with me tagging behind.
Mike was the first to get there, though Jacob was taller, Mike was faster. Jacob was next and I was a distant third.
“Jacob, why yall leaving Malcolm like that, suppose he would have got hit by a car? His momma would’ve killed all three of us,” Auntie Flo said.
Auntie Flo ways my mother older sister; older that is by 2 years. The two of them looked almost identical, only Aunt Flo was darker and her hair was jet black. Auntie Flo was a hippie and loved to smoke cigarettes and those funny ones with the strange smell (I would later learn that they were called marijuana joints and they are addictive). The two of them were inseparable.
“He kept up with us momma. Well with Mike anyway,” Jacob said while patting Mike on his back.
“Hey Auntie, where is Momma, I got to tell her that I am gifted and Mrs. Johnson is stopping by,” I said pulling the letter Mrs. Johnson gave me out of my pocket.
“So you just gonna ask me a question without giving your favorite auntie her hug and kiss,” Auntie Floe asked me while looking off in the distance as if she was hurt, a cloud of smoke escaped her lips. Aunt Flo dropped her head as if to cry. Auntie was so dramatic.
“I am sorry auntie,” I said trying to sound as sorry as possible while rushing over to give Auntie her hug and kiss.
With all the sweat that was on my face from running the rest of the way, you could tell that Auntie was wishing that she never asked for a hug or kiss from me. I made sure to get all of my sweat on her by accident.
“Ok, ok that is enough Malcolm,” Auntie said while wiping the sweat and slobber from off her cheeks. “Your momma is in the house and tell her that I am about to go since the boys are here,” finished Auntie through interruptions from the release of the funny smelling cigarette’s smoke.
I made my way past the small fog of smoke towards the front door. As I opened the door, the smell of the funny cigarette smoke was just as strong inside the house as it was on the front porch. This could not be happening, I thought to myself. Mrs. Johnson would be here shortly to explain the letter in detail to my mother. There is no way that the smell of the smoke would be gone by then.
“Momma,” I called out as I walked through the house.
I walked toward the kitchen and noticed the back door was opened. There at the back fence was mother in deep conversation with Mrs. Anne. They were probably discussing the celebrated garden that Mrs. Anne had cultivated again this year. Then just like that, my eight year old mind began to turn. While mother was outside talking to Mrs. Anne, (which was sure to be a while) I could get the scent of the funny cigarette out of the house. I am a big boy, plus I am gifted. Straight away I went to my mother’s bedroom.
As if by fate, the very incense that I loved the most, was staring back at me from my mother’s dresser the moment I opened the door. The only problem was that the incense was not lit. This problem was easy an easy fix. My mother kept her lighters and cigarettes in the top draw of her dresser. Tipping on my tip toes and trying to maintain quietness, I blindly searched the drawer but only managed to find a box of matches. Matches certainly would do the trick, but the lighter certainly was my preferred choice. I reassured myself that I could do this. On numerous occasions my cousins had struck matches while mimicking my mother and auntie smoking their cigarettes. However, Mike and Jacob’s cigarettes were grass and leaves wrapped in sheets of school paper. The smell was similar to the burning of leaves that Mr. Frank, my mother’s yard man, would burn after finishing my mother’s yard. The first match I lite went out quick as the ceiling fan’s wind got to it. This time before striking the next match, I moved toward my mother’s bedroom door and away from under the direct wind from the ceiling fan. The sound from the strike of the match was preceded by almost a half of a second by the sound of the back door closing from mother coming in from talking to Mrs. Anne. Never in a million years would I have though that their conversation would have been that short.
Trying to duplicate the motion that I watched Jacob and Mike perfect, I began to shake the match in order to put out the small flame at the end of my fingertips. No luck. The flame only burned quicker and crept closer to my fingers. I could hear my mother footsteps edging toward the bedroom. Even if she was going to the front door to talk to Auntie, she would notice that her door was open and find me in her room. I shook the match some more, but this only angered the match and it’s flame moved even more swiftly toward my finger tips. The heat from the flames was too much for my young hands to handle and couple that with my mother’s moving in on me, without a thought to the match final destination I tossed the match. I ran to the door and just as I was turning around from closing the door, my mother’s stomach and my face were staring right at each other.
