Jeremiah’s Song by Walter Dean Myers Iknowed my cousin Ellie was gonna be mad when Macon

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Jeremiah’s Song by Walter Dean Myers
Iknowed my cousin Ellie was gonna be mad when Macon

Smith come around to the house. She didn’t have no use

for Macon even when things was going right, and when

Grandpa Jeremiah was fixing to die I just knowed she

wasn’t gonna be liking him hanging around. Grandpa Jeremiah

raised Ellie after her folks died and they used to be

real close. Then she got to go on to college and when she

come back the first year she was different. She didn’t want

to hear all them stories he used to tell her anymore. Ellie

said the stories wasn’t true, and that’s why she didn’t want

to hear them.

I didn’t know if they was true or not. Tell the truth I

didn’t think much on it either way, but I liked to hear them

stories. Grandpa Jeremiah said they wasn’t stories anyway,

they was songs.

“They the songs of my people,” he used to say.

I didn’t see how they was songs, not regular songs anyway.

Every little thing we did down in Curry seemed to matter

to Ellie that first summer she come home from college.

You couldn’t do nothin’ that was gonna please her. She

didn’t even come to church much. ’Course she come on

Sunday or everybody would have had a regular fit, but she

didn’t come on Thursday nights and she didn’t come on

Saturday even though she used to sing in the gospel choir.

“I guess they teachin’ her somethin’ worthwhile up there

at Greensboro,” Grandpa Jeremiah said to Sister Todd. “I

sure don’t see what it is, though.”

“You ain’t never had no book learning, Jeremiah,” Sister

Todd shot back. She wiped at where a trickle of sweat made

a little path through the white dusting powder she put on

her chest to keep cool. “Them old ways you got ain’t got

nothing for these young folks.”

“I guess you right,” Grandpa Jeremiah said.

He said it but I could see he didn’t like it none. He was a

big man with a big head and had most all his hair even if it

was white. All that summer, instead of sitting on the porch

telling stories like he used to when I was real little, he

would sit out there by himself while Ellie stayed in the

house and watched the television or read a book. Sometimes

I would think about asking him to tell me one of them

stories he used to tell but they was too scary now that I

didn’t have nobody to sleep with but myself. I asked Ellie to

sleep with me but she wouldn’t.

“You’re nine years old,” she said, sounding real proper.

“You’re old enough to sleep alone.”

I knew that. I just wanted her to sleep with me because I

liked sleeping with her. Before she went off to college she

used to put cocoa butter on her arms and face and it would

smell real nice. When she come back from college she put

something else on, but that smelled nice too.

It was right after Ellie went back to school that Grandpa

Jeremiah had him a stroke and Macon started coming

around. I think his mama

probably made him come

at first, but you could see

he liked it. Macon had

always been around, sitting

over near the stuck

window at church or going

on the blueberry truck

when we went picking

down at Mister Gregory’s

place. For a long time he

was just another kid, even

though he was older’n me,

but then, all of a sudden,

he growed something

fierce. I used to be up to

his shoulder one time and

then, before I could turn around good, I was only up to his

shirt pocket. He changed too. When he used to just hang

around with the other boys and play ball or shoot at birds

he would laugh a lot. He didn’t laugh so much anymore

and I figured he was just about grown. When Grandpa got

sick he used to come around and help out with things

around the house that was too hard for me to do. I mean,

I could have done all the chores, but it would just take

me longer.

When the work for the day was finished and the sows fed,

Grandpa would kind of ease into one of his stories and

Macon, he would sit and listen to them and be real interested.

I didn’t mind listening to the stories when Grandpa

told them to Macon because he would be telling them in the

middle of the afternoon and they would be past my mind by

the time I had to go to bed.

Macon had an old guitar he used to mess with, too. He

wasn’t too bad on it, and sometimes Grandpa would tell

him to play us a tune. He could play something he called

“the Delta Blues” real good, but when Sister Todd or somebody

from the church come around he’d play “Precious

Lord” or “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

Grandpa Jeremiah had been feeling poorly from that

stroke, and one of his legs got a little drag to it. Just about

the time Ellie come from school the next

summer he was real sick. He was breathing

loud so you could hear it even in the next

room and he would stay in bed a lot even

when there was something that needed

doing or fixing.

“I don’t think he’s going to make it much

longer,” Dr. Crawford said. “The only thing I

can do is to give him something for the


“Are you sure of your diagnosis?” Ellie

asked. She was sitting around the table

with Sister Todd, Deacon Turner, and his

little skinny yellow wife.

Dr. Crawford looked at Ellie like he was

surprised to hear her talking. “Yes, I’m

sure,” he said. “He had tests a few weeks

ago and his condition was bad then.”

“How much time he got?” Sister Todd


“Maybe a week or two at best,” Dr. Crawford


When he said that, Deacon Turner’s wife

started crying and goin’ on and I give her a

hard look but she just went on. I was the one who loved

Grandpa Jeremiah the most and she didn’t hardly even

know him so I didn’t see why she was crying.

