|My Family, The Jacksons|
| I am four years old. I am running down the road with my cousins, rolling a big iron hoop with a wire I hold in my right hand. I am running in the midst of cotton fields as far as my eyes can see, and laughing. Feeling free ....
That’s one of my earliest memories of life in tiny Rutherford, a town in eastern Alabama that doesn’t even exist anymore.
My grandparents and great-grandparents were cotton farmers. Their ancestors were slaves. One of them, Great-great-grandfather Kendall Brown, was renowned for his singing voice. His voice would ring out above all the others during Sunday services in the little wooden church he attended in nearby Russell County. His voice was so strong that, in the summer, when they threw open the wooden windows, it rang throughout the little valley in which the church was nestled. Well, maybe singing talent is in our blood, I thought when my mother related this story to me.
Taking into account my family’s distant past, it seems only fitting that my parents, Prince Scruse and Martha Upshaw, tied the knot on the Alabama holiday known as Emancipation Day -- May 28, 1929. They were attending one of the celebrations in the park when they decided to slip away and get married.
I was the first child, born May 4, 1930, in the little house they were living in at the time in Barbour Country, about ten miles from Rutherford. By the time my sister Hattie, was born, in September of the following year, we were living in my dad’s mother and father, Prince and Julia Scruse, in their big, wood-frame house in Rutherford.
My father was a muscular man, warm and loving, and very good-looking. He worked for the Seminole Railroad, and in his spare time he helped out my grandfather on his farm. My mother was as pretty as my daddy was handsome, and equally loving. She hated to have her picture taken, so I don’t have any photos of her when she was young. But I still remember her warm eyes and smile. She had a tiny gap between her top two front teeth, just like me.
We lived in Alabama only until I was four, but I have a few vivid memories of our life there. Being in a poor rural area, we didn’t have any of the standard household conveniences. We pumped our water and used kerosene lamps. For entertainment, we had little more than our Victrola; I remember listening to Cab Calloway records on it.
As for Rutherford itself, my main recollection is of people riding in on horseback to pick up their mail at the little post office. Sometimes they’d trade eggs for stamps, or for other items at the general store. Rutherford was one of the little towns that time forgot.
It was Daddy’s hope for a better job that led us to board a train for Indiana, which, because of the steel mills, was a popular destination at the time for poor black families from the South. We had a friend in East Chicago, at 4906 Kennedy Avenue, so that became our first address.
For a four-year-old country girl, it was a shock moving to the “big city,” and the biggest shock of all for me was living amongst so many white people -- Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Irishmen. The nice thing about it was that everybody got along with one another -- the whites with other whites, and whites with blacks. In fact, my only taste of discrimination in East Chicago occurred years later, at Washington High, which held separate swim days and proms for black students. None of the blacks fought these rules at the time. We just figured that was the way it was supposed to be.
Daddy worked in the steel mines for a while, then went to work as a Pullman porter for the Illinois Central. It was less than a year after we moved from the South that he had my mother divorced. My mother took Hattie, and my daddy, who soon remarried, took me.
As much as I loved my father, it was a terrible trauma for me to live under a different roof from my mom and, especially, Hattie. By then my younger sister and I had become inseparable.
Evidently my mother hated the situation as much as I did. When I was nine she kidnapped me. The next thing I knew, she, Hattie, and I were back in Rutherford, living with an uncle.
Daddy tracked us down. He wrote us, sent Hattie and me a big box full of toys and clothes at Christmas, and, a few months later, told my mother, “You can come back now. I’ll let Katy live with you.” Soon after that, we returned to East Chicago.
I was happier living with my mother and Hattie, but I still felt so sad at being raised in a broken home that I vowed one day that if I ever got married, and especially if I ever had children, I would always seek to stay with my husband. I wanted my children to be reared by both of their natural parents.
Even after my mother married my stepfather, John Bridges, she worked very hard. She’d be out the door of our apartment at seven in the morning, a half-hour before Hattie and I left for school, some she could catch the bus to Muncie, Hammond, and the other cities in which she worked. Cleaning houses for a living, she wasn’t about to clean our apartment when she had two daughters, so that job fell to us. Hattie and I grew up knowing the meaning of hard work.
