In the 5th grade, my Grandma Latimore, my 4th grade sister, Bridgette, and I took a ride with my Grandpop Latimore from Virginia to Pennsylvania. It was the scariest ride of my life. Grandpop was an alcoholic who hid his drunkenness well. We were 29 miles into our trip when it became evident that he was in no shape to drive 300 miles. Grandma, begging him to turn around while he cursed her and the other cars that blared their horns at his 1965 Chevy station wagon. Grandma did not know how to drive and neither did I. Eventually, Grandpop agreed to turn around and head home, but not before making a U-turn in the middle of the two-lane highway that brought traffic to a screeching halt in both directions. If I thought the first 29 miles were bad, it paled in comparison to what was about to come. It was the most frightening night of my life. The following weekend at 11 years old, I convinced my Dad to teach me how to drive. I never wanted to be in that situation again and not be able to do something about it.
Writing Gas Money has allowed me to exorcise many demons from the past. Putting it on paper erased many negative feelings. I have gained a better understanding and appreciation of my parents’ lives. They were just people trying to do the best that they could. Sometimes they failed, but more often, they prevailed. They certainly bettered my life by instilling a thirst for knowledge and a curious mind, and for that, I am forever grateful. It just took me 50 years to realize that!
My dad is gone, but I still have my mom. She and I have become much closer over the past 10-15 years. I attribute that to me becoming a little wiser and more understanding. Mumma softened as she got older, and for that, I am REALLY thankful. The relationship between my sister and I has also become more amicable since I published the book. Much of my story is her story, and I think that me sharing our story has allowed her to express herself without uttering a word.
I would love to hear others' thoughts on how your familial relationships improved after you gained better perspective.
I dedicated Gas Money to Mumma who is the central character. In 1958 at the age of 16, her parents moved to Pennsylvania taking jobs as a butler and maid for a wealthy white family. Mumma remained in Virginia with the responsibility of raising her five siblings, aged 13, 11, 10, 8 and 5. She continued high school, washed, cooked, cleaned, hunted, chopped wood and did whatever else was necessary for the next 12 years until her parents returned for good in 1970. Mumma was a drill sergeant. I never quite understood what made her that way until I learned more about her life as I got older. By the time she was 20 years old, she had three additional mouths to feed with the addition of my 4-year-old cousin, my little sister and me. How she kept her sanity was hard for me to fathom.
There were many people that I wanted to thank for positively influencing my life, so I made a list, a list with 47 names on it, and I started writing anecdotes about something they said or did that helped me reach various destinations in life. It was as though they gave me gas money to get down the road, so that’s where the title came from. I also write about how I learned from many of the negatives that I grew up with and turned those into positives. Writing about these people was the best way that I could think of to thank them. Sadly, many of them are deceased, but their family members have read about their moms or dads or aunts or uncles, and they have reached out to thank me for writing these stories.
Music is so much a part of our lives. It certainly was a big part of mine. Throughout Gas Money, I insert songs that capture the time and place of my experiences. What are your Top Ten songs? Below are my Top Ten and why they’re important to me.
1. “My Girl” by The Temptations
Written by Smokey Robinson, the opening line, “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May,” provides great juxtaposition and shows how much in love the writer is. Nothing can affect his mood. He’s got so much honey the bees are envious. I read where Bob Dylan said the opening lyrics were the greatest lines ever written, and that’s good enough for me!
2. “Cracklin’ Rosie” by Neil Diamond
This song reminds me of listening to our Panasonic AM/FM radio while my Mom straightened my sister’s hair in the morning before heading out to elementary school in 1970.
3. “Grazing In the Grass” by The Friends of Distinction
As an 8-year-old, my Dad loved for me to sing the chorus because it was a tongue-twister that was sung very quickly. “I can dig it. He can dig it. She can dig it. We can dig it. They can dig it. You can dig it!” I could never enunciate it properly, and my Dad could not stop laughing! That song came out in 1969, and I still can’t get it right. My Dad is gone, but when I hear that song it makes me smile, and I can still hear his laugh.
4. “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother” by The Hollies
The lyrics remind me of my little brother who’s had his struggles, but I love him regardless. “He ain’t heavy, he’s MY brother. So on we go.”
5. “I’d Love to Change The World” by Ten Years After
It’s a song that reminds of how carefree I was a kid, riding my bike with the banana seat over at the all-white, private boarding school across the road from my house. That school became my home away from home from 1969-1973. Then, my parents broke up and everything changed, and I didn’t feel like I could change the world anymore.
6. “The Girl Can’t Help It” by Little Richard
This song reminds me of my Mom. It’s very upbeat, and my Mom loved driving fast in the 1960s and 1970s. 80 miles per hour was pretty much her minimum speed. Speed made her feel free from any of her struggles. She couldn’t help it!
7. “She’s a Lady” by Tom Jones
My little sister loved dancing to it! She thought she was auditioning to be a go-go dancer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In!
8. “Tune-Up” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars
It’s a very upbeat instrumental that is great for jitterbugging. Watching my Mom and Dad dance to it was the only time that I actually thought they even liked each other. They could really swirl and twirl to that song. It was like watching a black version of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
9. “You’re the Reason Why” by The Ebonys
This was a song that I often sang along with Lanny Stanley, the first black student who attended the all-white boarding school that was across the road from my house. He came there as a 17-year-old junior and became a big brother to me when I was 9 years old. Whenever that song played on his radio, it was “our” song.
10. “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
Written by Kris Kristofferson, I love the line, “I’d trade all my tomorrows for one single yesterday, to be holding Bobby’s body next to mine.” That to me is the definition of true love - forgoing your future for just one more day together.
It's a question we all should ask ourselves. None of us got to where we are alone. The people I chose to write about often filled my tank for "free" with their words or deeds, and although I didn't know it at the time, they gave me all the gas money I would ever need.
Please share your Gas Money story.