I wasn’t old enough to go to school, and sitting on the front porch watching the cars go by on Fourth Avenue was the most of what I did, when I wasn’t looking down Zion’s Alley at the lives of black people, which I did from the upstairs window when I was sick at heart. (“Sick at heart” was what my mother said she was when she had nothing more to do than look out the window.) Between the Avenue and the Alley, my life was contained in a few downtown city blocks in Columbus, Georgia, where those who could improve their lot had already sold their collapsing wooden houses and moved out to the small brick houses in better neighborhoods. Those who stayed were old people, like my grandmother and her sister, who lived in their father’s house, built in the late 1800s, as plain as his Quaker vision of life’s necessities. We lived in a small upstairs apartment, my parents, my sisters, and me. Waste not, want not was Great-grandfather’s maxim, I was instructed, and when he died, a very old man, he left for the family some Bank of America stock and a diagram of how to use only the smallest amount of toilet paper. In retrospect, we might have kept the diagram and sold the stock, but, of course, we didn’t.
Which brings me to the morning when I am sitting on the front porch, and the world is about to change. Next door, Mrs. Rochelle is talking to the postman, and I am anxious for her to end the conversation so that I can talk to the postman. Along the Avenue a colored woman is slowly walking with a basket on her head, which does not prevent her turning to acknowledge me, a sort of signal that if I have nothing else to do, I might as well come down to the Alley and sit on her steps and watch the pot boil. I wasn’t ready to concede possibilities on the Avenue, however, and I shifted my weight in the swing and considered my options. Life in the Alley was quiet during the day—only a few old men sitting back on the legs of their straight chairs, smoking and saying hardly anything at all. On Saturday things got better—noisy, lots of people coming and going, in and out of the small houses, voices carrying like musical notes in some song I had learned in Baptist Sunday School. I listened and watched, until my mother told me to go to bed. And so I did, until the next morning when I went to the front porch and waited for something more to happen.
We didn’t have a car (the Studebaker would come later), and I learned what I could just by watching the traffic on the Avenue. I knew a Chevrolet from a Pontiac, as anyone did in those days. I counted cars—makes, colors, size, number. And then one afternoon, suddenly, the traffic stopped.
A dark Chevrolet pulled to the curb, and a man jumped from the driver’s seat, a woman on the passenger’s side was screaming, with her head in her hands.
“The President is dead!” the man shouted. “The President is dead!”
Before he could reach the porch, I had jumped up and raced into the house to get my mother.
That evening we sat around the radio listening to the news of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, in Warm Springs, about thirty miles from Columbus. In the next few days conversations went on up and down the Avenue, quietly, and I knew that they were talking about President Roosevelt. When I went down the Alley, the woman with the basket came down the steps and took me in her arms. She smelled like clean laundry, and she was crying.
Now when I go back the houses on gone on the Avenue and the Alley and nothing’s left except a stream of fast traffic on its way to Atlanta. I can’t tell one car from the other, and I do not know the year the President died, and my sister says I am wrong— our family did not like the Roosevelts—but I know the smell of laundry, and I think I am older than my grandmother, and I have always been sparing in my use of toilet paper.
Emily Herring Wilson is the author of No One Gardens Alone: A Life of Elizabeth Lawrence and Two Gardeners/A Friendship in Letters: Katharine S. White & Elizabeth Lawrence. Wilson currently is writing a book about Eleanor Roosevelt.