My grandfather, Mershell Cunningham Graham was born in Coosada Station, Alabama about 1888. He didn’t know his exact birthday and chose to celebrate Christmas day. His parents were William and Mary Graham and he had a brother named Bill and a sister named Annie. Aside from that and a few stories about digging sweet potatoes in the rain and sleeping outside the bedroom door of a little girl he was servant to, I don’t know anything about his childhood. He taught himself to read. Eventually worked in the dining car on the railroad. He moved to Montgomery where he met my grandmother, Fannie. He lost an eye in a hunting accident. During WWI he moved to Detroit where there was already a contingent from Montgomery, and got a job at Fords Motor Company. He proposed to Fannie by mail and I still have the letter she wrote back accepting his offer of marriage. He could fix anything and make most things. He always had a wonderful vegetable garden and flowers in the yard.
I can’t find him until the 1910 census when he is single and living in Waycross Georgia with Irwin and Mary Warren’s family as a boarder. He was working as a car repairman in a railroad shop. June 4, 1917 according to his WW 1 draft registration card he was single, responsible for his father, living in Detroit and working as a steward for the D & CAN Co. on the Lakes. Jun 11, 1919 he and Fannie Mae Turner were married in Montgomery, AL. In the 1920 census he and his wife Fannie are boarders in the house of Moses and Jennette Walker in Detroit. He worked as an inspector at an auto factory. By 1930 he owns his home and lives with his wife Fannie and three children, Mary, Doris and Howard on Theodore St. in Detroit. He was a stock keeper in an auto factory. Mershell Graham died peacefully in his sleep at home, September 6, 1973 in Detroit, Michigan.
Today I am posting some entries from his little notebook. Although everything isn’t dated, it begins in 1934. He writes the person’s name first on jobs. Completed jobs are marked through with an X
Daisy – 1 set of shelves for attic stairway – 5 ft tall 12 “ wide
Gwen – 1 table for basement 5 ft long 3 ft wide folding legs
Lottie Brandon – 1 porch flower box
Mother – 1 bookcase for house – use any size
1 Bulletin Board for Church – 1934 2 1/2 ft x 2 ft 10 “ Glass Front Brown Board in Back clear glass 26 1/2 x 30 7/8
Car struck by M.C. (note: Michigan Central) engine Mar. 10th 1935 At 2:15 P.M. Doris in car with me. No one hurt very bad. Doris received small cut on left hand M.C. RR settled for $25.00 part cost on fixing car.
B.T. Washington Died Nov. 15, 1915 At Tuskegee Ala.
Social Security Act Account number 374-20-3906 12-21-1936
Mother must have been about 18 or so when she graduated and went to work as a clerk in her Uncle Victor’s store. She eventually became manager and worked there until she married in 1919 at 31. From all she ever said she loved working in the store. She enjoyed working with the clerks and the “drummers”, (salesmen). She and Uncle Victor got along just fine. He was involved in many things and was happy to have someone to manage the store. She loved ordering the right things in the right amounts and having the books come out right to the penny. One of her favorite stories was about some of the drummers who came to get orders.
“They would call me Fannie,” she would say, “and when they did, if they were looking north, I looked north, too. if they were looking south, I looked south and I never answered them. They usually caught on pretty quickly. When they called me MISS Fannie, I suddenly saw them and heard them and we could do business.”
She always held her head up very straight when she told this story. She really enjoyed business and could do arithmetic a mile a minute. I remember her suggesting to Daddy that she could serve or make and sell lunches to the men at the factory across the street. But he said no wife of his would ever work, that he could provide for his family. He thought it would be a reflection on him if his wife worked. I’m sure he didn’t realize what it would have/might have meant to her. I think she found housework a bore, although she never said so.
When I first said I was going to get married she looked rather sad and thoughtful and said, “Why don’t you wait a year or two. You’re just finishing college and could have a life of your own for awhile.” That’s all she said and of course being in the firm, grip of Mother Nature I didn’t even consider it. But I’ve often thought about it since. You know she never had a “life of her own”. She lived with her family and helped to support them until she married. She married in June of 1919. M. Vee was born in April of 1920. She had a taste being on her own because at least she had the experience at Uncle Victor’s of making it in the outside world, so she had no fears on that score. She must have thought many times of leaving home, especially after Jennie T. married Alice’s father. But I guess she stayed because he was a weak reed for Jennie T. to lean on. By this time Daisy must have been teaching and she always (all her life) lived at home, so I don’t know why Mother didn’t leave.
