Life in rural Virginia in the '50s, '60s and '70s

Uncle Wade Gordon

Uncle Wade Gordon.

Le Plume Est Sur La Table

When we were growing up our mother told us how, in high, school she’d learned to speak French. One of us asked her to say something in French, “Le Plume Est Sur La Table, that means ‘The pen is on the table'”. We repeated, “Lay Ploom se sir la tah-blu. Say something else mama!”, we begged, “Say something else!”…
“Ouvrir la porte, that’s open the door”, my mother smiled and said.
– “Oo-vray la port”, we said in unison. As far as we were concerned, we knew how to speak French.


Liberty Park
Naval Air Station Norfolk, VA. (Photo Courtesy Virginian-Pilot).

Years later, as I walked across the parking lot leaving to go to work one morning, those french lessons came back to me. I was about to put the key in the door of my ’65 Mustang when it hit me, “Ouvrir la porte” and just as I was about to open the door, I glanced inside the car. There, in the backseat, lay Ferdanand Beadman sound asleep. How was he getting into my car? This was the third morning in a row I’d come out to go to work and found him fast asleep in the back seat, how was he getting in without breaking the lock? The bigger question was WHY was he breaking in in the first place? His sister lived not more than 5 miles from where we were. Which led to an even bigger question, how was he getting to where we were? We were in the parking lot of the Bachelor Enlisted Quarters (B.E.Q.) at the Naval Air Station in Norfolk, Virginia! How was he getting on base everyday? Granted, security was nothing like it is now, but I would think it wouldn’t be that easy to either climb the eight foot fence or find a stranger that would let him ride through the gate with them. But there he was snoring away in the back seat. I didn’t call base security, I simply got in the car and drove off base. I stopped along the road, woke him up and made him get out. I told him that I was going to contact base security to keep an eye on my car and for him to catch a ride to his sister’s house. I never saw him again after that and assumed I’d have no more surprises for a while.
The theory of having no more surprises was shattered around 1630 that afternoon when I arrived back at my room in the enlisted quarters. For some reason NCIS or base security got it into their heads to bring the drug sniffing dogs to the living quarters that day. Of course, I knew I had nothing to fear, until I remembered that I had a roommate, a roommate who liked to have pot parties in the BARRACKS and who’d had one just last night. Whenever he and his buddies started lighting up I would make myself scarce. So now here I was standing in the middle of his roach clips, bongs, rolling papers and residue in front of a security officer and his dog.

“Is this your paraphernalia?”, he asked. I quickly let out, “Heck no, it’s not mine, I don’t do drugs”. The officer looked at me in disbelief, “Your roommate says its yours, he said its all yours!”. Why that dirty dog! I’ll fix him, I thought to myself. My roommate was from West Virginia, he liked to hunt and he liked guns, he liked guns a lot. And for some unknown reason he thought it was a good idea to bring all of his guns with him from home. Not only had he brought his entire arsenal with him, but that arsenal was right here in the room with us. He’d put his entire gun collection in the overhead (that’s the ceiling for you civilians). The guns were above the ceiling tiles, there was at least one gun lying on top of each tile in that room and I was about to rat him out for lying that this left behind mess belonged to me. I was just about to narc on him when I remembered, “Hey wait a minute, you couldn’t have talked to him, he left for home this morning, he hasn’t been here all day!” That old trick of turning one suspect against the other had almost worked on me. “Nope, he didn’t tell you nothing”, I said.
“Maybe not”, he said, apparently they weren’t done yet, “but the dog hit this locker. This IS your locker, isn’t it? It has your name on it”. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic baggy, “We found this in a shirt in your locker”. He felt around in the baggy and pulled out a tiny lint ball. He took the lint and began unraveling it, inside was a seed. “Know what this is? We do, and to make sure we’ll be sending it to the lab. We found it in that shirt”, he pointed to a shirt I’d just bought last week. It was a shirt my friend Filly was wearing when I went home to Remington the prior weekend. I saw it and liked it so much I offered to buy it from him right then and there. He agreed to sell it to me for $12. Up until that day, I had not yet had a chance to wash it and / or wear it. The officer handed me a piece of paper, it was a summons to appear at Captain’s Mast two weeks from that day. Captain’s Mast is like civilian criminal court, with the same consequences and worst. I’d never been in this type of trouble before and all I could think of was that I only had to weeks to clear my name before I’d be standing in front of the captain.


