In the summer of 1954, thirteen-year-old Jubie Watts embarks on a trip with her family from their home in Charlotte, North Carolina, to visit their mother's brother, Uncle Taylor Bentley, in Pensacola, Florida. Jammed into the car are Jubie; Mama; sixteen-year-old sister Stell, who has a driver's license and is anxious to use it; the two youngest children, seven-year-old Puddin and two-year-old Davie; and the family's black maid, Mary. Daddy will not be coming along on this leg of the trip, but will meet everyone later for an extended vacation at South Carolina's Pawley's Island.
Traveling through the segregated South with a person of color during this period is a difficult and potentially dangerous undertaking. Few motels will provide accommodations for "colored," restaurants which cater to the white population will not serve blacks, and rumors of Klan activity are rampant. Along the way, Mama manages to find a motor court in the small town of Wickens, Georgia, whose manager offers to house Mary in a tiny cabin with a broken chair and a straw-tick mattress for the night for an exorbitant fee. Things are no better in Tuskegee, Alabama, where Jubie notes a superfluous number of signs extolling the virtues of segregation; she cannot remember seeing signs like these back at home.
Jubie remembers her wonderfully peaceful childhood years prior to 1952, before the Watts family moved to the big house Daddy built on Queens Road West in Charlotte. In the cozy cabin on Shumont Mountain which had been their abode, Mama and Daddy never fought, and it was evident how much they loved each other. When Jubie was five, Mary had come to work for the family. She was the first "colored" person the little girl had ever seen.
After the move to Queens Road West, problems arose between Mama and Daddy, and Mama in particular grew increasingly unhappy and emotionally distant. Mary, who had already taken on most of the responsibility for the house's upkeep and the children's physical needs, was the mainstay of stability in Jubie and her siblings' lives. She was the person to whom they turned for affirmation and comfort. Jubie, who was gangly and awkward in comparison to her comely sister Stell, was especially drawn to Mary, and even as a young child, she had wondered about the treatment the housekeeper was forced to endure at the hands of the white adults in her life. Daddy was demeaning in his dealings with the housekeeper, and although Mama was not overtly rude to her, she was not above joining in the merriment when her friends made derogatory comments about "niggers." When Carly Watts, the son of Daddy's brother Stamos came to visit last Christmas, Jubie had noted with surprise that the otherwise chivalrous young man treated Mary "as if she was no more than a piece of furniture." Jubie had considered talking to her older cousin about his behavior, but as he was almost an adult, she had figured that he would not understand.
When the family finally arrives at their destination in Florida, Uncle Taylor greets them with unbridled joy, and Mama, who has been struggling under more stress than usual as of late, falls into his embrace with evident relief. Uncle Taylor's wife Lily is notably absent, and his usually ebullient daughter Sarah is brooding unhappily because her mother is gone. Despite Sarah's bitterness, the Watts family spends an enjoyable and eventful few days in Pensacola. Uncle Taylor throws a party to celebrate their visit, which is especially pleasing to Mama. Jubie notices the great variety among her uncle's friends, who include bigoted, gossipy Lula Willingham, and a woman named Kay Macy Cooper, who respectfully calls Mary "Mrs. Luther," and is derided by Mrs. Willingham for being a "Yankee."
On Sunday, Mama, Sarah, and Uncle Taylor visit the military base where Uncle Taylor is stationed, while Mary takes the Watts children to a traveling carnival at a local amusement park. Jubie insists on seeing the freak show at the carnival. Mary, meanwhile, recognizes one of the young black stage workers at the venue as a boy from her church back home who had run away from his drug-addicted mother and set out on his own. Mary accosts the boy, whose name is Leesum Fields, and after a conversation, convinces him to return to his home and church community. Jubie is amazed that the fifteen-year-old "colored boy" is so nice and good-looking, and, though she instinctively understands that there can never be a romantic relationship between them, she and Leesum become fast friends during the short time that he stays at Uncle Taylor's house while Mary arranges his journey.
The Watts family and Mary enjoy a few more halcyon days in Pensacola. Mama in particular seems renewed by what she calls "a great vacation." Stell and Jubie spend time with their cousin Sarah, who, though friendly enough, still seems uncharacteristically subdued. On their last day together, Sarah reveals to the girls the reason for her unhappiness; she is furious at her Uncle Bill (Stell and Jubie's Daddy) because he has had an affair with her mother Lily during the past year, which has resulted in her parents' divorce.
Mama especially is devastated when their visit to her brother's house comes to an end. She becomes petulant and unreasonable as the family takes to the road to meet Daddy at Pawley's Island. Even though it is out of their way, she insists on making a detour to Claxton, a small town in Georgia, so that she can purchase some of the town's renowned fruitcakes. As they enter the city, a battered old truck driven by a drunken local ne'er-do-well slams into the Watts' car, spinning it about and tossing the passengers around inside. Fortunately, aside from a few cuts and bruises, no one is seriously hurt, but the car has sustained extensive damage and will have to be repaired. Mama is referred to Sally's Motel, and the proprietor there, Mrs. Bishop, offers to rent her two rooms for a ridiculously high fee. When Mama expresses dismay, the woman retorts, "Take it or leave it." No one else in the area will allow Mary to stay overnight with the family...
(The entire section is 2502 words.)
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