Anyway, when she decided to leave, she left for love, judging by the letters she wrote Daddy and the ones he wrote her. There is a playful, relaxed, familiar quality to her letters to him that I don’t remember seeing in her any other time. She told me once that she loved only one other man and he wanted to marry her, but she felt he would not be a good husband and father so she turned him down. I think he is one of the rakish looking handsome dudes in the album, but I don’t really know. She said she was right about him, that he made the girl he married most unhappy. I think she and Daddy loved each other dearly for all the 54 years they lived together. Did I ever tell you the following story?
You know Daddy had very mild diabetes. Medication was not necessary. He controlled it by eating no more than three slices of bread a day and sweets no more than once a day. Sometimes he didn’t get enough carbohydrates and would get ‘high’ on a lack of sugar. One day in 1972 Alice called upstairs to say Daddy was “sitting on the floor and wouldn’t get up”. I went down and sure enough there he was, sitting on the floor in the bedroom singing and waving his arms and having a good time. I had never encountered a lack of sugar “high” and he really seemed to be drunk, which I knew was impossible. I called Louis who said give him some orange or pineapple juice with a spoon or two of sugar in it and he would be all right. Alice went to fix the juice while I persuaded Daddy to get up and into bed. He kept looking around, saying, “Where’s my girl” She is the sweetest girl in the world. Where is she?” The he would see Mother and cry loudly like he was making the happiest announcement in the world, “There she is! The sweetest girl in the world and she’s MY girl!” Then he would look around at us like am I not the luckiest man in the world? This when both were 84 and had been married 53 years. Well, anyway he drank the juice and in a few minutes was himself.
Henry was there with me and Daddy asked us to come into the breakfast with him away from the others. He looked all worried and asked us what he had said when he was “high”. He couldn’t remember it at all except that he felt dizzy and sat down.
“Did I say any bad words?” he asked. I have never heard him use a bad word in my life… not even a “darn”!! Mother used to say darn sometimes, like when we were especially worrisome, she’d say, “Darn your time!” She even said damn on occasion but never to us. But I didn’t know Daddy even knew any bad words. We told him what he had said and he was relieved. Such a testament to love I’ve never seen the like of.
Back to Mother. I think she thought marriage would be all the good things in the world like all the rest of us. Like me anyway. Her first year must have been Hell. They married in Montgomery, went to Detroit and roomed with good friends from home, Aunt Jean and Uncle Mose Walker (not really related). A favorite way to pay for your house was to take in roomers from home and it was a good way for them to accumulate a down payment on their own house.
You remember Uncle Cliff was Daddy’s adopted brother and I think at one time they both liked Aunt Gwen. She chose Cliff, the dashing devil and rued it the rest of her life. Both she and Mother became pregnant that year. She had a cute pregnancy, Mother was miserable. Aunt Jean was an arrogant, self-important person who was considered by all, including and especially herself, one of the great cooks of all time. Mother could not cook. M.Vee was born in this house. It was a very difficult delivery, labor was several days long. The doctor, whose name was Ames, was a big time black society doctor, who poured too much ether on the gauze over Mother’s face when the time for delivery came. Mother’s face was so badly burned that everyone, including the doctor, thought she would be terribly scared over at least half of it. But she worked with it and prayed over it and all traces of it went away. M. Vee’s foot was turned inward. I don’t know if this was the fault of the doctor or not, but she wore a brace for years.
Finally that year ended and the two couples bought a flat together. Mother never did like Aunt Gwen and I’m sure she didn’t want to, but it was undoubtedly better than living with both Jean and Gwen. Mother got pregnant again very soon. Mershell Jr. was born within a year, the next year anyway, 1921. Meanwhile Aunt Gwen and Daddy sashayed off to Plymouth every Sunday while Uncle Cliff baby-sat with little Clifton Jr. and Mother?? I can imagine how she must have felt. She had never kept house, never cooked and never really had someone who told her what to do since she had worked at eighteen. She had never taken care of little children (Jennie T. looked after Alice) or babies. On top of it all, Aunt Gwen would come home from church, all dressed up and laughing and no big stomach, to say
“Guess what, Fan, everyone thinks I’m Shell’s wife because we’re always together at church.” She was a hateful person… still is! Mother must have been ready to murder. Meanwhile I guess Daddy was enjoying being the man of the house, treasurer and trustee at Plymouth, with a good job, a good wife and money accumulating in the bank for a home of his own someday. Mother should have had a sign on the wall. Life is what’s happening while you’re making other plans. Mershell Jr. was born in 1921 at Dunbar Hospital with a different doctor.