“What are you doing in my room,” she asked.
Still shaken from by the match incident in my mother’s room, I quickly made up story.
“Momma I was looking for you because I wanted to show you what Mrs. Johnson wanted said about me gifted. But you wasn’t in the house so I thought you were in your room so I just went in but your wasn’t in there, but I wasn’t doing nothing….”
Later on in life, much later, I would learn that when a sentence from a child ends with “I wasn’t doing nothing,” to a parent that is a clear indicator that a child is guilty as sin.
“Malcolm, I did not say that you were doing anything,” my mother replied. “What I did ask you however is what are you doing in my room?”
Before I could finish the feeble attempt at a continuation to the story I was telling my mother, she shoved me aside and grabbed the door knob. As she opened the door, the aroma of incense had been replaced by the smell of smoke. What was once a perfect ottoman, was now a flaming heap of material reminiscent of the barrels that the homeless men stood around during the evening talking to each other. The look of my mother’s face from seeing her ottoman on fire made the little hair on the back of my neck stand up. Without a hesitation my mother ran toward her bathroom door and opened it. Once inside the bathroom she went to the bathtub and turned on the shower. The sequence of actions that my mother would perform would forever be engraved in my mind, as she would no longer just be mom, she would become my hero.
She burst out of the bathroom with a wet towel laying over both of her strong hands. With a cold stare from her eyes and a nod from her head, she motioned for me to leave the room. As I darted toward the door, I couldn’t resist the urge to turn once more to see my mother in action. In a matter of seconds my mother grabbed the ottoman by it’s base, and as if some type of warrior, disappeared into the bathroom. I had seen this type of strength on Saturday morning cartoons, from the likes of He-Man, Shera, and Thundercats, but they were just cartoons. Now, I was witnessing this from my own mother; super mother.
The loud splash from the ottoman hitting the water mixing with the steam, brought me back to reality and the realization that mother had motioned for me to leave the room. A room that I wish I would have never walked into on this day.
“Malcolm, what’s going on in there, your mother must be moving furniture again,” Aunt Flo asked not knowing the chaos that was developing inside.
Before I could respond to Aunt Flo with an answer, my mother’s shadow begin to illuminate on the porch’s floor. With a calmness that only a woman from the south could summon, my mother spoke.
“Flo, I have to deal with Malcolm, I’ll call you later,” she said now standing behind me after making her way from inside the house. “Malcolm tell your Aunt Flo, Mike, and Jacob you will see them later.”
As much as I wanted not to tell them goodbye, so they could stay and prolong the inevitable, I hugged my aunt and told Jacob and Mike goodbye. The three of them returned their departing words and walked slowly to the Chevrolet. Watching them settle into the car was like watching the last life boat leave while still on a sinking vessel.
“Malcolm Nathaniel Turner King,” my mother said still standing behind me.
Upon hearing my mother call my whole name roll off my mother’s tongue, I knew that the next several hours would be ones that I would not soon forget. Whenever my full name was recited by mother, I knew either I had done something wonderfully well, or terribly bad. This however, was reserved for the latter.
“Yes mam, I answered,” unaware that my mother had gone back into the house.
“Come on in the house, you have a lot of explaining to do, like why is my favorite piece of furniture floating in my tub melting away, she said resting her hands on her hips. Which I was certain was not gonna stay there much longer.
The walk inside the house from the porch allowed my mind time to be filled with images that were sure to become painful reality in a matter of moments. My mother grabbed a cigarette from out of her front apron pocket and lit it. This was a relief because I knew that I would have at least until the red tip of the cigarette burned out to stop the inevitable. My mother’s ottoman, oh this one was sure to be painful. Instead of telling a lie, which she would certainly see through, I decided to tell the truth.
“Momma, Mrs. Johnson said I was gifted and she was coming over to talk to you about the letter,” stammering as I reached my hand into my pocket for the letter but to my disappointment it was not there. What had I done with the letter?