As a holiday approached, my sister and I would be especially busy. We’d have to give the apartment a general cleaning, moving all the furniture, scrubbing under everything. My least favorite chore was taking the lace curtains down and washing, starching, and stretching them with those old curtain stretches we had. Gosh, I used to hate doing that.
It would all be worth it when the holiday arrived, however, and Mother had presents for us. Even on the Fourth of July, Hattie and I would get a new dress.
Working as hard as both my mother and father did, I doubt that they had much time for dreaming. If they did hold any dreams close to their heart for themselves or their children, they never shared them with me or Hattie.
I, by contrast, was a nonstop dreamer.
My number-one dream was to become an actress. In the forties, you could buy a pad of notebook paper with a photograph of a motive star on it. I always bought more pads than I could use. Hattie and I attended scores of Saturday matinees at the Mars Theatre, as I followed the careers of my favorite actresses -- Deanna Durbin, Kathryn Grayson, Barbara Stanwyck, Peggy Ryan, Jane Withers.
My other dream was to be a singer.
I grew up singing in the local Baptist church. Hattie and I also sang in the school choir through junior high.
But my dream was to sing country-and-western songs. I loved country music because of the fact that many of the songs told a story, and also because I thought, and still believe, that next to black music soulful music there is.
My father introduced me to country music. He loved to tune in to the “Suppertime Frolic,” out of Chicago, and “The Grand Ole Opry.” He’d noodle around with his old box guitar, playing the songs he’d learned from the radio, and Hattie and I would sing along with him. Hattie and I would also sing together as we walked to school, or when we were doing the dishes. “Shut up that singing!” my stepmother, Mattie, no country music fan, would exclaim. “You got that music on the radio and then I have to listen to your mouths!”
Of course, I never did make history by becoming the first black country music star. There was something holding me back .... polio.
When I contracted it, at the age of one and a half, it was called infantile paralysis. My parents, living in the rural South, didn’t know what that was. So when I woke up one morning and couldn’t use my left leg, they thought it was because of the way my father grabbed my leg a couple of days earlier to prevent me from falling off the edge of their bed.
The doctor they took me to in Montgomery didn’t know what was wrong, either; the only thing he did for me was fit my crooked leg with a wooden brace. It was not until we moved to Indiana that my parents received the correct diagnosis. My leg was operated on twice at the Memorial Hospital for Children in South Bend, when I was seven and sixteen. For follow-up treatment after each operation, my father would carry me in his arms to the South Shore Station, and then, after we arrived in South Bend, the last six blocks to the hospital. That was love.
I had to wear a brace on my leg for seven years. I also had to wear an elevated shoe. It embarrassed me so to get up in front of the class to give oral reports because I feared that my classmates would notice that one of my legs was shorter than the other and make fun of me. You know how children can be so cruel.
In fact, the kids did tease me about my elevated shoe. “Your wearing your mothers shoes!” They’d say and laugh, as I’d burst into tears.
“You leave my sister alone!” Hattie would scream if she was around. She was my protector, always ready to go to battle for me. “I’m okay, Hattie,” I’d tell her. “Let them go.” But, inside, the teasing was killing me.
Feeling so different made my shy and withdrawn, nothing at all like my outgoing sister, who was the proverbial life of the party. To this day, I shy away from crowds and parties. When I go out, I almost always wear pant suits because I’m still embarrassed by the fact that my left leg is shorter than my right. I’m also self conscious of my limp to the point where a few years ago I asked a television crew that was filming at the house not to shoot me walking. I remember LaToya’s looking at me that day and saying, “Mother, I never noticed that you limp.” My limp was no big deal to my family, and it shouldn’t have been to me. But it was and still is.
Luckily, my shyness as a child didn’t extend to boys. Together with Hattie and a few girl friends, we founded a club in high school called the Blue Flames, after the Woody Herman song of that title. Once every month or two we’d hold a “blue-light party” in somebody’s home and invite our friends over to dance to R&B records by the likes of Little Milton and Memphis Slim. With the twenty-five-cent admission we charged we were able to save enough money to buy ourselves a nice gift at Christmas.