Walking the plank
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at Captain’s Mast.

On the morning of Captain’s Mast I arrived at base headquarters not exactly sure what to expect. I was led in to see the Executive Officer (The X.O. is the second in command after the base captain). He was standing behind a desk that was just outside of where mast was being held. He instructed me on what to say and do when I went in to see the captain. “…but before we go in, do you have any evidence, witnesses or testimony you wish to present that could clear you of these charges?”, he asked.
“Yes sir, I just want to tell you that I have never worn that shirt before and that I bought it from a friend of mine only a week before it was found in my locker”, my voice was shaky.
“Is your friend willing to attest to this? Do you know how to contact him?”, he was beginning to seem not so bad after all.
“Yes sir, here’s his phone number. Actually this is his grandmother’s phone number, he doesn’t have a phone.”
The X.O. took the number, dialed it and asked the person on the other end if he could speak to Filly Pevvish. I knew who was on the other end and I knew they would have to run down the hill, get Filly… anyway, there was about a 5 minute pause before Filly picked up the receiver and answered. This is the actual one-sided phone conversation I heard:
“Is this Filly Pevvish? It is? O.K. fine then. Hello Mr. Pevvish, this is Commander Oxnard, I’m the Executive Officer here at N.A.S. Norfolk. I am standing here with someone who says you know him. He is currently charged with possession of a controlled substance. That substance was found in the pocket of a shirt we found in his locker. He further states that he bought the shirt from you… (pause). Oh, he did? Mr. Pevvish, did you know that there was marijuana in the pocket of that shirt when you owned it? (pause) Oh? Well, thank you Mr. Pevvish, and thank you for your help in this matter”.
The X.O. hung up the phone looking a bit dejected, “Mr. Pevvish said ‘yes he knew he had marijuana in his shirt pocket, he always has marijuana in his shirt pockets, he said he keeps it there all the time. I guess that takes care of that, I have no choice but to dismiss the case. You won’t have to see the captain after all”. I was very thankful that Filly had admitted the that shirt and it’s contents belonged to him. He was a civilian and the Navy couldn’t touch him. And what made it perfect was that everything he’d said was true.

With that, the X.O. took out a document, handed me a pen and had me sign that I understood that the case was being dismissed. He took the pen and said “The irony is, this is the same pen they used when they charged you”. He chuckled to himself, laid the pen on the table and turned to put the documents back in the file cabinet. I looked at the pen, then at the X.O., then back at the pen. Hmm, “le plume est sur la table”, I thought to myself… what an unbelievable last couple of weeks this has been. Yep, I need to write this all down while it’s still fresh in my mind. I grabbed the pen from the table, rushed back to my room and used it to write this story.

The Ping Pong Man

“We gon’ kick yo ass, Mister Ping Pong Man. You done done it now, yo ass is grass!”.
– “Yeah, let’s get him”. Stagalee was about to leave the Grandy Park Recreation Center not sure exactly what he should do. It was time for him to go home for the day, but the Liberty Park boys were gathered just to his left, they were standing in the street staring him down. To his right were the Grandy Park girls, these 15 to 18 year old girls were just as notorious as their male counterparts. They, too, stood in the middle of the street. The girls were all dressed in what could best be described as the group uniform, Chuck Taylor all star sneakers, white knee-high socks, miniskirts and either a jean jacket or a mink coat. The minks were of various lengths. Each of the girls sported a switch blade knife which they menacingly flicked opened and closed, as they stared at Stagalee, waiting for him to leave the safety of the rec center.


Liberty Park
The Liberty Park neighborhood of Norfolk, VA. (Photo @1964 Courtesy of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority).

