Monday, October 18, 2010

Drifting on a Memory: A Family Centennial

1910 ~ 2010
If I live. . .

in a time and place where you don't want to be
You don't have to walk along this road with me

My yesterday
won't have to be your way. . . .

~ from "If I Could" 

On this day one hundred years ago, my paternal grandfather was born in rural Alabama. Things were different back then. Being born in 1910 is a far cry from being born in 1970. Today I am reflecting on what a difference a few generations makes.

He married my grandmother and together they had eleven children. There were three other families on their street with ten or more children. He went to work every day, all day, in a coal mine. He would come home covered from head to toe in soot. Slaughter a chicken or a pig for dinner. Discipline a child. Then, he'd do it all over again the next day.

It was a hard row to hoe. But he stuck with it. And through his stick-with-it-ness, he taught Dad the same. And he taught us the same. Dad says that granddad would walk along the rail road tracks to that mine and look back at his house thinking, It would be easier to just keep walking. Dad says a lot of people's daddies did just that. But not my granddad. 

All eleven children were born on the floor, in their house. I always respected my grandmother for enduring ninety-nine months of pregnancy, but it wasn't until I personally experienced labor that I decided that eleven babies sans epidural or pain meds was pret-ty hard core. Oh, and did I mention? Thirteen people, one house, and no running water. An outhouse complete with a Sears and Roebuck catalogue (instead of Charmin) and, at night, a slop jar. (Don't ask.) And. Folks shared the bath water on their "bath night." (Yeah. Bath night.) Wait--what was I complaining about earlier today?

Things were different back then.

a time and place where I don't want to be

When my dad, who was the first to go to college, came home to Birmingham, Alabama for a weekend visit, times were changing more. It was the height of the civil rights movement. My granddad was probably like "Civil who?" All he knew was a world with back door entrances and colored-only seating. His son was in college and catching the glimpse of a light at the end of a tunnel that had been dark for him. His son came home with his head held high, making direct eye contact with "white folks" that granddad could only say "yassah" and "no suh" to. His college son stuck his chest out and questioned things that didn't seem right.

"Boy, you gon' get yourself lynched!"

Yeah. That is what he said to his son, my father. And he meant those words. Because, in his lifetime, that was a real concern. Imagine that. Instead of worrying about bullies coming for his manchildren, he was worrying about torches and nooses. Times were changing.

One day he wrote my dad a letter that said, "I'm proud of you."  My stoic granddad was not one to say such things. In his time, men generally didn't say such things. But times were changing.

I was in elementary school when my granddad passed away. He had been very sick after a stroke, and even though I was very young, I still remember all of these pictures of my aunties and uncles next to his hospital bed. I still recall their pained expressions and forced smiles; awkwardly leaning in toward the head of his bed. . . .trying to grin and bear the sight of watching their patriarchal oak tree wilt before their eyes like a dandelion plucked from the lawn. I used to hate it that those pictures stood firmly as one of my strongest memories of my granddad.

After he "went home," Dad brought him to life for us over the years. I was glad, because it slowly erased that former image. Dad told us of his funniest quirks, and also of his wishes for his family and his love for my grandmother and their children. Told us all about the lessons he gave to him that have now been given to us. That we now give to our children.

"If you can't get along with ya mother, you can't get along with me!"

(Told you he had some winners.)

Dad says he would have been proud of us. Proud to see his grandson the veterinarian opening his thriving practice, or his two granddaughters that finished law school. Dad says he also would have been proud of me, the doctor. That he loved nothing more than a good brag, and could embellish details better than anyone ever born. By the time he finished telling it, I would have been the Surgeon General. Ha.

backdoor entrances for my grandfather

Today I am reflecting on my grandfather and the legacy he never lived to see. I am squinting my eyes and trying to imagine all that he faced that his descendants like me and my children will not. I am reflecting on how, just two generations later, I live in a time when I can say to my "colored" sons, "You can be president of the United States. Literally."

Instead of: "Boy, you gon' get yourself lynched."  


Yeah. Times continue to change.

Even still, some things remain the same. Faith, hope, love.

But even one hundred years later, the greatest of these is still love.

Dear Pipes,

Thank you for walking that hard road for me. You would be proud to know that your yesterday won't have to be my way. Happy birthday, Pip-a.  I'm proud of you, too.

With love from your granddaughter,

the doctor-slash-Surgeon General in Atlanta

 New life in the deep south: 
these are the only trees I have to worry about my sons hanging from. . . .


  1. I am sure, where he is now, he is bursting with pride about you with no need to embellish the facts.

  2. Preface: How did you pick If I could? And I will tell you some of what he really said...

    I can be driving in the car or sitting out in my man-cave and hear "If I could" and go into a real snotty, ugly cry!!!! It's how I and I am sure many parents think about their children. I wanted to protect you guys from the bullying, the bad teachers, the bad boyfriends and girlfriends, the broken limbs, the bad colds... you name it. All of the things that I knew I couldn't protect you from.. but I still wanted to.

    So you know that I am already sniffling when I step of into your talking about your grandpa and my pa. I was a total mess. So to avoid going back to that place again I will just list some Pipism and give an explanation.
    What he said and what he meant:
    "Boy, there aint nothing them fessors can do to you at that school that you can't handle. If I go down in that mine and have some young white boy talking at me real rough and I know I got to take so I can feed you all... aint nothing them fessors can do or say that you can't take!!!

    Translation: If you get sent home from school, there is no explanation! You get you a_ _ whipped!

    "Well son, it's a hard game, but it's gotta be played."

    Translation: You can keep whining about how hard and unfair things are but cut the whining and get to work!!

    "You know I thought I was sending you down to Tuskegee to learn something, but damn if you aint a bigger fool now than when you went down there"

    Translation: I was hoping the you would understand things better when you went to college, but I was wrong. All you learnt was a bunch smart-mouthing to white people.

    "Boy! Just as sure as I am sitting here on this poach, these white folks are going to kill your a_ _."

    Translation: Boy I'm really worried that if you don't remember that you are still black and still in Alabama, that I am gonna lose my son.

    "Tony I want you to know that I am proud of you and what you are doing"

    Translation: I don't know how to say this to you face to face but I really want you to know that I am proud of you.

    "I'm gonna knock the bark off your a_ _."

    Translation: You were about to receive a very severe butt whipping...

    This was a great piece DR. KD even if it did get me all snotty.

    Much love


  3. (Poopdeck, I think you were signed in under Kenny's google account--but the sentiment is still the same.)

    Anyways, thanks for adding a little more "Pipe-ism" to this post! :) Love you, love you, love you Dad!


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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