by Tim Gilmore, 12/11/2021
How I didn’t know my mother’s early childhood home stood here, at the dead end of Ernest Street, at the railroad tracks beneath the pines in Silvertown, this neighborhood first built for black residents after the Civil War, and how I didn’t know, deep in the growing pains of radius and ulna, when it vanished, when it burned, bewilders me.
It was right here, 2758 Ernest Street, the ink first touched paper, August 12th, when the little girl who would grow up and become my mother was four years old, 1940. The ink may even have come through the split nib of the marbled reed pen that sits in its original case on my bookshelf and belonged to my great-grandfather Moses Keene (himself the grandson of a Moses Keene), who died in 1941.
“I miss you, Dot,” she writes her sister, seven years older, on this faded paper softened with age. “I want you to come home, Dot come on home Im about to fall off the bed ever nite.” Is it really a four year old writing these lines?
In my early days, in the 1970s, the 1940s were a whole world previous. Time, however, does not straight. And we experience time before us in our own time. So now that I’m older, as time goes by more quickly, the 1940s come closer to me, paradoxically, than they did when I was a little boy.
Likewise, as I approach the age my mother was when she died, as I approach the age my father was when I was born, I find the house that once occupied 2758 Ernest, decades ago demolished, closer, more immediate. A mailbox with that address stands before an electrical contractor’s storage trailer now. I walk once again down to Ernest Street at nightfall, notice the similar patterns of brick in the small houses next door to where my mother fell asleep and dreamt her first dreams.
Looking at a photo of Joanie seated in a wooden Windsor chair in front of the small brick house, I can’t say, “Here’s my mother,” because this little girl is only a year old. Inside the golden fernery of an ormolu frame, she looks up at me from 1937, her brown curls standing, eyebrows furrowed, mouth puckered, about to express the most gorgeous profundity, the deepest beauty, if she could just find the expression that fit the feeling. I know that frustration.
In her 40s, my mother would remember her mother vacuuming the living room, remember asking her to stop and rock her in the rocking chair. She’d remember that her mother sang lullabies about her father going hunting to get a rabbit skin to wrap her in, a lullaby my mother later sang to me. She’d remember sitting in her father’s lap and pulling his ear and how he’d “laugh and holler and pretend it hurt.”
By the time my mother gets to page two of the autobiography, all of 23 pages, that she wrote when I was seven years old, Joan’s family has already moved from Ernest Street to the modest but upper middle class house on Mayview Road in the tiny riverfront subdivision of Fairfax Manor.
She never mentioned the Ernest Street house. My sister Wanda first noticed it in 2008 on old census records. The house resided in what had been Silvertown, not that my mother ever knew it, a small housing development built for former slaves just after the Civil War and later swallowed up in the large historic district of Riverside Avondale. The brick house in Fairfax Manor lodged in a new subdivision built between two slightly older blueblood neighborhoods—Avondale and Ortega, both stuffed with Tudor Revival style mansions on the river.
That juxtaposition seemed an apt address for Eddie and Ola Keene, my mother’s parents. Eddie had grown up, as Joanie would later write, “a poor country boy who left home at 17 searching for something better.” He’d dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Ola had come from “a very proper family,” her mother Katharine, daughter of German immigrants, dying before Ola was two, her father Jesse raising “his six daughters in a very proper manner.” My mother’s parents, seemingly from such different backgrounds, both aimed upward in class, and Fairfax Manor met them in the middle.
So also was it Fairfax Manor my mother most identified with her childhood, though she was at least 10 when the family left Ernest Street and she’d take her first apartment at Ernest and Copeland. Four year old Joan’s letter to her older sister Dorothy says she falls off the bed “ever nite, I got home yesterday I saw a show in Georgia.”
I look at the leaves on branches behind one year old Joanie, every blade of grass beneath her chair, the blooms on Mexican petunias and hydrangeas. I look at the flash of light, recorded in the photograph, against the staunch brick of the house that no longer exists. There’s both a redundancy and a contradiction in the recording of that flash.
