Althea Natalga Sumpter
Two of my brothers and I like to sit among our friends and tell stories of growing up in the country, on an island surrounded by marshland off the coast of South Carolina. The ’50s and ’60s have their own place in history, but not all my memories of that time can be found in a classroom. It cannot be taught in a classroom–a childhood filled with magic and the memory of wanting for nothing.
I remember summers best. Not having shoes on our feet was a choice. We learned to walk over the earth trusting in instinct and having the protection of youth against the briars and brambles of the woods, the hot sand of the coast, and acres of fields planted with tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, beans, greens. Summer was a time for fruit trees, growing wild, bearing a child’s dream.
My memory centers on abundance, always having food to eat. The ocean, the fields, and the woods helped my parents raise a family of three boys and one girl who now possess a treasure box of memories in their being and a bond to the earth, part of the mystery of Saint Helena Island, South Carolina.
As soon as the weather became warm enough, my shoes remained in the closet until those times when we went shopping in town, or every Sunday when the family went to church. From a young age, I learned to run down a dirt road and protect my feet from being burned by the hot sand. Some times we were too daring and too foolish, but the challenge was to find a blade of grass to stand upon until the really hot places on my feet were cool enough to move on to the next blade of grass.
One of our favorite journeys was running down the road from our house to the plum bush, over a football-field distance away, past an acre of broom straw and briar patches. The best time to eat plums was when the spirit moved. A peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich at lunch would be reason enough to brave the hundred-degree sun and scorching sand. The plum bush was a large cluster of little trees standing over six feet each. The cluster grew so thickly my brothers and cousins and I could hide from each other among the leaves and branches hanging to the ground with huge, sweet, red plums cooking in the sunshine.
The sugary smell of overripe plums was a signature of summer. We made a game of pushing each other off small clumps of grass as we ran down a road of loose sub-tropical sand. As we played tag through skinny plum branches laden with fruit, our bare feet became black with the mixture of plum juice and sand. Looking back, I realize how much my of childhood is only fantasy for too many others.
You had to turn off the main road of rock and asphalt and drive down the dirt road past the plum bush to get to our house. My father’s house, my uncle’s house, and my grandmother’s house formed a triangle on the edge of swampy woods and pasture. Each clapboard house had six rooms: three bedrooms in a line, living room, dining room, and a hall near the kitchen and bathroom which formed a line opposite the bedrooms.
My father’s house was covered in brown speckled tarpaper with a green tar paper roof. My grandmother had four squared-off rooms and an outhouse past the crab apple tree, the fig orchard, and the chicken coop. Windows remained open, and no doors were ever locked. A hook on each door was latched each night. If we found ourselves on the outside of a latched door, we just turned the knob and pushed until we saw the hook. Then we could take a stick from anywhere on the ground and lift the latch. But summertime was too hot for closed doors. The screen doors and windows did not always keep out the mosquitoes at night. Keeping out the flies during the day was a trial, with children going back and forth, inside to outside and inside again.
As the roosters started crowing every morning, my mother would already be in the kitchen making breakfast. The morning chores came before anything else. The boys took the horse out to pasture somewhere in the fields or the marsh. My mother fed the chickens and the turkeys, and I fed my cats and dogs. My father took care of the pig, a big sow that had a litter one summer, before we made her our dinner.
We kept a lot of animals near the house. Chickens and turkeys we raised for meat and fresh eggs. The horse we kept for labor, tropical fish and parakeets just for fun. Sometimes we would catch a baby rabbit from the burrows behind the chicken and turkey coop and keep it locked in the screen porch to play with. It is no wonder I learned to wiggle my nose as fast as any rabbit.
As an adult, I understand the blessings given to me from childhood. I now know how my parents raised their children in a world of segregation during the ’50s and ’60s. So much of what they did for food and clothing and medicine grew out of limitations surrounding color. Going into town for food meant separate water fountains and blatant discrimination. So my parents grew three acres of food that the children harvested over the summer, and we had tomatoes, greens, beans, okra, and many other vegetables until the next summer. We also had fish, shrimp, and crab from the ocean.
My mother was a seamstress by trade and taught her children how to mend their clothes. She made dresses for the two females to wear from bulk material bought at the store in town. For medicine, my mother consulted a health journal she received through mail order for diagnosis of many conditions. Then we depended on our grandmother for cures, because going to see the doctor meant a trip into town. It meant sitting in the Colored Section waiting your turn, sometimes for hours.
My grandmother was one of the last midwives on St. Helena Island. She became a midwife in the 1950s, certified through the midwife program at Penn School. One distinctive part of the midwife program was its acceptance of “root” medicine known to the African descendants now inhabiting the Low country of South Carolina.
I did not realize until recently that when my grandmother sent us into the woods to pick some plant for her, she was passing on her medicine. She made root tea and medicines that I cannot completely remember, but she put us in physical touch with her knowledge. Now I find myself trying to recreate so much of what my family learned to do out of necessity during that time.
There is so much I do not remember, except that out of our own need arising from not having access to a doctor, we found our own way to live as very healthy people. I still accept doctors only as a secondary resource, especially when I think that it is more important to help my body find the natural medicine that would help to heal it. Although my grandmother could not treat every illness or condition–she did not perform major surgery–we did survive very well. In my kitchen cabinet today I keep some of my grandmother’s medicines. I have made my own commitment to learn more of these medicines that come from the soil. They will always be part of my method of healing.
Somehow I remember that a certain tea is to be used for a certain ailment, such as chinaberry with fried onion for whooping cough, garlic for hypertension, and horehound tea with pine needles and lemon as a diuretic. Then I ask my mother what she remembers of the earth-giving medicines, and she recalls things even from her own mother’s time. However, I realize now that in order to know more, I must learn it on my own. The tea, root, or bark that came from my grandmother’s practice died along with her. So many elders on the islands of South Carolina and Georgia in recent decades have–in their manner of speech–Gone Home without having someone of the new generation with whom to leave their knowledge.