The year was 1971, VA-44 (I-264) was still under construction. The Norfolk Scope arena had not long been completed. Dr. J. was a Virginia Squire for the American Basketball Association. Norfolk’s urban renewal was in full swing and Stagalee was there fresh out of Remington, Virginia. This was only Stag’s second day on the job. He had been assigned to the Grandy Park area in order to fulfill his work/ study program obligation at Norfolk State. Through the program, Stagalee received a $500 check for school tuition and a $20 a week salary. Begging for food in the Student Union building was never again an issue after this program began in the second semester of his freshman year. Grandy Park, as it was known, wasn’t that bad of an area. There were some nice homes there, it appeared to be a very nice neighborhood. The problem with Grandy Park was its close proximity to Liberty Park. Liberty Park was, well, it was the projects. Liberty Park was one of the first federal housing projects in the country. It was constructed to be “a defense housing project for 800 Negro families… developed by the Federal Public Housing Authority of the National Housing Agency”. By most accounts, the neighborhood began to deteriorate from the moment construction was completed. Students at Norfolk State were warned to stay away from that area, they were told that gangs roamed the streets and that no one was safe. Stagalee was being confronted by two of those gangs right now, one male and one female. He decided to take his chances and turned in the direction of home and started walking down the street, in the direction of the girls. The Liberty Park boys began following, the girls encircled Stag, tossing out profanity laced threats all the while. One of the girls turned to the boys, who were about 20 paces behind and yelled, “We got this, we don’t need ya’ll to handle him!”. The boys stopped and turned back up the street.


Mr. Ping Pong Man
A likeness of Mr. Ping Pong Man demonstrating his abilities on the table. Photo courtesy of Tumblr.com

Just yesterday he’d been treated like a celebrity. When he arrived at the rec center for his first day of work one of he kids asked him if he knew how to play table tennis. Of course he did. Stagalee spent almost every waking hour in the ping pong room at the student union building on campus. His prowess on the table was well known among those who frequented the basement of that building, which housed a room for ping pong, the chess room, where the chess club met, the restaurant / greasy spoon and several other rooms that were of no importance to Stag.

Stag had been listed as the best player on campus for a full week, the title was a difficult one to achieve and an even harder one to hang on to.

Stagalee took ‘next’ on the ping pong table at the rec center and never relinquished his spot the entire night. That’s when the kids began calling him “Mr. Ping Pong Man” and bringing in their friends from the street to watch him play. He was a big hit at the center. But that was yesterday.
This day he was assigned by the center’s director to referee a basketball game between the rival teams of Liberty Park and Grandy Park. That news meant that any calls made against Liberty Park could be his undoing. But he had no choice. “Twe-e-e-e-e-e-t!”, Stagalee blew his whistle in the final seconds of the fourth period. “Foul! Number 43 Blue!”. The call was against the team from Liberty Park, the fifth one of the night on that particular player. The rules stated that the player had to be ejected from the game for fouling too many times. The threats had already been coming since the first foul in the game, but kicking out their best player and causing them to lose the game? Well, that brought on even more taunts and warnings of impending violence toward Stag.
Today and every day after, he was escorted out of the neighborhood by the same group of girls. The threats flowed, the switch blades flicked, the girls were always waiting outside to walk him to the end of the block and the fence that separated Grandy Park’s Kimball Terrace from Brambleton Avenue. Stagalee noted to himself that the girls, nor the boys for that matter, seemed to ever venture beyond the fence. Stag would slide through the fence opening and onto Brambleton then walk the remaining two blocks to the house where he and his room mates stayed on Willoughby. But he could not figure out why those girls seemed to respect an invisible force field that held them inside their neighborhood. Being a college freshman meant that Stagalee was no more than a year or two older than these girls. But they may as well have been decades and worlds apart. As they walked, between taunts, Stagalee tried to relate to them by discussing their aspirations. He tried to get the girls to see beyond the now, beyond the fence. After a while the girls talked about life after high school and Norfolk, even considered the possibility that they might one day attend Norfolk State College (now N.S.U.).


Mad dog
As Stagalee walked down the street he noticed a dog chasing a little girl around a street light. Photo courtesy of TheWeek.com

After about a month of working at the center, Stag was walking through the neighborhood on his way to work when he heard screams coming from down the block. He looked up and saw a large dog chasing a little girl round and round a street light. Stag immediately began running toward them, yelling at the dog, trying to get its attention. The dog didn’t notice Stagalee approaching the little girl did and ran directly toward him with the dog snapping at her heels. Stagalee picked the little girl up and put her down behind him. The dog approached at full speed and jumped on Stag’s chest. The dog began excitedly licking Stag’s face. He hadn’t been trying to bite the child, he only wanted someone to play with. But this was a huge dog, and the little girl was terrified