“What are you looking for Malcolm, the letter? I know one thing, if you are lying to me, which will be your second one today, I am going to beat you for the old and the new,” she said while exhaling a cloud of smoke.
The cigarette was half way out and I had not even began to put a dent in the anger my mother had for me.
“Momma I am not telling you a story. Mrs. Johnson gave me a letter to give to you saying that I was gifted. It must be in my book bag,” I answered with my voice beginning to forecast the oncoming crying that was usually the case when my mother and I had this type of meeting.
I rushed over to my book bag which I had laid on the couch when following my mother back onto the house. Desperately I searched the bag, but to no avail. What had I done with the letter? Had I left it on the room? Trying to retrace my steps in my mind from the time I left the school until now, it finally dawned on me that I had given the letter to Aunt Flo.
“Momma, Aunt Flo has the letter. I gave it to her before I came looking for you,” I said in a somewhat triumphant voice.
I could tell from the look on my mother’s face that this did little to deter my mother’s agitation at me; besides the smell of smoke coming from my mother’s bedroom, made it only that much worse. Without a single word, my mother picked up the phone and dialed Aunt Flo’s phone number.
“Flo, did Malcolm give you a letter today from one of his teacher,” my mother asked as if expecting her to say no. From her change in expressions I could see that Aunt Flo was telling my mother that I had. After a few more minutes on the phone, and easing Aunt Flo’s mind over the series of questions she was being asked, my mother told Aunt Flo that she would talk to her later.
“Malcolm, your aunt has the letter, but that does not explain why my furniture was on fire in my room, which is off limit to you when I am not in it,” she yelled while pointing her finger toward her bedroom door.
While her voice was noticeably a higher pitch, the look on her face let me know that the anger had somewhat fade. However, to tell her that I was trying to cover up the smell of the funny cigarettes would rekindle her anger. Up until the point the truth had gotten me this far, why risk the chance by telling a lie. I began to tell my mother the reason behind my actions, while occasionally staring in her direction to see if I had won any points. This technique would be a tool later in life that I would use on more than one occasion when I found myself out of her favor. Surprisingly, the reactions on her face did little to indicate how she felt. I continued with my explanation when as luck would have it, the doorbell rang.
“Malcolm get your book bag and go to your room,” my mother snapped while walking toward her bedroom door.
I hastily grabbed my tiny bag and made my way to my room unsure of my fate. The sound of air freshener could be heard as a laid my book bag on my bed. Who was my savior, as temporary as it may be.
“Who is it,” I heard my mother asked.
The voice was barely noticeable, but it had a familiar sound to it. I crept toward my door to aide my ears to hear who it was at the door.
“Oh Mrs. Johnson, how are you doing,” my mother asked.
“I am doing fine Henretia, and how have you been doing since the last time I saw you,” Mrs. Johnson replied. The two exchange a few more seconds of pleasantries, catching like old friends before my name was brought.
“I guess that Malcolm forgot to tell you that I was coming over to talk about him being gifted.”
“No, Mrs. Johnson he didn’t forget, actually we were just discussing it,” said my mother.
I carefully closed the door, thinking to myself that what we and my mother had was more like torture than a discussion. While the two ladies continued their discussion concerning me, I begin to imagine how the rest of the day would play out. The images of me flailing around while mother whipped me, caused my mind to begin to swirl. I thought, maybe I should put on some more clothes to soften the strokes from the belt, which was sure to be my mother’s choice of punishment. Immediately went to my drawer and pulled out two more pair of shorts and put them on, quickly remembering how hesitation had gotten me in my current situation. I sat down on my bed and kept imaging hoping that my preparation would be vain. The wait was just as unbearable to take as the pair of pants and two pair of shorts that I was wearing. Moving from bed to my bedroom in an attempt to ease drop on the conversation, I heard the from door close.
“Malcolm, you can come out of the room now,” my mother yelled. “We need to talk.”
“Yes, mam,” I answered adjusting the layers of clothing I had on.
