Lost and Found

15 October 2014


Today, I went for a medical test and had to remove my jewelry. Believing that “less is more,” I don’t wear much. The radiology technician only commented about my tattoos.

Soon after I left the doctor’s office, I realized I was missing the necklace I have worn around my neck for most of my life. It is the cameo my mother, who cherished it deeply, gave me as a young girl. She received it from her mother > who was given it by her mother > who received it from her mother > who received it from her mother. I conservatively estimate this humble bauble to be more than 150 years old. It is so worn that the silhouette is unrecognizable.

Imagine my HORROR at thinking it was lost.

Consumed in anxiety, I was relieved when it was proven (yet again) that the ancestors are watching. I miraculously recovered the cameo pendant in my car. After retracing my steps and calling everyone I encountered today, the gold chain upon which the cameo hung remains missing. That is OK with me. The cameo is priceless; I can always replace the chain.

Delores NICHOLSON, Jennie WAYMOTH, Filura TORBETT, Isabella DAVIDSON… I KNOW you are listening. I hope the egregious experiences of the past are overcome.

To see the history of this cherished cameo, see a previous blog post: https://ourblackancestry.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/the-cameo/

Miss You Much

26 December 2013

1957 - Mother

This is the time of year…. beyond any other… that I soooooooooooooooooooo miss my departed loved ones. Most especially, I miss my mother = Delores Marie NICHOLSON (1929-2005).

It is a truism to say that we have only ONE mother…. who occupies a unique and precious place in our hearts that no other person… in the world, ever… can fill.

Here you see her, looking pensive as she languishes in the glow of the “merry” Christmas tree on the sun porch of our family homestead on the Southside of Chicago. The baby doll whose face she covers was undoubtedly mine. The gifts too… as my sister had not yet been born.

What was she thinking? Could it have been contemplation of her own Christmases past? The music on the stereo (which was, surely, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Charles Brown — a rendition he played relentlessly from the day after Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s)? The huge mistake she made in marrying him?

I can only imagine. I shall never know.

THIS is the way I will remember my mama … on Christmas Eve the year before she passed on…. Knowing that FOR ME, her indominitable spirit will ALWAYS be alive!

Delores -2005


Paw Paw’s Skillet

17 September 2013

Louis Bell NICHOLSON 1895 MS > 1974 Chicago

1895 Cliftonville (Noxubee) MS > 1974 Chicago (Cook) IL

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the house of my mother’s father, Louis Nicholson.

The “house” — a three-flat building of seven room apartments (plus two “off the record” units in the basement) — was a gift from a former girlfriend, Sarah Pointer Lemon, whom he and my grandmother cared for until the end of her life in 1963. When Louis died in 1974, the building was the only tangible thing he left for his four children to inherit. It remained the family homestead until 2003, when it was sadly relinquished as the consequence of a tax default.

Louis was born in Cliftonville, Mississippi (a town which no longer exists) in 1895. He spent his early years in West Point, Mississippi, where his father, Wash Nicholson, died of yellow jaundice in 1907.

Sometime around 1910, Louis, his mother Ella, and his five siblings moved on. They sojourned in Memphis, Tennessee (where his grandmother, Bettie WARFE/GAVIN, was buried in 1917). They later made their way to Chicago, surely financed by the bounty Louis and his brothers, Walter and Albert, generated from their “good jobs” on Illinois Central trains. Ella remarried a Jamaican immigrant, William REED, who was shot dead by her nephew in 1924 because he complained about the loud music the young man sacrilegeously played on “the Lord’s day.”

In 1926, Louis married a white woman from Sidell, Illinois (Jennie Waymoth), whom he met in the train station restaurant at 12th Street and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. She was a waitress. He was a cook. Together, they had four children — all of them (and their increase) born in Chicago. At one time or another, every one of his descendants (including me) lived at the family homestead created from the fortuitous gift of 4840 South Parkway (formerly Grand Boulevard, then South Parkway, and, since 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). 

As a child, I had no idea of my grandfather’s past. He was just the strong, silent man who ruled our roost (with a gentle hand). Our entire family called him “Paw Paw” and we all loved him DEARLY.

Iron Skillet

One BIG thing I remember about Paw Paw is the little iron skillet in which he often cooked — mostly eggs. Although my grandmother made most of the meals, Paw Paw made the “magic” — using that little black skilled which is forever etched into my memory. In my mind’s eye, I can vividly recall watching him heat the skillet over the open flame of our gas stove. Gently cracking an egg or two (depending on the time of the month) into a small amount of oil, he would proceed to fry on high heat. Sometimes, the flames would jump up, eliciting great joy from the small child witness (me) for whom cooking was a yet to be achieved accomplishment. He would mock the fire with a smile on his face, lift the skillet in the air to quell the flames and finish his task with relish — sliding a perfectly asymmetrical orb onto his small plate as an accompaniment to two fat slices of unbuttered super soft Silvercup white bread.

Paw Paw’s admonition about food was that you should take just what you needed from the pot. If still hungry after your first serving, you could always go back for more. Therein, I suppose, is the unexpurgated wisdom of cooking in a tiny skillet and eating from the salad sized plate from which his meals (whether he cooked them or not) were eaten.

Today, that highly seasoned little black skillet is one of the few remaining references to the life of a man who was greatly loved.

I hope Paw Paw is watching as I write this so he can enjoy a good laugh!

RIP (not)

16 June 2013

James E. Leslie Gravestone

James E. Leslie Gravestone

Last year, I connected with the white descendant of a man I believed fathered my black great grandfather. We met in cyberspace when Neil LESLIE found the photo I posted of his ancestor’s gravestone on a genealogy website. 

When I met Neil, I was ecstatic. After years of research, I hoped I would finally fulfill the longing that has haunted me for 30+ years. Over many months, Neil and I developed a lively online relationship during which I met his siblings and collaborated on research techniques to track our presumed shared ancestor. 

My genealogical target was James E. LESLIE (1823-1875) — a blacksmith from Iredell, North Carolina who migrated to Lowndes County, Alabama in the 1840s and owned a blacksmith shop on the Hayneville town square. My research had narrowed James LESLIE down to the right man in the right place at the right time with the right occupation + the right surname. He was a member of the same Baptist church as the man whom I surmised (based on estate records) owned my ancestor, Tom LESLIE, and his mother Harriett MORASS — plus, maybe, his wife Rhoda REEVES and her mother Easter REEVES. The cherry on  top was the fact that Tom was only one of two black people in multiple Lowndes County censuses with the LESLIE surname.

In the end, this accumulation of logic was just too good to be true.

A couple of months ago, Neil agreed to take a DNA test to compare against the results for my first cousin, Frank LESLIE, the only living direct male in my LESLIE line. Both did 67 marker tests on FamilyTreeDNA.

When the results came back, Frank was one point off on each of 12 markers against 31 allelles. (I could almost hear Neil breathing a big sigh of relief when it took him off the hook for something he felt pretty bad about.)

Neil said:

“Gee, I’m not sure what to say right now. I know this must be a terrible disappointment for you.  I am  disappointed too. I was expecting that the DNA tests would confirm your theories and our relationship — but I have to be honest and say that I’m also relieved. I’m relieved that it appears my great-great grandfather wasn’t so much of a scoundrel that he fathered a child with a woman he enslaved and then denied paternity. I don’t know—you may think he’s still a scoundrel because he enslaved other human beings and fought for a government that defended that enslavement.”

I responded:

“Yes, I still think James — and most other white people (especially men) of the time were greedy, misguided and immoral to (1) wipe out the indigenous population, (2) enslave people to build their stolen country and (3) create the myth of white superiority.”

We concluded our discussion with this thought from Neil:

“I suppose we all want to believe that all of our ancestors were fine and noble people—just like we are! The truth, of course, is a lot more complex. As individuals, we have elements of the saint, the sinner, and the scoundrel within us, and our families do too. One thing I have often thought about since I began  this process of finding out about my family is the idea that we are more than our genetics. If it comes to light that one of my ancestors did some morally questionable or even terrible things, I do not have to do the same thing. I can choose to do something different and something better. if I face up to the ugly parts of my family’s history honestly, maybe I can  help future generations of Leslies avoid making the same mistakes.”

I had to agree and opined:

YES, we are more than our genetics and we do have the ability to change the course of the future by being responsible people who adhere to high moral principles and work actively to improve society.”

Tom LESLIE always told his children he was “Portuguese and Indian” — and, in the final analysis, there is no doubt that his father was WHITE … the DNA trail shows 96% Scottish. His wife, Rhoda REEVES LESLIE also had a white father, as did ancestors on my maternal side. But WHO was Tom’s father? Why did he choose LESLIE as his surname?

Tom and Rhoda Leslie

Tom and Rhoda Leslie

I thought of the possibility that maybe it was Rhoda who was the child of James LESLIE. He was listed on the 1850 slave schedule with one female slave (age 30) and in 1855 with three slaves (no ages). My family story says the wife of Rhoda’s father was so incensed by her very being that she tried to kill the child by throwing her against a wall, giving her a concussion.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a direct line female to test in furtherance of this hypothesis. And, in any case, my meanderings amount to nothing more than fanciful guessing. All we have as African American slave descendants are discriminate ticks on census schedules that obscure and corrupt our origins (most especially our patrimony). For most of us, the facts will never be proven. In general, all white man had access at will to all enslaved women. The surviving dearth of records uphold the subterfuge.

