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The Roots of Roswell

It was the last place Gia (let alone anyone) thought she’d ever find herself; but to survive and move on with her life, she had no other choice but to go through it.

 

 

Six Months Earlier …

 

 

 

 

     Even she had to admit that being out of Valley High School almost thirty years, she could still turn heads. A size four, not one wrinkle, and no inclination: she was approaching fifty. She wore the latest styles, rivaling those half her age. Her crown-full of beautiful natural curls bounced on her head like miniature springs with every step she took. Gia was charismatic and had a bubbly personality to go along with her good looks. When she walked into any room, people took notice. And if you weren’t sure of yourself, her confidence alone could intimidate you. But Gia was clueless at the unwarranted attention she received wherever she went. A woman who’s always known what she wanted—well, at least that’s what she believed her entire life—and how to get it, since the day she formed her first words.

     She was an accomplished public relations executive for a Fortune 500 company in the Atlanta area. A career she flourished in, although she was the wife of a local pastor. Not that being the wife of a pastor was a bad thing, but juggling a full-time job and spearheading ministry and community charities—you could say, her plate was full. But Gia was in her element. She worked hard at keeping herself busy (a well-learned trait she picked up from her mother), amongst other things. Gia wasn't the typical pastor's wife either. She never played sheet music on the piano or sang hymns in the choir. Nor did she have the desire to host Tuesday afternoon tea parties with the ladies’ auxiliary, and she never wore a hat. You’d never catch her dead in one, except that one time she lost a bet to her husband. 

     Gia always hated the title First Lady and often wished the members of their congregation would stop calling her that. She thought it to be outdated and better reserved for, say, aristocrats or dignitaries. It never mattered to her if she ever spoke before a crowd and getting her to teach a midweek Bible study... that one, you could forget about. Gia always said she enjoyed working behind the scene. You would think with her beauty, the spotlight was hers to grab. But that was never her preference. What ignited Gia, however, was worshipping along with the praise team as they belted out bars of the latest contemporary songs.

     She’d never been in love with the name Gia growing up, but learned to embrace it as she got older (she loved the idea she was different that way). Gia always sought to be unlike anyone else. And as a little girl, she never wanted to have the same toys or clothes as her friends, which made shopping torture for her mother. The reason she has a personal seamstress who makes her one-of-a-kind outfits. Even to this day, if she got wind of someone having the same thing she had, she would immediately return it to the store. As if keeping it an extra day was somehow taboo. I guess we all have our quirks... some of us more than others. When she was younger, she found out on her many trips to her second home (the library) the meaning of her name, which is God’s gracious gift. She got her name—which she jokingly said rolled off your tongue like someone shooing away a cat—from her mother. Who said she heard it on a once in a lifetime trip to the beautiful hillside village of Collodi in Tuscany, Italy (while pregnant back in the early 60s) and vowed to one day use it to name her daughter.                                                               

     Gia’s twenty-fifth college reunion was right around the corner, and she was excited at the very thought of seeing her old college roommates and classmates she hadn’t seen in years. She would even have time to see her childhood friends—Lisa, Carla, and Casey—while there. How could she pass up the opportunity? Although, she was giddier about seeing her childhood friends than attending the reunion. They still get together for their annual girls' trip. Their sabbaticals have been a part of their yearly routine since the early 1990s after they graduated from college. Just think; she almost didn’t make it. Her husband insisted and told her it would be good for her to get out of the house. Get out of the house? But Gia was never home. She knew what he meant, though. They became empty-nesters when their youngest moved away to college, so what would it hurt to get away for one weekend? 

     She wanted her husband to come along, but he’d scheduled a week-long conference that same weekend. For Gia, it was only going to be a trip to catch up on old times with her college roommates and the girls, and time for some much-needed R&R. Not to mention, she was about to celebrate her early retirement and twenty-five years of marriage, so she needed the break. Once the celebrating was over, she was looking forward to settling down and enjoying her second half of life. Little did she know it was going to be a weekend she'd never forget—a sinister experience that would thrust her into the national spotlight and impact her life forever.

