On Mothers’ Day, I went to the house of my maternal grandmother and forgot to eat.
Baked chicken and rice, green beans seasoned with ham, macaroni and cheese, and dessert were all ready to be spooned onto a plate, and I arrived at her house just as the food was removed from the oven and as the burners on the stove were turned down, but I wasn’t hungry.
Two things fueled my sleep-deprived mind and the body I had just abused in the gym: 1) a quick brunch consisting of quinoa and an apple cinnamon muffin, and 2) a quest.
I was looking for old photographs of our family. Yes, I had a specific project – this blog – in mind when I told my mom I wanted to ask her mother for the photos, but I wanted them with or without a publishing platform.
I love old photographs. I’ve been known to abandon the party in someone else’s home to look at black and white photos of their families lining the walls in another room. I love the quality of them, the way they serve as an immediate entry way into a conversation as they beg the question, “Who is that?”
The photos I was looking for were tucked away in closets sand storage bins. The albums that held them could barely do so; some of the stickiness that held the photos under plastic sheets had worn off from the pages, and the albums had been stuffed with other mementos – cards, wedding and graduation invitations, programs, newspaper clippings – that had no home in pre-scrapbooking days.
But the images that had withstood years of being shifted from house to house and owner to owner because of moves in life and in death filled my afternoon with memories and laughter that fed my soul.
My favorite discovery is a yellowed clipping of my mother’s column. She wrote as “The Bachelorette” for the Louisville Defender in the early 1970s. The Louisville Defender. The newspaper that flashes across the screen right after Ebony and Jet magazines and the Pittsburgh Courier in the movie “Ray,” when Ray Charles refuses to perform at a segregated concert in Georgia, and every black print publication in the country blasts the story. That scene is set in 1961.
My mom wrote, “But get your rap together before you approach her,” a sentence that holds the very sentiment I expressed in this piece from my own column several months ago.
(Grammar-obsessed Master of English in grammar and rhetoric that my mother is, I was surprised to find a mistake in her column that was, ironically, about a song title that’s grammatically incorrect. She referenced The Dells’, “How I Wish It Was Me You Loved,” but both the grammatically incorrect reference and the correction were printed, “How I Wish It Were Me You Loved,” which is grammatically correct. I think there’s one more mistake: “go along” should be “go alone,” but I’ll give my mom the benefit of the doubt. From my own experience, I know copy editors sometimes miss things they shouldn’t miss and change things that don’t need to be changed.)
I find it frightening and sad yet funny and comforting to see that the Louisville dating scene hasn’t changed in 36 years. Funny because it just is, comforting because it shows that a verse in one of my favorite chapters of the bible is true: there is nothing new under the sun, sad for the same reason, and frightening because I’ve realized the men about whom my mom and The Dells wrote and sang now have sons who have learned to model bad behavior.
My greatest laugh for the day came from another newspaper clipping, this one from the Courier-Journal.
It features one of my uncles as a baby sitting next to another baby. Both babies are wearing ribbons. Between rips that made the message somewhat cryptic, I deciphered the words “CHAMPION negro babies” from the caption. Apparently, contests were held at the State Fair in the 1940s for healthy babies. I don’t know what they planned to do with the blue-ribbon black babies after awarding them for being healthy, but my uncle still has the silver cup he received as a prize.
Photos and newspaper clippings from my maternal great-grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary were my third-favorite discovery. I have no memory of their generation on my mother’s side. My great-grandmother died shortly after I was born, and her husband died several years before her. I saw my great-grandmother’s name at least once a week for 18 years, on a window purchased in memorial of her in the church I grew up in, even before I knew the letters I was seeing formed her name. And I imagine I had seen pictures of her prior to this past Mother’s Day, only because I didn’t stare at her the way I stared at my great-grandfather, a man I was certain I was seeing for the very first time, but whose face I had seen in his descendants many times over.
By the time I left my grandmother’s house some five hours or so after my quest began, I had learned that my mother and the sister to whom she is closest in age were truly playmates throughout their childhood; that the swing set my mother and her siblings played on in their backyard, the bicycles they rode, and the garden they ate from made them somewhat rich for their time; that my grandfather worked at night as a janitor to afford the house I spent most of my childhood in and that my grandmother still lives in today; that my mother and her siblings didn’t have indoor toilets at school until Brown v. Board of Education dissolved Worthington Colored School, their one-room school house for grades one through eight; that one of my aunts used to feed her dolls real food, until the day my grandmother smelled it rotting somewhere inside the dolls; that my aunt’s and my mom’s idea of fun was to bury their dolls in dirt and make them swim in mud puddles; that my mom listened to Johnnie Taylor and I listen to his daughter, Tasha Taylor; and that family and memories are treasured and meant to be shared.
At some point during my quest, friends of my cousins and probably some friends of their friends ate all the food. My physical hunger did return, and even though my soul was fed two Sundays ago, I consider these discoveries just a nibble, temporary satisfaction of a deeper hunger to know, from the photo album to the mirror, “Who is that?”