When he was a year old, I was on the way. The flat was too small. Jennie T. was consulted, sold the house in Montgomery and moved to Detroit. She and Daddy and Mother bought the Theodore house together in 1923. I was born in Women’s hospital and came home to that house where I lived for twenty years until I married. Mother and Daddy lived in it for 45 years. It was a bit crowded with five adults and three children for three bedrooms. I’m sure Mother was happy when Grandmother, Daisy and Alice got enough money to buy a house of their own. Ours was a quiet, orderly house. Everything happened on schedule. Everything was planned. There were very few ups and downs. When Daddy lost his job during the depression and when my brothers died, it was Mother who stayed steady and encouraging and took each day as it came. Daddy would be very depressed and Mother must have been too but she never let on. I do remember one day when I was about seven and Howard had just died, I came into the kitchen to get a drink of water, She was at the sink peeling potatoes for dinner and tears were running down her cheeks. I don’t remember what I said or did but she said, “I will be alright, but you go and keep your father company.” I did, and I’m sure her saying that and my constant companionship with my father influenced my life profoundly. She was thinking of him in the midst of what was, I think the most unhappy time in her life. How could God send them a second son and then take him, too?”
Boy children are very important to some people and they were both pleased to have a son. When Mershell Jr. was killed, run over by a truck on his way to school in 1927, it was a great unhappiness for them. I remember standing beside Mother at the front door and a big white policeman stood on the front porch and told her about her child. She did not scream, cry or faint. Daddy was at work. She could not reach him. She put on her hat and coat and went to the hospital. I never saw her helpless. She always did what had to be done.
Howard was born the next year. They both rejoiced for here God had sent a son to replace the one they had lost. He died of scarlet fever at three. When you read carefully the things she wrote, you’ll know what this meant to her. (Do you remember the poem she wrote about Howard?) But she never took refuge in guilt feelings or hysterics or depressions. She lived everyday as best she could. I never heard her complain.
She used to play games with us… catch and keep-away and checkers. And when we had friends to the house she would ask them to dinner or it was evening make a pile of sandwiches and a pitcher of punch (fruit juice and Kool-Aid). She let us roll back the rug and dance to our phonograph records. And she carried on a running battle with Daddy so she could do all this. He remembered that she could not got anywhere, not even to young people’s meeting at church, or entertain at home without a chaperon present. I don’t know how old she was before this stopped. Besides he knew all those boys were up to no good. I think she saw what Jennie T. had done to Daisy and Alice and almost to her with this attitude and she didn’t think it was so good.
After we married and left home she developed arthritis and went to church or to visit friends less and less often. In 1967 (I remember because it was the year of the riot) she began to stop eating and gradually to stop cooking. Louis could find nothing wrong so she took iron and vitamins and cod liver oil to improve her appetite but nothing helped. Then Louis said she had to stay upstairs and not cook or do anything until she gained some weight. She had had the flu and lost more weight. (Incidentally this was the first time in her life she had penicillin… in fact, the only time.) She seemed to just give up. She hated to have Alice cooking and taking care of her house and I think she felt completely useless and helpless. She gradually acted more and more withdrawn and displaced. But I don’t believe she was senile. Read the letter she wrote to Daddy when he was in the hospital in 1973. She wrote it all by herself. I think she would have been different in old age if she could have been surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren like in the old days. She would always have had something to do then.
