I began this essay the day my great aunt Lucy Biggers died in 2009. Known throughout the family and the neighborhood as Big Mama, Lucy was the second-youngest of my maternal grandfather’s six siblings, and with her passing, only one of my grandfather’s siblings remained.
Our family buried the last of his generation on December 17, 2010. I grieved for the loss of a spunky, artistic woman and homemaker adored my many, but something else burdened me. With my great aunt Rosa Lee Mayfield’s death went my window to a world I’ll never know: the childhood world of people I’ve known only as adults.
I wish I had asked her what my grandfather was like as a child. Did he always like to fix things? The boys far outnumbered the girls in the Thornton household, and his own family was the reverse. How did he learn to deal with a house full of women? I wonder how they all interacted as siblings. What mischief did they get into? What did they do for fun? Who was the favorite?
I wonder, over all, what shaped the people who came to shape me. All the funerals I attended over 2009 for my grandparents’ siblings and friends made me concerned that I might not find out. Receiving a grant for this blog gave me more incentive to investigate, but in writing the final grant report this morning, I had to acknowledge that it’s been difficult to get the answers. Even asking the questions has been a challenge. I should have expected as much; in a country where our chief concern about our elders is how to pay for their social security checks without raising taxes, what are old people to make of a 30-something interested in what they have to say? Of course there’s an inquisitive look and a shrug or a one-sentence response to open-ended questions. Why would those who grew up poor and black and female, who lived simply, and who were disregarded and silenced think they had anything of substance to offer?
But they do. Our collective national history is nothing without the experiences of individuals. As my cousin Stephanie said at the funeral when she recounted how her grandmother began to share her own Civil Rights stories after attending The King Center in Atlanta, “I’ve been listening to all this stuff about Rosa Parks. I need to listen to Rosa Mayfield.”
Given that my grandmothers and great-grandmother range in age from late 80s to early 100s, I doubt a museum exhibit will spur more conversation. Plus, I missed out on Michele Norris’ Louisville appearance during which she discussed and signed her family memoir, The Grace of Silence, and I think Story Corps’ National Day of Listening was a little too set for me. I find that little nuggets of history are passed down organically, conversationally. But they are there to be passed down.
I don’t have an event to promote family stories, but I do have this blog. And because I value of my elders, and because I want this blog to serve as a place where all people who want to honor their elders can, I invite you to share your own family stories, right here with mine. You don’t have to write; I take photos, videos, and audio clips, too. Just contact me here to let me know what you’d like to share. And if you’re not sure what you want to share, turn your television off during the next family get together and start talking.