The day we buried my father was a day that he would have gloried in. Before his illness he would have gone into the woods to get a close up look at the wondrous transformation of winter into spring. As we stood around the grave in the Alabama country churchyard, the warm sunshine was as comforting as the words spoken by the minister. The red earth was heaped beside the open grave and the grass which would frame the grave was still winter brown but the promise of spring was in the still bare branches of nearby trees on the verge of bursting into new life.
That was almost 39 years ago. I almost never think of Daddy in the graveyard. Daddy’s spirit cannot be contained in a grave. His spirit lives in my children, my grandsons, my great-granddaughter and in me.
Daddy was Yancy L. Roper. He was born in Butler County Alabama in 1900 – the last child of 14 born to Isaiah and Emma Roper. Grandfather Isaiah was born to a white father and black mother in 1850. It is assumed that she was a slave. What kind of relationship existed between them is not known. It appears that his white father was fond enough of him to pass on land ownership. It was a farm of sizable acreage. Grandfather Isaiah supported his huge family from the farm. Daddy learned to keep books at an early age and from these records, it seems that Grandfather was prosperous enough to hire outside help and to even pay his own children for the farm work they did.
But all of that was way before my time. Yancy married a slight brown-skinned girl with the unusual name of Lorenzia Mastin in December 1927. They would be married for 17 years before I was born. Momma said I was a miracle child and so was my brother, who was born nearly two years later. Momma often told the story of her strong desire to have children. She said that she prayed to God, pouring out her heart in anguished supplication for children to love and cherish. The birth of children to the middle-aged couple was a great joy.
Grandfather Isaiah and Grandmother Emma never saw us. They had died a few years earlier. Daddy told us many stories about them, though, and we went with Daddy to visit and help tend the graves. We also visited the house of Isaiah and Emma. The house and land no longer belonged to the family and Daddy was sad about the loss. The once-productive farmland was overgrown with weeds, bushes and trees – the house a refuge for mice and other creatures of the wild.
The farm my brother and I grew up on was across the dirt road from the family’s old farm. Daddy and Momma grew cotton, vegetables, pecans, fruit, chickens and hogs. The work was hard and we were not rich in material things, but in the things that really mattered we were.
When I started school, I had to walk over a mile to catch the school bus. I didn’t mind because Daddy walked with me. I had to make two steps to his one long stride to keep up with him. I rode the school bus to a country school house without running water or indoor plumbing. The only heat we had in winter was a big pot bellied wood burning stove that stood in the middle of the two room schoolhouse. The name of the school was New Hope. It was so named because the schoolhouse was located on the New Hope church property. When the county’s children overran the schoolhouse, classes were held in the church for grades 5 and 6. But inside this structure, barely maintained by the county for Negro children, were books and opportunity. My parents told me about opportunity. It came from learning, education. From there you can travel the world. I wanted to do that. I wanted what education could make possible. I worshipped my teachers because they had this thing called education.
In the summer when school was out Daddy would take my brother and me fishing in the creek. We had to walk through the swamp to get to our favorite fishing spots. Once as Daddy was leading the way, he stopped suddenly and held up his hand for us to do likewise. There in the path directly in front of us was a huge rattlesnake. Brother and I were not afraid. Daddy killed the snake and we proceeded on for our Saturday afternoon fishing.
A couple of years later when I was in high school and needed transportation to a school dance, Daddy always took me in our old blue truck. We lived over 16 miles from town. Daddy would patiently wait in the truck or go visit our cousin Ethel until the dance was over. Once he came inside to watch us dance. He wasn’t pleased to see the slow dances. He, ever the protective father, told me on the ride home that he didn’t understand why we danced so close together. The Cha Cha was ok with him.
These memories and others flooded my mind as I watched cemetery workers lower his casket into the ground. I still visit the area where I grew up. The old cemetery is still there at the end of a dirt road back in the woods, just as I remember. When I visit the ancestors and walk in the woods, I am not afraid. You see I never walk alone.