Family Matters

The first time I remember Robert Chambliss speaking directly to me was in 1944, when I was four years old.

“Whose little boy are you?” Robert had asked, looking down at me as I sat on the sidewalk in front of our house playing. It was the sort of remark calculated to confuse and perhaps ridicule a girl child.

“You know me, Robert. I belong to John and Libby,” I reminded him. Robert Chambliss was married to my mother’s oldest sister, Flora, who my cousin and I called Tee; I was defensive and puzzled about him not recognizing me. He laughed and stepped around me, heading for the front porch. I watched him go inside, and then I returned to playing with my toy cowboys on the sidewalk.

At times I wondered why he came alone to my house. It was different when he and Tee came together. Then it was a “visit,” and it was pleasant because it was always pleasant to be around Aunt Tee.

Tee was warm and soft, and, except when she was nervous, she was funny. Sometimes she was so nervous she was funny anyway, but sometimes she was so nervous she only watched Robert and clenched her jaw and pulled down her eyebrows and wrung her hands.

Robert mostly wore khaki work clothes or a white shirt and dress pants as if he was going somewhere, but when he went somewhere in particular he wore a suit and tie. Sometimes, usually at night, he would bring Aunt Tee to our house and leave her while he went to “take care of something,” Those times I saw him coming and going in his long white robe. I didn’t know at the time what this signified, only that it was important and mysterious.

He talked angry-talk most of the time, so it seemed best for him not to talk to you at all. It seemed best if he didn’t see you either. But if he did see you, you had to be brave and not let it show that he made you afraid.

It was also pretty clear that everybody watched what they said around Robert. The grownups would whisper or be angry or laugh  about him when he wasn’t there, but they would always act like he was okay when he came around.

I usually found it much more comfortable to stay outside when he came to my house. Or I’d hope that the men would play dominoes or pinochle so he would stay in one place and I could avoid him easily. When they played games in the kitchen of whichever house the family had gathered, Robert made everybody uncomfortable. He whistled when he wanted Tee to bring him something, a long, loud three-note whistle like you would use to call a New York cab. He expected Tee to wait on him and the other men. He implied that they were not quite “real” men because they didn’t yell and cuss and whistle for their wives like he did. He would laugh at them, and his laugh was a “hee, hee, hee” under his breath. He always laughed at people, never with them.

I thought that it might be a joke that day he pretended not to know who I was, because he didn’t sound mad and he would have run off any child he really didn’t know, even though this wasn’t his house. If it was a joke, though, it didn’t feel funny. It felt scary.

In fact, when Uncle Robert was around, what I mostly felt was fear. It was frightening when you didn’t know what was expected. Or when you thought you knew what was expected and then found out that you really didn’t. Every situation was suspect, and you never really relaxed. You learned to be still and quiet and act like you knew what was going on. Then when you really didn’t, it wasn’t embarrassing and you wouldn’t have to cry or swallow the tears until your throat hurt.

These were war years, but Robert didn’t go to war. He was too old. He was always old, it seemed to me. Thinking back, it seems impossible that he was only 36 when I was born. He had married Tee, his second wife, several years before I was born, so he was already family when I was born.

He was tall and thin and strong and beige. His thin straight hair was always cut the same way: short on the sides and back, longer on top so that it parted and combed over and back. He never had a mustache or beard; he was always clean and pressed. He usually ate oatmeal for breakfast and used Eagle Brand canned milk in his coffee, which was usually A&P brand or Luzianne.

I remember him from very early on, but not distinct things about him—just his face, his laugh, his hands, his house, and the fear. I was afraid of him and afraid in his house, but I was not afraid of his wife, my Aunt Tee, although she did not make me feel safe.

Tee would babysit for me and my cousin a lot. One time when she was babysitting, she was very sick and had a fever. In later years I was told that her tonsils had “rotted out” with infection, but at the time, I only knew she was sick and there wasn’t anyone to help except us two children. Tee lay on the couch, moaning and muttering. Having seen cold cloths used to soothe and bring down fever, I searched for something and found a white sock. I couldn’t reach the sink, so I wet the sock in the toilet and bathed Tee’s forehead.

I was afraid she was going to die that day. I was afraid that I couldn’t keep her from dying. I was afraid Robert would come home. I knew he could either be mad or friendly, and Aunt Tee wouldn’t be there to keep him from noticing us. But to my relief, our mamas came home first and took over caring for Tee.

Everyone tried to take care of Tee, even though her role in life seemed to be caretaker of others. She was “poor little Flora” to her mother, and to her sisters and brothers she was “poor little Sister,” although she was the oldest of the seven. When my cousin and I tried to say “Sister,” it came out “Tee Tee,” and soon became just “Tee,” a nickname she would be known by years later in newspaper articles, investigative reports, and books. But Robert always called her “Mommy.”

From the beginning, Tee was both a victim of and a partner in Robert’s life and passions. She witnessed unimaginable terror through the years. Because of her fear, because of her Victorian sense of loyalty, and perhaps because she shared his views about segregation, she lived with Robert Chambliss, cared for him, covered for him, and participated in his political activities for nearly 45 years.

Although Tee recovered from her bout with tonsillitis, apparently none the worse for the toilet-soaked sock, she was sick for a long time. In later years, she would suffer illness, abuse, hypertension, and strokes. She would die less than three years after Robert Chambliss went to prison in 1977 for the murder of Denise McNair.

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