Investing in Interstitial Zones for the Flourishing of Children: An Interview with Margie May Morris

Photos by Jesse Barber

This is the first in a series of interviews and photo essays by the North Carolina-based artist and educator Kathryn Ervin exploring the experience of childhood and the nature of caregiving in the American South. We believe that traditions of caregiving — both good and bad — provide a resource for innovation, renewal, and perspective for best meeting the challenges facing children and families today and in the future. — Joe Waters

An indomitable force, Ms. Morris (b. August 23rd, 1923) is known as Aunt Margie by one and all. Working well into her 80s, she retired a few years ago as arthritis in her legs increasingly limited her mobility. It should be noted, however, that this has hardly limited her social life. A resident of Morganton, NC, Aunt Margie probably receives more visitors in her little apartment than her entire neighborhood, combined. Her recliner is positioned right by the front door and as you walk in, you are greeted by her warm smile, inviting you to take a seat. She may not remember who you are, but she is delighted to see you.

In our interview with Aunt Margie, she talks about being known: “They learned who I was. They treat me as Margie.” Everyone — from the children in her neighborhood to the families she worked for, to her peers, to the business owners, to the police officers…they all know and respect Aunt Margie. Her hospitable spirit has shaped a community of children by offering an interstitial zone, a haven, for so many in her neighborhood.

Aunt Margie is an architect of beauty. Her childhood was structured around hard work, but within this matrix of labor emerged a reverence for what hard work could produce. In our interview, Margie talks about the “ice cold milk” stored in the cool stream. She describes her mother boiling the laundry until it was the “prettiest white… you had ever seen.” She laughingly describes fetching a sweet potato from under the vine in her childhood garden with a fork from the kitchen. Whimsically detailing a lifetime of labor, demonstrating the extent to which beauty and suffering are intrinsically linked.

Those who have spent time with Aunt Margie learn that beauty is to be kinesthetically known. That knowledge is cultivated through a thousand small acts: the execution of a chore (for the hundredth time) the squeezing of lemons, late in the night, knowing pint-sized guests will be waiting for lemonade on your return from work the following day.

Aunt Margie is celebrating her 95th birthday this year. We are thankful for her life and the example she provides, reminding us all that the flourishing of children is best designed by a loving architect.

Aunt Margie, your birthday is coming up!

Yeah. We had a big party last year. We had a big cookout and all that stuff. Right out here in the yard. It was all across there, a bunch of them. I enjoyed it, laying back in my chair, looking at everything. The porch was full out there, the yard too. They just had food. I have a granddaughter with a husband who cooks, he was cooking stuff on the outside, he really can cook. He can cook anything. He makes all kinds of stuff. We had fish, potato salad, mac-n-cheese, we had a little bit of everything.

I bet that was so nice as you have served so many people over the years.

I worked a long time for [the Ervins]. About the sweetest set of people I always got along with them and they got along with me. David and Dan and all of them, there is a bunch of them. Baked apples. [Mrs. Ervin] loved those. Creamed corn. I made different stuff. Amy was a little ol’ girl and she would stand behind the trunk, there was a trunk in the hallway, you would go upstairs sitting in that window and she would stand behind there when she was a little ol’ girl and I would talk to her. I worked for Mrs. Ervin for lots of years out there. Them was nice people.

Have you seen the Ervins recently?

Well Mrs. Ervin would come down here but it has been a while since she has been back down here because I know her health has probably not been as good to do things when she feels like doing them, but she always would come. She didn’t forget about me. And I loved them too, that family, you know, I worked out there when they were all little.

Margie, tell me about your childhood, about growing up in the rural South?

Oh we were born and raised in the country. In McDowell County. Well we were actually born in Bridge Water, which is on the Burke County side. But when we were born we had midwives so our birth certificates were registered in McDowell County. We were raised on a farm. We would get out and work on the farm.

What was that like?

