From 1990 until 1996 we put out a family newsletter called the Ruff Draft. In December of 1990 we solicited Christmas Memories from our readers, who were mostly relatives. On the days of the Advent Calendar series when I don’t have anything to say I’ve decided to run one of these memories. Here is the first one from my mother’s older sister. In the photo is my little mother Doris (1923-1982) and her sister Mary V. (1921-2009). It was taken in their backyard on Detroit’s east side.
I can remember Poppy waiting till Xmas Eve to go and get our tree. We (Doris and I) usually went with him…and bringing it home to decorate. He had a stand that he made himself. We went up to the attic to haul down boxes of decorations that had been carefully put away. Some very old. I can remember one little fat Santa that Mom always put in the window, he had a pipe in his mouth. Doris and I shared a bedroom which had the door to the attic in it. When we were at the “believe in Santa Claus stage” we thought that once we went to sleep he would tip down the attic stairs and put our toys, etc, under said tree. I think I laid awake waiting for the old boy to show up. Of course I never saw him ’cause I went to sleep, but the stuff was always under the tree. Mom was always busy in the kitchen getting stuff together for Xmas dinner and the house would be full of wonderful odors. If Xmas fell on a Sunday, we would go to church. And we used to have lots of snow. Although we came up during the depression, we always had something to eat and something under the ole tree even if it wasn’t what we asked for. It was a tradition that Xmas dinner was at our house and Thanksgiving dinner at Grandma Turner’s. Daddy cooked the ole turkey and made the most delicious stuffing. He could cook. Mom learned from him. She couldn’t boil water when they got married. Dad taught her cause he had worked in restaurants as a young man.
My Aunts both identified the woman in this photo as Mary Agnes Miller and the man as George Payne. He appeared in this blog earlier with his brother Paul and my uncle Hugh here. One of my aunts says that Mary Agnes was very striking, and a nice person. The guys fell over each other over her. She had beautiful skin and although Mary didn’t act like a diva, people treated her like one. My aunt attended Wayne State University with both Mary Agnes and George.
My other cousin wrote “Mom said that Mary Agnes married Ed Davis. He was the first black owner of a car dealership, Studabakers. So, you might be able to google some information on him. Mom also said that Mary was very active in the Delta sorority. Hope that lets you dig further. :).” You can see the type of reputation I have among family members – I ask questions and then google people. I did google him and came up with quite a few articles and photographs. His life was very interesting. The link under the photo will take you to one article as well as being the source of the photo.
George Payne was Paul’s brother. He was not cool, my aunt said, but was goofy and very nice. I tried googling George with no luck, but I did find his wedding photograph in the family photo box. I really need to scan the rest of those photos and mount them in an album. I remember his wife Velma who was a librarian at the Oakman branch library where I used to go as a child. The book I remember best from that library is “Bed knob and Broomstick: or How to be a Witch in 10 Easy Lessons.” Velma Payne died this year I found when I googled “Velma Payne Detroit Public Library” (without the quotes) and a Detroit Retired City Employees newsletter with deaths by month came up.
Both aunts agreed that the original photograph was not taken at the Meadows but do not recognize where it was taken.
When I was growing up in the 1950’s lights were rare in my neighborhood. I remember the first lights I saw. My family moved into the huge house above in 1952 after a church fight in which my father, a pastor, and 300 parishioners left St. Marks Presbyterian church to organize Central Congregational Church. During the time before a new church building was found and purchased the church met at Crossman School on Sundays while all other activities were held at the house above. We lived on the second floor, church activities were on the first floor and in the very large recreatuion room in the basement. My sister and I shared the bedroom marked with the red X. On the side was a window (marked Z) that we could look out of at night and see a house in the next block outlined in multicolored lights. We called it the gingerbread house and thought it was beautiful and unique. I don’t remember ever riding by when the lights were on. We lived on the westside of Detroit while one set of grandparents lived on the eastside. Driving from one house to the other we would be coming home after dark and I remember looking at people’s lit Christmas trees through the windows, I don’t remember any outdoor lights. In later years that changed. I think my west side grandparents eventually had lights and some carolers out in front. My youngest son always wanted to put lights outside our house but since we lived at the end of a dead end road in the middle of the Manistee National Forest at the time, it never happened.
My family did not send out Christmas cards when I was growing up. Probably because all the relatives lived in Detroit and we saw them during the holidays. We usually had a good number of cards to display across the mantle though because my mother was a teacher and she brought home all the cards her students gave her. I did make some cards in elementary school that I found in my mother’s things. My grandparents aka Nanny and Poppy received cards from friends they kept in touch with from the days they lived in Montgomery. Often these were photograph cards. Because they kept the past years cards in a brass Chinese bowl on a table in the front room, under the table actually, I watched some stranger kids grow up from year to year. When I grew up and moved out of Detroit I started sending and receiving cards. When we didn’t have a mantle we displayed them across the top of the bookcase that ran across one side of the living room. The years two of my daughters had paper routes we had lots of cards. For some reason I’ve saved these along with the family and friend cards. Every year when I go through them I think I should glean these but I don’t.
Cards in brass bowlRuff Draft Nov/Dec 1994
For five or six years when we were homeschooling our family put out a monthly newsletter. It gave the kids a chance to use their writing skills and gave the family and friends a chance to see that they weren’t growing up illiterate. We would add a Christmas message on the back page. That is about as close to a Christmas letter as I got.
The most meaningful card I’ve saved over the years is the last one my mother-in-law, Theola Davenport Williams, sent me the Christmas before she died. It included a letter on the inside. I re-read it every holiday season. I wish we had traveled to St. Louis that season to visit but we didn’t.
This photo is from a small black album I got from my uncle Henry. It had a lot of small photographs that look like they were cut from a contact sheet. They were pasted on themed pages, a page for my father, a page for each of his siblings, a page for several close family friends, etc. The pages and pictures aren’t labeled. I hope my aunts can shed some light on who the people in the picture are and if it was taken at the Meadows near Detroit. Judging by the ages of the people I know in the album I think the photos were taken in the early 1940’s.
When I was growing up we had the ornaments that my mother bought over the years. I don’t remember making decorations in school. Maybe because the elementary school I attended was mostly Jewish or maybe in the 1950’s we didn’t make decorations. I don’t know. We didn’t string popcorn or cranberries. Wait! I think i remember a construction paper chain my sister and/or I made. It was short in length and in use.
In 2008 my sister and I decided to get our children and grandchildren together and decorate ornaments for the Christmas tree. I ordered clear plastic bulbs and craft paint and brushes. My sister offered her house. On the appointed day we gathered for pizza, eggnog and decorating. The table in the dining room was covered, another table was set up, t-shirts and aprons went on over clothes and the fun began. Everybody, including interested adults, painted several ornaments. They popped open and the insides were painted then the ornament was popped back together. You can see in the photo that they were bright, clear, colorful. Unfortunately what you don’t see is that the paint never dried. It puddled on the bottom of the ornament and if there were multiple colors, which there often were, the puddle turned a muddy brownish/gray. We hung them on the trees anyway and packed them away hoping they’d look better the next year. They didn’t, although I think they were dry. I wonder what the grandchildren remember about it. I’ll have to check this year.
This is the Dec. 2 entry for the GeneaBlogger Advent Calandar. Did your family or ancestors serve traditional dishes for the holidays? Was there one dish that was unusual?
For Christmas we ate the same thing we ate for Thanksgiving. When I was younger we always went to my mother’s parents for dinner. My mother’s sister and her three daughters would also be there, usually they rode with us. My mother’s parents were from Alabama and we had a pretty traditional southern meal of turkey with corn bread dressing with side dishes. My grandfather taught my grandmother to cook when they married and he always cooked the turkey himself in an old gas stove in the basement. It was one of those with the long legs. With the turkey, we had candied sweet potatoes (no marshmellows!), rice, turnip or collard greens, corn pubbing and green beans. My grandmother made her salad, which was great but I would never make. She cut up lettuce and onions very tiny and added lots of mayonaise. There was a relish plate with carrot and celery sticks, olives and tomatoes and always fresh, hot biscuits.
They ate an early dinner and when we left there we would go to my paternal grandparents and have desert. There would be sweet potato or pumpkin pie and mince meat pie and fruitcake. The pies were homemade. The fruitcake was store bought. These were served with store bought eggnog and lots of political discussion. My other cousins would be there and we had another bunch of gifts to open.
For several years we ate dinner at home and we had the same things except no greens and no Nanny’s salad or biscuits. We also had macaroni and cheese and brown and serve rolls. My mother was a teacher and we did not have lots of Christmas baking. Perhaps a pie or two. I almost forgot the box of chocolate cherries and the large box of Sanders Miniature Chocolates. Wish I had a box coming this Christmas! Above is a shot of me, my mother and my sister posing with the remains of a turkey. Probably taken around 1966. I remember one traumatic Christmas when the oven was broken and my mother had to cook the turkey in a stand alone oven. Somehow a wire in the top touched the turkey while it was baking and left a greenish mark. My mother said we might all be poisoned and threw the whole turkey out! We “borrowed” some turkey from my grandmother and dinner went on but no leftover turkey for snacks.