It is beyond disappointing to wash 30 years of research down the drain. I am trying hard to digest the disappointment and not let it lead me back to the extreme anger I feel over historic white malfeasance and being thrust back into the netherworld of NEVER being able to KNOW my family origins.

A luta coninua.

Nemo’s Last Ride

5 June 2013


I need to say goodbye to a dearly beloved…. Please bear with me as I eulogize a being with no DNA connection to my human family tree but who was nonetheless ever so special. 

At 2 PM today, my sweet little dog Nemo was euthanized… and my heart is breaking.

I remember the day Nemo and I first met at the Chicago Humane Society back in 2004. I was looking for a dog for my then step daughter (hate that word “step”) who had never had a pet before. Having always had pets myself, I wanted to teach her how to care and take responsibility for living creatures  other than herself.

As we wandered around looking for likely prospects, she was attracted to an exuberant Jack Russell that had so much energy I knew I couldn’t manage him and I knew she wouldn’t take up the slack.

Standing in front of a previously unnoticed cage, I was ready to give up and go. But something made me turn around —  and there he was…. laying with his nose pressed against the wire door…. looking soooooooooooooo sad. I immediately realized he was a Shih tzu (one of my favorite breeds) and the look in his eyes touched my heart. The attendant opened  the cage, I hugged him and knew immediately that he was the right one. They told me his name was “Buddy” and, at four years old, had been surrendered by his owners when they moved to a senior apartment where dogs were not allowed.

I signed the papers and brought my new “baby” home, in the process changing his name to “Nemo” (based on my daughter’s choice from the character in her favorite movie).

Ever since that day, Nemo has been a loyal and devoted companion — proving over and over again what a good choice I made. Over the past nine years, he has slept by my bedside, kept vigil at my front door, travelled with me on short trips to the grocery store and long road trips to “hell and beyond.” My housemate/cousin David fell in love with him and I even wrote about some of our adventures in my book — Gather at the Table — in tribute to his patience, adaptability and endurance. He survived a bad marriage, a worse divorce, snow storms that left us in darkness, hard times when he had to eat homemade dog food and separations when he had to board with friends while my life was in flux. (Everyone loved him!) In my present location, a rural community far from my hometown (Chicago) where I know no one, Nemo has been my most special friend.

Nemo’s decline started some months ago. It began with a loss of hearing and progressed to arthritis that made it hard for him to pull his little body up the stairs to the bedroom. There was a bout of Lyme disease and then… this…. a complete system failure that left him totally listless and unwilling to take any food or water — even when offered by hand.

The decision to “put Nemo down” was agonizing. In his last few days, he cried out in pain from spasms yet still tried to follow me around on wobbly legs. I carried him like a little baby so he could be close to me in his usual places — at my feet near the computer when writing, in the kitchen during cooking time and outside on the patio while I pulled weeds. After two weeks of suffering, I just couldn’t be so cruel as to make him stay when it was time for him to go.

I have parted with pets before but this one is the worst…. surely because Nemo was with me the longest…. and because I have never had to oversee a DNR for anyone other than my mother, who passed away in 2005 of the same ailment (kidney failure). (She knew Nemo for two years and loved him as much as me.)

Over the last 40 years, I have lost: Big Head (mongrel) and Muffin (giant Schnauzer) who both ran away; Glenfield (Great Dane) who was surrendered to a shelter because he was so destructive; Kiimu (Great Dane) who died of a broken heart when I had to leave him with friends in South Africa as I went off to France; Rasta (Westie), ravaged by the dog next door in Johannesburg; Ming and Poo (Shih tzus), migrated from Jamaica and stolen in Chicago; Oba (German shephard) and Bamba (giant poodle) who had to be surrendered to the humane society when I couldn’t care for them (both were adopted).

In the present situation, I have no doubt I did the right thing — the humane, unselfish and moral thing. The people at the SPCA consoled me by repeating that sentiment over and over again as I embraced Nemo on my lap and cried my heart out as he was injected with a sedative prior to the “hot shot” that ended his existence.

I am only consoled with the knowledge that Nemo will be well taken care of in the next world where there is no pain… where my mother… and so many others I love…. await … and that they, in turn, will welcome me when my own time comes.

Goodbye to my dear little sweetheart! You were greatly loved and will be hugely missed.