I walked slow enough to the living room to lessen the ache of the wedging that the shorts were giving me, but fast enough as to not let my mother wait for me. As I made it to the living room, I could see my mother pull out another cigarette from out of her apron and light it.
“Malcolm, why didn’t you just come and tell me what Mrs. Johnson told you,” my mother asked. “Instead, you chose to light an incense to cover up a smell in a house that neither you nor Mrs. Johnson pays for.”
“But mommy, I just didn’t want Mrs. Johnson to say anything about the smell of the smoke and not let me be gifted anymore,” I said trying desperately to make her understand my case.
This statement must have struck a nerve with my mother, because she instantly blew the smoke out of her moth and moved over to the mantle to put the cigarette out.
“Son listen to me, because this is a lesson that I don’t want you to ever forget,” my mother said as she turned toward me. She grabbed my hand and guided me to the couch and sat beside each other.
“There is nothing, and I mean nothing, that your mother does that in this house that I am embarrassed of. Mr. Johnson can smell smoke until her nose run for all your mother cares. This is our home. She is a guest. No, I would never put anyone that comes here in danger, but I have nothing to hide. Son, when you hide things you constantly have to be on guard and watch what you say or do. In a sense, this is much like telling a lie.” My mother paused for moment, giving her time to see if I was understood what she was saying. “And what is it that we do not do?’
“Tell stories,” I quickly replied to let her know that I was paying attention and did understand what she was telling me.
“No son, we don’t lie.”
“We don’t lie,” I replied without a moment’s hesitation.
The word lie had barely transcended into the past before I felt a sharp sting on my legs from the result of my mother’s hand.
“Also, do I say and not as I do. You are too young to say the word lie. It is story for you. Now do you get the point? You do not have to worry about your mother. Never let what others may say make you forget all I have taught you. Even if this mean that you have to stand up to the biggest and most mean person that you know. Do you understand?”
I understood about a great deal of what my mother said. But between the stinging sensation on my leg and the possibility that this sting could be the extent of my punishment, I shook my head and gave my mother a hug.
“Now Malcolm, go in your room and get me a belt, and please don’t make me have to find one,” she said.
“And please don’t make me repeat myself. You may be gifted but you lied to me twice and you burned up my ottoman.”
This sudden change from warm, loving, and teaching mother happened without a change in disposition or voice inflection. The request from her was done while she was hugging me and if the words did not carry meaning, the scene would have be worthy of a Hallmark moment. Somehow I thought I had gotten away and that my mother and I would not have to have this dance. I let go of my mother and once again made my way toward the very room which had caused me so much grief. With the pain from my leg still throbbing, I thought to myself; I had not put on enough clothing. I will spare you the details of the whoopoing part. However, I will say that the extra clothing were not necessary. The strokes from the belt that were supposed to be on my bottom were given to me in the palm of my hand. Each stroke was accompanied by a verbal demand from my mother for me to never play with matches, lie, or go into her room without her permission. That night after dinner (collard greens, fried pork chops, okra, and corn bread), which helped soothe all that had occurred thought the day, my mother told me to take a bath and she would tuck me in a little while. After showering and putting on my night clothes, I noticed that there was a big box tied with a ribbon on my bed. I tore opened the box and to my surprise it was a box of toy soldiers.
“I know how much you have been talking about those little green men.” My mother was at my bedroom door and had quietly watched me open the box.
“Thank you momma, this is what I wanted. How did you know?”
“How did I know? You are my son,” my mother said smiling while making her way toward me. “And even though you did wrong today, I am still proud of you and how well you have been doing in school. This is not a gift for what you did today, but a gift for being a good son. I love you Malcolm and I am very proud of you.”
“I love you too momma.”
My mother tucked me in, kissed my cheek and told me goodnight. The last five hours had been a series of ups and downs. From the letter to the toy men that were laying in my closet, none of those things mattered now. Yes I was grateful for each but what made me the most happiest was to have this lady as my mother. The toys were just toys, but my mother was real. Come good or bad days, I was fortunate to know that she would always be here for me.