Author Kenji Jasper only knew his maternal grandfather, Jesse Langley Sr., as a quiet man who smoked too many cigarettes, drank too much liquor and quoted the Bible like it was the only book he’d ever laid eyes on.
Jesse’s children rarely hugged him, and his nearly sixty years of marriage to Sally seemed cold and complicated. But when the man who declared himself “The Lone Ranger” passed away in late 2002, Kenji began a long and life-changing journey to learn more about the grandfather he barely knew. From the streets of his native Washington, D.C., to rural Virginia, North Carolina, and his home in Brooklyn, Jasper’s journey to find the truth leads him through three generations of stories, through tales of love and loss, loyalty and betrayal, addiction and redemption.
The House on Childress Street examines life, love, and survival through the eyes of one little family on one little block that somehow manages to speak for us all.
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The House on Childress Street
By Kenji Jasper
Random HouseKenji Jasper
All right reserved.
"You must not have blinds at your house," my grandma Sally Helen Langley chuckles, her eighty-two years of benevolence wrapped in a housedress adorned with blue and white flowers. I have to struggle with the aging string before the metal slats twist open, forcing freshly squeezed sunlight into the newly redecorated abode.
It's been nine months since my grandfather's passing and things in their house are in even better order than before. There are new cabinets in the railroad-style kitchen and a new silver fridge complete with an ice maker. The walls are now white instead of their previous lime green. The old brown carpet has been stripped away for a new burgundy one, and the green velvet couch set, a sacred cow in Langley home entertainment, has been switched out for a creme sofa and loveseat set, both with more pillows than they should be able to hold.
"There's so many pillows that when people come in to sit down they can't find nowhere to sit," she says as she smiles, taking a seat across from me. "Before he passed Jesse said he was gonna fix this place up real nice and put a sign out front that say 'The Langleys.' He had started doing everything. But he didn't finish nothin' he started. Poor thing."
Her words make me remember a visit I made to see the Lone Ranger while she was down in Richmond, VA, taking care of her sister Rebecca as she lived out her last days with cancer. There wasn't a light on in the front of the house and the dining room table was covered with two boxes full of tools. The old man had work to do.
He'd refitted the wood paneling on the first-level porch and started to build a barbecue pit in the rear yard. It was as if he was trying to keep busy, hoping that constant movement might slow the inevitable.
"Granddaddy gonna be goin' away soon," he told me. "I ain't gonna be here much longer."
I blew it off as one of his usual rants, empty words strung together just to fill the silence, or to make me laugh, or just so that he could have something to say to the grandson he barely knew.
You're gonna be here when I got grandkids," I snapped back, feeling the awkwardness in the air. Our eyes met for a moment. We both knew that I was lying. That little exchange rang in my ears on that Monday morning, December 30, 2002, when I first got my mother's message that he had crossed over.
On this visit to their house months later, my uncle Gary is sitting in the dining room watching music videos on BET while his mother cleans and straightens her abode, as she has done nearly every morning since the day she said "I do."
"You see I moved the TV," she grins, motioning toward the oversized idiot box in the dining room. I glance and then nod.
"I said I'm gonna let 'em watch TV in there. 'Cuz they ain't comin' out here on my new sofas. I let 'em come out here and they'll get those messed up like the last one." Her they is general and not specific, the result of her playing hostess to hundreds of changing faces around the neighborhood since the day she and her husband moved onto Childress Street, barely a year after their first child, my mother, was born. Everybody loves Sally Helen Langley.
At this point I am just glad that she can still sit before me, that she still smiles when I put my lips to the softness of her cheek. She's always happy to see me. She likes to remind me of that day on November 20, 1975, when I came into the world. She and my uncle Tony raced nearly twenty blocks from their jobs at the C&P phone company to George Washington University Hospital.
Her husband did not meet her there. He didn't come to rejoice over the birth of the first grandchild on both sides of the family. Her face was always most visible. His presence was most felt behind the scenes.
