Growing Up – In her Own Words by Doris Graham Cleage

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.

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57 thoughts on “Growing Up – In her Own Words by Doris Graham Cleage

  1. This is such a wonderful post. It is filled with memories of events as well as emotional memories of your family. Your detail is what brings it all to life.

  2. You have such a rich family history and so many wonderful candid photos and stories to keep it alive.

  3. Kristin, what a blessing to have such a well-recorded family history! This is a wonderful posts, and the pictures are great!


  4. I wanted to label the photographs but it messed up my page layout every time I did it. hope you can recognize who is who.

  5. What a history to go with the superb photos. This is a record that should never be lost. Ideal sepia post.

  6. yes she was very necessary! What an inspiration, her writing made me feel like I was sitting back hearing for the first time…loved how she detailed emotions and everyday bliss. Her use of mother and daddy was cool all the way through…little girls and their daddies…More people today should try her method of writing "I will not be angry" like a million times and just imagine what that could do! You are very lucky to have this story of their lives, she was so darn intelligent and well spoken too…this is a treasure for sure! The photos are precious too!

  7. That's a great story and pictures. Everything sounds so idyllic, except for the two boys dying.

  8. Lovely writing about a truly lovely family. I've copied a phrase to my refrigerator – "it’s still a surprise to me that life is hard. Seems that should be a temporary condition." Some of the wisest, most heartfelt words I've ever read.

    It's a blessing to me that you're sharing your family with us, Kristin.

  9. Looking forward to reading additional memories of your mother. Beautiful photos and beautiful written.

  10. It really is very, very good. I look forward to more where this comes from : and it really does deserve to be more widely available.

  11. This is superb! To have her own words and the photos along with the tale is a priceless treasure! I would say this is but one chapter in what will be a wonderful book. I laughed at the Biblical reference to "goeth and cometh" men of that era were like that I think. In my research, I am finding many boarders in homes of relatives too and knew it was to save money and help pay the way. I am just amazed at this wonderful post, read every word twice!

  12. Thanks all of you for your positive and supportive remarks! warms the cockles of my heart.

  13. What I liked best about your beautiful remembrance of your mother was the way you detailed her emotions… stiff upper lip most of the time, stern but controlled with her children when necessary, and spilling over quietly when she thought she was alone. I could relate to so much of what you described. My mom was so much like yours. She wasn't one to display emotions and wasn't comfortable around others that did so. She took care of the house, doing her duty, tending her children, and suffering silently.

    Thank you for sharing your mom with us in the COG!

  14. Jasia, this piece was actually my mother's memories of her household when she was growing up so it was memories of her mother, my grandmother. As I continue with my mother's story I will talk about my memories of her. She was like her mother in some ways but in others, not. I'm glad you liked it!

  15. Kristin, I am late, late, late with my Sepia Saturday reads for last Saturday. So sorry. I'm so glad I didn't decide to just forget reading the rest or I might have missed this post! I think it is wonderful that your mother recorded her memories of her childhood. How old was she when she wrote this? I also think the photos are fabulous. They all seem so clear. Thanks for sharing.

  16. Nancy, it's never too late to view and comment! My mother was in her 50's when she wrote this. I am so glad she wrote about herself a bit and her memories of the family history. It was her best writing. Wish she'd written more.

  17. Kristen, what a treasure it is to have these remembrances in your mother's own words! And the way you've woven the pictures around them is beautiful. This piece gives so much insight into their characters and daily life. A pleasure to read!

  18. Hi Kristen,
    What a great way to celebrate your mom and her remembrances. She adds details that bring these women to life — the way they wore their hair, walked, expressed or withheld emotions. A superb job of adding photos too. I love the kids on the porch!

  19. I'm late to the party, but this was beautiful!

    Peace & Blessings,
    "Guided by the Ancestors"

  20. Kristin,Perfect.The Love Grows Out Of This Post.Thank You For This And All Your Other Writing.Bestest Wishes From tony X

  21. How wonderful to have such an in-depth understanding of your grandmother through your mother’s writings. I’ve been fortunate to personally know both my grandmothers well, and even more fortunate to hear funny, sad, and uplifting stories about both of them in their younger days from my Mom and Dad which reminds me – I should get busy and write those stories down!

  22. I once read that the best family histories are “rich in detail” and you have given us this with such a lovely tribute to your mother’s family – even better in her own words. It must mean so much to you and it was touching to read.

  23. I’d kill to have a letter written by someone in my family that has as much information and detail as this. What a wonderful keepsake.

    That ether-incident is pretty scary. Thank goodness she recovered.

    I find it interesting how many of the “relatives” were not really related.

  24. My little mind was busy painting pictures to words & memories. You Mother was a gifted storyteller. You & Pearl come by it righteously. Beautiful!

    1. Luckie, she died in her late 50s, not too many years after she wrote this. I know if she could have lived longer she would have written more. Neither Pearl nor I were living in Detroit and we didn’t use the phone so much back then, so she wrote our family history to us.

  25. I note that in my first comment I said “it really should be more widely available”. Let us hope that our little joint book will contribute in a small way to making that come true.

  26. I missed this gem the first time as I hadn’t discovered Sepia Saturday yet. You have so many GOOD stories that it had to be difficult choosing. Your mother’s descriptions of her upbringing, the deaths of her brothers, her mother’s strength, and how they handled personal problems are humbling. Like Kat, I wish someone had left such a detailed letter to me.

  27. This is a perfect choice for the 200 celebration; a post rich in detail, enhanced by the addition of sepia pictures. What an interesting life, but how sad to lose tow broyhers so young.

  28. Hi Kristen,
    This is such a wonderful post. So nice to have a history in your mother’s own words. It’s certainly a special post. But the one I remember the most was the one about your uncle (?) who was a doctor and treated Malcolm X for exhaustion. I actually don’t know how you could choose just one post because all of your posts were wonderful. But, you’re right, this one is very special and perfect for the book.
    Ladies of the Grove

  29. A beautiful post, Kristin. It resonates with her voice even as we read it, and the photos illustrate it perfectly. Your family has an amazing record of photos and written word from the many generations and family branches. Who was principal cameraman?

    1. If my grandmother was in the photo, I assume it was my grandfather, if my grandfather was in the photo, I’d guess my grandmother.

  30. It’s wonderful she took the time to write her memories of her parents and childhood with them. I could identify with “a very private person” when she described her mother. My mom was like that, too. In fact, several things she wrote about her mom could have been said of my mom, too. Great post, Kristin.

  31. Kristen, I do remember this post, with your mother’s own words, and all the rich family photos that you always can share with us. What treasures you have.

  32. A lovely piece. You are so lucky to have the marvellous photos and the skills to write so well about them.

  33. Well Done Kristin. This is great. I never tire of reading your family history. You are very lucky to have such terrific photos and you write wonderfully.

  34. This letter is such an honest picture of history of everyday life back then. The things that people did to survive life by being on automatic in every aspect of their life is so evident. The loss of children was so matter of fact and yet people didn’t dwell on it. Even so they surely carried the wounds with them. It is a wonderful, superb posting.

    1. Actually, it never left my grandmother’s mind. Although she may not have talked about it with my mother, I have several journals and writings she did that show she thought about her sons a lot. In the 1940 she wrote how old they would have been there. She wrote notes about their deaths.

  35. My maternal grandma thought of the one child that died in infancy her whole life.
    It is a scar that never heals.
    What a great story teller she was!!
    I see the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
    Great post!!

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