Everybody started tiptoeing around the house after that.

They would go in and ask Grandpa Jeremiah if he was

comfortable and stuff like that or take him some food or a

cold glass of lemonade. Sister Todd come over and stayed

with us. Mostly what she did is make supper and do a lot of

praying, which was good because I figured that maybe God

would do something to make Grandpa Jeremiah well. When

she wasn’t doing that she was piecing on a fancy quilt she

was making for some white people in Wilmington.

Ellie, she went around asking everybody how they felt

about Dr. Crawford and then she went into town and asked

about the tests and things. Sister Jenkins asked her if she

thought she knowed more than Dr. Crawford, and Ellie

rolled her eyes at her, but Sister Jenkins was reading out

her Bible and didn’t make no notice of it.

Then Macon come over.

He had been away on what he called “a little piece of a

job” and hadn’t heard how bad off Grandpa Jeremiah was.

When he come over he talked to Ellie and she told him

what was going on and then he got him a soft drink from

the refrigerator and sat out on the porch and before you

know it he was crying.

You could look at his face and tell the difference between

him sweating and the tears. The sweat was close against

his skin and shiny and the tears come down fatter and

more sparkly.

Macon sat on the porch, without saying a word, until the

sun went down and the crickets started chirping and carrying

on. Then he went in to where Grandpa Jeremiah was

and stayed in there for a long time.

Sister Todd was saying that Grandpa Jeremiah needed

his rest and Ellie went in to see what Macon was doing.

Then she come out real mad.

“He got Grandpa telling those old stories again,” Ellie

said. “I told him Grandpa needed his rest and for him not

to be staying all night.”

He did leave soon, but bright and early the next morning

Macon was back again. This time he brought his guitar

with him and he went on in to Grandpa Jeremiah’s room. I

went in, too.

Grandpa Jeremiah’s room smelled terrible. It was all

closed up so no drafts could get on him and the whole room

was smelled down with disinfect1 and medicine. Grandpa

Jeremiah lay propped up on the bed and he was so gray he

looked scary. His hair wasn’t combed down and his head

on the pillow with his white hair sticking out was enough to

send me flying if Macon hadn’t been there. He was skinny,

too. He looked like his skin got loose on his bones, and

when he lifted his arms, it hung down like he was just

wearing it instead of it being a part of him.

Macon sat slant-shouldered with his guitar across his

lap. He was messin’ with the guitar, not making any music,

but just going over the strings as Grandpa talked.

“Old Carrie went around out back to where they kept the

pigs penned up and she felt a cold wind across her

face. . . .” Grandpa Jeremiah was telling the story about

how a old woman out-tricked the Devil and got her son

back. I had heard the story before, and I knew it was pretty

scary. “When she felt the cold breeze she didn’t blink nary

an eye, but looked straight ahead. . . .”

All the time Grandpa Jeremiah was talking I could see

Macon fingering his guitar. I tried to imagine what it would

be like if he was actually plucking the strings. I tried to fix

my mind on that because I didn’t like the way the story

went with the old woman wrestling with the Devil.

We sat there for nearly all the afternoon until Ellie and

Sister Todd come in and said that supper was ready. Me

and Macon went out and ate some collard greens, ham

hocks, and rice. Then Macon he went back in and listened

to some more of Grandpa’s stories until it was time for him

to go home. I wasn’t about to go in there and listen to no

stories at night.

Dr. Crawford come around a few days later and said that

Grandpa Jeremiah was doing a little better.

“You think the Good Lord gonna pull him through?” Sister

Todd asked.

“I don’t tell the Good Lord what He should or should not

be doing,” Dr. Crawford said, looking over at Sister Todd

and at Ellie. “I just said that my patient seems to be doing

okay for his condition.”

“He been telling Macon all his stories,” I said.

“Macon doesn’t seem to understand that Grandpa

Jeremiah needs his strength,” Ellie said. “Now that

he’s improving, we don’t want him to have a setback.”

“No use in stopping him from telling his stories,”

Dr. Crawford said. “If it makes him feel

good it’s as good as any medicine I can give


I saw that this didn’t set with Ellie, and

when Dr. Crawford had left I asked her why.

“Dr. Crawford means well,” she said, “but we have to get

away from the kind of life that keeps us in the past.”

She didn’t say why we should be trying to get away from

the stories and I really didn’t care too much. All I knew was

that when Macon was sitting in the room with Grandpa

Jeremiah I wasn’t nearly as scared as I used to be when it

was just me and Ellie listening. I told that to Macon.

“You getting to be a big man, that’s all,” he said.

That was true. Me and Macon was getting to be good

friends, too. I didn’t even mind so much when he started

being friends with Ellie later. It seemed kind of natural,

almost like Macon was supposed to be there with us

instead of just visiting.

Grandpa wasn’t getting no better, but he wasn’t getting

no worse, either.

“You liking Macon now?” I asked Ellie when we got to the

middle of July. She was dishing out a plate of smothered

chops for him and I hadn’t even heard him ask for anything

to eat.

