I don’t remember my mother using a hair dryer except for a short period of time. In the aftermath of the Detroit Riot of 1967, many people began to wear afros. My mother had waist length wavy hair. She remembered it being very curly when she was a child and thought that when she cut it, it was going to become kinky enough to make an afro. Much to her chagrin, it did not. Until it grew out again, she would wash it, roll it up in curlers and sit under the dryer to get some curl.
Below is a sketch I made of my mother for a drawing class in 1967. At that time, my drawings added at least 20 years to family members age. It was not on purpose. Click on images to enlarge.
When I started looking for signatures, I thought it would be easy because I have many letters through the generations. The problem was that they did not sign letters with both first and last names. Some repeatedly used nicknames. I was able to find most signatures by searching through documents – marriage licenses, social security cards, deeds, bills of sale and group membership cards. I finally found my sister’s signature in the return address on an envelope and if I’d thought of it sooner, might have found others in the same place.
In the summer of 1945 my parents moved from Los Angeles, where my father had been studying film making, to Springfield, MA. He was the new pastor of St. John’s Congregational Church, an historic African American church. During their trip across country they stopped in Detroit to see their families. A trip to my Uncle Louis’ cottage in Idlewild was included. More photographs from that trip can be seen here – Idlewild 1945.
Prompt for week #28 in The Book of Me is – My Parents, This is a very surface description of my parents. I have written other posts about them. Links to two are below.
My father, Albert, was born in 1911 in Indianapolis Indiana. His parents, Albert and Pearl Cleage, met in 1907 when his father came from Athens, TN to attend Medical School. His mother was born in Kentucky and moved to Indianapolis with her family before 1900. In 1912 my father and his parents moved to Kalamzaoo, MI where his father started his practice. By 1915 they were in Detroit where they remained. He was the oldest of 7 children. His nickname was Toddy and his friends and those who knew him in his youth continued to call him that throughout his life. My father was one of the most intelligent people I have known. He was well read and could think and understand both history and current events. I wonder what he would have to say about the state of the world today.
My mother, Doris, was born in Detroit in 1923, the third child of Mershell and Fannie Graham who came to Detroit from Alabama in 1917. She lived in Detroit, in the same house on Theodore, until she married in 1943. The only nickname she had was “Stubs”, and the only person I heard call her that (a name she wasn’t fond of.) was her sister’s husband, my uncle Buddy Elkins. My mother was one of the most independent people I have known. She taught in Detroit elementary schools for almost 20 years. She taught reading during the last years before she retired and loved helping children discover reading.
They met at Plymouth Congregational Church and were married there in 1943. In the early years of their marriage they moved several times – to Lexington, KY, to San Francisco and then Los Angeles, CA, to Springfield, MA and then back to Detroit. Judging from letters my father wrote home, their marriage seemed to be one of shared interests and activities, until I was born. At that point, it seems to me, that my father expected my mother to become a traditional wife and mother while he continued the interesting life of organizing and running the church.
They were divorced in 1954. They remained on friendly terms. We saw a lot of my father as he was home during the week so my sister and I ate lunch at his house during school week. When we were older, we spent the weekend with him frequently.
In 1960 my mother married my father’s brother, Henry. They remained together until her death April 30, 1982. My father never remarried. He died February 20, 2000.
My mother would have turned 91 years old today. She was 59 when she died in 1982, 32 years ago. So much has happened since then. She never saw either of my sons. She hasn’t seen any of her 11 great grandchildren. We were still living in Simpson County, MS. Since then we’ve lived in Excelsior Spring, MO; Idlewild, MI and back to Atlanta, GA. Computers hadn’t made their way into our lives. Y2K. 9/11. The 21st Century. Octavia Butler’s books. She would have loved them. Detroit under siege. Strange weather. Monsanto. Obama. The Gulf War. The War in Iraq. The war in Afghanistan. Drones. Blogging. All the family history I’ve found. The oral history I’ve proved right. All the questions I still have.
I started taking piano lessons when I was about seven years old. We lived on Chicago Blvd. in the parsonage. Mrs. Fowler was our teacher. I remember her as a stern older woman who, according to my cousin, sometimes smashed her fingers on the keys when she kept making mistakes. I think of the room with the piano as the “Morning Room”. Maybe that’s what my mother called it. There was wall paper with fruit on it. My music book was “Teaching Little Fingers to Play” and I learned 3 note pieces with words like “Here we go, up a row, to a birthday party.” When played in a different order it became the piece “Dolly dear, Sandman’s here. Soon you will be sleeping.” I must have practiced between lessons because I remember being used as a good example to my cousin Barbara one time. The piano must have belonged to the church because when we moved, it stayed there.
Several years later we were living in the upper flat on Calvert. I told my mother I wanted to take piano lessons again. She bought the used upright piano in the photo above. We all signed it on the inside of the flap you rest the music on and raise to get at the insides. Our new teacher was Mr. Manderville, the church choir director at that time. He was my parents age and went in more for mean, sarcastic remarks as opposed to banging your fingers on the keyboard. I wanted to play “Comin’ Through The Rye” but he wouldn’t assign it and, for unknown reasons, I didn’t just learn it on my own time.