At the same time Stag was petting the dog and trying to get it off of him, the little girl had run into a pool hall behind them screaming about the dog. The occupants of the establishment rushed out into the street to see what was causing the commotion, pool sticks in hand. Just as Stag got the dog under control, the men came at Stag, clutching the girl in a protective fashion.
– “Is that your dog?”
– Hey you! IS THAT YOUR DOG!?!” another person asked.
“No, that’s not my dog, I’ve never seen this dog before today”, Stag replied anxiously.
– “If you want to live to see tomorrow , you better take your dog and get the hell outta here!’, they were moving in toward Stag, ready to pounce
Then Stag heard a girl yell out from down the street, “Wait! He didn’t do nothing, he pulled the dog off the girl, we saw the whole thing!”
It was the Grandy Park girls, they’d witnessed the entire episode from several blocks away and were running toward what was now a throng of people ready to attack Stag for what they presumed had happened.
“That’s the Ping Pong Man” (they never bothered to learn my name, Stagalee thought himself, they don’t even know my real name).
“He works at the recreation center, he’s OK.”, they said, “We know him, he saved that little girl from the dog, ya’ll should be thanking him”.
The group of people took a collective step back and just as they had done so many times in the past, the girls surrounded him, but this time to protect him, maybe that’s why they’d been escorting him all along, for his own protection. The girls continued to walk Stag to the rec center each day after that and were waiting for him from then on to escort him out of the neighborhood, even though it was no longer necessary. They spent that time talking about what the future might bring, the switch blade knives never came out again.
And from that time forward, Stagalee was treated with respect and admiration in the neighborhood. Not only did the kids look upon him as somewhat of a hero, but the adults treated him as a respected member of the community as well.
= “There goes the Ping Pong Man!”, they’d say.
– “Hi Ping Pong Man” or “‘Bye, Mr. Ping Pong Man. C’Ya tomorrow!”.

Mr. Ping Pong Man, the boy from the sticks of Faquier County had found a home away from home in the projects.

English Leather

Loodie Mae Jenkins sat down and turned on the television. It was just about time for “Soul Train” to come on and like she did every other Saturday morning before 11 a.m., she took care of all her chores in time to watch it so her mother would leave her alone. So far, 1969 was proving to be a great year for music. “But I wish they “hadn’t taken ‘Milt Grant’ off the air, I liked Milt Grant”. Loodie Mae had this crazy idea that she might see somebody she knew on the show, even though it went off the air in ’61. She didn’t know anybody from D. C. or couldn’t remember ever seeing a single black dancer on the show, but she still thought…


Parlo
Loodie Mae knew Parlo Silby was running from something, she just didn’t know what it was yet.

“What the heck was that”, a streak went by the front window and startled Loodie Mae back to reality. She jumped up and ran out to the road to see who it was. All she could see was the back of someone running down the dirt road as fast as he could, a strong stink of English Leather Lime cologne hung in the air, she hated English Leather cologne. He was beating feet a mile a minute, “What has he done this time?”, every now and then Parlo would look back over his shoulder, but never slowed his pace. “I guess I’ll find out Monday at school”, Loodie Mae went back in, sat down and continued watching the show.


Yellow Cab
A cab pulled into the driveway.

About ten minutes later Loodie Mae watched as a car crept slowly up the road, it went past the house and on up the hill. In less than a minute, the car came back down the hill, it pulled into her driveway, stopping short of coming all the way to the house. It looked like a cab, it had “Ballentine’s Cab Co.” written on the side. What the heck was a cab doing way out here? Loodie Mae had never heard of anyone catching a cab to Remington, from anywhere! A man got out of the taxi and looked around, he looked upset. He walked over to Mr. Jenkins, Loodie Mae’s father, who was busy working under his old ’58 Chevy Impala. Loodie walked through the kitchen, to the back porch and stood by the screen door to listen in, she stayed quiet and out of sight. The white man began speaking, “How ya doing?”, Loodie Mae’s father returned the greeting and waited to hear what was coming next. The man spat out a big wad of tobacco on the graveled driveway and continued,
“You didn’t see a colored boy run past hear did you?”.
-“No, why, what happened?”
“Boy stopped me in Warrenton on second street and asked me to bring him to that house just over that hill there (he pointed up the road). I told him it would be $5 and he said ok. But when he got to the house and got out, he said he was going inside to get the money. ‘Cept he took off running down the hill in this direction without paying his fare.”
– “I never heard of such a thing!”, her father said, “That’s old Mrs. Gaskin’s house, she ain’t got no kids. What’d he look like?”
“Colored boy, ’bout yea tall, dark, wearing jeans, a striped tee shirt and tennis shoes, I guess”.
Loodie Mae knew exactly who it was, she kept quiet.
– “Well that could be just about anybody, no I wish I could help, but I don’t know who that is”, Loodie Mae’s dad looked back at his Impala, impatient to get back under it, that muffler wasn’t gon’na patch itself, “Wish you luck”.

