From Rosemarie Freeney Harding’s memoir
Before I was born, when the family still lived in Georgia, there was a bad accident at the side of the road. The road from Macon to Leesburg. Uncle Willie Dan hit a light pole with his Tin Lizzy and his wife, my Aunt Mary, went through the front window face first and got all cut up.
Uncle Willie Dan and Aunt Mary and their five children had been visiting with my family in Macon and were on the way home. Mama and Daddy Freeney and their own five were all in Daddy’s Dodge, riding alongside our relatives part of the way back to Leesburg. Just to keep them company. Mama and Daddy were going to turn around and come back to Macon and let Uncle Willie Dan and Aunt Mary and them go the rest of the way on their own – just riding with them a piece of the road.
All the children were in the back seats of the two cars. That’s how it was then, the Mom and Dad sat in the front and all the kids, didn’t matter if you had fifty, sat in the back.
Most people, black or white, didn’t even have cars then. Most just rode in a horse and buggy, or they walked. But Daddy and Uncle Willie Dan were kind of prosperous, you could say. Uncle Willie Dan had a barbershop and was one of the best carpenters in the county; had built the Lee county courthouse and a lot of the fine houses in the county seat. Daddy was working for the railroad. So we were all doing pretty good and Daddy and Uncle Willie Dan had these cars.
Uncle Willie Dan was trying to beat Daddy driving fast down the road and when he turned a corner, he lost control of the Tin Lizzy and hit a light pole. He was hurt too, not as bad as Aunt Mary, but they both needed to see a doctor. Daddy Freeney got all of his kids out of the Dodge and told them to get in with their cousins in the Tin Lizzy that was crashed into the light pole. Mama and Daddy had some towels and a blanket and Mama wrapped Aunt Mary up and tied her face to try to stop the bleeding. And then all four of the adults got in Daddy’s Dodge and drove to the hospital.
“Now y’all stay right here, you hear me? Do not get out of the car. If anybody stop, anybody come over here to ask you any questions, you tell them we taken them to the hospital. Wait here till we get back.”
Not a soul moved. The oldest must have been my cousin Dorothy who was fourteen, then my brother Son, who was twelve and on down to Sue who was just two years old then. (Mama was pregnant with Thomas.) Ten children. Two carloads in one car, at the side of a southern road. And they stayed there until the parents got back. Which turned out to be a very long time.
The sun set and people passed along the road, with headlights and horseshoes and just the steady shuffle of shoe-leather against the ground. It got late and dark. And spooky. Different people, black and white, peered in through the windows, asking, What happened? What y’all children doing over there? How many got hurt?The oldest siblings and cousins answered briefly and respectfully telling the curious and the concerned that there had been an accident; that the parents had all gone to the hospital. They explained that Daddy Freeney had told them not to go anywhere, to stay together there in the car.
When the adults finally did get back, Aunt Mary’s face was sewn up the side and most of the younger children were sleeping, each propped against the others, sitting in laps, leaning on shoulders. They had hardly moved an inch – just lolled their heads over and fell asleep where they sat. The older ones were awake. My sister Mildred was only five, but she stayed awake too. This was segregated Georgia. And even children too young to know the details of the social geography of violence, understood a thing or two about dangers. Years later, they all remembered that night. Everybody there remembered it. Even Sue, barely old enough to talk at the time, has a body memory of the apprehension of an uncertain place, surrounded by her brothers and sisters and cousins, waiting in the darkness for their parents to return.
Growing up with the story, I thought of what was unspoken and assumed: the necessity of obedience; the anxiety the children must have felt being left for so long under emergency circumstances; the angst of the adults and the way difficult choices were quickly made; the trust between parents and children; the responsibility siblings assumed for each other – especially older ones for younger ones; the hospital’s unknowns – was it a black hospital they went to? If not, how would they be received? What was Aunt Mary’s condition? The image of the children all staying together, crouched at the side of the road, not leaving the spot where they were told to wait, is so moving to me, so haunting, and so very beautiful. It’s a kind of metaphor – remembering the will of the elders, now ancestors, and staying together on anxious ground.