My DaddyUncleCousinWifeNem

Negroes eating ice cream in front of hardware store  Farm Security Administration Archive Lee Russell
Negroes eating ice cream in front of hardware store Farm Security Administration Archive Lee Russell

On the phone my Uncle EJ is recovering from a coughing fit and I am confused when it morphs into a rasping laugh and his signature, “Ooooh, boy“, then, “Jr. you’d be surprised at how little distance there was back in those times between a man being your Daddy or your Uncle!” Again, he laughs so heartily that he has to fight off another fit of coughing, but eventually settles himself down. Another, “Oooooh, boy” follows and I wait patiently for him to explain.

On this call we have been talking about my failure to find the marriage license for my parents in the Union Parish Records Archive. I’ve been at this task for years and am calling him from a Motel room in Bueno Vista, Arkansas. “James Jr, you are not going to find that record anywhere in Arkansas because your Father had run out of Arkansas marriages. He come and got my ‘57 Chevy and ran Route 63 to that big Bridge right into Mississippi and Greenwood to get hitched.” I look down at the cell phone and imagine a hot rod chase with multiple grandpappy’s wielding shotguns and tossing empty moonshine bottles out of car windows. They’re probably yelling, “Git back here!”…Again, my Uncle’s, “Ooooh, boy!” coughing and laughing fit brings me back to the present. I interject, “WHAT?!” “Unc, how do you run out of Arkansas Marriages?

Those days, with my Uncle EJ leaning hard into his 89th year of life and no longer able to travel back home for the yearly grave cleaning and family events, my calls to his San Francisco, California home meant everything to us both. I have been recording these talks because of their tendency to go off the hinges. “James Jr, the Clerk of Courts wouldn’t write a new Marriage Bond to my Brother because he was officially still under his previous one!” …and there is a burst of energetic guffaw so strong that I don’t need the phone to hear it. The speaker distorts and crackles with the waves of exploding cackling and I wonder if I should offer to call him back later. There are a series of exclamations that include, “Oh Lord”, “Jesus” and various versions of “Son of a GUN”, along with the surprised calling of my Father’s first wife’s name, “Stella Mae”.

The pen that I have been scribbling notes with is now snapped and pouring a river of blue ink onto the notebook and surface of the Motel table. “Your Father and Stella Mae had run off from one another and that marriage about a year after getting hitched. Her Mother had signed off on it.” He ignores my question and continues, “That’s about the same time I met your Aunt Mary up at that lil club shack and was running back and forth trying to catch her again.” Again, he ignores my question and I start to wonder if I am talking or just thinking inside my head about what to ask. I catch the phrase, “Ooooh, boy, she was some kinda gal...” and this time I stop him with my actual voice, “WAIT! Who was “some kinda gal”? and he stops the memory, saying, “Who?“. Now, we both are confused.

Jr. I’m talking about Rosel, now. We had come up to Camden and was running around on a Saturday night. I come up on a little ol’ thang who told me she was Mary’s older Sister, then she asked why was  I out here calling her Sister’s name in the street like a dog?” “Ohhh, boy. I was standing about three feet over that lil gal and she had her fist cocked back when she come up to me”. In the Motel, I check the cassette tape for time remaining and hold on for the ride. I just went from not finding a marriage license to an unresolved separation, court clerks, an unpaid bond, my Aunt and Mother “in dem streets” and my 6’4″ Uncle about to get punched out by someone three feet shorter,  but ready.

He picks up again, “Pay attention, James Chris. Yo Mother, well, she was still just a girl then, run me back up the road about asking  around for her sister.”, He coughs, then continues, “An’ just before she lets loose on me…up comes J.C.!” I ask, feeling lost in the night’s events some forty years later, “From Where?!”We both laugh thru the speaker phone.

J.C. had rode with me up to Camden and was having a pretty good time.” Uncle EJ calms down but there is a lifting in his voice. I ask, “So, they met because he had to save you in a juke joint from an angry midget?” and the phone again erupts from our guffaws. I follow up with, “Wait, where was Stella Mae?” and he snorts, “Most likely with her new fella back up the road in ElDorado!” When I remember to check the cassette recorder it was stopped, so I turned it over and tried to continue. My Uncle is a laughing mess on the phone and there is somebody knocking at his apartment door. Listening to digitized recording now I hear a woman’s voice say that she wants in “on this laugh party you are having“. On the phone my Uncle quickly wraps up the story by saying, “Well, James Jr, you can probably figure out the rest.” I ask, “So, did you and Aunt Mary ever get back around to each other?” and Uncle EJ responds, “Ohhh, boy. The next time I saw ol’ Mary was when Granny LaFears delivered my first niece about a year later. I gotta run, James Jr. See ya in the funny papers.

The next day at the Archives I easily found the Marriage License for my Father and Stella Mae Coldure. On the license is permission granted by her Mother for the 16 year old to marry my 19 year old father. In the digitized archive is another surprise marriage record. I call my Uncle EJ early in the afternoon and when he answers I say, “So, who exactly is, Miss Tandy Oscar?” He holds the line for a few seconds then retorts, “Ooooh, boy, James Jr…seems like I’ve lost some memories since last we spoke...”

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