Between some pages my grandmother’s Bible are little snippets of hair. It is a well used Bible. The covers are missing. Part of the front cover remains, tucked between pages. On this and on the back pages, corners worn away, she wrote about the births of her children and deaths of her two sons. I don’t know who the hair came from, but I would guess from her children. They were all blond as babies.
“Our darling little Mershell Jr. was run over by a truck on Tuesday Nov. 1st – ’27 at 12:45 PM. on his way to school from lunch. skull crushed etc. – Neck broken – shoulder fractured- rushed to St. Joseph’s Mercy Hospital – never regained consciousness – died – same night at 2:10 – Dr Turner at his sid(e) (Fun)eral-Nov 4th … (Lavi)scount offic(iated) sang….”
Mary Virginia born April 3rd 1920 at 5:10 AM on Saturday. Detroit Mich at 1031 St. Jean Ave, 7 #. Dr. Ames & … 2nd baby – Mershell C. Graham, Jr. born June 10th – 1921 at 7:45 PM. On Friday. Detroit, Michigan. Dunbar Hospital. 8 1/2# Dr. Turner. Died 11/1/27 killed by auto. 3rd baby – Doris J. Graham born February – 12th – 1923. 5:10 A.M. – on Monday at Women’s Hospital Beaubien and For(est) Detroit, Michigan 7#
4th baby – Howard Alexander G(raham) born at Woman’s Hospi(tal) Sept 7th ’28 at 5 P.M. 7#10 oz. Dr. Turner
Our baby Howard was taken ill Nov. 17th 1931 – Dr. turner came + pronounced it Diabetes … cured — Jan 1932… On Feb 20- 1932, he developed Scarlet Fever – was sent to Herman Kiefer Hospital an(d) on acct of his condition died March 4th 1932 and was buried Sat. March 5…Private funeral at Memorial Park Cemetery 3 1/2 years old born 9/7/…
Our loss is truest g… God fills the pla… by our 2 ba…
The generations gathered around my Graham grandparents dining room table in 1963 for Thanksgiving dinner. There was turkey with cornbread dressing cooked by my grandfather. There was white rice, cranberry jelly, green beans, corn pudding and sweet potatoes. There was my grandmother’s finely chopped green salad and her homemade biscuits with butter and with a relish plate holding olives, sweet pickles and carrot sticks.
One thing there wasn’t, was talk about the old days. My grandparents were born in 1888. My grandmother was born Fannie Turner in Lowndes County, Alabama. My grandfather was born Mershell Graham in Elmore County, Alabama. They met and married in Montgomery. My great great Aunt Abbie was born in 1877 in Montgomery, Alabama and was the second to youngest child of Dock and Eliza Allen. My mother told us stories she had heard from her mother, mainly about Dock and Eliza and their children. I remember once my older cousin was trimming Aunt Abbie’s toenails when Aunt Abbie mentioned that she used to trim her grandmother’s toenails when she was a girl. And that her grandmother also had arthritis. I have always remembered that, but I didn’t ask any follow up questions about her grandmother, Annie Williams who was born a slave and was full grown and the mother of a fully grown woman when she was freed. And Aunt Abbie didn’t say anything else about it.
My grandfather, who we called Poppy, was a mystery. My mother only had little parts of stories she had gotten from her mother, things that just made the mystery deeper in most cases. What were his siblings names and what happened to them? Are the ones I’ve found that I think are his siblings, really his siblings? In 1900, I found these possible siblings living with a man who is listed as their father but has a name not listed on any of their death certificates, was he their father with a different name? And where was he, my grandfather, in 1900? Why wasn’t he there, or anywhere else I can find? Where was their mother? What was the name of the little white girl he was servant of when he was a boy? The one he slept on the floor outside of her bedroom door? The one who changed his name from Michele to Mershell because Michele sounded too “foreign”? How did he learn to read? Did he go to school? Did he know his grandparents and what plantation did his parents come off of? There was a photograph of his sister and her children in the album. I would like to ask him what their names were. Are they the ones I’ve found in the census?
I would like to ask my grandmother some of the same questions about her father’s family. Howard Turner died when she was 4 and her mother moved away from that community and went back to her family in Montgomery. I was able to find her father’s family because I knew his name, his age and the community he came from but I have no stories about his parents and siblings or what plantation they came off of. I only know that his father, Joseph Turner of Hayneville, Lowndes County was a farmer and owned his own land and had given his son some land which he didn’t want him to sell and the two of them argued about it.