Fannie with great grandaughter Jilo 1971
She used to like to draw when we were small.. and to play the piano..and sing…and read. But she stopped them all except the singing. She used to sing to herself and with me even in the nursing home. She had a very sweet alto. I don’t know why she stopped drawing and playing the piano. But she stopped reading because some optometrist told her she had “hardening of the crystalline lenses” and should read as little as possible. I never could get her to go to an ophthalmologist and I think she wore those same glasses for thirty or forty years and could read with them until she died. I tried my best to get her interested in something after we lived together on Fairfield but I failed. It wasn’t interests she needed. I don’t know what she needed, except maybe all her people around her. Do you know that in the nursing home she started to eat? The food was very ordinary but there were lots of aides around all the time (all black) and they liked her. She liked them and they liked her. She would ask them about their children and their boyfriend. They would give her extra back rubs and brush her hair and tie it in pretty ribbons. She would give them candy and talk about how good they were to her… and they were. I have come in to visit and found three or four sitting and leaning on her bed talking to her and to each other and her face would be alive as she listened and talked. I don’t know why I couldn’t do that for her. I just wasn’t there. (All of this is very hard to write, you know, that’s why it has been so long coming. I stop here to cry and I think I’ll cook dinner and try again later.)
The day she had her first stroke, I came home from school to find Alice, Browning and Mother sitting at the card table in the living room playing bingo. Mother was not really playing. They were playing her card for her. She was acting like she didn’t know what was going on. I sat and talked awhile and somewhere (as a body will do!) mentioned white folks and how they mess over black children. She sat up, straightened her back and made the above speech with variations. She cussed them good and ended with her favorite story about the drummers in the store and how she forced them to address her as Miss Fannie or Miss Turner. I think she loved to repeat this story because it gave her a feeling of power. She demanded respect from our white neighbors, too, but in a less dramatic, less direct way. She kept them at their distance by never being familiar or warm or relaxed with them. Friendly, generous, kind, polite…she was all these. But she never had a cup of coffee with them and never went into their houses.
In the south when she was out in public she worried about being mistaken for white. She got on the bus once, sat in the ‘colored section’, and was told by the driver to move and sit in the right place. She told him she was in the right place and he told her not make trouble and go sit in the white section. She did, ashamed at what her friends would think of her (passing) and frightened at what white folks might do to her.
One day she and a friend who was equally light went for a day to shop in Wetumka. They were in a carriage and when it stopped for them to alight, a “courtly’ white elderly gentleman hastened to take one on each arm and escort them to the curb where he raised his hat to them and gave a deep bow. Mother was horrified. She knew they could be lynched or worse if someone who knew they were black told the man and he had to defend his “honor”. Her friend thought it was all very amusing.
Mother often spoke of friends in Montgomery but I never knew her to have a close friend. She was friendly with everyone, especially the Deaconesses with whom she worked at church. She was basically very reserved and what people call today a “very private Person”. I don’t remember ever hearing her say “I want” for herself. Oh, she often said, “I want the best for my girls” or “I want you to be good girls” but I never heard her say “I want a new dress.. or a day off… or a chocolate bar..” and I never heard her say “I feel this way or that” except Sometimes she said, “Oh, I feel so unnecessary.”
She was a great one for duty, for doing what was called for and not complaining. You could tell she was displeased by the expression on her face. Whenever she corrected us, she always explained why, so we came pretty early to know what was expected of us and when we erred the displeased expression was all we needed. She didn’t nag either. No second and third warnings. Yet I don’t remember ever being spanked by either parent. If either one said, “Did you hear what I said?”, that did it. We never talked back to them. We did things we knew we weren’t supposed to do like all children, but we were careful not to get caught. When we did get caught, we were horrified. I never felt confined and resentful, but M. Vee did.
Mother never took a day off, never went on a vacation, never had us cook dinner. Her days off came only when she had a “sick headache”, a terrible headache with upset stomach which kept her in bed usually for a day. I think she demanded a great deal of herself and could only let her “duty” slide if she were ill. The headaches only happened two or three times a year.
Mother had some of the same reserve with us that she had with strangers. We rarely talked about feelings, good or bad. She and Daddy tried to keep things as even and calm as possible all the time. So everybody cried alone although you always knew they would do anything for you because they did. You didn’t bring your problems home and share them. You came home and found the strength to deal with those problems. At least I did. If you needed help, you asked for it, but first you did everything you could. I don’t think they ever said no to either of us when we asked for help and that extended to grandchildren too.
Somehow after all these pages I don’t think I’ve really told about Mother. Maybe it’s because I am too involved in my feelings about her. Anyway, it’s the best I can do now. I’ll try again whenever I think of something.