Tag Archives: Ellen-Marie Ray
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Thanks, Mom, and Happy New Year

29 Dec

mom_me_pittsburgh_king_cropped“I certainly missed you the last few days – Misplaced my teeth – just found them. Thought I’d have to begin school without them  . . . the thought was devastating!”

I spent most of Friday, Dec. 28, which would have been my mother, Mary Ray’s 93rd birthday, reading letters like this one.

I missed her too. Even those times when I would be called upon to help her find her misplaced dentures.

Most of my mother’s  notes were chronicles of her life as an empty nester, her reviews of cultural events, her updates on neighbors, friends and relatives and her travels.

mom_happy_for_youWish you could’ve been at Uncle James’ on Sunday past. It was beautiful,” she wrote in a card dated Aug. 23, 1977.  Then she listed the relatives whom I’d missed during her trip from Pittsburgh to New Jersey.

“Cousin Mollie said she had a magnificent time. Diane and her daughter were there; John, Jr. and Larry and family. Peanut [my cousin Robert] has a son named Lyle – looks just like him.” [It's actually Kyle; we're now Facebook friends.]

“All of Aunt Evie’s sisters and some of their families were there.” She referred to my cousin David as “The Lover,” and mentioned my cousin Michelle, whose eldest son was just a “fat baby boy of 10 months,” back then.

She loved her grandchildren: “You wouldn’t believe that my little Xmas tree is still up,” she wrote on Jan. 24, 1978.  “Waiting for a visit from Chano and Lamman. They didn’t get over for the holidays, but boy did they enjoy the toys everyone sent them.”

“Today is M’Balia’s birthday, so they’re all here,” she wrote on Aug. 30, 1976.

In each letter she shared her worries. “Ellen will need some rest!!!” she scribbled along the side of a note dated Sept.  18, 1976. (I believe she was referring to the fact that my sister Ellen-Marie had just returned from a trip to Tanzania.)

“They’re trying to work out their difficulties. I’ve suggested a professional counselor,” she wrote about another relative and her husband.

Then there was my mother’s love life: “Uncle Fred has his house almost completely painted outside and wants me to select new furnishings, drapes and carpeting,” she wrote in one letter.  In another: “He went on a Northwest trek with the AAAs from Western Pa. “Timing was bad for me, so was the cost, and he couldn’t afford it for us both.”

She never ended a note without dispensing some advice: “Glad the job is shaping up,” she wrote shortly after I’d taken my first job in Boston. “Don’t make any hasty moves until you thoroughly investigate any situation. Some sorority sisters might help.” [I assume she was referring to my search for housing.]

On her troubles with high blood pressure, she wrote: “It’s something that runs in the family. We seem to be victims of stress. Please watch it!”

She also was generous with her praise:

“Your March article in Essence is excellent. Keep up the good work.”

“So very happy for  you, (Always) but particularly now as you join the Boston Globe staff.

But to her, being a good friend was as important as any professional accomplishment.

“I’m so proud of you, particularly as a very caring person. Pam and others are lucky to have you as a friend!” she wrote in May of 1988.  “Continue to care about others and to render assistance in some small way when you can. Sharing our knowledge and comfort with our fellow man is truly our purpose for living on this universe or any other.   You will be blessed manifold!”

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It was as if she was talking to me from the grave, setting the stage for my New Year’s resolutions.

“I’d like for you and Ellen to keep the family home for a while. Daddy worked hard to acquire it. It took all his savings for a down payment. You may find it worth your while one day,” she wrote.  She ended that same note with,  “P.S. Don’t mourn for me. I enjoyed life and living and loved my family dearly! Mom!”

That note was not dated, but based on its other contents, it was written in the 1970s. She definitely got a lot more living and loving in before she died in 2002.

Well, ok, then Mom. I hope you are resting well, dispensing your wisdom and comfort from whatever “universe” you happen to be on.

Happy New Year to all, and here’s to “manifold” blessings in 2013.

Telling it like it is

8 Aug

At an outdoor concert featuring Aaron Neville in San Francisco’s Stern Grove yesterday, I was taken back to being 11 or 12 years old when  my sister Ellen-Marie asked me to pick up Neville’s first hit, “Tell it Like it Is,” from the neighborhood record store. My friend Rosalyn and I were headed there for our own 45s, probably something along the lines of the Marvelettes or the Supremes. (Rosalyn and I were part of our own junior girl group called the Trangualettes  – don’t ask – and we lip-synced a mean “Don’t Mess with Bill.”)
Rosalyn and I were barely out of  elementary school. Ellen was in high school.  And even though WAMO, the one black radio station in all of Pittsburgh, played everything from R&B to blues to jazz  —  the white radio stations didn’t play black music back then —  we didn’t really have our ears tuned to Aaron Neville . . . yet.

On Sunday, as I listened to Neville’s still silky rendition of that 1967 ballad, I searched my memory for all of Ellen’s teenage crushes and suitors. I wondered who she might have been thinking about as she played that record. It could have been that she simply knew then what we’d all come to know, Neville’s capacity to make us swoon.

Romance aside, I suspect that song spoke to Ellen-Marie because it got to the core of who she was — direct and honest. Aggravatingly so. Sometimes brutally so. And not only did she take truth-telling seriously, she did not understand why others were incapable of doing the same.

Our mother, who was often given to being coy and indirect, used to drive Ellen-Marie crazy. I’m sure I did too, as I have a tendency to bury my ledes. Editorial writing was good training for getting to the point.

Ebenezer, on the other hand, was not one to mince words. Here are some gems I’ve found so far. All are excerpts from his “Dottings of a Paragrapher” column in the New York Age.

Dec. 22, 1934:  “When the white man ‘lifts his foot off the neck’ of Negroes and when the Negro in turn lifts his own tiny foot off his own neck, when a Negro reporter, writer, cartoonist,  or etc. can go to the News office and apply for a job with the  assurance that he has the same chance as his white brother, his color regardless, then it will matter whether he is called colored, Negro,  or Aframerican.”

June 1, 1935: “Although time often permitted, I have never availed myself of the opportunity to attend the hearings of the  Mayor’s Commission on Conditions in Harlem, firstly because I could never clearly see why five white men should be appointed on such a committee when it is highly improbable that even one Negro would be appointed to any committee to inquire into conditions in any white community.”  [Note: The 14-member commission, appointed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia following a 1935 race riot in Harlem, included several prominent blacks.]

May 30, 1936: “On a recent evening, what was scheduled to be an ‘all-star artist recital’ turned out to be just a parade of the ambitious, plus a little stardust.
How a promoter of this affair ever got together such a mixture is beyond imagination. It was little short of capital offense to associate the beautifully voiced Doris Trotman-Earle and Constance Berksteiner White with some of the other untutored apologies for singers. It was little short of a capital offense to place one sartorial blunder, in particular, on any program. He murdered ‘Then You’ll Remember Me’ — and all who had to listen to him certainly will.
Liberal applause followed all the efforts. It must have been admiration for their ‘nerve’ — or maybe the audience was made up mainly of relatives.”

Ouch! Ellen-Marie got it honest.

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

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

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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.

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.

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