The man looked past him and checked around the property before heading back to his cab, Loodie Mae stayed out of sight on the porch.
Fussing to herself, “Parlo Silby, did he really need a ride that bad? He could have thumbed back home”, Loodie Mae had thumbed a ride herself once. Parlo was just lazy, as far as she was concerned. She went back and finished Soul Train.

That Monday morning Loodie Mae was sitting in Black History class listening to Parlo brag about his weekend escapades. He claims he’d gone on a shoplifting spree all over Warrenton. He’d stolen a Peter’s sports jacket from H.B. Carter’s, a pair of Chuck Taylor’s from Rankin’s Hardware store and a bottle of English Leather from Rhode’s Drug store, which was now stinking the entire room up as he spoke. Loodie Mae had heard enough, she was tired of Parlo, he’d been a trouble maker ever since he moved here from Washington, D.C. She recalled the first time she’d seen him at Taylor, he was wearing a canary yellow silk suit, with canary yellow silk socks and a pair of canary yellow Stacey Adams alligator shoes. He made a point of letting everyone know that his outfit wasn’t just yellow, it was canary yellow. He said he’d gotten a five-finger discount on everything he had on that day. The next day he showed up all in purple, the nerve of some people. Parlo didn’t make himself easy to like, as far as Loodie was concerned he made everybody and every thing look bad. She didn’t have time for this, she’d be leaving for Howard University in the fall, after she graduated from Fauquier. She was going to be a school teacher and she was going to get to and save all the Parlo Silbys before they turned bad like this one.


English Leather
Rhodes Drug Store kept a running ad in the Fauquier Democrat for men’s exotic colognes.

Warrenton, Virginia was a quiet little, sleepy town in the center of Fauquier County. People from there didn’t particularly like outsiders and Parlo was an outsider. Loodie Mae was just like everybody else from that county, she didn’t like outsiders coming in messing things up, bringing in their outside ideas. She especially did not like Parlo silby.

Just as Mr. Wilson was getting class started, the classroom door opened and the principal walked in with two town police officers and the cab driver who’d been by Loodie’s house the other day. Mr. Campbell pulled Mr. Wilson outside into the hallway and they talked for about a minute. The cab driver came back in and moved slowly up and down the aisles looking at each boy, then moving on. He went back to the front of the class and shook his head no. “Oh my goodness”, Loodie Mae thought to herself, “I know we can’t all look that much alike”.

She couldn’t take anymore, she spoke up, “He’s right here”, she pointed behind her to Parlo Silby, “This is him! He jumped out of your cab mister and he stole all those things from uptown, he was just telling me about it”.
The cab driver took a better look at Parlo and agreed, “Yep, that’s him alright, that’s the boy!”. The police officers came down the aisle, told Parlo to stand up and come with them. They quietly escorted Parlo out of the building. Loodie Mae turned to the front of the classroom, took out her black history book and opened it to the chapter on Sojourner Truth, she sighed a sigh of satisfaction and muttered under her breath,
“I hate English Leather”.

A Sight Unseen

Hey-Lean Jackson knelt at the edge of the woods wondering what she should do. A car had just parked at the end of the dark dirt road. She watched in silence as a white man and woman emerged from the car, they walked to the back of it and pulled out an object about the size and shape of a large shoe box. Hey-Lean crouched down a little more as she saw the couple reach inside the trunk again and pull out what looked like a shovel and a gunny sack. She knew she’d better stay quiet and just wait.

Hey-Lean Jackson was the oldest of three children, she was ten years old and in the fifth grade. She didn’t have a lot of friends so Hey-Lean spent a lot of time alone in the woods. She’d found a little meadow surrounded by thickets just up the hill from where she lived. There, the grass was silky and cool, she could lie for hours daydreaming about her plans of growing up. Hey-Lean didn’t want to end up living with some white family and helping raise their kids like so many other colored girls did where she lived. Hey-Lean had plans, she wanted to be somebody, she had dreams of becoming a famous writer, a poet maybe. It was in the midst of one of her daydreams that she was awakened by the sound of an approaching car on the gravel road. By now the couple had wrapped the box in the gunny sack and they were making their way further into the woods, they passed almost directly over Hey-Lean but did not notice her, it was getting on near dust. Hey-Lean began to worry that it was close to supper time and her Grandmother would be calling for her to come to dinner soon.