I had brothers and sisters, but all of them have passed and gone on. I wasn’t the youngest, Nancy was the youngest, the baby girl, Nancy. I am the 7th child. There was ten of us. There was a big family of us. Born and raised in the country on a farm and all that stuff. We had chickens and cows, hogs and all kinds of stuff up there and raised a garden. We just were raised in the country. As we grew up and got grown we got out of it because we got a job and went to work. But we was raised on a farm.

Did your parents stay on that farm after your siblings had moved?

Yeah, they stayed there. That farm, I don’t know who is there or whatever. So they sold it eventually. I never went back. As long as they were there, we went back. We would visit, you know, because that was way out in the country. With chickens and hogs and cows and horses and everything.

What did that look like, living on your farm?

Sometime we had to get out there and hoe the corn with a hoe. We worked hard. This day and time, young people aren’t doing nothing, ‘cus they don’t know nothing about work. We was raised on a big farm. We lucky to be alive, we come a long ways. We just did the work.

We had a spring where Mama would churn and fix the milk and stuff and set it down in the spring where the milk would stay cold. We had a spring, but they had it in some kind of box they would put it in. Set it down in the spring and keep it ice cold, and when you get ready to eat it, it was so good.

We had chickens and we had to gather up eggs and all that stuff. We’d bake cornbread and biscuits, and all that stuff, nothing like that goes on no more.

Did you have a big garden?

We raised a garden, we would cook out of the garden and they’d raise beans and all kinds of stuff in the garden. Sweet potatoes. We would go out there and grab them with a fork and just pull them out from under the vine. We did. We worked hard growing up. I am luck to be here. It is really a blessing for me to be here. You know? So I don’t regret none of it, we just grew up on the farm and had to work.

Can you remember a particular moment from your childhood?

I tried to help Mama milk the cow and I set my little stool, milking the cow, just milking away, and a fly got on her leg and bit her or somethin’ and she hauled off and kicked that bucket of milk and I was sittin’ on that little stool and I fell over too. I jumped up from there and went just a runnin’ to my Momma just yellin’, “The cow done kicked me over and I ain’t gonna milk no more!” And I used to help milk the cows and everything.

What did you do in your free time?

Oh, we would play with one another. We had a big yard and we had fun together. We went to church a lot. Oh Lord, yes. We stayed in Church. It was like a Baptist church.

What changed as all the siblings got older?

When we grown up we start working out, when we got to a certain age. And lots of us stayed on the job. I had a sister and white people raised her until she was grown and got married and moved away from here. They raised her, she was young when she went to them and then they raised ’em up with them children, learn’ them how to do stuff. They learn ’em how to clean the house. To cook and stuff like that. Learnt from them, how to do stuff. When I came up, they hired them young and brought them up with their children. Learn them all together how to work. That is how we came up.

What do you remember about your parents?

Well, I remember, there is just not a lot of stuff. My parents were working people. You know we was raised on a farm, busy all of the time. My momma always took care of the house and had the milk and took care of the butter and all that kind of stuff and Daddy worked out, the biggest work on the farm. My mother took care of the house and we had chickens and hogs and everything like that to be taken care of. They washed and boiled their clothes in a pot outside and when them clothes boiled, they would get ’em and they were the prettiest white clothes you ever had seen, hung out. They didn’t use Clorox and stuff like that, like people use now, we just come through a lot of stuff. They made lye soap themselves. That is what it was. It is a different day now. They had these big black pots and Momma would make lye soap.

When you left the farm, what did you do?

I worked in cafes here in town. I was a cook up there at the Rainbow Grill. I worked there for years; I was a breakfast cook. Honey, I worked all my life ever since I was old enough to do something. But it has changed and it is all different here now, from what it was. I’ve worked ever since I was a young girl.

How was caring for people, especially children, part of your life?

First, I lived with one of my sisters, she was living in Travelers Rest, S.C., that was above Greenville, S.C. I stayed with her for years. For years and years with her. She had a bunch of kids. She had 14. Yeah, she had a bunch of them. That was my oldest sister. Alice. I was grown then when I went to live with her. I wasn’t way up in no age or nothin’ but I was a teenage or something like that. I just went and took care of the children while she worked. She worked out and I took care of the children.

You cared for a lot of children, here in Morganton as well.

