by YaYa Nkisi
My Uncle Eldridge Cleaver used to tell a story about his favorite Christmas. I wanted to honor him in some way so I have elected to tell the world his Christmas Story. Fifty-three years or so ago my mother's family was kinda forced to relocate from Little Rock because of an incident involving my grandfather, Leroy Cleaver. This is where my story begins.
Granddaddy loved shoes and every payday he would buy himself a new pair. They say that my grandmother would have to meet him on payday to get the household money before he got started on his weekly buying. I can remember even in his old age he was one sharp dresser. Eldridge says one-day granddaddy had to go downtown to pay some bills and he (Eldridge) tagged along with him.
Of course back in the late thirties early forties you know Little Rock was very racist, and it had been raining that day. The streets were mud puddles. The streets did not have sidewalks, but rather narrow wooden boards with dirt streets. As they proceeded on the journey two white men were walking towards them. Now it was customary for the blacks to step off the sidewalk if a white person was going to pass them. Knowing what was coming next my granddaddy told Eldridge to get real close to the wall and not to say anything. Leroy had on his new shoes and he wasn't about to step in the mud.
As the white men came closer they yelled to my grandfather, "Boy step off", my grandfather replied, "It's been raining and the street is full of mud, me and my boy will get real close to this wall and you can pass." Now for most folks this would have worked, but here we had two red necks that probably only owned the shoes they had on. Again they said, "Boy step off the sidewalk now." My grandfather refused and one of the red necks pushed him, causing one of his new shoes to sink into the mud. Quickly he pulled his foot back up on the sidewalk only to see the other red neck reaching for him. Eldridge says quick as lighting my grandfather pulled his razor and cut the red neck on his arm. As the blood shot out my granddaddy hollered for Eldridge to run home as quick as he could and tell my grandmother what had happened. Granddaddy cautioned Eldridge not to stop along the way.
Of course my grandmother knew what this meant and when several hours later my granddaddy showed up to the house she had his stuff packed and ready for him. Under the cover of darkness my granddaddy slipped out of town, and a couple of months later he turned up in Arizona, Phoenix to be exact.
Now this had to be a great blow to the family. At the time my granddaddy was working as a porter for the railroad. Good money in those days. My grandmother was a teacher. Which would be worse, finding new jobs for both of them or burying my granddaddy? A few moths passed and the family again relocated to Southern California.
My grandfather found work as a Maitre D, and my grandmother became a custodian for Lincoln High School. They were able to buy a house in Rose Hills and the family settled in.
Time passed and the family grew. Wilhelmina, my mother was the oldest, Helen next, followed by Eldridge, next James and then Theopolis, and the baby Claudette who was born in Arizona on a cold December day.
At the top of Rose Hills was an old run down house owned by a lady folks called Mary Goat. My granddaddy struck a deal with Ms. Mary Goat to buy the house. My grandmother refused to move in until my granddaddy made several major repairs. So the girls stayed with her and the boys moved in with him. Everyday he rushed home from work to complete some repair on the house and everyday my grandmother laughed at him.
The holiday season was upon them and my grandmother's house was decorated with lights tinkling like star in the night. The Christmas tree was ready for Old Saint Nick. The kitchen a blaze with the sweet aromas of festive cooking under way.
The girls used to tease the boys everyday about the shack they lived in. The boys felt really bad, but of course they could not abandon their father, after all my grandmother was already making him feel like a failure.
As Christmas Eve dawned, my grandfather had repaired quite a bit, but not the roof. Wouldn't you know it started to rain on Christmas Eve after the boys had gone to bed, and the room the boys were sleeping in had a leak right over their bed?
Eldridge says his last thoughts that night were of his father holding an umbrella over them, and his first sight that next morning was of his father asleep in a chair still holding that umbrella. This he says was his greatest Christmas gift, the love and concern a father has for his children. For indeed it was love that held the hand that held the umbrella on a cold and rainy Christmas Eve. A gift that money could never buy.