Growing Up – In her Own Words by Doris Graham Cleage – Sepia Saturday #63 & #200

For Sepia Saturday #200, I am re-sharing a piece written by my mother, Doris Graham Cleage, which I first shared in February 2011. I am going to let her tell you about  her home life and early years in this piece compiled from some of her writings when she was in her 50s.  This is my entry for Jasia’s 103rd Carnival of Genealogy, Women’s History and for Sepia Saturday #63.

My mother in the cherry tree in the yard.
My mother in the cherry tree in the yard.

In Her Own Words

My parents 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.

Mary 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.  Mary 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 they bought a flat together with Uncle Cliff and Aunt Gwen (not really related).  Mother got pregnant again very soon.  Mershell Jr. was born the next year, 1921.  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 or babies.

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.

Their house. Survey photo.

Mershell Jr. was born in1921 at Dunbar Hospital, with a different doctor.  When he was a year old, I was on the way.  The flat was too small.  Grandmother Jennie T. was consulted, sold the house in Montgomery and moved to Detroit with daughters Daisy and Alice.  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.

Grandmother, Daisy and Alice got good jobs,  sewing fur coats, clean work and good pay, at Annis Furs (remember it back of Hudson’s?)  and soon had money to buy their own house, much farther east, on a “nice” street in a “better ” neighborhood (no factories) on Harding Ave. While they lived with us I remember violent arguments between Alice and I don’t know who – either Grandmother or Daisy or Mother.  Certainly not Daddy because when he spoke it was like who (?) in the Bible who said, “When I say go, they goeth. When I say come, they cometh.”  Most of the time I remember him in the basement, the backyard or presiding at table. Daisy and Grandmother were what we’d call, talkers.

1923, backyard, Detroit – Mary V., Mershell holding my mother Doris.

About four blocks around the corner and down the street from Theodore was a vacant lot where, for some years ,they had a small carnival every year.  I don’t remember the carnival at all.  I never liked rides anyway.  Not even the merry-go-round.  But I remember it being evening, dark outside and we were on the way home.  I don’t remember who was there except Daddy and I.  He was carrying me because I was sleepy so I must have been very small.  I remember my head on his shoulder and how it felt.  The best pillow in the world.  I remember how high up from the sidewalk I seemed to be.  I could hardly see the familiar cracks and printings even when the lights from passing cars lighted things, which was fairly often because we were on Warren Ave.  I remember feeling that that’s the way things were supposed to be.  I hadn’t a worry in the world.  I was tired, so I was carried.  I was sleepy, so I slept. I must have felt like that most of my childhood because it’s still a surprise to me that life is hard.  Seems that should be a temporary condition.

Mershell holding Doris. Fannie. Mershell Jr and Mary V in front of Plymouth Congregational Church. Detroit.

Boy children are very important to some people and my parents 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. A big 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.

Mershell Jr, Mary V., my mother Doris in front. On front porch steps. Detroit, Theodore Street.

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.  But she never took refuge in guilt feelings or hysterics or depressions.  She lived everyday as best she could and I never heard her complain.

Ours was a quiet, orderly house.  Everything happened on schedule. Everything was planned. There were very few big 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?

I remember…when I was very young seven or eight – if I got very angry I would go upstairs by myself-take an old school notebook and write, “I will not be angry” over and over until I wasn’t angry anymore.  Anger was rarely expressed in our house.  I only remember my father and mother arguing twice as long as I lived at home – and I was twenty before I left. But my sister and I fought often.  Antagonism was the strongest feeling we had for each other.

Back: Aunt Daisy, Grandmother Turner, my grandmother Fannie.           Front: Mary V. Mershell Jr and my mother Doris. 1927, backyard Theodore, Detroit.

 Aunt Daisy took us downtown to the show every summer and to Saunders for ice cream afterward.  And I always ended up with a splitting headache.  Too much high living I guess.  She and Alice would buy us dainty, expensive little dresses from Siegel’s or Himelhoch’s.  They all went to church every Sunday at  Plymouth (Congregational). Daisy always gave us beautiful tins of gorgeous Christmas candy, that white kind filled with gooey black walnut stuff, those gooey raspberry kind and those hard, pink kind with a nut inside, also chocolates, of course!

From top: my grandmother Fannie, my mother Doris picking something off of baby Howard who is held by my grandfather Mershell. Backyard of Theodore house, Detroit.

I lived at home until I finished college and married.  Everyday when I got home from school the minute I opened the door I knew what we were having for dinner.  The house would be full of the good smell of spaghetti or meat loaf or greens or salmon croquettes or pork chops and gravy or steak and onions.  We had hot biscuits or muffins every day.  My father did not like “store bought” bread.  I hardly knew what it tasted like until I married.  Our friends were welcome.  The house was clean. Our clothes were clean and mended.

Mary V, Howard, my mother Doris. 1930. Detroit, MI.

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 when 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 warning.  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 Mary Vee did.

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.

My mother’s grandmother, Jennie V. Turner.

Memories of her grandmother, Jennie V. Turner

I remember her laughing and singing and dancing around the house on Theodore. She was short, about five feet I guess, with brown eyes, thin dark brown hair that she wore in a knot. She was very energetic, always walking fast.  She always wore oxfords, often on the wrong feet, and never had time to change them.  We used to love to tell her that her shoes were on the wrong feet.  (smart kids!)

She never did things with us like read to us or play with us, but she made us little dresses.  I remember two in particular she made me that I especially liked.  My “candy-striped” dress – a red white and blue small print percale.  She put a small pleated ruffle around the collar and a larger one around the bottom. I was about five, I guess, and I really thought I was cool!  the other favorite was an “ensemble” – thin, pale green material with a small printed blue green and red flower in it – just a straight sleeveless dress with neck and sleeves piped in navy blue – and a three – quarter length coat of the same material – also straight -with long sleeves and lapels – also piped in navy blue.  She never used a pattern.  Saw something and made it!  She taught us some embroidery which she did beautifully but not often. She never fussed at us – never criticized – and I think she rocked me in the upstairs hall on Theodore when I was little and sick.  The rocker Daddy made stood in that hall.  I remember lots of people rocking in that chair when I was small.

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Wordless Wednesday – Plymouth Congregational Church

"Plymouth Church photo"
Plymouth Congregational Church - September 1928. Detroit, Michigan

Nearly wordless.  My grandfather Mershell C. Graham was one of the founders.  He is standing behind his daughters, Mary V. and Doris (my mother).  Their cousin Margaret is standing between them.  They are in the front row, towards the left side of center.  Elementary age.  My grandmother, Fannie, had just given birth to their son Howard so was not there.

Part 4 – Eliza’s Daughters by My Mother Doris Graham Cleage

My mother wrote this as part of her family history memories for my sister and me in 1980.  I am putting the whole piece here then I will reprint each sister’s section with the new information I found and corrections that needed to be made after I found descendants for most of them.  My mother’s grandmother was Jennie Virginia Allen Graham.  The women she writes about are her grandmother’s sisters, her great aunts.  When “grandmother” is mentioned that is Jennie Virginia.

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Willie holding grandson Conrad, daughter Naomi looking on.

Now a word about her sisters….Aunt Willie was the oldest….married well…Victor Tulane (Tuskegee trustee and owner of a general store and many houses).  He was not what you’d call a “faithful” husband, but Aunt Willie (the family said)  looked the other way because he always took such good care of his wife and only child, a daughter Naomi, who was sent to Howard, married a doctor and went to live the high life in New York.  Aunt Willie had a beautiful apartment over the store.  Always had a maid and never worked.  She was living like this when Grandmother was a struggling widow. She was the last sister to leave Montgomery.  She died in New York.  Her son-in-law had died, left her daughter wealthy with apartments in NY paid for, insurance, money for the education of the four children in the bank, etc.  I remember shoes hand made in Italy being in the boxes of impossible things she sent mother.  They were always distant “rich relations”.  Don’t remember even seeing any of the children except one young woman who came to Detroit briefly, stayed with Margaret McCall.  Saw Aunt Willie once.  She and Aunt Abbie came to visit us when I was small.  Don’t remember her saying much or ever smiling while Aunt Abbie was as you remember her, friendly.

Abbie Allen Brown

Aunt Abbie married a Mississippi Riverboat gambler, swarthy and handsome and no good, who stayed home on two visits long enough to give her two sons and then sent her trunks of fine clothes to wear or sell to take care of herself and the boys.  Whenever she talked about him she sounded like she hated him.  She resented the lack of money.  Said once the oldest boy Earl (named for his father) screamed for days with toothache and she could not take him to the dentist who didn’t want any fancy clothes or jewelry.  She resented raising the children alone. I got the feeling she hated them and they hated her and she resented him being off having a good time while she stayed home with the problems.  She talked about him In a completely different way than she talked about her Jewish policeman who bought her a house on Ripley St. and spent much time there, for whom she loved to cook and keep house.

She came to live with Mother to take care of Daddy (!) so Mother could come to Springfield and help me when Kris was born.  In later years when they lived on Fairfield, Mother and Daddy used to argue about this and they would call me in to referee.  He’d say he took Aunt Abbie in out of the goodness of his heart like all the rest of her family, and that she was not supposed to stay on them forever but was to go live with Aunt Margaret.  Mother would say Aunt Abbie came to take care of him because (here she would make a mouth at me) he could not take care of himself and work even tho he could cook better than she and do everything else in the house too.  I think we are always angered at the way men can say this is the limit.  I can’t or I won’t do this or that and we seem to have lives where you do what is to be done since you have no one who will hear you if you say you can’t or won’t…hold my hand Charlie Brown!  And that he knew very well she was going to live with them and visit Margaret occasionally.  Mother was right.  He said Aunt Abbie came to have cataracts operated and to be taken care of.  He was wrong.  Her eye operations came years later.  He said to me once that he had always taken care of Mother’s people and she would have nothing to do with his.  I know how Grandmother depended on him to fix things around their house and he was most agreeable and I always thought he loved it.  They made over him when he came with his box of tools.  I was always there as helper, but he got very tired and mistreated about having both Alice and Aunt Abbie to take care of.  He didn’t like either one.  But I never could get him to send them to a nursing or residence home to live.  He always said what would people say if I did that.  When people talk like that I give up because they are obviously making the choice they prefer.

Back to Aunt Abbie.  She loved to cook and do everything else about the house.  Mother would not let her do anything except clean her own room and do her own washing and ironing and Mother hated everything about housekeeping except cooking, but she said her husband expected her to take care of him and his house and (she didn’t say this) she’d be damned if she’d let anyone else do it as long as she could.  I couldn’t talk to her about it.

Aunt Anna was the sister who went to Chicago, got a job as teller in a bank, married the bank manager who was a widower with children.  He knew she was black but no one else in his family ever did. I’ve often wondered what they did for birth control.  They were young when they married.  He was well to do.  She used to write Mother and Mother would write back c/o general post office.  Said she loved him but felt very lonely all the time not to be able to see her family and knew the children would have nothing to do with her if they knew.  She was supposed to look like Margaret McCall.  She got sick.  Wrote Mother she was not to live long.  That there might be no more letters.  That she would dearly love to die with her family He had died years before…had left his money to her…had asked her to promise to stay near the children to pass so they would not be embarrassed…and leave the money to them.  She promised and told mother she had made her bed and would lie in it to the end but would surely see them in Heaven.  Mother was the only one she wrote to.  The rest would not answer letters.  That was the last letter.

Mary Allen McCall

Aunt Mary married someone named James McCall whom I never knew.  Also never heard anyone say who he was or what he did.  As I write this it strikes me that the men these sisters married were for the most part very shadowy creatures.  I’ve seen a picture even of only one.  Strange.  Aunt Mary looked rather like Aunt Abbie but was quiet and rather grim, I thought.  Lived with Aunt Margaret and her son Uncle Jim all her life as far as I know.  I think Aunt Mary helped with money although I don’t know where she got it.  Uncle Jim, her son, was blind.  There were two children, Margaret and Victoria, and no help from the state.  He caned chairs and wrote poetry for a living.  I think they were very poor but did better when the state helped blind people  And they got enough money from somewhere to buy the Detroit Tribune and make money.

Beulah Allen Pope and son Robert on trip to Detroit.

Aunt Beulah who looked something like Grandmother, I’ve heard, married someone named Pope and went to Milwaukee.  Don’t know what he did or what she was like.  Never saw her.  Sent one son through dental school  Robert Pope.  Very handsome, his twin sister, a beauty married well, had one child the one who kept pushing me around when they came to visit us.  I must have been about four,  so was he, and he wanted to follow MV everywhere and not let me come.  I went anyway.  I remember him banging my head against the wall beside the stairs.  Strange.  He especially hated me because I could cut up my own meat and his mother wouldn’t even let him try.  Ha ha!!!  Another son of Aunt Beulah was a teacher who married had one daughter who wrote once to Mother and Daddy about family history.  Wonder what she got together.  I keep hoping to find someone who has already done all the hard work.  Back to Aunt Beulah, who was considered the least beautiful of the sisters.  Her son Robert built her a beautiful home and stayed there with her until she died not too long ago.  Ten or twelve years.  They all spoke of her with envy.

The Search Begins

First posted on May 26, 2010

This is a tintype of Dock Allen, my great great grandfather.  He was born into slavery about 1839 in Georgia and died 29 May 1909 in Montgomery, Alabama.  It was in the dining room of my grandparents home in Detroit for as long as I can remember.  Eliza was his wife.  We had no picture of her.

In 1972 my husband and I relocated from Detroit to Atlanta. In 1973 our second daughter, Ife was born and my mother’s father, Mershell Graham, “Poppy” died.  In 1974 his wife, Fannie Mae Turner Graham, “Nanny”,  died.    And I became interested in family history.

I asked my mother to send me any information she remembered, as far back as she could go. She sent me the paper on the left.  She started with her mother and went back to Eliza’s mother.

2 Responses to The Search Begins

  1. May 27, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Kristin,How great it must have been to get this information when you started your research. It’s more than many of us get when were start this genealogical journey. I’ll be following along as your family story unfolds.Sandra

    Reply
  2. kristin says:
    May 27, 2010 at 11:32 pm

    It was! I didn’t realize how great at the time. It has survived moves to five states during the last 30+ years lots of my stuff did not.