Early on… Roswell, Georgia

 

 

Gia's parents moved to Roswell, Georgia, (about 30 minutes north of Atlanta) in the early 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement. At the time, Roswell was an affluent white community of almost 5,000 people. It had beautiful tree-lined streets and mountainous antebellum homes so large, they almost looked out of place in the small southern town. Their claim to fame is that President Teddy Roosevelt's maternal family was one of the three founding families of the city. A brave move on her father's part, seeing as if Atlanta was only a few miles away, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only stirring up trouble—so they said. Both their parents thought they were crazy for making such a foolish decision—leaving the comfort of Atlanta where Blacks were making a name for themselves and playing a big part in establishing a booming economy—to settle in a community where they could be harassed, hurt (or worse) killed. But moving to an unknown town during racial tensions didn't bother them one bit.

     Born Gia Elise Bennett, on April 4, 1968, they said; her mother, who went into distress upon hearing of MLK's assassination, went into labor, giving birth to her later that night. She was the pride and joy of her mother and father. Some even said she was the saving grace of her parents, Campbell and Lee. He just hated that name and often wondered if his parents played a cruel joke on him for giving it to him. He preferred people call him Camp for short and would give you the evil eye if you dare call him anything other than that. Her mom, Lee, was a stunning petite lady. When you saw her, you knew right away who Gia got her good looks from. Lee was intelligent beyond her years and was known as a child prodigy. She started college at 16, and could have easily become a medical doctor—something her father encouraged her to do—but settled on education at the prompting of her mother. She was the homecoming queen of 1959 at Spelman College (a black historic all-female college in Atlanta), where she hoped her daughter would attend one day. Lee's mother went to see the premiere of Gone With the Wind in Atlanta back in April 1940 in a colored theater, four months after the December premiere. The Loew's Grand Theatre in Atlanta, where the premiere took place, didn’t have segregated seating because, as everyone knew, it was unlawful for Blacks and Whites to interact back then. Despite the racial overtones of the movie, she fell in love with Scarlett O'Hara's character and even more so with the actress who played her—Vivien Leigh (whom Lee got her name from). But her mom changed the spelling. She didn’t want her family calling her uppity and all. Lee's mother would have named her Lena after the great Lena Horne but decided on Lee instead because it had an air of mystery about it. Besides, it seemed as if every black girl across the nation born in the 1940s was being named Lena. I guess they all had the same idea as Lee’s mother.    

       Camp and Lee married in the spring of 1960 (soon after Lee graduated from college) at the Fulton County courthouse in downtown Atlanta. Camp never attended college. He always joked and said he didn't need to because his father taught him everything he needed to know about the family business from the time he started walking. Camp had a way of exaggerating things, which only made his gregarious personality larger than life, drawing people to him. Some would even say Camp didn’t have an enemy in this world.

      The Bennetts were heavy into the civil rights movement and (despite both of their parents' reservations) had no qualms at all about moving to a white town. It was a secret to no one they came from a laundry list of civil rights pioneers, with Gia's aunt Sadie May being the original (I'm not sitting in the back of the bus today) lady. She even had her case go to the Supreme Court. But because of politics, Sadie Mae never got the recognition she deserved. It never bothered her one bit. She lived a fulfilled life, got married, and raise three beautiful children. Long after she passed away, they made her story known to the public, even making it into a Hollywood movie. Everyone knew her family for their graciousness. They were never the ones to make a big fuss about anything. They always remembered what Grandma Bessie would say, ... “Ain’t no need worrying, cause’ God knows and sees it all, and will make it right".

     Considering there weren't many Blacks in Roswell, the Bennetts were well received by their neighbors. Camp would say it was because of Lee's sweet potato pies and other delectable desserts she baked at Lee's Bakery. A little shop Lee opened on a whim because all her lady friends kept suggesting to her to sell her sweet treats to the public, which had everybody in town (including the mayor) salivating for her delicacies. She even decorated the little shop with such exquisite taste, that all her customers thought they were in an outside cafe on the streets of Rue des Rosiers in Paris. 

