Archive | Family RSS feed for this section

What’s a mother to do?

7 May

Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity sponsored a lecture featuring Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture on May 5.

Recently, Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, gave a talk at Stanford about the challenges he has faced as he develops the museum, which is scheduled to be completed in 2015.  Bunch talked about the “treasures” people often bring him as potential items for the museum’s collection.

Bunch told the story of a pillowcase someone brought him that had been passed among family members for several generations. The pillowcase was embroidered by an enslaved African American woman who had just learned the day before that she would be sold.

The embroidery was a message to her daughter:

“In this pillowcase, you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits, but what you will find is that it’s filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. “

According to Bunch, that mother never saw her daughter again.

Bunch’s story put into perspective all the chatter about tiger and helicopter moms. There’s even a new one, snowplow parents  – who try to move all the difficulties out of their children’s lives.  I used to say that most of my black friends thought I was a pushover when it came to parenting and many of my white friends thought I was too tough. I’m not sure what my other friends thought.  In the end, all of our children have made us pretty damn proud.

Kimberly Elise, Oprah Winfrey and Thande Newton in "Beloved." Winfrey is a member of the advisory board of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In an age when everybody’s got an opinion about how children should be raised, protected, nurtured, etc., the pillowcase story makes it all seem so silly. Who among us would have had the resolve to embroider that farewell before being sold to another slave owner?  Or who would not have been tempted to do what Sethe did in Toni Morrison’s Beloved?

Maybe this is a downer as Mother’s Day approaches.  It’s not meant to be.  It’s intended to be a tribute to mothers who, under the worst and best circumstances, did and do their best with every ounce of what they have.  Here’s to our mothers, who made sure we had clothes on our backs and something to eat and who stitched together a legacy of love that has sustained us through generations.

On a more uplifting note, and speaking of generations, here’s what my father wrote for Mother’s Day in 1937.

The New York Age, May 8, 1937

The Maryland, D.C. connection

17 Apr The Williams house on the Farm

Recently,  I left what my father would have referred to as an unkind “Jupiter Pluvius” behind in California to attend a professional meeting in D. C. While I was in the area, I took a bit of a trip down memory lane. My first stop was a visit with my oldest friend, Melana – we’ve known each other since we were eight  –  and her husband Derek. Then I hung out with my niece M’Balia and her sons, Shomari and (Little) Ron. M’Balia and I drove up to Havre de Grace, Maryland, where my mother spent many a summer with her cousins   – the Williams branch of the family. This family of 10 kids was legendary in our household.

Clockwise from top row, My mother's cousins Mildred, Irving and Ruth, my niece M'Balia, yours truly, Cousin Jimmy, husband of Cousin Catherine (seated next to him), Cousins Eva and Mary.

They grew up on a farm on Old Robin Hood Road.  Their mother, Hattie,  and my mother’s father, John Henry Brown, were brother and sister. The Williams’s were highly educated with doctoral, medical and other professional degrees many, but not all, from historically black institutions. And they called my mother “Willie,” short for Wilhelmina, her middle name. This probably had to do with the fact that there were a lot of Marys on both sides of the family.  When M’Balia and I made our plans to visit the farm in Havre de Grace, we expected to visit with the three cousins who now live in the house they grew up in and their sister, Catherine, who built a home on the land after she and her husband, Jimmy, retired.  But they must have sent out the word, because every living sibling showed up to greet us. They shared family stories, read this blog with fascination and encouragement, cheered on M’Balia, who was on the cusp of earning her first degree in criminal justice with high honors. And they insisted on treating us to lunch.

I found out some things: Why their eldest sister, Ruth, was not listed on the 1930 census document I found. (She was already married and had left home.)

I also learned that my mother’s nuclear family was the second for her father. That John Henry had had a first marriage and that I  have a living cousin named Rosie  I never knew existed.

The Williams house on the Farm

As for my father, my mother’s cousin Eva said, surprisingly, that she had only met him once, when he and my mother came for a visit to the farm. “He was very quiet,” she recalled.

On to D. C. I had a chance to visit with my friend Laurence, who I met when I first came to Stanford in 1995. Back then,  her oldest son, Benjamin, and my daughter, Zuri, were just five years old. The last time I’d seen Laurence, she and I, her husband, Michel, and their daughter, Chloé, braved the frigid January weather to witness Barack Obama’s inauguration.

And speaking of  D. C., I found this column my father wrote following his first visit to the nation’s capital in the fall of 1934. Unlike the chilly but glorious weather I enjoyed the weekend I was there, he saw the city on what sounds like a particularly rainy day.
I wonder what he would have thought about the fact that the nation has its first black president. I passed the Old Executive Office Building, which he mentions was under construction in 1934 and is covered with scaffolding today.

“Washington, with its tree-bedecked boulevards, is a beautiful city  – even on a rainy day,” Ebenezer wrote.  “Au revoir, I hope not goodbye.”

Who do we think we are?