But making spending money was secondary to meeting boys. I had already set my sights on the kind of man I wanted to marry: I wanted him to be a saxophone player. I thought saxophone players were sexy.
It was at a house social put on by someone else that I first laid my eyes on Joe Jackson.
Even though he was the new boy in town, I’d already gotten the lowdown on him from friends. He’d moved in with his mother, after having lived in Oakland, California, with his father, a schoolteacher. He was already out of school and looking for a job in one of the steel mills. And, I’d heard, he was very handsome.
As I watched Joe mingle outside the building where the dance was being held, I had to agree. He was with a bunch of kids, but to me he stood head and shoulders above the others. He was so handsome with his gray eyes and copper-colored skin, in fact, that he literally took my breath away. I had no idea whether he played the saxophone, and I didn’t care.
I didn’t dance with him that night, but when I saw him at another blue-light party, he noticed me and we danced a lot. I couldn’t do fast dancing because of my leg, so we danced to the slower songs. I don’t think he knew that I had a crush on him, and of course I didn’t tell him. Nowadays, it seems, girls often make the first move -- I can’t believe how aggressive many young girls are today. But back then, no matter how much a girl liked a boy, she wouldn’t let him know. I t wasn’t considered ladylike.
Soon afterward, Joe married another girl, much to my disappointment. But their marriage lasted less than a year. “Guess who likes you?” Hattie said to me one day after I’d heard that he’d been divorced. “That boy Joe Jackson. He told me to tell you.” But I didn’t allow myself to get enthused.
That Christmas Joe showed up at my door. I was the one who answered the knock and my mouth flew open upon seeing him standing there. He handed me a present -- a rhinestone necklace and matching bracelet and earrings -- and we made a little small talk, and he left. I knew then that he truly did like me.
“He’s a very nice boy,” my mother offered.
Two or three days later Joe called and asked me out.
“I’ll think about it,” I replied; that’s what girls were programmed to say.
He phoned again the next day and asked, “Have you come to a decision?”
I told him that I had, and that it would be okay.
He arrived at my door dressed in a suit. He had just bought a Buick and we drove in it to the Roosevelt Theatre in Gary, where we saw a movie.
Before long we were going steady. Not only did I think Joe was handsome, I liked his manner. He was on the quiet side, kind of cool--acting.
There was a lot to do on dates. We could go to the movies or dance, walk to the park at night, or ride around. Gradually, Joe opened up about himself.
His parents, Samuel and Chrystal Jackson, had met in a one-room school-house in Arkansas -- Sam was the teacher, and Chrystal, then fifteen, was one of the students. Joe was their first child, born on July 26, 1929, in the town of Fountain Hill. Two brothers and two sisters followed. Sadly, one of his sisters, Verna, died when she was seven. Like me, she had polio.
Sam and Chrystal were both strong-willed and strict. Growing up, Joe was made to tow the line. His parents were not ones to spare the rod.
As a boy, Joe was a loner. More than once the school bell rang to announce the start of school, but, instead of entering the schoolhouse, Joe would take off in the opposite direction, spending the day by himself.
When he was in his early teens, his parents divorced. Sam later moved to Oakland, taking Joe with him. Meanwhile, Chrystal moved to East Chicago with Joe’s brothers and sister. Several years later, Joe decided to join them, leaving behind his father, who was by then on his third marriage. (Years later, Sam and Chrystal remarried. Today they live in Arizona.)
While I found Joe’s past of interest, I was fascinated to hear talk about his future. I especially liked the fact that he was a dreamer, too.
Like me, he envisioned a new life one day in California. “Kate, one day I’m going to take you there,” he’d say. He was boxing in the Golden Gloves at the time, and he may have been thinking that his fists would be in his ticket out of the steel mill. That was one dream I didn’t encourage. I didn’t think boxing was any way for someone whom I cared about to earn a living.
For my birthday, Joe had his mother bake me a bundt cake. In the middle he placed a present, a ring containing an emerald, my birthstone. Six months later, November 5, 1949, we were married by a justice of the peace in Crown Point. Joe was twenty; I was nineteen.
