I’m not sure when it clicked, but as far I can remember I’ve always been in awe of the Elders in my family.
The sage wisdom that flowed from their lips always served as a time machine of sorts with the descriptive energy lent to their recollections never failing to pull me into confines of “back then”.
As a young boy, I was a captive audience as my Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles would share stories from their childhood in Alabama and the surrounding areas of Tennessee – and that trek from the place of their birth during the early 1940’s.
As I transitioned into the confines of adulthood that passion that they had for respecting where they came from never dimmed – nor did my inclination in hearing it.
(In the African-American community, the title “BigMama” is a term of endearment, a honor bestowed on an Elder or matriarch of the family.
My siblings and I have never referred to her by any other name other than BigMama).
My BigMama hails from a big family, she is third of 11 children and at 93 years old she is also the oldest of the surviving siblings, her mind is sharp, her determination is strong and her recollections drip with detail…
Interestingly enough I too am the 3rd child of my parents, I am unclear if our both being the 3rd siblings has any bearing on our dynamic and my adoration, but for me it matters little.
Like many African-American’s between the decades of the 1910’s and 1970’s my BigMama and Great Aunts found their way North complements of the Great Migration.
However, this journey took place in the wake of tragedy, as it was on the heels of my Great Grandfather’s death in an accident.
It was during a purge of my work space at home last month when I came across a notebook that was earmarked with post-it notes from a conversation my BigMama and I had during one of my visits to my native Chicago in 2013.
I flipped through the pages and was summarily pulled in, again.
I remembered that this was the conversation that sparked my effort (one that is still ongoing) in tracing the family history of my maternal line back more than 200 some odd years.
On this path was the overarching shadow of my 2nd Great Aunt, who would prove to be nothing short of influential figure in my research, as I would come to find out later.
When my BigMama speaks, I often sit transfixed, because for me – class is in session:
“When Daddy died, she got us older ones together and told us that we had to make a way on our own.”
“You see Momma couldn’t take care of all of them kids. So, Mozelle and Lillan was already married and out on their own and Aunt Cora, had told Momma that she’d take some of the little ones, but Momma wasn’t trying to let them go.”
“Aunt Cora?” I interjected, “Yah, that was my Daddy’s sister.
I jotted this name down and circled it, because I heard her mention Aunt Cora previously and I always took note of how her face lit up whenever she mentioned her.
She continued her recollection as I scribbled feverishly in the notebook:
“Momma told the kids who weren’t married that they had to send money back down to help with the bills. Helen had made her way up to Chicago with Aunt Lea and Lillian was there too.”
“So I figured I’d make my way up there too and work in a factory like Aunt Lea, so I could get me a pension like them schoolteachers, because I wasn’t gonna work in nobodies house while they worked me like a like blamed dog.”
“I hopped my rump on the train, got to Chicago on Sunday and was working on Monday morning and worked at the Sweetheart Cup company for… 35 years.”
She paused, leaned back in the couch and this look of accomplishment began to envelop her and it was at that moment, I asked a question that I had always wanted to know.
“BigMama, your Daddy passed and you had to pick up and go to an entirely new place where you only knew a few people… Weren’t you scared?”
She sat up, pursed her lips and leaned towards me with this glint of defiance flashing in her eyes, a look that is omnipresent in the women of my family.
There was a brief pause before she exclaimed, with her voice raising a couple of decibels:
Those two words echoed – and I was overrun with goosebumps, I leaned forward and met her intense gaze as she continued:
“I had to make a way for myself, nobody else was gonna help me sitting around feeling sorry for myself. Naw, I was too busy to be scared!”
Now, that same look of defiance that flashed across her face moments ago, crept across mine as I realized that the Teacher had spoken, swelling with the pride of knowing that this is the cloth that I am cut from.
But – who is this Aunt Cora I wondered?
I made a couple of notes before closing the book and placing it in the bag…
If someone told me that Aunt Cora would change my life and that of hundreds of people that I hadn’t met yet – I wouldn’t have believed it.
To be continued in Part II…