Ashes to Ashes

3 June 2013

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As a genealogist, I tend to focus on researching/identifying ancestors who dwell in the deep, dark recesses of history — long before I was born. I attribute that inclination to a primeval calling to discover the earliest origins of who I am. As an African American, my ancestral roots lay in slavery; a research path shrouded in mystery.

But recently (probably in response to my mother’s birthday (May 28), I started thinking about contemporary ancestors = family members who lived and died within my own lifetime.

I am fortunate to not have experienced many deaths of immediate family members during the time in which I have lived (which is beginning to be a long time indeed). As I calculate the demise of my loved ones, I realize their deaths have been spaced over long periods of time. In my 60+ years, only seven really close family members have departed this world. (That number doesn’t include aunts, uncles and cousins, only the closest of close — the people who bore and raised me.) The result averages out to one loss per seven years, a period of time that should allow room for healing from profound grief that, no matter how many years pass, never goes away.

The first one to go was my paternal great grandmother; the woman who first inspired my interest in genealogy. Her name was Rhoda Reeves LESLIE (1850-1954). Born into slavery, she died at age of 104 when I was three years old. I can only remember seeing her but not talking to her. I knew nothing about her history until I was an adult and my father (after much resistance) finally told me some of her story, the essence of which propelled me on a genealogical journey that continues to this day.

Nine years later, in 1963, I lost my mother’s mother — Jeanette Waymoth NICHOLSON (1902-1963). Maw Maw dropped dead (at age 60) right before my 12 year old eyes. After drinking a refreshing glass of tap water from the sink in front of a kitchen window, she remarked “What a lovely day” and dropped to  the floor, dead of a massive heart attack. After my mother and aunt carried her to a nearby bed, we all heard her last gasp of breath, which made us think she was still with us. She was not.

A decade on (1973) my father’s father, Robert LESLIE (1893-1973) died at age 79. I never knew him well because my mother kept me away from my father’s people. Yet, when I attended Mr. Gentleman’s funeral, I cried inconsolably for the man I didn’t know, bruised to the core because I wasn’t even mentioned in his obituary with his other grandchildren.

The next year (1974), my mother’s father, Louis Bell NICHOLSON (1895-1974) died of old age at age 80. His heart just STOPPED. The rock of my existence, I remember changing Paw Paw’s diapers before the task became so overwhelming that my mother was forced to admit him to a nursing home.

In 1983 (nine years later), my father’s step (hate that word) grandmother, Mama Dora (Antonia Dora FEDERICO, 1902-1983) passed away at age 80. I refused to visit her in hospital for weeks because I knew she was waiting for me in order to be released. Once I overcame my fear, went to the hospital, held her hand and whispered “I love you” into her ear, she passed away peacefully. I shall forever regret my callous selfishness in not wanting to live in world without her. 

Traumatized by the loss of my most beloved, I eschewed attending funerals. I could not bear the pain of loss — either my own family members or those of friends. At every funeral invitation, my mind turned to how I had to be restrained from throwing myself into my grandfather’s grave and carried from the funeral service to my grandmother’s home, where I slept in her bed, crying in agony for days.

Eighteen years beyond that vow, my father died in 2001 (age 87); my mother in 2005 (age 76). When my father passed, I was living in Paris. Friends potted up the money to buy me a ticket home so I (his only child) could attend to his last rites (which I heralded with a display of Easter lilies). I returned home from Paris in 2003 and had the good fortune of spending the last two years of my mother’s life with her living in my home — a place I organized for the specific purpose of caring for her.

Where does all of this history lead me?

I have concluded that I don’t want to remember people in death… I prefer to recall them in LIFE…. AND I have no doubt whatsoever that their spirits continue to exist in another realm where they await me with open arms. 

My mother’s ashes are preserved in an urn that I keep on a bookshelf. My father is on another shelf — just above hers. (She told me before she died that they couldn’t be on the same shelf unless I wanted to find ashes spewed all over the floor :)

When I recently introduced my two young grandchildren to their great grandparents, they marvelled at the idea of the temporal body v. the everlasting life of the spirit.

I have no idea when my time will come, but I know it won’t be that much longer before it does. My only prayer is that someone will remember my name.

The Color of Love

6 December 2012

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Antonia Dora Federico

Antonia Dora Federico

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history. During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Marie Waymoth

Jennie Marie Waymoth

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelery are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

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