When we went by my other grandparent’s house for desert I would ask where my grandfather’s mother, Celia Rice Cleage Sherman is buried. And why my grandmother Pearl thought her grandmother was Cherokee.
Unfortunately, I can’t go back to 1963 and sit around the table and steer the conversation around to who was where and when and how and why. I can only use the information I do have to keep looking and hope that one day some cousins from those mysterious lines will turn up and perhaps have some of the answers to my questions.
This was written for the Blog Carnival “The Ancestors Told; the Elders Listened; We Pass It On”.
You may be wondering when I am going to find Eliza. I decided to post the information in the order that I received it. We’ll get there eventually. Today I am posting another writing by my mother. I also posted the personal parts of the letter she wrote to give you some idea of my mother as a person.
5 Nov 1980 by Doris Graham Cleage Dear Kris, Election Day! Did you ever? Here is a joke that sums it up for me: Man, traveling on horseback down a road toward a certain town, comes to a farmer working in a field. Just ahead was a fork in the road. The man hollered to the farmer, “Does it matter which road I take to _______, ” and he named his destination. “Not to me it don’t, ” said the farmer, who hardly looked up from his work. You don’t get it? That’s OK. It gives us a good laugh every time we tell it.
Today I’m going to write about Grandmother. Grandmother Turner was born about 1872, nine years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Don’t know if she finished high school – but she did go. Her mother taught her to sew and it was a good thing she did because grandmother worked the rest of her life supporting herself and her children at sewing. That is, she worked after husband Howard Turner died. They married when she was about sixteen. Don’t know his age. He looked something like grandmother’s father and also like my father, mother said. He was a farmer’s son from around Hayneville, AL, but he preferred the big city – Montgomery. His father had three sons and planned to give each one a large share of the farm when they married. Howard and Jenny received their farm, but neither one liked the country. One day they were in Montgomery. He was at a Bar-B-Q. She was at her parents with their daughters, Fannie Mae, 4, and Daisy Pearl, 2. someone brought word that the had been shot dead. Apparently no one ever knew who did it, but mother always said grandmother thought his father had it done because he was angry that Howard would not farm and had even been talking about selling his part. The father did not want the land sold, but wanted it to stay in the family forever. (Bless his heart!). He and the son had had some terrible arguments before they left to come to the Bar-B-Q. I often wondered why he was there and grandmother wasn’t. She always seemed to like a good time.
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 thing 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 Deignan’s (note: that would have been about 5) size, 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.
Grandmother went to work when her husband was murdered – sewing for white folks – out all day fitting and sewing – and sewing all night – finishing while mother and Daisy stayed with their Grandfather Allen, who would tell on them when Grandmother came home and she would spank them. Mother said she remembered telling Daisy to holler loudly so Grandmother wouldn’t spank them hard or long and it worked!
Grandmother stayed single until she was about 37 or 38 when she married someone Mother hated – looked Italian, hardly ever worked. Liked a good time. Fathered Alice and left when she was very small. Somehow when mother spoke of him I had the feeling he would have like to have taken advantage of her. She was about 20 and had given up two college scholarships to stay and help Grandmother.
Sometimes after her husband’s death, Grandmother took the deed to the farm to a white lawyer. (was there any other kind?) and told him to sell it for her. He went to see it and check it out – told her to forget it – her title wasn’t clear, but he never gave the deed back and she figured he made a deal with her father-in-law.
Aunt Abbie said the father-in-law built Grandmother and Howard a “shotgun” house on the farm. She would turn up her nose as she said it. You know that is a house like this – no doors on front or back, you could shoot a gun through hall without damage. Animals (pigs, dogs) would wander into the hall and have to be driven out. Aunt Abbie only stayed there when the plague was raging in Montgomery. Yellow fever (malaria) and/or polio every summer. Many people sick or dying. Huge bonfires in the streets every night to ‘purify’ the air”, and closing the city if it got bad enough – no one in or out. More than once they fled the city in a carriage through back streets and swamps because they were caught by the closing which was done suddenly to keep folks from leaving and spreading the “plague”
In Detroit, when they came in 1923 when Mother and Daddy had bought the house on Theodore and had room for them (room? only 5 adults and 3 children!) Grandmother, Daisy and Alice got good jobs, (they were good – sewing fur coats, clean work and good pay.) at Annis Furs (remember it back of Hudsons?) 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.