Instead of living in a fancy ranch house in Hollywood with palm trees in our front yard, we settled for a two-bedroomed wood-frame house in a all black neighborhood of Gary. Ironically, the house was located on the corner of a street called Jackson.
Its price was eighty-five hundred dollars. To make the five-hundred-dollar down payment, we borrowed two hundred dollars from my father.
I was delighted to be a homeowner. I didn’t mind that the only furniture we had were a sofa, table, stove, and refrigerator. The sofa had a fold-out bed, and we slept on it for two months. In March my mother gave us a bedroom suite.
With me already expecting and with a monthly mortgage payment of sixty dollars to contend with, we decided to have our child at home to save money. My mother, Joe’s aunt, and the doctor were there. So was Joe, but he wouldn’t come into the room. Later he told me that he was outside peeking through the window.
I stayed in labor from Saturday night until three A.M. Monday, May 29, when I finally gave birth to my daughter Maureen.
I’ll never forget my first look at her: I was horrified.
“I’ve ruined my child!” I exclaimed. Her head was shaped funny, like a cone; she looked like the old cartoon character Denny Denwit. But the doctor assured me that she was fine, and that her head would become more rounded in time.
Joe had wanted a boy. “Well, maybe the next one will be a boy,” he said. But I could tell that he was proud of his girl as he held her for the first time.
As for me, giving birth to Maureen -- or Rebbie, as we would soon start calling her -- changed my life instantly. All of a sudden I felt “grown up.” And, try as I may to describe the love I instantly felt for her, I can’t, because it is indescribable.
I gave Joe the boy he wanted a year later. At the time I was visiting with my mother in East Chicago, and I announced to her that I would go to St. Catherine’s Hospital the next day -- May 4, my twenty-first birthday -- and have my baby. That’s what I did.
Joe was ecstatic. He insisted on naming his son himself. When I heard his choice, Sigmund I thought, My child is going to hate wearing that name, but if it makes Joe happy .... Luckily, Joe’s father, Samuel Jackson, came from California four days later and he immediately began calling our son “Jackson boy.” Before long we had shortened that nickname to Jackie Boy and then, finally, to Jackie. (As it turned out, Jackie liked his given name well enough to name his son Sigmund.)
With two children to support now, Joe became more motivated than ever. While he continued with his job as a crane operator at Inland Steel in East Chicago, he began moonlighting with his brother Luther and three other men in a singing group they’d founded, called the Falcons.
I didn’t learn that Joe loved to sing, too, until after we’d gotten married. My happiest memory of our first Christmas was singing Christmas carols together on snowy evenings as we lay across in bed.
Joe however, was not a country music buff like me. His music was R&B. I was surprised to see that he played the electrical guitar, too. I had once dreamed of marrying a musician, and without realizing it I had.
Joe didn’t have to tell me what his goals were for the Falcons. It was clear just from hearing him and the others talk in our living room that he wanted the same things I’d dreamed of myself as a would-be entertainer: fame and fortune.
The Falcons rehearsed regularly in our house, honing their a cappella versions of the current R&B hits in four-part harmony. They also wrote their own songs. One tune Joe played was titled “Tutti Frutti.” Soon after he wrote it, Little Richard released a different song with the same title and had a hit.
The group played a number of dates around Gary, backed by a hired band. One of them was at the Pavillion in Gleason Park. I felt proud watching them perform that night as people danced in the open air, obviously enjoying the music.
But while the Falcons created a few ripples on the local music scene, their success was short-lived. The group all but disbanded when one of the members, Pookie Hudson, quit to form Spaniels. That group went on to record “Good Night, Sweetheart, Good Night,” a song that Pookie co-wrote with the artists and repertoire man at their record label, VeeJay Records. The Spaniels’ version wasn’t a hit, but the one recorded by the McGuire Sisters made a Top Ten.
After the Falcons broke up, Joe continued to take his guitar out of the hallway closet and play for fun. But he didn’t attempt to form another group. The family was growing and he really didn’t have the time or even the energy now to pursue his dream.
Little did we know that in a few years our children would reawaken the dreams in each of us.