by Martha R. Anderson
I cradled him in the palm of my hand. Gazing at the small black and white photo I thought, This man is Mama’s brother. Over the years I wondered what he looked like, especially during the few, brief times Mama spoke of him. Hello Uncle Forrest. I’m Martha, Commattee’s youngest. I was forty-three years old and it was the first time I had a face to go with his name.
I was sitting at the dining room table of my Mama’s sister, Aunt Naomi, when he was revealed to me. Mama, my sister Sheila, and I were visiting our home in Tennessee to make sure it was still standing. Sheila and I knew it would be, but we were unsure about the interior. A vacant house is forgotten, lifeless. Our infrequent visits home were to simply assure us that there was still a place where, one day, we’d return. It was during one of these visits when I arranged for us to travel further South to see Aunt Naomi.
I hadn’t seen Aunt Naomi in over twenty years and hadn’t been to her home in Mississippi in over thirty. Time was starting to necessitate the re-establishment of lost family connections. Aunt Naomi was eighty-three and in declining physical health. Mama was eighty and in declining mental health. Sheila and I were unsure how much longer either would be with us. So as we sat around Aunt Naomi’s dining room table as a family for the first time in thirty years, Aunt Naomi and Mama began to speak about the past. Aunt Naomi’s family albums soon appeared. I believe I casually mentioned how I’d never seen a photo of Uncle Forrest. Aunt Naomi rose from the table, disappeared toward her bedroom and returned with his photo.
It was a handsome photo. Uncle Forrest was a young man, possibly in his early twenties when it was taken as it was similar to photos taken during the World War II era. His face was angled to the right with full, closed lips. A groomed mustache covered his upper lip below a nose that seemed to be rather narrow as I mentally compared it to Aunt Naomi’s and Mama’s. His hair was closely shaved on the sides rising to a short, tightly cropped afro. His eyes stared directly with a slight furrow on his brow. A light colored jacket covered broad shoulders and a light colored shirt with the first button opened at the neckline.
I gently laid the photo on the table and retrieved my iPhone. I took several shots, until I was satisfied with one that clearly captured the image it had taken me over four decades to see.
I can’t remember when I learned that Mama had a brother and that his name was Forrest Allen Spears. What I remember was her lament, which was how I came to primarily know him. “He drank himself to death.”
When Mama spoke these words, prompted by a personal memory or a state of melancholy, they were framed by a deep well of anger. When I was a young, the words would hang in the air then slowly dissipate. I was fearful and didn’t have the confidence to ask, Who was he? I still don’t. Uncle Forrest, in Mama’s estimation, was a cautionary tale. Any other information about Uncle Forrest or the lives of the Spears’, I cobbled together from tidbits of volunteered information from Mama and Aunt Naomi, some provided by Sheila and Ancestry.com.
There were three children borne to Jim Spears and Nancie Grice—Forrest, Naomi and Commattee. I first found Uncle Forrest in the 1930 census. He was noted as “Floyce A. Spears” a five-year old living with Jim and Nancie Spears on Beat 2 District 6 of Lee County Mississippi. This was Saltillo, Mississippi approximately ten miles from Tupelo. I knew they grew up in abject poverty, as most African-American’s did at that time. But, what Mama and Aunt Naomi never spoke about was Jim Crow and the other racial injustices African-American’s experienced in the Deep South during this period of American history.
Uncle Forrest enlisted in the U.S. Army on August 11, 1943 at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. His education was listed as “1 year of high school” and his civil occupation was “Farm hands, general farms.” He was “Single, without dependents.” Aunt Naomi was eleven and Mama was eight when he left for war.
“When he came back, he wasn’t the same,” Mama said. She recounted a time when he scrambled for cover under a piece of furniture after hearing a loud bang. Was it then when he started drinking?I wondered. Soon after, Uncle Forrest left Mississippi and found work in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he worked for a brewery. He met a woman, Lessie Matthews, and they had a son Gregory. I met Gregory once when I was about twelve or thirteen.
Uncle Forrest lies in Pilgrim’s Rest Cemetery in Saltillo, Mississippi. Etched on his gravestone below an encircled Christian cross is:
World War II
October 22, 1924
June 7, 1968
My grandparents, Jim and Nancie Spears are at Pilgrim’s Rest too. Mama wants Sheila and me to carry her there be with her family when the time arrives.
Mama told me the story of Uncle Forrest’s passing only once. It was a short and it chilled me. “Forrest died of cirrhosis of the liver. He vomited so much blood that it was everywhere.” He died three days after my sister, Sheila, had turned one year old.
My Family’s Practice
In my family, there weren’t any family photos on the walls. There were a few pictures of floral arrangements and landscapes. The were two prized pictures my sister Sheila painted in high school—one of a mallard rising to flight, the other a girl standing in a tree at night looking over a small town.
After we returned home from our visit to Aunt Naomi’s, Sheila and I spoke about how we had few pictures of our family. Sheila believed she knew where some were hidden and she went on a search. She found a shoebox under Mama’s bed. It was filled with photos of Daddy I’d never seen before and there was a picture of Sheila holding me as a newborn. Sheila took the photos she wanted and I took the ones I wanted, including the photo of Sheila holding me.
Mama routinely hid photographs, even Sheila’s and my school pictures. The practice seemed perfectly normal as I rarely visited friend’s houses or those of other family members while growing up. At home, Mama didn’t want to mar the walls, so posters of my favorite singer or musical group were out of the question. As a young woman experiencing her independence for the first time, I slowly realized how odd Mama’s practice was. As an adult, there was one instance when I became acutely aware of what had been withheld from me.
My half-brother Ervin had passed away—my father’s youngest son. As Mama, Sheila and I sat at his wake, a video of various family photos cycled on a screen. What caught my attention was an old photo of a young man, possibly in his mid to late twenties crouching while holding a young child in front of him. I thought to myself, He looks like Ervin’s twin. When the image disappeared to be replaced with the next I realized, That’s Daddy as a young man! I burst into tears and wept through the remainder of Ervin’s wake. I wept because I had just seen my father and without context I wouldn’t have known him if he had walked up to me in the flesh.
Sadly, as an adult living in apartments of my own, I’ve carried on the same practice. Mirrors and hangings rest on the floor leaning against a wall designated for its presentation. Those pictures that Sheila rescued from a shoebox under Mama’s bed are in the second drawer of my nightstand. One day, I’ll hang them all.
Who Was He?
While I’ve come to know Uncle Forrest as a haunted individual, who he was as a person remains unknown to me. Who were his childhood friends? What did his voice sound like? Was he a stout man or was he thin? Did he laugh? Was he kind? Why did he start drinking?
Answers to those questions, which could provide context to my struggles, are held in the declining physical body of my Aunt Naomi and the declining mental capacity of my Mama. While there is still time, I need to find the courage to ask these questions. I know individuals are more than their best or worst characteristics. We are a complicated amalgamations who shouldn’t be reduced to one story.
When sitting with my family at Aunt Naomi’s dining room table that day, I found Uncle Forrest. “I’ve never seen a picture of Grandma Nancie,” I said gazing at his photo. I didn’t receive a reply. If an image of her exists, I pray it finds its way to me.
Martha Anderson was born and raised in West Tennessee and has lived in Massachusetts for fifteen years. Since her arrival in New England, the novice writer feels a growing need to chronicle her Southern roots.
This piece is Martha’s first published essay.