In August of 2003, Sally was hospitalized herself, and ended up fighting for her life on a respirator. Congestive heart failure caused by water on the lungs. She nearly collapsed in my mother's car on the way home from her doctor's office.
"I've never been that sick in my whole life," she remembered. "I couldn't sit up. I couldn't move."
She spent three days on that respirator with her children all around her. I waited by the phone in Brooklyn, all of us praying to the Creator that he would not take both of them within the same spin around the sun.
Sally Langley is now the eldest living person in my life. Sitting before me, she tries to remember all she can of the Lone Ranger's story, knowing that her words are needed for the microphone held by her eldest grandson. She knows so much more about the Lone Ranger than I do. Or so I think.
"I didn't really know much about him," she admits as Gary murmurs the lyrics to Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" in the background. Sixty years of daily interaction and her answer comes in three short sentences. "He was real quiet. He kept to himself. Kept a lot inside."
For more than eighty years his introversion closed him off from almost everyone he knew, but it didn't stop him from speaking his mind in that colored Pentagon lunchroom when he saw the stick of a girl whom he could've only hoped might be his wife. He was twenty-two. She was nineteen.
"You's a good little girl," he said after their initial hellos. "I can't believe your mama let you come away from home as small as you is." He smiled wide, and she, being a southern woman, knew just how to respond to a man from the same region: a little giggle with a slight batting of the eyes.
"I might be small, but I've got the age," she'd replied.
"I'm gonna marry you," he then said. " 'Cuz you're the best girl I've ever met."
His prediction came true almost as smoothly as the words came from his lips. He asked her if she wanted to go to a movie. She said yes. Thus began the chain reaction that would lead to the most common ailment of all, L-O-V-E.
But Sally Helen Smith wasn't supposed to get married, at least not then. She'd already been accepted to Saint Paul College, not far from her hometown of Powhatan, Virginia. After she graduated from high school with "good marks," the colored school superintendent had offered her and several other female seniors the opportunity of a lifetime: travel to the city of Alexandria and work at the then newly built U.S. Pentagon. The job would be for a single year, and included room and board to be provided by the superintendent's sister. Sally Helen was supposed to stay only long enough to save some money for school, because even back then "college was expensive."
Money and men, however, had a way of changing a young girl's mind in 1940. It was a given that the right man sliding a stone onto the proper finger could make any plan shrivel up like a dream deferred. Jesse knew exactly what he was doing. And Sally, as a country girl, "knew her place."
"The other girls-Ruth, Mammie, and Gladys-they all got married too," she explained. "Gladys wasn't so lucky though. Her husband used to beat on her. I don't know why she stayed. 'Cuz that's somethin' I never woulda stood for."
"Grandma Sally" was born the second youngest of ten children in the Smith clan. Her mother, Lucy Smith, was a slender woman with peanut-butter skin and a set of prominent cheekbones she passed on to her daughter. Lucy smoked a pipe until the day she died and would have a little gin with whomever joined her on the porch after sundown. Her husband, Robert Young Smith, was fair-skinned and quiet, kind but firm, a farmer who worked his piece of land until the work was done, raising his six sons to live off the land.
The girls-Sally, Rebecca, Adele, and Alean-milked cows, fixed meals, and kept house, learning from their mother all the skills needed to be the kind of woman a "good" man would want to marry. God-fearing folk, they all walked to nearby Mt. Pero Baptist Church on the two or three Sundays a month when church was held. Back then, preachers often had multiple congregations with many miles between them, and they served each on alternating Sundays during the month. Sally still brings as much of the family as she can back to Powhatan on the first Sunday in August, the day designated for homecoming at Mt. Pero, on the grounds of which her parents and siblings are buried.
Sally is one of only two Smith children who have yet to pass on. Her sister Rebecca crossed over in the summer of '02; her brother Alfred (better known as "Big Baby") in early '03; and her younger sister Alean in the summer of '04. Her oldest brothers, Richard, Levi, and Collie, have been dead for many years. Her older brother Porter, however, still lives and farms in Powhatan. Her sister Adele remains unaccounted for, lingering in the unknown by not having kept in touch.