Our tree was always real. My sister, my mother and I would go to a tree lot to pick it about a week before Christmas. This was Detroit and in my memory it is cold and there is snow on the ground. We picked short needled trees of medium height and (of course) well shaped. We used a mix of glass balls my mother had collected over the years. When we were old enough, I can’t remember when that was, we helped decorate the tree – after my mother put on the beads, the tinsel and the multicolored lights. We had the big lights but they were pointy. My grandparents had round lights. The icicles went on last and there was no tossing. It was put on a few pieces at a time up and down all the branches. I remember one year that my mother did not want to trim the tree and was pretty unpleasant about my sister and me doing it and doing it NOW, but usually it was a pleasant evening, either Christmas eve or close to it. My mother usually had on the CBC, the Canadian station and by that time they would be playing Christmas music. The tree was always beautiful.
My maternal grandparents, Nanny and Poppy, waited until Christmas eve to buy the tree and set it up. The tree was always scrawny and thin but that was how their tree was supposed to be. Their ornaments were very old. I wonder what happened to them. What I remember are some little Santas that went on the tree and a jolly Father Christmas looking Santa that stood in the window with his removable pipe. My paternal grandparents had a bigger house and a big, full, long needled tree that was in the corner of the living room next to the stairs. My uncles Louis and Hugh plus my aunt Barbara and cousin Ernie lived there in addition to my grandparents so there were always a lot of presents under the tree.
The black and white photographs are all from the same Christmas. I think it was about 1962. I was still in high school, about 15. My sister was two years younger. Unfortunately these were all taken with a polaroid and they show it. The colored photo is from 1968. We had moved into the flat we shared with my grandparents. They were downstairs and we were upstairs. I had just graduated from Wayne State University and was about to head out into the world to seek my fortune. But that’s another story.
One day after dinner at my grandmother Cleage’s house, my aunt Gladys and I sketched each other. Mine was thankfully lost. I’ve kept her’s. I glued it in a scrapbook with rubber cement before I knew better. I should have framed it.
I have never participated in a carnival of genealogy before. I thought about it but never took the plunge. After reading Jasia’s contribution about her tinkering father I started thinking about the handy men in my family. On my father’s side his brother Hugh Cleage was called on when things needed to be fixed. My husband’s father was famous for building things and taking them apart. He could build and he could fix, he just didn’t seem to have enough time to finish. Sometimes he would get ideas for how he could do it better and change up in the middle of a big project multiple times.
The one I’m going to write about is my mother’s father, Poppy. I’ve written about him before, about his notebook with projects started and completed. See that here. Poppy had a workshop in his basement. It was in the old coal room. He had a workbench, a tool chest, and a bin full of small pieces of wood. He had filled up an old treadle sewing machine with a stone to sharpen knives and tools. Outside of the workshop in the main basement was a long workbench. There were short pieces of wood stored underneath. Against the wall were longer pieces. The workshop had a special smell of machine oil and wood and basement.
Poppy made furniture sometimes. Not fine pieces but basic, useful pieces. A rocking chair that sat in the upstairs hall when my mother was growing up where it was used to rock fussy babies and sick children. I remember it next his bedroom window where you could sit and rock and look out over the backyard. He made a small table that sat on the landing for the telephone. The phone had a long cord so it reached upstairs at night and downstairs during the day. He built me a wonderful two-sided dollhouse when I was about 8 and described one I had seen at a friend’s house. I was the envy of my cousin and sister. I still have it.
During the summer he set up a homemade slide when we came over. The wood was planed and sanded smooth and then waxed regularly with the ends of candles. I don’t remember any splinters. It wasn’t a very long slide and eventually it served more as a support for our tents.
Poppy built flower boxes for his back porch and the back yard as well as for his daughter’s porch. He could be seen coming up the walk to repair things with his toolbox, like a doctor coming to see a patient. I remember Saturday afternoon spent at Plymouth Congregational Church while he fixed something; often it was the temperamental furnace. Both of my grandparent’s sons died as young children so my mother spent a lot of time with her father fixing things.
My grandfather was in his eighties when things in his neighborhood became very dangerous. It was around 1968. Someone shot into the house. A man walked in to the open side door, went upstairs and went through my great, great Aunt Abbie’s things and stole some. She thought it was odd but didn’t try to stop him. Luckily he came in and out of the house without running into my grandfather. Eventually someone came to the door with a gun. Poppy slammed the door shut and fell to the floor. After this he and my parents decided to sell their houses and buy a two family flat together. They bought one out by the University of Detroit. Poppy set up his basement workshop again. He and my mother planted corn and green beans and tomatoes in every spare space in the small yard. Some days he would take a wagon and collect useful or interesting items people had thrown out around the neighborhood. It was my last year of college and I was ready to leave home. I wish now I had taken the time to sit and talk to my grandparents. Maybe they were ready to tell some of those stories I wonder about if I had just asked.