The only piece I remember by name was “The Wild Horseman”. I remember it as a complex piece that I played exceptionally well. Sort of like this.
Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that good, but in my memory, I am every bit as good. Eventually I told my mother I didn’t want to take piano lessons any more. She was not happy with that and mentioned buying the piano at my request so I could take lessons. She did let me stop. My mother played the piano much better than I ever did. She played it often after that. Pieces of classical music she played on the record player and those she played on the piano have become confused in my mind now. I will have to ask my sister what she remembers.
Another part of the prompt is pictures within the picture. You will notice three pictures on the wall and one of my sister and me on the piano, in my photo above.
Here are some memories from a newsletter my family put out from 1990 to about 1994. Daughter Ayanna did all the drawings. I added one new memory that my sister-in-law Jocelyn sent me in December, 2013.
This is another letter that my father wrote home to Detroit from Los Angeles when he was studying film in 1944. The photograph of my mother putting a hem in her skirt is also from August, 1944. I’m not sure if this picture was enclosed with this letter.
231 South Hobart Blvd. #4
Los Angeles, 7, California
August 18, 1944
Its Friday afternoon and I just got home from school, and I thought I’d drop you-all a note on the state of the nation. My “little” wife is still working. She gets off about five-thirty and comes home by way of the grocery store. Everything is about the same as usual. We’re still at large (out of the poor-house)…but I’ll have to find something to do pretty quick if we’re planning to stay that-a-way! I’m “dickering” with the Los Angeles Church Federation for a “position”. The “boss-Man” is out of town but I’ve filed an application and we’ll discuss the matter further when he gets back in September. It would be a pretty-good job if I can get it…sort of Negro field-worker for the Federation, co-ordinating the community work of the Negro churches… recruiting and training volunteers and organizing programs and clubs and groups and what-have-you. I’ve also applied to the Negro Community-Center, just-in-case.
On the way to school this morning a man picked me up in the safety-zone (big fine looking red-faced white man) in a Packard from here down town…and we got to bulling each other, and it turned out that he’s the Director of Audio-Visual Education for the Los Angeles Public Schools. Of course he was very happy to meet a real authority in the field…and invited me down to his office to see the experimental work the School System is doing in Moving-picture production. I’ll go down as soon as I can and see what them there “amateurs” are a trying to do.
School is going along fine…(no grades yet, of course!) Me and the Dean of the School of Religion are having a little long-distance controversy through his secretary. He thinks I ought to take half of my work in RELIGION…and I think I ought to take all (or almost all) in Cinema. He has an ace in the hole, however, in as much as I’m registered under the School of Religion and therefore pay only the special fees (Fellowships in religion make up the difference) …However, I’m not going to take half of my work in religion in as much as the religion courses will not contribute to what I’m trying to do!
SPECIAL NOTE TO LOUIS: If he makes me pay up the REGULAR REGISTRATION FEES I’ll have to wire you for a small loan of $100.00 or so until I can work long enough to pay it back. I think we can “arrange the difference of opinion” without such a drastic step… but with the good-white-folks you can never tell…especially preachers. My wife will divorce me if I have to borrow…but I aint no sentimentalist myself…and so I’m a warnin’ you.
How’s the farm going? How’s Mama getting along? I hear that “Racial-tension” in Detroit is a thing of the past! We’re getting ready to have a riot here…The FEPC has ordered the Street Railways to hire and upgrade Negroes immediately! Maybe I can get a “Riot-Movie”.
Here are some “snaps”- Did you get the ones we sent from San Francisco – I don’t think you ever mentioned them.
I am the first daughter, born during a thunderstorm in the middle of the night.
I was born at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Massachusetts, August 30, 1946. My parents arrived there the fall of 1945 when my father was chosen as Pastor of St. John’s Congregational Church. My mother was 23 and my father was 33. Although I was one of the people present in the delivery room, I’ve had to rely on the memories my mother shared with me. My mother was given a wiff of ether as I crowned so she did not see me born. I had a head full of dark hair, enough that a nurse pulled it up into a little pony tail and tied a ribbon around it. The nurse told my mother that all of the dark hair was going to come out and I would have blond hair. She was right. All of that fell out and I had a small amount of blond hair. It would be years before there was enough to pull up in a ribbon. My eyes were blue/gray.My mother said that she was unable to breast feed me because she had no milk. I always felt very sad about this, not so much for me, but because I think that if I could have gone back in time with what I learned about nursing when my own babies were born, I could have helped her make a go of it. After ten days in the hospital, we went home. A member of the church, Reginald Funn, drove us to the parsonage because my parents didn’t have a car until I was 8 years old. Looking at my baby book, there were many visitors and gifts from friends, family and neighbors.
Both of my grandmothers came from Detroit to help out. I was the first grandchild on my father’s side and the second on my mother’s side. My maternal grandmother, Fannie Graham, had a cold so she was regulated to washing clothes and cooking and other duties that kept her away from me so I would not catch her cold. My Grandmother Pearl Cleage had the care of me. My mother said that her pediatrician told her not to give me any water because it would make me drink less milk. Below is a letter my Grandmother Pearl wrote home about it below. Poor baby me.
