At 85, my grandmother is a treasure trove of memories and ponderings (Here’s one of my faves), and within the last year or so she’s become accustomed to me whisking her away from a hectic weekend for an hour alone. I’ll drive her to a key place in her personal history—the old homestead, the Virginia cotton mill where she once worked—center her in the frame of my video camera, and get her talking.
I recently took her to her old elementary school. It’s still standing, just across the bridge from the jagged brick ruins of the Dan River Mill, although its classrooms have been repurposed as senior living apartments. Boxy white houses originally built for mill workers’ families still line the streets of the nearby neighborhood.
“This was the Schoolfield School,” Nana says, peering at the building through eyes that can’t see very well anymore. “I used to run up those steps every morning while the schoolmistress rang the big bell up there on the roof.”
“Wait. This wasn’t Danville?”
Nana shakes her head. “No. Danville was yonder, on the other side of the river. This side, where all the workers lived, this was Schoolfield.” She smiles without rancor. “You’ve heard of the other side of the tracks? Here it was the other side of the Dan.”
I let her talk for awhile remembering classmates, who went off to war with her brother and which boys never made it home. When she works her way back around to the school, she mentions busing.
“Wait,” I interrupt her. “They racially integrated the schools then?”
She gives me a weren’t-you-listening expression. “The poor kids. They tried to ship some of us off to the rich school across the river.” She shakes her head. “It didn’t go very well for me. Leastways, not at first.”
I settle back with my camera. This is why we’re here.
“So they took me to the rich school, and there was this girl there, same grade as me, name of Rose. Like a flower, only this girl was all thorns. I’d walk in of a morning and there she’d be at the top of the steps. ‘I can whoop Nannie,’ she’d call out, real loud, so everyone would turn and stare at me.”
Knowing my grandmother as I do, I knew Rose calling out her name would be as bad as the taunt. Nana’s always hated her name.
“Every durned day that girl would call out to me. I reckon it wasn’t enough she had new shoes and beautiful dresses that weren’t hand-me-downs. So one day, I had it. I clocked her.”
I almost dropped my camera. Nana’s always been a short little thing, and her childhood asthma left her weak. Maybe I hadn’t heard her correctly. “You, uh, come again?”
Nana looked at me levelly. “I clocked her. Laid her out. At least til the police officer broke it up.”
“Well, sure. You don’t expect we fought on school grounds, do you? No, I waited after school. Her friends and my friends, we all met on the corner, and I said, ‘Fine, let’s settle this.’ And our friends held our coats and books and such, and we went at it.”
I could not have been more surprised if she’d said, And that’s how I ended up pole dancing to make ends meet.
Nana didn’t notice. She was in her own world. “Before he broke it up, I landed some good punches. And that was the end of it.”
“Wait. What happened when you went back to school?”
Nana cackled. “I tell you what, the next day, there’s Rosie at the top of those steps. And I walk in and she calls out, ‘There’s nobody in this school that Nannie and me can’t whoop!’ And we were best of friends from then on out.”
Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the book, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder. For more information visit www.AngelaDove.com