“Macon’s funny,” Ellie said, not answering my question.

“He’s in there listening to all of those old stories like he’s

really interested in them. It’s almost as if he and Grandpa

Jeremiah are talking about something more than the stories,

a secret language.”

I didn’t think I was supposed to say anything about that

to Macon, but once, when Ellie, Sister Todd, and Macon

were out on the porch shelling butter beans after Grandpa

got tired and was resting, I went into his room and told him

what Ellie had said.

“She said that?” Grandpa Jeremiah’s face was skinny

and old looking but his eyes looked like a baby’s, they was

so bright.

“Right there in the kitchen is where she said it,” I said.

“And I don’t know what it mean but I was wondering about


“I didn’t think she had any feeling for them stories,”

Grandpa Jeremiah said. “If she think we talking secrets,

maybe she don’t.”

“I think she getting a feeling for Macon,” I said,

“That’s okay, too,” Grandpa Jeremiah said. “They both


“Yeah, but them stories you be telling, Grandpa, they

about old people who lived a long time ago,” I said.

“Well, those the folks you got to know about,” Grandpa

Jeremiah said. “You think on what those folks been

through, and what they was feeling, and you add it up with

what you been through and what you been feeling, then

you got you something.”

“What you got Grandpa?”

“You got you a bridge,” Grandpa said. “And a meaning.

Then when things get so hard you about to break, you can

sneak across that bridge and see some folks who went

before you and see how they didn’t break. Some got bent

and some got twisted and a few fell along the way, but they

didn’t break.”

“Am I going to break, Grandpa?”

“You? As strong as you is?” Grandpa Jeremiah pushed

himself up on his elbow and give me a look. “No way you

going to break, boy. You gonna be strong as they come.

One day you gonna tell all them stories I told you to your

young’uns and they’ll be as strong as you.”

“Suppose I ain’t got no stories, can I make some up?”

“Sure you can, boy. You make ’em up and twist ’em

around. Don’t make no mind. Long as you got ’em.”

“Is that what Macon is doing?” I asked. “Making up stories

to play on his guitar?”

“He’ll do with ’em what he see fit, I suppose,” Grandpa

Jeremiah said. “Can’t ask more than that from a man.”

It rained the first three days of August. It wasn’t a hard

rain but it rained anyway. The mailman said it was good for

the crops over East but I didn’t care about that so I didn’t

pay him no mind. What I did mind was when it rain like

that the field mice come in and get in things like the flour

bin and I always got the blame for leaving it open.

When the rain stopped I was pretty glad. Macon come

over and sat with Grandpa and had something to eat with

us. Sister Todd come over, too.

“How Grandpa doing?” Sister Todd asked. “They been

asking about him in the church.”

“He’s doing all right,” Ellie said.

“He’s kind of quiet today,” Macon said. “He was just talking

about how the hogs needed breeding.”

“He must have run out of stories to tell,” Sister Todd said.

“He’ll be repeating on himself like my father used to do.

That’s the way I hear old folks get.”

Everybody laughed at that because Sister Todd was

pretty old, too. Maybe we was all happy because the sun

was out after so much rain. When Sister Todd went in to

take Grandpa Jeremiah a plate of potato salad with no

mayonnaise like he liked it, she told him about how people

was asking for him and he told her to tell them he was

doing okay and to remember him in their prayers.

Sister Todd came over the next afternoon, too, with some

rhubarb pie with cheese on it, which is my favorite pie.

When she took a piece into Grandpa Jeremiah’s room she

come right out again and told Ellie to go fetch the Bible.

It was a hot day when they had the funeral. Mostly everybody

was there. The church was hot as anything, even

though they had the window open. Some yellowjacks flew in

and buzzed around Sister Todd’s niece and then around

Deacon Turner’s wife and settled right on her hat and stayed

there until we all stood and sang “Soon-a Will Be Done.”

At the graveyard Macon played “Precious Lord” and I

cried hard even though I told myself that I wasn’t going to

cry the way Ellie and Sister Todd was, but it was such a

sad thing when we left and Grandpa Jeremiah was still out

to the grave that I couldn’t help it.

During the funeral and all, Macon kind of told everybody

where to go and where to sit and which of the three cars to

ride in. After it was over he come by the house and sat on

the front porch and played on his guitar. Ellie was standing

leaning against the rail and she was crying but it wasn’t a

hard crying. It was a soft crying, the kind that last inside of

you for a long time.

Macon was playing a tune I hadn’t heard before. I

thought it might have been what he was working at when

Grandpa Jeremiah was telling him those stories and I

watched his fingers but I couldn’t tell if it was or not. It

wasn’t nothing special, that tune Macon was playing,

maybe halfway between them Delta blues he would do

when Sister Todd wasn’t around and something you would

play at church. It was something different and something

the same at the same time. I watched his fingers go over

that guitar and figured I could learn that tune one day if I

had a mind to.

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