Maybe here a word about Aunt Daisy. Look at her picture, sweet, soft, pretty, taught school awhile in Montgomery (with high school diploma) loved Congregational preacher named Duncan Erby who loved her and waited for her for years. Had the church in Buffalo, NY. Whenever she really considered leaving, Grandmother did the old guilt trick “How can you leave me to take care of Alice all by myself?” and “No man in this world is good enough to touch your little finger. They are all no good except (maybe) Shell.” and Daisy listened and stayed and played numbers, studied dream books and drank a little apricot brandy. I always found their house light, cheerful, full of magazines (McCall’s, Journal, etc.) which I loved to read, full of good things to eat. All three were super cooks and they had always just had a bunch of friends to dinner and to play cards or just about to have.
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, 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, and chocolates, of course! She loved to eat and to cook. Never seemed bitter or regretful about her lost love.
Grandmother got old, hurt her knee, it never healed properly. Daisy worked and supported the house alone. Alice only worked a little while. She had problems getting along with people. Grandmother was eventually senile. Died of a stroke at 83 or so. Alice spent years taking care of her while Daisy worked. Daisy added to their income by being head numbers writer at Annis!! Did I ever show you the picture of the “coloreds” who worked at Annis? Will send if you like. Looks like people from Mr. Polks book, were supposed to be the “best looking colored girls in Detroit” Mr. Annis had a colored mistress, of course.
15 Nov 1980 Dear Kris and Pearl, Figured I’d make a carbon of the stuff about the family and send you each one…this is a sort of wrap up of Grandmother….but first something the Snoopy cartoon (from Pearl) made me remember….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 thigs…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 o my childhood because it’s still a surprise to me that life is hard. Seems that should be a temporary condition.
Now as to Grandmother and her sewing… you know how long and voluminous dresses were either side of 1900… how many stitches there were in one I hate to think… machines were available at that time but whether or not she had one I don’t know… this is what she did… she was a seamstress. Let’s say you could afford to have someone make your clothes and she was your regular person. Every July she came to your house and sewed for you and your children, making everything, including winter coats, suits, dresses, sleepwear, underwear, everything except knitted stuff like socks and hats. She might have made shirts for the man of the house too. She had no patterns. She made a pattern or just cut the material if it wasn’t complicated, basted it together, fitted it, made corrections, got it ready for final sewing. All this she did at your house, all day. When she finally went home about supper time, she took with her the things ready to be sewed and worked on them all night, because the faster she finished things the faster she got paid and the more jobs she could take. She did plain stuff if they wanted it or she could tailor a suit (easy tailoring, she always said, and she didn’t like it. Too exact, she said) Or she could make fancy like smocking, the gathery stuff across the front of little girls dresses or nightgowns or ladies fancy blouses, or embroidery or ruffles or lace trim. She could even make the lace (tat, that is), put fur collars and cuffs on coat or suit, she could do it all and she did it all all the time.
One thing she liked about her work, it was not dirty. She was not a maid of any kind. She could choose her customers to some extent, because she was good, I guess., and there were people for whom she would not work. Usually referred to as “white trash” meaning in this case I guess that they were rude to her since they could not have been poor and had a seamstress. Another thing she liked was that she could talk while she worked and she loved to talk. I remember her talking all the time when she lived with us. And Daisy was a talker too. Grandmother would talk sometimes about the folks she had sewed for. Some were Jewish. I remember only two specifics. One who advised her to cut her long hair because it would “sap her strength” and also not to take hot or long baths for the same reason the other was complaining about life and GM said (with a mouth full of pins all sticking out and her talking through them as I remember) “Well, when we get to Heaven we won’t have to worry about that any more” The lady was horrified and said “Surely, Jennie (her name was Jennie Virginia and I almost named one of you after her) you don’t think you and I will go to the same Heaven”. Grandmother always laughed at that story and said she wouldn’t mind dying so much if she would just remember that she would see that lady in Heaven and enjoy her consternation at seeing Grandmother there too with NO segregation. Mother and Daisy always shook their heads at this and said she shouldn’t talk like that about dying. Grandmother laughed some more. She liked to shock them.