By Carole McReynolds Davis
On April 15, 1978, a year before our only daughter, Miriam Elizabeth Davis Williams, was born, I left our family home on 501 Louisville St, after having breakfast and a second cup of coffee with my daddy, John Andrew McReynolds II.
With my car packed my art supplies, I crossed the bumpy old railroad track on Louisville St. and turned right onto Gillespie St. When I got close to the old home of Douglas Conner, I spotted the greatest portrait just waiting to be captured on my cotton canvas. My car came to a dead stop, and I got out and introduced myself to a group of the cutest little children. They were having so much fun playing together. I asked if I could paint the little boy playing with the old abandoned tire. His older sister, Stella Brown told me his name was Charlie… Charlie Brown, Jr.
I could not believe that I had found someone named maybe after the Peanuts' character, Charlie Brown! I spent the rest of the afternoon sketching, painting and playing on my blank white canvas while I became a part of their own” make-believe” world.
Thirty-four years have passed since then, and this last April I decided to make the same trip back to this spot and relive my past. I asked our 7 year-old granddaughter, Mallory Ann to tag along. As we walked down the street to cross over into Stella Brown’s yard (now Sarah Brown Ellis), I spotted Stella's husband, Tyrone, on the side yard at the barbeque grill. I told him his cooking smelled delicious as he went to fetch Stella.
I asked her if she remembered that day back in 1978, and of course she did.
“You kept on saying all morning long, ‘Just a few more minutes to be still, Charlie Brown, you are doing just great as you pose for your portrait. I am so proud of you,’” Stella said.
I said, “Stella see that nice swing of yours with that long, cushiony soft seat over there by the side of Mrs. Henry Beattie's home? Could we all go over there and sit in your comfortable swing and reminisce?”
We made our way through the pretty white clover flowers and settled down into the long swing seat as if we belonged here.
I said, “Stella, life has changed so much for the better here in Mississippi since 1978, especially here in our town.”
On that swing right then, we were only feet apart, but miles away in our view of the world. I was a 70 year-old lady, Stella a 48 year-old lady, Mallory Ann a 7 year-old, of a brand new younger generation.
“Stella, what did y'all all do in the summer time growing up on Gillespie Street?” I asked.
“We use to go down to Langley's little grocery store on the corner of Louisville and Gillespie streets to get some bologna. We ate it immediately on our way back home while it was still cold.”
Stella said they played all kinds of games to pass the day. They played hop scotch, Simon says, red light, freeze, patty-cake, etc.
“We each had jobs to do around the house, and I was the cook,” Stella said. “The girls dusted, and washed the dishes and the clothes. On pretty days, we used to take the clothes over to that old Maytag Washer Mat over on Greensboro Street.”
Stella said picking fruits and vegetables was another favorite pastime.
“Wild onions were pulled up and we used to eat blackberries when they ripened. We’d sprinkle salt and sugar on them, and our mouths both inside and out would turn purple.”
Stella said there were hardships, too. Her family slept in bunk beds and had one set of church clothes each.
“We only had outside toilets in an old outhouse,” she said, “and we had tin tubs we used to take baths. Life growing up was tough, but going through life is also very difficult today. Learning how to take care of ourselves made us better people who now appreciate what we have.”
Finally we got around to Stella’s brother, Charlie, the subject of my painting all those years ago.
Charlie now lives near Savannah, Ga., and Stella recalled the day I stopped and made my portrait. I was able to capture a tiny moment of a little boy very simply being himself. He breathed on my canvas as a living subject caught in the colors of paint on brushes. The wisteria blossoms were at their peak in the month of April. There was a bright cobalt blue sky without a cloud in sight. The Gillespie Street pavement had the shadow of a telephone pole reflecting from across the street
In the painting, Charlie is so darling and cute. His expression is one of sweetness, and he looked so casual without a shirt on his back for one of the first warm and sunny days of the season.
The dirt area underneath the tire almost looks like white sand. It was worn from all of Charlie’s tire rolling. It is such a happy, fun, delightful portrait.
Times have changed since April 15, 1978. My favorite American poet is Robert Frost who wrote the line “And miles to go before we sleep.”
If I could change one word, I’d change ”sleep” to “stop.” We have come a long way with race reconciliation in our great state of Mississippi, but we still have “miles and miles to go before we stop.”
To finally put racism to sleep, we need to keep on going... Keep on walking...
Carole McReynolds Davis is a local artist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .