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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.