9 Apr

Last  Friday morning, one of my Facebook friends and a favorite genealogist, Lisa Lee,  posted a “press release”  on her wall announcing that the Walt Disney Company had made a deal to purchase Ancestry.com. The company planned to create a thrill ride called “Memory Lane,” which would “take guests on a magical journey through their own ancestral history.”  The ride would require an advance booking and a three-generation pedigree chart to give  operators time to “create a customized experience,” complete with photos, sounds, images and historical facts about their ancestor’s lives.

Some Facebook visitors saw through it right away. I, following the journalistic tenet, “Even if your mother tells you, check it out,”  searched for other evidence of the acquisition.

It was an April Fool’s joke. But  good one.

Later that evening, I watched the NBC version of Who do You Think You Are? a program in which celebrities trace their roots.  I’ve learned a lot about Lionel Richie, whose great-grandfather J. Louis Brown, was a principal organizer and Supreme Grand Archon of the Knights of Wise Men, a fraternal organization for black men that formed after the Civil War. It was affirming to hear Richie talk about his community in Tuskegee, Ala. The adults who surrounded him and his sister, Deborah, were  doctors and lawyers  and holders of PhDs. These adults protected their children from the horrors of Jim Crow. “If the Klan was coming to protest through the streets of Tuskegee, our parents put us to bed early,” said Richie, who was raised on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. (That episode got me thinking about, Richie’s  daughter Nicole, and what the experience of tracing one’s ancestry must be like for adopted children. )

Other episodes this  season have featured Sex in the City’s Kim Cattrall and character actor Steve Buscemi.

The April 1 episode on actress Gwyneth Paltrow hit home  when it revealed that her maternal great-great grandmother, Rosamund Stout, was  born in Barbados. It was fun to see genealogist Pat Stafford walk Paltrow though Barbados historical documents at the country’s national archives, which we visited in December looking for clues to my father’s family. With Stafford’s help,  Paltrow learned that her great-great grandmother was orphaned at 13 years old and at 18 boarded a commercial ship to the United States.  Pedro Welch, a professor at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill,  offered Paltrow some background on the social climate on 19th-century Barbados and helped her understand why Rosamund and her older sister , the only passengers  –  and perhaps the only females  –  boarded  a ship carrying salt and Colonial products. The commercial vessel was less expensive than a passenger ship, Welch explained. He added that after  slaves were emancipated in 1934, lower-middle-class white women lost their  jobs to free black women with the same skills who were willing to work for much less. Welch also noted that the male-female ratio was so out of proportion on the island that the prospects for marriage for these young white women would have been limited.

“So they were competing with other white women for the few available men,” Paltrow concluded.
“And  with some black women as well,” Welch pointed out.

It made me think about the factors  at work when my father, skilled as a printer, took off for Bermuda  and then Harlem in 1923, while his brother, trained in the same profession, remained in Barbados.

NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” is an American adaptation of a BBC documentary series. I have not seen any of the BBC episodes. They are not available on Netflix, and when I try to watch clips on the web I’m told it’s not available in my area.  (Maybe I’ll catch a few episodes when I get to London tomorrow.)

The NBC program is sponsored by Ancestry.com.

The Disney/Ancestry “press release”  may have been an April Fool’s ruse, but with the resurgence of interest in tracing our roots, don’t be surprised to find a “Memory Lane”  center theme park near you where visitors could begin to fill in their family trees.

In the meantime, my own  journey is far more thrilling than any roller coaster ride. With every turn of a page, microfilm reel or conversation with a relative, I never know what I’m going to find. Who knows, Gwyenth  might be a distant cousin!

Ellen-Marie Ray, March 23, 1949 – September 25, 2001

23 Mar "To Ellen-Marie, Love forever."

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Months after my sister, Ellen-Marie, died of a  heart attack, some of her friends and family members  received pre-programmed birthday wishes from her via email.  It was creepy at first,  then it was funny.  Ellen-Marie  never forgot a birthday  — even from the Great Beyond!
She would have laughed too. Probably still is. She had a sick sense of humor. One of her favorite movies was Harold and Maude.
Searching through a box of old correspondence, I was blown away by the number of cards and letters we exchanged, especially during the 70s and 80s, before there was such a thing as email. I’ve got a pile of  letters filled with commentary on men, movies and more. Most of the letters  are not appropriate for reprint.  For one thing, it requires a well-trained eye and years of practice to decipher her handwriting. Secondly, much of the content would have to be redacted to protect the innocent and the guilty.
Ellen-Marie would be 62 today. To celebrate she would  likely have yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She would  be proud of every candle. She’d  take her daughter and son Kamaya and Jeremy, out for Brazilian food. She might listen to  Smokey Robinson or  watch ET or Jeopardy! or Law and Order. On the weekend, she would look for a dance party. She would be surrounded by friends from every walk of life.
She was a super mom, a dedicated attorney and my best friend.