The pictured flash, like the repetitions of magnetic tape loops, records the fact of its being recorded, but it’s a contradiction in that the moment was itself the moment it was, and though we wouldn’t know of it without its having been recorded, the fact of its having been recorded stands outside the moment as moment.
The letter written 34 years before I was born continues in the present when I read it. “I saw a show in Georgia torrid zone the night before we come home, Ill tell you about it when you get home,” it blurts. The movie Torrid Zone, about a revolutionary who “stirs up trouble” at a Latin American banana plantation, starred James Cagney and Ann Sheridan. Surely four year old Joanie couldn’t write so well. Or, surely Eddie could write better.
Now, circa 1940, Joanie and Dot pose for photos, both tall in short dresses, the girl who’d one day be my mother four years old, her sister looking sad and awkward at 11. I see the wide brick steps, tall brick columns, tall thin windows, the edge of the chimney.
Dot looks down. Her eyes avert the camera. She’s so much taller than Joanie. Joanie looks upward, also too adult, defiant. In my mother’s later writing, Dot was “always pretty, outgoing, and somehow special. I was not pretty. I was shy, strong-willed, sensitive and emotional.” What truths lie between these photos and that writing, or between these earlier images and Dot’s senior prom photo?
My mother, who was almost six feet tall, was sensitive to the point of embarrassment about her height. She spoke of being cast, as a little girl, as a boy in school plays. In old home videos from before I was born, she always seems to duck, to hunch, to try to make herself smaller. How could she know how gloriously she’d make herself the writerly amazon of my personal prehistory?
I published a poem when my daughter Emily was 11 years old, about how my mother wrote, thinking back to the Saturday night dances downtown her parents attended as their marriage broke up, “I told myself I would never dance,” about how Emily was Clara in The Nutcracker and how I’d danced for hours at a Panamanian-Palestinian wedding in Atlanta. I addressed the poem to Eddie, the grandfather I never knew.
“Like so much in my life,” I wrote, “2758 / is a ghost of a ghost of a ghost,” telling Eddie how “I can’t find you here, / or-your-daughter-my-mother, / at the last address before / the railroad track before / two crowded, loud, and collapsing blocks before / the highway breaking furthest / Riverside with its cloven foot.”
Eddie grew jealous of the eyes men made at Ola, lithe collarbones, lacework delicate and décolleté, downtown at the Mayflower and Roosevelt Hotels, dancing to the big band orchestras’ “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and “Oh Lady Be Good.” In one year, Eddie Ernest Keene all but choked on the seven e’s in his own name and in another, the head falls off the Nutcracker as 11 year old Emily dances in that penultimate scene and never loses her grace, nor poise.
“How my heart is singing, / While the band is swinging. / I’m never tired of romping / And stomping with you at the Savoy.”
Four year old Joanie says, “Georgia torrid zone the night before we come home, Ill tell you about it when you get home. From your Sis, Joan.” The letter, now faded and torn at all edges continues, “P.S. Dot Ive wrote this for Joan just like she said write it,” signed, “Dad.”
Once, maybe a year or so after Joanie dictated this letter, she set out from that early house and wandered, lost to her parents for hours, tree by porch post by azalea blossom by street by corner by corner to Willowbranch Park before a police car brought her back home.
I’d never heard that story before my Aunt Dot related it not long before she died. She’d never heard of Silvertown and didn’t remember a single black resident nearby in that otherwise segregated neighborhood. Yet as Wayne Wood writes in the tome called Jacksonville’s Architectural Heritage, Lula Young Hamilton lived at 741 King Street from the 1880s until her death in 1941 and her daughter Mamie Adams lived there into her 90s in the ’80s. Though Mamie Adams kept the little woodframe house in her family for a century, Riverside had grown up around her mother in her own lifetime.
An 1887 map shows Ernest Street spanning Riverside from Margaret Street to Barrs and ending at the small trapezoid marked “Silvertown.” Eventually Silvertown’s Third Street was renamed an extension of Ernest, the swamp bisecting Silvertown was filled in, Boston Street became King Street, and in between what had been Boston Street and the western boundary of the city, a line of little brick houses rose, in the last of which Joan Irene Keene first met the world.