by Tim Gilmore, 6/25/2017
“The dogs would chase us every day,” she says. More dogs barked and snarled in the yard across the street than she could count. The dogs would eat her and her brothers alive, she was sure, but the fear didn’t keep them off their roller skates. Up and down Janette Street, Marian, all elbows and knees, hair in box braids tied back, rode her roller skates past the yard full of barking pit bulls.
Hard to believe 16 years have gone by. She walks from her car through the overgrown yard of her childhood house, before the wide porch and sweeping eaves and extensive sun-bleached awning.
One early evening, Marian and her mother stepped out to take their garbage to the road for collection the next morning, and a whining cry, small and helpless, rose from a low-rimmed trash bin. Somewhere between curious and frantic, they dug through the garbage until they pulled free a tiny black and white puppy. He couldn’t’ve been more than two or three months old.
“The only house in the neighborhood with pets was the house with all the dogs,” Marian says. “So we tried to return the puppy there.”
With so many dogs on chains, Marian and her mother didn’t venture far into the yard, and before they’d walked their few steps back to the gate, the puppy had returned to cower against their feet. So they kept him. They called him Cookie.
“Staying at this house on Janette Street,” Marian says, “was the only time I remember in all my life that I felt at peace, real peace, you know, not being afraid all the time.”
She lived in the old house with her mother, her grandmother, her two brothers, and the new family puppy, and says, “Falling in love with our new dog taught us something real about the value of life.”
Marian has done some digging into the city’s ugly history. She found that her childhood home was built in 1914, the same year Jacksonville hosted a major Confederate reunion, which brought more than 48,000 Confederate veterans to the city’s celebrations.
She says, “I’ve never been able to say just how it makes me feel, sick and sad mixed up together, how the place I stayed as a child was constructed while all those Confederates paraded through the streets a dozen blocks away.”
She feels these two facts about 1914 form a double significance in her life, one she now sees as tainting her early peace on Janette Street when she was too innocent to know the world better.
Marian recalls the “comfortable screened-in front porch,” always filled with laughter and stories, where “Mama drunk her Colt 45 and my grandma quoted Bible verses.”
She remembers the fireplace, how it heated the old woodframe house “for many winters.”
She remembers the sun room with its four tall windows. Her grandmother slept there. She remembers early mornings when she’d find a book, for she’d always loved to read, “curl up on the comfortable love seat” near her sleeping grandmother, and “forget that time existed.”
The rooms of the house opened into each other “in a big circle,” and the dining room at the back was Marian’s “dance and dress-up room.”
“In the dining room,” Marian remembers, “a long mirror hung on the wall. I would dress up in my mama’s clothes, stand on a chair, sing and dance and pretend I was performing on stage.”
She says, “My mama was a brave woman, so she got the bravest room.”
While the sun room became her grandmother’s, the “washer and dryer room” became her mother’s. This smallest space opened to the back yard directly.
“My mama loved nature,” Marian says, “and in our back yard grew this giant oak tree.”
Her mother loved to sit in her lawn chair under the oak as it rained down leaves in light winds in the early autumn.
“I wish I knew the history of the people who lived in the house before us,” she says. “I always wondered about the two bullet holes in the vinyl exterior wall. Now the grass is so tall. All the barking dogs are gone from across the street. But so is Cookie. Still, I’m grateful for this land beneath the trees. I’ll always love it. It was the last house I stayed with my mother before she died from cancer.”