spent three years in the first grade and left school after the third grade. He loved to rock and one of his nicknames was Rocking Chair. He was almost always happy, and it took so little to make him happy that we nicknamed him Happy. The pastor said at his graveside, "Wouldn't it be good if all of us would live with such an attitude that we would be nicknamed Happy?"Uncle Herman never studied much, never traveled much, and did manual labor all his life, first as a farmhand, then as a service station attendant. He and my father were the only two brothers never to serve in the military. Uncle Herman, born in 1915, was too old for World War II, and my father had a ministerial deferment, graduating from the University of Richmond in 1945.
Like his own father, Uncle Herman spent most all his life within a small radius of the pulpmill town of Franklin, Virginia, home of Union Camp Paper (now owned by International Paper). One highlight of his retirement years was a car trip to Florida and back with my father and my youngest uncle to visit their only sister before she died. (Her brothers just called her "Sister" so she was "Aunt Sister" to us as kids.)
Aunt Bessie kept Herman on a short leash. She was a wonderful cook and a frugal housekeeper. Together they raised two fine, hard-working daughters who took good care of their dad after Bessie died. Their younger daughter, who's my age, likes to travel when she takes vacation time.
To give an outsider's view of what life was like in Tidewater Virginia during Herman's youth, here's a passage from James McBride's The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother (Riverhead Books, 1996), pp. 39-40.
My father was a traveling preacher. He was just like any traveling preacher except he was a rabbi.... [H]e got an offer to run a synagogue in Suffolk, Virginia.... He said, "We're moving," and we went to Suffolk, Virginia, around 1929. I was eight or nine at the time.
I still remember the smell of the South. It smelled like azaleas. And leaves. And peanuts. Peanuts everywhere. Planters peanuts had their headquarters in Suffolk. Mr. Obici ran it. He was a big deal in town. The big peanut man. He gave a lot of money out to people. He built a hospital. You could buy peanuts by the pound in Suffolk for nothing. There were farmers growing peanuts, hauling peanuts, making peanut oil, peanut butter, even peanut soap. They called the high school yearbook The Peanut. They even had a contest once to see who could make the best logo for Planters peanut company. Some lady won it. They gave her twenty-five dollars, which was a ton of money in those days.
Suffolk was a one-horse town back then, one big Main Street, a couple of movie theaters—one for black folks, one for white folks—a few stores, a few farms nearby, and a set of railroad tracks that divided the black and white sections of town. The biggest event Suffolk had seen in years was a traveling sideshow that came through town on the railroad tracks, with a stuffed whale in a boxcar. The folks loved that. They loved anything different, or new, or from out of town, except for Jews. In school the kids called me "Christ killer" and "Jew baby." That name stuck with me for a long time. "Jew baby." You know it's so easy to hurt a child.
Tateh worked at the local synagogue, but he had his eye on this huge old barn-type building across the tracks on the so-called colored side of town with the aim of starting a grocery store there. Well, that upset some of the synagogue folks. They didn't want their holy rabbi going into business—and doing business with niggers, no less!—but Tateh said, "We're not moving anymore. I'm tired of moving." He knew they'd get rid of him eventually—let's face it, he was a lousy rabbi. He had a Jewish friend in town named Israel Levy who signed a bank note that allowed Tateh to get his hands on that old place. Tateh threw a counter and some shelves in there, an old cash register, tacked up a sign outside that said "Shilsky's Grocery Store" or something to that effect, and we were in business. The black folks called it "Old Man Shilsky's store." That's what they called him. Old Man Shilsky. They used to laugh at him and his ragtag store behind his back, but over the years they made Old Man Shilsky rich and nobody was laughing then.