The legacy of Mary Ray

26 Feb mom_portrait

Last Monday, when I found myself having trouble getting out of bed, I just assumed it was the winter pall, or maybe the martinis I had consumed over the President’s Day weekend. But as much as I was inclined to, as Jamie Foxx sings, “blame it on the alcohol,” (By the way, did anyone see the Glee take on that song last week?) It was something more profound.
On Thursday, while I was visiting the local Family History Center searching for more pieces of the Ray family puzzle, I came upon my mother’s death record. Yep. Feb. 21, 2002. Nine years ago last Monday.
I thought about waiting until next year to pay tribute. It will be the 10th anniversary of her death, a milestone of sorts. But the future  is not promised, as we all know, so I’m going to do it now. After all, there is no end to the gifts my mother poured into me. I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say next year.
I dug out an article I wrote for Essence in 1986 titled “How to get out of that rut and make life an adventure.” I used my mother as an example of someone who did that every day.
“My mother has always had a positive, energetic spirit and a sense of adventure unmatched in anyone else I’ve ever known,” I wrote in that Essence article. “A firm believer in going for the gusto, she ran track without the benefit of Wilma Rudolph as a role model. She was the first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. And while many of her peers were settling down with their own families, she was relocating to a strange city to take a new job. When she did marry and had my sisters and me, her world and her adventurous spirit simply grew. ‘There is no excuse for boredom,’ she’d say as she dragged us (and any other neighborhood child who happened to be within her reach) to dance classes, music lessons, museums, concerts, libraries and amusement parks  — all on public transportation. And as my sisters and I came of age and began moving around to new jobs, new cities, new countries and new adventures, she was always there with her motherly caution, ‘Please be careful,’ and ‘Get some rest,’  — all the while saying ‘Go head, girl!'”
And I know she’s saying it now: To her daughter Malaya, who is still dancing, teaching and storytelling with a passion; To her granddaughter, M’Balia, who is about to get her degree all while working full time and raising three children and getting them through school and college. She’d say it to my daughter, Zuri, who is getting her acting on in London and will be an intern at  the Cannes Film Festival in May. She’d say it to her granddaughter Kamaya, who has taken her big brother Jeremy, under her wing as he has determined to turn his life around. And, of course, she would say “well done” to her  famous nephew Lamman, not just for his accomplishments as an actor, but for being a man with such a good, good heart.
My mom died on February 21, 2002 at 82. The weekend before, she had attended an AKA luncheon and the symphony. She was so active that when her friends didn’t hear from her in one 36-hour period, they knew something was up. They found her sitting in a comfy chair with her feet up, a cup of tea within reach.
She lived life fully to the end. That’s the best legacy she could leave.

Rethinking my parents’ marriage

11 Feb Mom_rockefeller_ctr

My parents’ wedding certificate

Finding my father’s columns has got me thinking a lot about my parents’ marriage. To be honest, I always thought my mother had been robbed. She was an independent woman, had a career as a social worker. She’d worked her way through junior college, then through Morgan State – the first in her nuclear family to graduate from college. She also was the only one of her siblings who moved beyond Newark/New York area to Pittsburgh. Marriage and babies were the farthest thing from her mind, she one said.
Then she fell in love. And in my mind, that is where it all started to go bad. My mother gave up her career when they started a family. The way she told it, my father told her when she was pregnant with my sister Ellen-Marie, that if she did not quit her job he would go to the YWCA and “quit it for her.” He took his responsibility as a breadwinner seriously.
The only thing was, once Parkinson’s Disease rendered him unable to work, she had to figure out how to make a living. She was mother to my sisters and me; a substitute teacher in some of the most unruly classrooms in the city; and private duty nurse to my father. 24/7. She didn’t complain much, but it looked hard.
I often wondered what she saw in my father who by then seemed an old, sick unhappy man.

Now I know. The man she met and fell in love with was gentleman with an agile mind, a worldly perspective, a love of language, politics and culture and maybe some New York property. A man who had traveled from Barbados, which must have seemed an exotic land, to a New York soon to be in the throes of the Harlem Renaissance. I imagine he wooed her with his stories. He must have been smitten by her spunk and beauty.
I haven’t found many photos of them together. As my mother wrote on the back of this photo he took of her in Rockefeller Center, he was a “camera bug.”

“I was vexed with him. We’d been walking all over New York it seemed. I had on high heels and dressed in my best seersucker suit. Note the gloves and hat. Persons were properly dressed then (smile.) Believe it or not, I was about 26 or 27, well before Ellen was born.”

What a gift to have this memory.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Our fathers . . .

1 Jan

My parents with Ellen-Marie in 1949

With all of the blessings many of us enjoyed in 2010, there was a great deal of sorrow.  A few of my dearest friends lost their fathers in the waning months and days of 2010 and are facing the new year without them.  Some were blessed with very close and loving bonds. Others had relationships that were more complicated.  All of  those relationships will now take on a more poignant cast in 2011. But 2010 also brought an abundance of gifts. A year ago, I had no idea this gold mine of my father’s columns existed in the universe! And speaking of his writings, he may have had his own complicated relationship with his dad. At least so far, Ebenezer has not mentioned his father in his writings, though he gives props to his mom on a regular basis. Our fathers, living and dead, present or absent, helicopter dads and rolling stones, are alive in us and have a profound impact on who we are. Here’s hoping that their legacy makes us stronger and wiser.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 662 other followers

%d bloggers like this: