"...everything in life is writable...if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."..... Sylvia Plath

Friday, October 21, 2011

Roxie and Alfred: A love story

 "Alfred, there you are." Roxie appeared at the doorway. "I've been calling you. It's dinner time. Come on girls. Your mother will pick you up later."

Roxie was tall and beautiful. As a young girl, she had shiny black hair, a gift from her Cherokee herb doctor grandmother. She and Alfred, my grandfather, met in North Carolina where they were born and married.  Both were raised in large God fearing Baptist families; the kind that stuck together through thick and through thin and were slightly rigid and dogmatic in their thinking. But Roxie
was amazingly liberal.  She eventually rejected her Baptist upbringing for the Unitarian Church. She had a strong personality, was assertive, and outspoken. She definitely ruled the roost at home. Alfred complained a lot but usually, although grumbling loudly, did everything she asked.

Roxie pulled on both oven mitts, opened the oven door and lifted out a delicious looking roast chicken, and baked yams. I could see there were two pies in the back of the oven, probably apple and cherry. Both my favorites. Bebe and I washed our hands and seated ourselves close to papa who was already at the head of the table. Roxie returned to the oven and came back with a huge bowl of rice and a covered baking dish full of collard greens and salt pork. Bebe and I hated cooked greens, but they were always the first thing that papa reached for.

When I was around seven or eight, Roxie owned four boarding houses in Detroit. They were popular in the '30s and '40s. She cooked breakfast and dinner at one of them and was responsible for all of them. The house I remember best was huge. It had three floors and the building itself was a red brick, sort of an eclectic Georgian revival-Arts and Crafts bastard of a style with a huge back yard. There she would set up a very long table and feed boarders, family and friends just about every evening. Sundays would always be special. Although she had help, she did most of the cooking and there was always plenty to eat. My sister and I and our cousins would play hide and seek and run all over the yard. Roxie cooked in the basement where Papa had put in a full kitchen for her. 

She needed a large space to work because she was usually cooking for 20 boarders or more who had rooms upstairs. At that time, papa's tiny room was way up in the attic. No matter where they lived, he always had his own little room hardly bigger than a closet. That's the way he wanted it. He smoked and Roxie didn't. And he didn't want to have to listen to her go on about what a nasty habit it was and how he should stop. Being an excellent plumber and carpenter, he had no problem building extra rooms in all of our houses or customizing them the way he wanted. 
ALFRED with his parents

By the time I got to high school, they had moved to Tampa. Papa built the house they lived in.  I would go down and spend all of my summer vacations with them, helping him finish building the house and palling around with him.  Eventually, when I graduated, I lived with them for a year and attended Tampa University. When I didn't have classes, Papa would wake me at 5:00 in the morning and we would go digging for clams by ourselves. He would pack a lunch, grab his clamming equipment, hitch his row boat to the back of his truck, and off we would go on another adventure.

I still remember those wonderful early daybreak mornings walking on wet sandy beaches, my summer pants rolled up, the morning air filled with the  fishy smell of the salty sea. There was always a warm breeze brushing against my skin blowing my hat away so that my hair would be flap around and tickle my face. The tide was on it's way back out and seagulls were swooping back and forth screeching overhead. As soon as the tide was out we would clamor for clams in one of the little alcoves or along the shore, where there always were other clam diggers doing the same thing.

We'd put on our old sneakers so the sharp shells wouldn't cut our feet. and wade out into the water. The water was clear enough so we could see down to the sandy bottom. The clams could tell when there was danger near, so they would start to burrow down beneath the sand. The object was to grab on to the clam and pull it out before it disappeared. Sometimes we would use clamming tongs, which were easier for me, but Papa was used to using his hands.

Another place we looked was on the wet beach just a ways beyond the water's edge. There would be small holes all up and down the beach. Papa could tell which ones had clams hiding underneath. We'd use our hands to dig through the sand until we found the clam and throw it in our pail. After a couple of hours, we would have a bucketful of clams and a very red sunburn. We'd then find a shady spot, under a weeping willow and have our lunch. It was only 8:00 in the morning but lunch hit the spot.

We'd ride home, sandy, wet feet and all, with the windows down and the wind blowing our hair around and playing havoc though out papa's truck. What a glorious start to the day. Roxie would be waiting at the door for those fresh clams to make her famous clam chowder.

If you enjoyed this post, feel free to comment


  1. Beautifully written. Quite a project!

  2. Thanks, Lori. Yes, it is quite a project. In fact, I can't believe I'm really doing it. It may end up to be more difficult than the first one because there's a time line. And because it happened so long ago. I keep calling my sister and asking her about dates and events.

  3. Great stories and beautiful pictures, especially the one of Roxie as a young woman. What a heritage! The rooming houses sound especially fascinating.

  4. Thanks, Carol, for the nice comment. Actually, Roxie was in her fifties in this picture. The women in my family have been blessed with very good genes. We all look young. Take a look at my avatar. I was 79 in that picture.