         Lee was a perfectionist and, particulars were her things. Her desserts were irresistible because she was a stickler for details. Lee followed every recipe her mother taught her to a T and, as the years passed—through trial and error—added her special touch to each one of them. She didn't think her business would last long though, but boy was she glad she didn't close shop. When Bennetts Furniture had a setback in sales in the summer of 1969, it was Lee's little shop, on the corner of Abbott and Oak Street, that kept the family afloat. Besides, who could have hatred in their heart for a woman who made a mean sweet potato pie, especially down south.

     Camp's enslaved great-grandfather was a self-taught skilled blacksmith. The story has it that as a little boy on the plantation; he found a piece of metal in the field, and with his childlike curiosity, twisted and shaped it into a replica of a beautiful bird. His artistry for detail was impeccable, which left everyone awed by his work. And as they say—the rest is history. He passed that trade down to his son, Camp's grandfather. Grandpa Bennett was a shrewd businessman. He used his skills to make a good living for himself and his family. His work was matchless. It was requested for almost every mansion built in the South during that time. Camp's father took the business a step further and turned it into a successful furniture store. Camp felt privileged to inherit the furniture shop, business acumen, and fortune of his father. It was a good thing too, as Camp took the reins and made it a household name. He opened Bennetts Furniture stores in and around the Atlanta area, allowing Gia to live a privileged life that not  many black girls back then ever experienced. But she never let it go to her head. She was always a sweet, polite, and well-mannered girl who mostly stayed that way throughout her life. Well, she tried to. So she couldn’t figure out why one of the few black girls at her school, Denise Cook, disliked her so much. Gia hoped they would become the best of friends but soon realized that was never going to happen. Although Gia was well-liked and loved for her friendly personality, later in her life, it would play a role in her involvement in an unthinkable act.                                                    

                                               

                   

     As you walked into the Bennett's home, it was obvious they owned a furniture store. The most fabulous pieces you ever would see adorned their Colonial-style home. Although baking was in her blood, Lee’s first love was interior design. She passed her eye for decorating down to her daughter, Gia, as if it were some kind of DNA found in the gene pool. Lee always stunned her friends with her effortless ability to put together a room. She had dreams of one day going to New York to become an interior designer, but that was just fantasizing. Lee's mother would often say to her that Blacks were forbidden from doing those sorts of things and she should try not to push the envelope. Not that Lee’s mother didn’t believe in her daughter’s talent, it’s just that she knew the opposition and discrimination she’d face and only wanted to protect her. It was a decision Lee has always regretted. So it relegated her to decorating the homes of her friends. Word got out about her skills to the wife of the mayor of Roswell, and she commissioned Lee to decorate their family vacation home off the coast of Savannah. The sad part is, Lee was so talented she could have, without a doubt, gone to New York and competed with the best of interior designers, but because she was Black, Lee never got that opportunity. But her keen eye for interior decorating played an instrumental part in the massive growth of the family’s business. She steered Camp in the right direction, picking out some of the most exquisite and unique pieces their clientele would fall in love with. Those same people would remain lifelong loyal customers who continued to purchase from their stores, for years to come. Lee’s love for the finer things in life and the fact that her husband owned one of the highest quality furniture stores in town didn’t help her furniture shopping obsession one bit. Camp often joked and said that if Lee had her way, she would get buried in an antique Tudor style king-sized bed.

 

 

Entering the beautifully decorated living room, there it was. Right above the massive brick fireplace hung an oil painting of the prettiest little brown-eyed baby boy you'd ever seen. His skin was the color of caramel, and his tuft of curly black hair was so fluffy it looked like he had a head full of black bubbles. Lee still gets a lump in her throat every time she passes the portrait. It was a painting of Matthew Lee Bennett, Gia's older brother. He was born May 16, 1963, 7 lbs 6 oz, at 11:46 am on a beautiful spring morning. It seemed as if everything was perfect that day. The birds chirped in unison; the wind blew serenely, and the temperature was just right. 