The man took the shovel and began clearing off a spot under Hey-Lean’s favorite Weeping Willow tree, “they’re burying a baby, they’re burying a baby, I know it”. Hey-Lean started moving backwards out of the woods as quietly as she could, they were far enough away that they couldn’t hear her footsteps. Once she got to the road, she read the license plate of their car and then she ran. She ran as fast as she could down that road, her feet barely touching the ground. She arrived home excited and out of breath, bursting into the door. “Gran! Gran! Guess what I saw!”.
“Quiet girl, can’t you see we got company?” Hey-Lean hadn’t noticed Mrs. Jeffreys sitting at the kitchen table. What Hey-Lean had to say would be best kept in the family, she would have to wait. “Sit down and have your supper, whatever you think you need to say can wait”. Hey-Lean ate her dinner but she was bursting at the seams to tell her grandmother what she’d seen. After a while it was obvious Mrs. Jeffreys wasn’t going to leave before it was time for Hey-Lean to go to bed, so that’s what she did.

The next morning Hey-Lean jumped out of bed and ran down to tell her granny about the white people burying the baby in the woods. “Child, I don’t know if we should be getting involved in white folkses business”. Hey-Lean begged and pleaded until Gran agreed to call the police and report what she’d seen.


Backhoe
A backhoe was brought for the dig.

It wasn’t long before the police arrived, they arrived with an ambulance, firetrucks and a tractor-trailer hauling a backhoe. It looked like all the white people in the county had come to Hey-Lean’s house that morning. One of the officers approached Hey-Lean and asked her to show them where the body had been buried. Hey-Lean took them to the spot where she’d last seen the couple, but there was no grave. The men fanned out and began to search for freshly dug ground. At the same time another police car pulled up and Hey-Lean could see the couple being pulled out of the car in handcuffs, the woman was crying. The man sobbing and in shock cried, “I didn’t mean to kill it, it was an accident! You have to believe me, I didn’t mean to do it”. Hey-Lean had seen enough, she ran and hid behind the weeping willow tree, peering around it, yet hoping not to see.

Finally someone yelled out, “We found it!”. The backhoe was brought in and they began digging. Not long after, the make-shift casket was uncovered and taken out of the ground. Carefully, the firemen removed the sack, then they lay the box on the ground, several of them reaching to remove the top at the same time. As the top came off Hey-Lean heard several gasps escape their lips. One of the firemen reached into the box and pulled out the remains, he pulled out the remains of a little puppy, with a portion of its skull crushed in. Hey-Lean later learned that the couple lived on the next road over and had brought the dog to the woods to bury it after the man had accidentally run over the puppy in the driveway. They’d brought the dog to her woods to give it a decent burial. A sad ending to an even sadder story. Hey-Lean never told another sole about what transpired back then until she told me today. Hey-Lean is my mother Earlene Brown and this is her story.

The Strangers Among Us


Mombasa, Kenya
Sneaking away from the house before Mom found out.

One of the earliest memories I have is of my sister, Barbara, and I sneaking away from the house to visit our cousin Annie Ruth. Annie lived just down at the end of the dirt road from us and during the summer we tried to make it all the way to her yard on our tricycle almost every day. I’d sit on the seat and my sister would have one foot on the back stand while she pushed with the other foot to get us down the road as fast as she could, all the time hurrying and whispering, hoping we wouldn’t get caught. Most of the time we didn’t even make it half-way there, but a few times we got all the way into the yard and even had time to play for a while. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that anything bad could happen to us. After a while we’d look up the road and see our mother standing in the yard waving a dish towel and yelling inaudibly, and we knew we’d better head right back.

I couldn’t have been more than three years old back then. Mom would give us free reign to come and go as we pleased, as long as we stayed in the yard. Most times she was like a hawk watching her young, but sometimes we were able to sneak through the cracks, we were constantly testing our boundaries. In our neighborhood, you didn’t just have one set of parents, you had four or five. We knew we were being watched even when it didn’t seem like we were. And once we were old enough to leave the yard and visit friends on our own, a report of what we’d been doing and how we’d behaved reached our house before we ever made it back.