By the time her father died in 1934, Sally was working part-time for a white family in Ballsville, just a few miles down the red dirt road from where she lived. She cooked all the meals, cleaned the chicken coop, and made more white and fluffy biscuits than she would ever want to count, all for a single dollar a week, which was less than minimum wage even back in the '30s.
"They got mad because I wouldn't wax the floors too," she said with disdain. "So I quit." The family, three kids born from a white father and Indian mother, had gotten a little beside themselves for her tastes. "I had to speak up for myself, you know?"
What she doesn't speak of are the things she'd rather not remember. The Black man she knew who was gunned down at the local gas station for allegedly saying something suggestive to a white woman. She doesn't mention the stories recounted in hushed conversations with her bedridden cousin Lucille and the wheelchair-ridden cousin Elsie, the first woman I'd ever seen with amputated legs.
I remember being nine or ten and listening to the three of them. The room smelled of bedpans and weak disinfectant as the trio spoke of young Black men being set on fire, and of people who spoke their mind against the white faces "disappearing."
She rarely talks about the family home burning down, allegedly caused by her brother Collie's not-so-steady fingers with a lit cigarette. She doesn't hint at being bothered by the fact that her mother, "Gran Lucy," lived out the last of her days in a rented house on white people's land. And she doesn't speak of her abandoned dream of building a new home on the old Smith land, one that will overshadow the shack her brother Porter has built on a mere sliver of those acres.
That's because Powhatan is a world behind her. She put old family and friends to the rear when she moved to the nation's capital, sealing them in the plastic of the past the minute she became a good man's wife, the minute she had a family of her own. Sure she sent letters home and made phone calls. Sure she visited when people were sick or when someone passed away.
But that little town was no longer her home in the same way. She no longer dressed up with all the others to thrash the wheat on the Fourth of July because fireworks and sound systems were far beyond her people's price range. She no longer sat on screenless porches until the fireflies became the only light for miles. Those things were no longer her life, nor were they the stuff of her girlhood dreams.
"I was always a really good seamstress," she declares. "That was what I wanted to go to school for. I wanted to move to Paris and make dresses."
For most Black folks, the capital of France was a world away. But my grandma saw it in her mind every night she spent in the sewing classes she took after work during the first few years of her marriage.
"I only had a few more classes to go when Jesse told me that he wanted me to stop," she tells me. "He said that he didn't want me to be in school anymore. So I stopped, because I knew that that was what a good wife was supposed to do. You didn't argue or make any problems where there didn't need to be any. But I don't think I was really ready to be married and have children. I still regret not finishing that school, even until this day."
Sally had been raised to be a "good wife." And in her time, good wives didn't rock the boat. If your husband wanted something, you did it. If a sacrifice on the wife's part made a household better, you did it. Because at the end of the day your man was doing the hard part. He was the provider. He was keeping the bills paid. Thus, what he wanted always came first.
Jesse, despite his demands, did his best to be a good husband, even if he often contradicted himself. Clinging to the Good Book, the only words whose value he never questioned, he wanted his wife to be a Sarah to his Abraham, unmoved in her love and willing to bend toward his every whim. Sally was definitely it.
"As soon as we got married he told me that he didn't want me to work anymore," she says. He wanted me to stay at home and take care of the house while he went to work. But I guess he wasn't making enough at first to really do that. Because six months later he was telling me, 'You better get out there and get you a job.' "
But none of that meant that he didn't love Sally Helen. And he went out of his way to show that in the beginning. When she was working as an elevator operator at Garfinckel's department store in downtown DC, Jesse would travel from his post-Pentagon job unloading freight cars, just to have lunch with his lady. He would do the same later on when he began driving trucks for the Embassy Dairy. Every day at noon, his truck could be found in front of the Langley house as he sat inside and ate the meal she had made for him.
Excerpted from The House on Childress Street by Kenji Jasper Excerpted by permission.
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