I’m treated nice by both white and black. All kind of white people will come up to see me. Them in town heard so much of me and I’ve done so much and they stop by to see me. Some of thems stops and I don’t even know them and they say, “Margie, you remember me?” and I say, “I don’t know who you is,” and they say, “Yes you do too, you helped raise me and they tell me who they is.” It does me so much good. They just come in here and have a good time with me. I come from way back. I come from good stuff, not no bad stuff, you know. So I’m known by, Lord, I don’t know how many people, because I worked when I was young.

A lot of children in your neighborhood also know and love you.

Little children just take up with me. Lord, people would be lookin’ for their little children, they would be out there and their children would be on the porch with me! Standin’ around the chair, they’d dress up and come up to see me. They just loved me. I’d talk to them and play with them. One woman said, “I’ve been hunting my children and every time I find them here at your house!” I said, “They must like me or something.” I would get off from work and they’d be on that swing just goin’ so high and they would jump off and come runnin’ when they see’d me getting out of the car. Ain’t nothin’ they can say about me, I just let people know I am straight Margie, and I didn’t believe in what they went along with and they learned who I was and they would treat me as Margie.

Do you still get a lot of visitors?

Oh yes. There were some Mexican girls, they’ve done grown and moved on. They came to visit Aunt Marg. Them little girls came in and brought me bananas and a fig jar… something to drink, some orange juice. I’m good to children, I be nice to people. Honey, I don’t fool with the rough crowd. They understood who I was when they’d come down here. I sat on my porch a lot. They learned who I was, they treat me as Margie.

Were there some disturbances in your neighborhood?

I never had no trouble with nobody. Never. They didn’t bother me. I told them at the office, I said I’m movin’ down in there, I be paying my rent and I said, whatever be gonin’ on down there, I’m not going to put up with it. ’Cause if I’m paying my rent I expect to be in a place where I won’t be bothered with all that. Out there in that office they will tell you about me. They will say, Mrs. Margie, she will keep you straight. They come by and ask if they can go to the store for me, that’s how they treat me.

I’ve never had a bad name or nothin’. They can’t say nothin’. I’ve been living here, 30 some years. Right here. It has not always been a real good place, because there was so many people at one time, down in here. But the law was so strict they were scared, you know. I can’t be bothered with that, what’s been past all these years. Whatever they do, it’s in they houses. They had to do it somewhere, because the law would get them. It’s not like it used to be.

That might have been 20 years ago. It’s been long ago when all of that was going on. Kind of at first when they began to build down in here and everyone started moving in. All kind of people. Now it’s not that way. You know, sometimes everywhere you’ve been ain’t always good. But one thing about that, I wouldn’t associate with them, and wouldn’t bother nobody. The policemen would stay on this route a lot… they couldn’t do but so much. When it was bad, they’d stay down in here and straighten it out you know. They couldn’t let that go on. They’d ask me questions when I would be on the porch. They would say, “Miss Margie, you don’t visit nobody do you.” And I would say, “Well, if I had a cause to visit somebody, if they were sick or somethin’ otherwise, no I don’t.” I let them know right straight, that I didn’t visit and set up under no body. And so they treated me as Margie. They called me Mrs. Margie.

Your neighbors really knew and respected you in this community.

My house used to be like a church in here. I used to have little missionaries on Sunday evening and bible study through the week on certain nights. This house is a church. Yeah, Aunt Margie was an evangelist. Yeah, I went and did a lot of work. But you know, I am here by the help of the Lord. I am serving him and still serving him the best I can, but I can’t get out and go like I used to. Now I go to St. John Holiness Church. It is on Branch Street here in Morganton. I’ve been going there for years. Sometimes I would open up their services and do different things in there. Yeah, I have, I’ve done a lot in the church.

And now the people you have served for so many years are serving you.

I got broke down and can’t do what I want to do any more, although they come and visit. But if I need to get out, one of the granddaughters will drive her car right up into the yard and I’ll hold one of thems arms and slide up in it and go where I need to go. We have good times together. You know it is different when I am sitting here, 94 years old.