     Everyone thought for sure Camp and Lee would name him Camp Jr, since he wanted a boy so. But Camp told Lee no way was he ever going to name his son, a name he hated so much and didn't want to put that burden on anyone, let alone his own flesh and blood. They decided on the name Matthew after skimming through the Bible, saying that naming their baby after one of Jesus' disciples couldn't hurt him at all. It was a difficult labor. At one point, everyone thought they would lose both Lee and the baby, but after 48 hours of intense labor, Matthew finally made his way into the world. 

     Camp and Lee ached for a baby. And once they got the furniture store to a place where it was starting to make some actual money, they started a family. Lee always wanted a boy and a girl and when she found out she was pregnant with Matthew, she was ecstatic. She wanted to get as much done as possible. That included taking a once in a lifetime trip to Italy, before settling down to raise her family. When Matthew was born, he was the prize of both Camp and Lee's families. The first male to be born on either side; he was the cutest thing too. Camp already had him playing for the Green Bay Packers before the boy even started eating solid food.

It was a cold November evening, even for Georgia standards. After Camp and Lee finished dinner, they headed upstairs to look in on Matthew, who took a long nap earlier that day. This wasn’t his habitual routine. This made Lee question why he didn't interrupt their dinner with his piercing cry (like he so often did), almost as if Matthew tried to reassure them he was okay. Entering the room, she knew something wasn't right. Her little boy would always let out a big giggle as if he was playing a game of cat and mouse with his mother. He knew she would always come running in when he cried. But this time he wasn’t giggling and didn't cry or whimper a sound. As she walked into the room, it was quiet and he was motionless. The doctor confirmed Camp and Lee's worst nightmare. Matthew died in his sleep of an undetected enlarged heart— just shy of turning six months old—one week prior to President Kennedy’s assassination and two weeks before Thanksgiving. What was the start of the holiday season had turned into a season of mourning that hovered over the Bennetts for what seemed like an eternity.

     Lee was never quite the same after that. Matthew’s funeral was the saddest thing ever. It took so much out of her. She buried him in that same outfit he was wearing in the portrait. A short-sleeved baby blue romper with matching booties, hand-knitted by her mother. Lee insisted to the funeral director on him wearing it. He suggested — because it was fall — she should perhaps consider something not so springy to bury him in, which infuriated Lee. She rolled her eyes in disgust and stomped off, leaving Camp standing there by himself in the director’s office to handle business. They picked out a pearl white coffin, no bigger than the size of a cooler you’d take on day trip to the park. Lee thought the white against his caramel skin and baby blue outfit made Matthew look even more angelic. And said it was cruel for funeral homes to make coffins that small, as if babies and children dying should be something that never happened. 

     Lee was a pitiful sight, and lost so much weight in that short time. After Matthew's birth, she could never put much weight back on. And his death made it that much harder. Doctors told her she was anemic when she was younger, which made her thin; her reason for eating a can of beets every week. It was a ritual Lee always detested. Camp also thought the ongoing grief that enveloped the nation from the President's assassination made Lee’s recovery a slow, difficult one.

On the ride back home from Matthew’s funeral, Lee was quiet and despondent. Camp tried his best to comfort his wife, but failed in his attempt. She tuned everyone out for the next six months. Matthew's nursery remained the same as it was the day he died. She hadn’t even changed the sheets. Lee made sure no one set foot in the room either, turning it into a somber shrine to honor what could have been with her beautiful brown-eyed baby boy. They kept it that way for years until one day when Gia (about seven or eight) was playing hide-and-go-seek with her good friend Carla. Unaware, she entered the room. Lee never raised her voice much, but when she found out Gia went in, she scolded the little girl to no end. It was so bad that Camp had to go over to apologize and explain to Carla's parents why Lee had gotten so upset. They empathized with the Bennetts, but Lee just felt awful about the whole situation.

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