Never forget whose grandchild you are.
It was nasty hot early on last summer, the summer of 1968. As early as June, houses hummed and rattled with the constant whrrrr of window fans. The air stayed thick and humid well past sundown. It was suffocating, like spending the entire day in a steamy bathroom. Such weather makes people ornery. Doc and I got into a lot of arguments.
Our first squabble came right after school closed. The sun was already too mean for children to roll around in the yard, so I was hanging on the screen door of the back porch, watching the mockingbird dive-bomb our cat and waiting for Doc to come up from the garden for lunch. The screen had a soft, easy bow from years of my leaning against it. I was pushing my nose into it, to print a grid into my skin, and tasting the screen’s rust with my tongue when Doc walked up through the boxwood.
“ Alice, what do you think you’re doing?” he snapped.
I hadn’t stopped when I saw him coming. I would have stopped immediately had I seen Mama. But Doc was one of those remarkable grown-ups who respected a child’s experimentation. Usually, he would have asked me what the screen tasted like. I would have answered that it tasted like cold metal with a bite.
Instead, I muttered, “Nothin’.” I stepped back from the screen and opened it for him. It thwacked closed behind us.
“Don’t you realize you could get tetanus from doing that? What if you cut your tongue on the wire?” He eased himself onto the whitewashed wooden bench by the kitchen table and pulled off his sweat-soaked straw hat.
“What’s tenatus?” I asked.
“Tetanus. A terrible infection that can lock your jaws together and give you convulsions and make your nose fall off.”
I fell silent and tried to rub the screen imprint from my nose. Doc knew about these things. During World War I, when he was a teenager, he had run off to fight in France. When the army discovered he was only sixteen years old, it put him to work in field hospitals away from the trenches and the battles. He learned a lot about infections and medicine. That’s where his nickname, Doc, came from.
I was about to ask if he’d ever had tetanus when Edna announced that lunch was ready. Edna was the lady who took care of Mama and me. She fixed our meals and kept my dresses ironed just the way I could stand them, with only a hint of starch. During the summer, she cooked lunch for Doc and me. Today, she put down bowls of chicken salad, kale, and beets. Doc had grown the vegetables in our garden. She whispered to him as she leaned over the table, “You really shouldn’t tease her, Mr. McKenzie. She’s just a baby, you know.”
Edna sat down on the bench beside me. She smelled sweet, of vanilla and talcum powder. We all bowed our heads in silent prayer. I wished they’d say grace out loud because I never knew what to say when it was left up to me. This time, though, I asked God to keep my jaws from locking together.
When Doc lifted his head, he glared at me. He didn’t like getting into trouble with Edna.
Doc and Edna went way back. They had worked for my grandmother for decades. Edna had run the house while my grandmother ran the garden club and the local chapter of Daughters of the American Revolution and the volunteer library league. Doc kept the gardens fruitful during the Depression. My mother had kind of inherited the responsibility for Doc and Edna, just like she had inherited our family farm deep in Virginia’s “president country”, the green lands rolling just east of Charlottesville, around the homes of presidents Jefferson, Monroe, and Madison.
Mama had a weird relationship with Doc and Edna. Sometimes she listened to them carefully and gratefully, like they were parents. Other times she bossed Edna and Doc around, politely enough, I guess. Either way, she didn’t seem comfortable with her role, like she had on a hand-me-down coat that itched her all over.
Take the week before, when Bobby Kennedy had died. He was leaving a party celebrating his winning the California primary when someone walked up and shot him in the head. It was beginning to feel like anyone who talked about peace or getting along with others was going to get killed. Like Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d gunned him down in April. It was really frightening. I know I wanted all the company I could get during Bobby Kennedy’s funeral. But Mama had sat, all quiet and stiff like, in the living room, watching the television news cover the service. Edna stayed in the kitchen, tuned to the radio, crying while she dried the dishes. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t listen to the reports together; they both seemed so sad.
Doc interrupted my ruminating.
“She should know better, Edna,” Doc said as he plopped a hunk of butter onto his steaming-hot kale. It made a pretty, little pool of gold in the leafy emerald greens.
He turned to me. “What would your grandmother have said if she had seen you looking like poor white trash, swinging on the door with your tongue hanging out? Don’t ever forget whose grandchild you are. Miss Margaret was a great lady.”
“Yes, sir.” My goodness, he was crotchety. I didn’t like it. When I was real little, my daddy had crashed and died while test-piloting a jet plane for the air force. The only thing I remember about him is a big grin and the smell of pipe tobacco. Mama spent most of her time on the tennis court now. It was important that Doc and Edna like me. Very important. I tried an old trick.
“Doc, why do birds fly south for the winter?”
Doc glanced at Edna and smiled. I had asked him this riddle at least a dozen times since I had heard it. I suppose he knew it was my way of trying to smooth him out.
“I don’t know, Alice.” His voice had gentled and his eyes smiled. “Why?”
“Because it’s too far to walk.”
“Hah-hah-hah-hah.” Doc’s old dentures slurp-slapped against his gums as he laughed.
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Alice has always been blind to the differences of age and race - her closest friendships are with Doc, the family gardener, and Edna, the maid. But when her innocence is shattered and her opinions challenged by her widowed mother's brutish new partner, Alice must learn to stand up for what she believes in and protect those she loves. It's the sticky-hot summer of 1968, and in the American Deep South it's a time of home-made lemonade and The Beatles. Yet, against a backdrop of civil rights rioting and Vietnam war protests, storm clouds are gathering for Alice. A captivating coming-of-age novel set against the tumultous backdrop of America's Deep South in the 1960s.
L. M. Elliott works as a senior writer for the Washingtonian magazine. Her first novel, "Under a War-Torn Sky", won the Borders' Original Voices Award for Young Adult Literature and was inspired by her father’s experiences in World War II, and his stories of the courage and self-sacrifice of the French Resistance. L. M. Elliott lives in Virginia with her family and their many pets.
Visit www.lmelliott.com to find out more.
“Flying South is set in the deep South of a trouble-torn USA in the '60s. However, set apart from all the Vietnam war protests, assassinations and civil rights rioting, Alice is growing up a lonely child with only her mother's house servants, the elderly Doc who looks after the garden and teaches Alice how to care for his beloved roses, and Edna for company. She has no knowledge of race hatred until her widowed mother starts seeing a man whose loudly-stated beliefs upset Alice's world and when marriage seems likely it precipitates a crisis for the young girl. Starting gently, the book slowly builds so that the reader becomes aware of the tensions and passions of the time. An interesting read for the 10-plus.”
Caroline Franklin, Newbury Weekly News
“This coming-of-age novel gives a graphic picture of the swirling social and political matters that preoccupied Americans and many others during the mid sixties. ”
Marianne Adey, Carousel