In this letter, Toddy was my father’s family nickname. Louis was his MD brother. Barbara is my father’s oldest sister, left in charge while her mother was in Springfield.
210 King St Springfield Mass Monday 23/46
How are you? How are Gladys and Daddy and the boys?
We have had atime with this baby, the first nights and all last week Toddy and I were up allnighteachnight! She cried and cried and screamed until she would be exhausted and so was I! Last night and today, so far, she has slept a lot better. Before we talked with Louis I’ve put her feedings 3 hours apart, justlastnight because she acted like she would burst open, with crying. This a.m. we got the Bio Lac and are giving her water regularly too and she is acting 100% better!
When I would have given her water before, they told me her stomach would not hold it and food and had me stop her feeding at about 3 ounces, for fear she couldn’t hold it all, not to feed her too much, and Kris just starving to pieces! I did as they told me until I said I was going to talk to Louis because I had never seen a baby eat and be dry and then just act like she was starving to death and never sleep!
I regret that nobody took any photographs of little me with either of my grandmothers.
Two excerpts from a letter my father wrote home in January. Actually, I did look like him, and more and more so as the years passed until now, if he were still here, we could pass as twins.
January 1, 1947
“…Doris and Kris welcomed in the New Year in their own inimitable way…at home. They got out only once during the holiday…on Christmas day we went to a Turkey dinner at the Funns. We had a tree “for Kris (and Doris) which Kris ignored…disdainfully. Our double-octet went out caroling to the hospital Christmas eve (yes Louis, for the white folks) and came back by and sang carols for us afterwards. Kris listened to them with her usual disdain…and they all agreed that “she is the most sophisticated looking baby they had ever seen!”
“…. She loves to play from 2 until 4 a.m. She had the sniffles for part of one day…but seems to have so far avoided a serious cold…even with us and the rest of Springfield down with Flu, Grip and everything else… She weigh 11:4 (last week) She’s learned to yell or scream or something…and will scream at you for hours if you’ll scream back (Just like M-V) and seems to love it…then after an hour or so…her screaming will shift into a wild crying…and then she must be picked up and played with for several more hours…SHE LOVES ATTENTION…No, mama, we do not let her cry…and her navel seems to be doing O.K. AND SHE DOES NOT LOOK LIKE ME! All reports not withstanding!”
March 18, 1947 – from a letter to my father’s sister, Anna by my mother.
“Kris (with her 2 teeth) says anytime for you all laughing at her bald head – I fear it’ll be covered all too soon with first one thing and then another.”
March 31, 1947 – From a letter to the Cleage’s from a friend of my parents in Springfield
“Last night at home, Kris had quite a time with her teeth and I think Doris was quite anxious. Reverend Cleage had to leave for Loring before Kris really let go so he didn’t know how much the baby suffered. I know it won’t last long, tho’ for mother says some teeth give more pain than others, but it is soon over with.”
From an April 7, 1947 letter my father sister Gladys wrote home while visiting Springfield.
“Kris is no good- but cute! Head’s not like the picture – kids! I definitely have no way with babies – I have truly lived!”
June 29, 1947 (from a letter by my father’s visiting sister, Anna)
“… Doris went to a reception today and I watched Kris. I tricked her, I played some soft music on the radio and waltzed around the room with her a few times, then eased into a rocking chair and first thing she knew she was asleep – so I put her in her crib and the next thing she knew Doris was home waking her to feed her.”
I seem to have done fine, as you can see below, with my dirty bare feet I am sitting on the porch with my father’s father and my parents. I started walking at 9 months and my first words were – “Bow wow.” soon followed by “Some manners if you please!” My mother said that people didn’t usually understand what I was saying when I came out with that.
You can read the front page of the Springfield Republican for the day I was born here.
I remember several cookouts in my grandmother Cleage’s backyard. There was the one where the tables were set up right in front of the gate that looked out on the street. There was some sort of minor argument about this. Afterwards, my sister and I called any sort of family argument a “cookout.” On that occasion Grace Lee Boggs dropped by, not for the cookout, but for some political reason, dating it in the 1960s.
The cookout pictured below took place during the summer of 1958. My uncle Louis bought a big blue plastic swimming pool that took up most of the cement part of the yard. I don’t remember it being there any other summer. Once, my sister Pearl was drowning when my uncle Henry noticed her on the bottom of the pool, reached down and pulled her out. I don’t know why she didn’t stand up. She was 9 and I turned 12 that August. The bushes on the fence were full of tiny, pink roses during the season. Those are still my favorite roses.
Pearl remembers: I am still mystified as to why I didn’t just put my feet down. I don’t remember being at the bottom of the pool. I remember going down and splashing my way back up to the top and not being able to stay with my head above water. and then Henry came over and grabbed me and pulled me up and out. who knows what was going on? and we had those little plastic life preservers, too. how deep was the damn thing anyway?