Mombasa, Kenya
Sorry kid, no more playing alone outside.

We were very fortunate to grow up in Fauquier County, Virginia, specifically in the town of Remington. We grew up nurtured, well-feed, well cared for in a loving family, all within a tight-knit community. That’s why it saddens me each time I read about mothers who have been arrested for allowing their children to go to the play ground alone. I wonder what happened to the idea of knowing everyone in your neighborhood? What happened to the idea that “it takes a village to raise a child”? I realize that it is probably like comparing apples and oranges to view my childhood experience in comparison to the reality of what it’s like for a child growing up today. But couldn’t we, as adults, walk the child back home and speak with the parents before calling the police to swoop in and whisk the child away? If we take children away from their parents for allowing them to play unsupervised, what does that make us as a society? Aren’t the children being abducted anyway, but not by strangers, by us. We are quickly becoming the very thing we are supposed to be fighting against. Social services, the police, the judicial system, our neighbors, we, all of us have become the strangers who are stealing children from their parents. We claim it’s being done for their own protection, but who are we kidding? I don’t think we’re even kidding ourselves. Let’s find another solution.


Family Tree
Can learning about your genealogy have a downside?

You might not think that researching ones ancestry would have a down side, but it always does. The down side is that you find out things that you weren’t supposed to know or you reveal things that you weren’t supposed to tell. Actually, those are about the only down sides. With the advent of the Ancestry.com. web site, it has become so easy to research one’s roots. My cousin June, who spent years traveling to gravesites and public libraries to uncover details about our family history, would be amazed to learn that today it only takes hours to uncover much of the same information, thanks to Ancestry.com. I am so proud that she named me as the benefactor to our treasured historical documents and photos.

When I was 17 years old, I worked for the Community Action Program in Warrenton, VA. and was assigned as a summer counselor at a church out in the county. One day as I stood on the steps at the entrance of the church, a boy of about 12 or 13 walked up to me. He said, “Hi, I’m (and he said his name), I’m your cousin. My mother is…” (he told me his mother’s name). I recognized her name and I’d known his family all my life. He went on,”… and my father is (he named a relative of mine)”. One look at him and you could easily tell that he was a member of the family; the head, the eyes, the cheeks, yes he was family all right, it was unmistakable. I was a bit taken aback at how matter-of-fact he was though, he wanted me to know exactly who he was. He went on to tell me that he’d been in trouble quite a bit because he hadn’t had a father growing up. He didn’t have a father because the person he named had never acknowledged him as a son, according to him. His father had never given him a Christmas gift and had not so much as stopped by to see him, ever. If you’ve watched any television at all, this scene is not that foreign to you. This family skeleton storyline has played out on the TV and big screen quite a few times over the years.

The problem is that you won’t find that boy’s name anywhere in my family tree. It’s not that the family doesn’t know he exists, it’s that we’re not “supposed” to know, it’s never been publicly declared that he is related to us. Granted, I learned of my cousin’s existence decades before Ancestry.com was ever conceived, but now that it’s here and I use it religiously, I have to play tug-of-war with my conscience over whether to include him in the family tree or not. Is it true that sometimes too much information can be bad for you?


Family Tree
Cousin June left behind a treasure trove of family history, a monument to her work ethic and dedication to family

Then there are the kids I grew up playing with that turned out to be my cousins. We, my siblings and I, were never told that our friends and schoolmates were actually part of the family. Not even the fact their grandmother always asked how my grandmother was doing and called her “Cousin Lula” tipped me off. It just never clicked in my brain that she always referred to her as “cousin”. It turns out that how we came to be related might be a cause for embarrassment for one or more members of the family, so I suppose that is why we were never told. But it really didn’t have any affect on our relationship with that family. We grew up in a very tight-knit community, where you felt kin to everyone even if you weren’t. Still it would have been nice to know at the time.

The moral to the story: family is family, no matter how you became family and it all should be acknowledged and welcomed. Researching our family history should not be cause for anguish or worry that long kept family secrets might get out. As family historians, as true genealogists, we must not be afraid to follow our roots to their true beginnings, no matter where they lead.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 238 other followers

%d bloggers like this: