Posted on 1 Comment

My blog page

GBTRIBE-tribe-permeations-with-Playfair-Display-Font-500

I am a family historian writing about my genealogy research and  communities of color primarily in the Southeast, especially North Carolina, as those of you who followed my previous blog on backintyme.biz (Margo Lee Williams’s Blog – currently not available for viewing) or  read my books (Miles Lassiter and From Hill Town to Strieby) know. I will be continuing to do the same here. In addition, I will post information about DNA and its place in genealogical research as well as other topics of historical and genealogical interest. So stay tuned!

Posted on 4 Comments

#52 Ancestors – Family Legend: The Longest Lunchbreak

My father, known as Herbie Williams (Herbert R. Williams), would say, when I asked how he went from working as a Postal “Letter Carrier” to work for the U. S. Customs Service, at the U. S. Custom House (now called the “Alexander Hamilton U. S. Custom House”), in Lower Manhattan (New York), that one of the men on the “stamping desk” went to lunch and he (my father) was asked to fill in. Then he would add, “That was the longest lunchbreak he ever had!” Then he would say it was “___ years long” (fill in the appropriate number of years depending on when he was asked).

My father retired from “Customs” after 42 years of service. In that time, he went from the stamping desk as a clerk, to being a “Deputy Collector” and “Import Specialist.” Upon retirement, he was awarded the Gallatin Award from the U. S. Treasury Department. His job vacancy notice indicated that the successful applicant needed to have a law degree. Not bad for a man who had only completed the ninth grade. I would love to continue writing about my father, how really smart he was, how he was a walking calculator and what an amazing career he had, or the wonderful person he was, but that’s not the story I want to share in this blog. It’s that “longest lunchbreak” I want to write about.

Herbie and Margaret (Lee) Williams at his retirement luncheon, 1972

Frankly, it never occurred to me to question my father’s account of his rise from Letter Carrier to Deputy Collector and Import Specialist. Since he died in 1982, I no longer have the opportunity to ask questions. However, recently, I have had occasion to go through some old documents of my father’s. Some of these documents go back to his young adult years, back to the time when he was working for the Post Office, before going to Customs. In reading those documents, I discovered that his “Lunchbreak” story didn’t occur exactly the way he had told it.

As part of the background to this story, I must explain that he was originally from Jersey City, New Jersey. In May 1929, while still in his twenties, he was a co-founder and Vice President of the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey. I knew he had been active politically as a young man, but I did not realize just how active. Moreover, I did not know how well he understood how to leverage that position to his advantage.

Certificate of Incorporation for the Colored Men’s Regular Republican Association of Hudson County, New Jersey

In August 1929, a letter was written by the Republican Association president, C. Bion Jones, on behalf of my father and Raymond Alleyne, another young man working at the same postal station (located in the U.S. Custom House), to Senator Walter Edge, from New Jersey. In it, Mr. Jones indicates that my father and Mr. Alleyne were two of a group of young men, all members of the Hudson County Republican Association, who were experiencing “unfairness” by the Post Office Superintendent, F. A. Kaemffe. Mr. Jones was asking Senator Edge to intervene in the matter. I assume it was this “unfairness” that prompted my father’s interest in moving to the Customs Service.

In October (illegible) 1929, there was a draft letter to Colonel Arthur Fran, Comptroller of Customs, drawn up by my father, on his own behalf, but the intended signatory was not indicated. In it, he noted that he desired to transfer to Customs. He stated that the clerical pool in the Customs Service was “shorthanded.” He explained that he had taken the general clerical test in April and had made a formal application. He said that those chosen were generally chosen from those who had completed such steps. He also wanted the Colonel to know that he was “an active Republican and was V. President of one of our militant Rep. organizations.” (Did he say “militant?” I never heard that before!) As noted, he did not indicate whose signature was intended for this, possibly Mr. Bion Jones, the association president.

In November 1929, he wrote a letter to Bion Jones. In it, he noted that he had not heard anything regarding his application for transfer. I mentioned that he had taken the clerical test in April” and that, providing that I pass this and have the right person in back of me will entitle me to a clerk’s position in the Customs Service quicker than a transfer as there must be a vacancy at the time of my recommendation by the Coll of Cust and since to fulfill the necessary papers for transferring me would take 3 months and the help being so short handed they cannot hold a position open that long, so until I receive my report I guess the matter will have to stand. However, he did not let it rest.

In May 1930, my father wrote to Congressman Fred Hartley. Hartley was apparently someone with whom he had some relationship, since he opened his letter saying, It has been some time since you have heard from me for which I wish to apologize but knowing how busy you have been with the tariff bill, I did not think you would have time to bother with such small matters as reading letters from me. But as you have about finished with the tariff bill, I wish you would look into the enclosed matter as it has been hanging free (?) for some time and the only results are a big promise so knowing you are one for the party, I know you will do your best to get me more than a promise.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr.

About ten days later, my father wrote Bion Jones, saying that, “Some time ago, I filed an application for transfer from the Post office Department to the Customs Service as a clerk. It has been some time since I have received any word as to whether such a feat could be accomplished and I feel as though something should have been done by this time.”

Letter to C. Bion Jones from Herbie Williams

On 6 June, Congressman Hartley responded to my father saying that he had heard from the Collector of Customs. The letter was attached. In it the Collector indicated there were still no vacancies but would contact the Congressman as soon as an opening became available. Congressman Hartley assured my father that he would “continue to follow this case, and do everything possible to obtain a transfer” for him.

Letter from Congressman Fred Hartley, Jr., to Herbie Williams

There is another letter, that seems to be from the same time period, but was not dated. It was written from my father to the “Hon. Robt. S. O. Lawson, Pres Puretan Repu A,” In the letter, my father indicated that he had written to the Hon. Ham. F. Kean, the Hon. Philip Eltinger, Collector of Customs, Col. Arthur Fran, comptroller of Customs and Judge Thos H. Brown and all I can get is as soon as an opportunity of an opening comes, I will get 1st chance. This is all I received for an answer for two years although since then I have even passed their 1st grade examination which entitles me to 1st preference but, I am waiting. So, hoping you can get me some sort of answer as to whether it can be accomplished.

Letter from Herbie Williams to Robert Lawson

That was the last of the letters preserved  regarding this matter. However, another document compiled around 1939, which listed his work and education history, noted that he got a long-awaited birthday gift. On 10 August 1930, his birthday, he reported to the Post Office for the last time. On 11 August 1930, he reported for work with the Customs Service as a clerk on the Stamping desk, thus beginning his forty-two-year career in Customs.

Part of a job history report for Herbie Williams

So, that cute story about how he filled in for someone but never left, was really a hard-fought political strategy to advocate for himself and his future. It was quite amazing and rewarding to read about how he used his political acumen and leveraged his many contacts to finally land the job of his dreams. He loved his work with Customs. I don’t think there was ever a day that he didn’t look forward to going to work. On retirement, he was immensely proud of all that he had accomplished – so  were my mother and I.

Posted on Leave a comment

SEVENTY-TWO AUTHORS SNAG THE FIREBIRD BOOK AWARDS

January 2021 – Speak Up Talk Radio announced the winners of 2020’s fourth quarter FIREBIRD BOOK AWARDS contest. Seventy-two winners were announced in 87 categories.

Among the winning entries were two from Maryland author Margo Lee Williams, whose books, titled From Hill Town to Strieby and Miles Lassiter, won First and Second Place respectively in the African American Non-Fiction category.

2020 First Place Winner, African American Non-Fiction, Firebird Book Award

Authors and publishers from around the world submitted their work to the Firebird Book Awards. A panel of 12 judges within the writing and publishing space then read every book and independently scored each entry according to a set of standardized criteria that evaluates the quality of the writing as well as production aspects. Only entries with the highest of scores are awarded the coveted Firebird.

2020 Second Place Winner, African American Non-Fiction, Firebird Book Award

Patricia J. Rullo, founder of the Firebird Book Awards, says, “The quality of the entries were stunning and speak to the talent out there that needs a marketing voice. At Speak Up Talk Radio, our mission is to offer radio interviews and podcasting services to help authors expand their reach. In addition to additional prizes, our winners have the opportunity to be interviewed and aired on radio stations, iHeart Radio, Pandora, as well as 50 additional online venues, giving them new ways to speak up and share their work.”

Pat adds, “We’ve included a charitable component to our awards by making all entry fees tax-deductible to the author. In return, we personally make and send handmade fun and whimsical pillowcases to women and children in homeless shelters via Enchanted Makeovers, a 501(c)3 tax-exempt organization. All entry fees fund this project. In this way, authors can get notoriety for their work while doing good for others. It’s been such a rewarding venture for everyone.”

The Firebird Book Awards run quarterly contests so authors can receive recognition on a timely basis. Authors from all genres, mainstream, independent, and self-published are welcome. Additional winning authors and titles as well as entry information is available at https://www.speakuptalkradio.com

Posted on 3 Comments

#52Ancestors – Beginnings: When Herbie met Peggy

My parents met around January 1934, based on a letter written by my mother, Margaret (Margaret Lilly Lee), called “Peggy,” at the time, to my father, Herbert (Herbert Randell Williams), called “Herbie” by everyone.  My parents met on the New York Subway. Although my father lived in Jersey City, New Jersey, he worked in Manhattan at the U. S. Customs House (not far from “Ground Zero” in 2011). My mother technically lived with her grandmother (Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), her sister (Elverna Elizabeth Lee), and her uncle (Percy Walter Phillips) in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but she worked for a dressmaker, Charlotte Dietz, in Corona, Queens, New York, with whom she stayed. I’m not sure who was headed where at the time they met. I was always struck by the fact that my mother spoke to a strange man despite always admonishing me strongly to never, ever speak to strangers! I took every opportunity (in jest, of course) to remind her of that.

I don’t think either of them had a private telephone. My father had access to one at his office and I believe my mother had access to the one belonging to Mrs. Dietz when absolutely necessary, but I’m sure my mother was not allowed to “chat” with gentlemen for social reasons. However, my parents did exchange contact information. I asked why she was willing to give a strange man her contact information. She said that they had mutual friends who vouched for him when she checked. I imagine the conversation went something like, “You live in Jersey City? Do you know ‘So and So’?” In this case the answer was “Yes.”

My mother told me she doublechecked with her friend, who told her that my father was 30 (my mother was a couple months shy of 20), worked for U. S. Customs, lived with his sister in Jersey City, and had two young sons from a previous marriage. I’m not sure what facts persuaded my mother to return a letter of overture from my father, but in February of 1934, she wrote a letter to him at his office in the Customs House. As referenced therein, he had contacted her first, but she was slow to respond.

Letter from Margaret Lee, “Peggy,” to Herbert R. Williams, “Herbie.”

“Thursday –

My dear Herbert,

I suppose you’ve given up hopes of my answering your letter. I was at a loss as to whether I should answer your letter.

As for coming to see me, not until I know more about you. I work in a Jewish dress shop and I live with the people I work for so that is why I have to be very careful about visitors. My home is really in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I came out here so as to be near the city as I am seeking a musical career.

I don’t make a habit of speaking to strangers, but I’ll take a chance this once. However, I can see you sometime in the city. I remain –

                             Yours,

Margaret”

Taking a chance “this once” apparently worked out. After a strong campaign of letters by my father (you can read more about those in #52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery), they eloped to Greenwich, Connecticut, where they were married by a Baptist minister on 1 April 1935, just 19 days before my mother turned 21. With that, the musical career was ended before it ever began.

Original Marriage Certificate of Herbert R. Williams and Margaret Lee, 1 April 1935, Greenwich, Connecticut

It was, however, a strong beginning. My parents were married 47 years and one day when my father died from complications due to Congestive Heart Failure, on 2 April 1982. It was a profound loss for my mother. As she explained, she had spent more of her life with him than without him.

Posted on 2 Comments

#52 Ancestors – Oops: That’s the Wrong Sam

My great grandfather was Samuel Dow Phillips, from Randolph County, North Carolina. He was the son of Lewis and Margaret (Peacock/Callicutt) Phillips. Sam was a barber. Eventually, he moved to Flushing (Queens), New York, where he had his own barber shop, on Prince Street. He was married to my great grandmother, Mary Louise “Louise” Smitherman and had five children: Maude, George, Elinora, (my grandmother) Percy, and Mozelle.

Certified Copy of Sam Phillips and Louisa Smitherman

In the mid-1890s, Sam moved to New York, hoping to find a more lucrative environment in the Big City. Louise and the children continued to live in Asheboro, Randolph County, anticipating they would move to join him when his finances became more stable.

There was just one problem. Louise’s sister, Roxanna, “Roxie,” who lived in Baltimore, somehow learned that Sam was involved with another woman in New York. It was rumored that he was living with this woman. According to my mother, Roxie reported what she knew to Louise. I don’t have the specifics, but Louise confronted Sam. It didn’t go well. Louise filed for divorce, in Asheboro. She accused Sam of abandonment and adultery. She named his New York paramour. She won in 1899. Sam would then marry Nannie Rush (not the named paramour), also from North Carolina. Sam and Nannie lived in Flushing until their deaths, in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. They are buried in Flushing Cemetery.

Copy of Final Divorce Decree between Louisa Phillips and Sam Phillips, 1899

Louise would also remarry, twice: first, to John Floyd in Greensboro, North Carolina; second, to John Ingram, moving then to Elizabeth, New Jersey. My mother (who was reared by Louise after her mother died in the flu pandemic) believed that John Floyd had died. Based on information I have learned I think it is more likely they simply separated. There is no divorce filed and no death record for him in that time period. In that same vein, there is no identifiable marriage record for Louise and John Ingram. No matter though, because after a few years, the city directory for Elizabeth, New Jersey recorded that she was widowed. However, John could be found alive and well, living in Philadelphia, with his son. Louise died in 1936. She is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, in Roselle, New Jersey.

Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram’s Death Certificate

There’s just one problem with this story. Based on DNA, Sam is not my great grandfather. Well, not Sam Phillips anyway. DNA matches analyzed on multiple testing sites, including Ancestry, 23 and me, and My Heritage, show that my great grandfather was a different Sam: Samuel Montgomery Lewis, also from Asheboro, Randolph County.

When I first noticed this close DNA match in Ancestry, “JL,” I had no idea how he fit in my tree. I knew he was not a paternal relative. He didn’t match any of my paternal family members who had been tested. He did match my daughter, of course. He also matched some other maternal relatives, but I still couldn’t discern how. I was also perplexed by the fact that he was such a close relative. After my daughter and paternal nieces (descendants from my eldest half-brother, Robert), JL was (and continues to be) my closest DNA match in Ancestry (his sister and daughter are in 23 and me). The account was managed by a woman whose last name was Lewis. I’ll call her DL. The unattached tree she posted was associated with her family. Nothing told me what her husband’s first name was. Even more challenging, her family was from Louisiana. The only way I was going to figure out my relationship to him was to develop her family tree, hoping some record would lead me to learn the connection between JL and myself.

I researched DL’s family. Her father was in the military. I followed them through the records to various parts of the country, finally settling in Virginia. I saw his death certificate, but nothing was published that helped me learn the full name of JL.

Then I found the obituary for DL’s mother. It was a very extensive report of her life and activities in various church and military associated organizations. It also provided an extensive recitation of her family members, children, and grandchildren. There it was, DL married to JL. Now I knew their full names. With the correct names I was able to locate their marriage records in Virginia.  I was still a bit perplexed because JL was born in Virginia, not North Carolina. My family never lived in Virginia, so I needed to find a time when the two families were in the same place at the same time. 

Since JL was a Jr., I looked for JL Sr. JL Jr.’s marriage record named his parents. His mother’s death certificate said she was from North Carolina. His father’s death information only had an abstract available. However, I found his World War II draft record. It said he was from Asheboro, North Carolina. It named his mother, Mary Lewis.

Armed with that information, it was easy to identify the family in Randolph County. Now, I was able to develop JL’s tree going back to the late 18th century. I was also able to learn about my relationship to dozens of DNA matches from numerous founding families in Randolph County. So, you ask, what other documentation do I have of any relationship between Sam Lewis and Sam Phillips and Louise?

1880 Census, Randolph County, North Carolina: Sam M Lewis and Saml Phillips, Dwelling & Family 39

I had the information all along it turned out. It had no significance for me before. I had really forgotten about it. On the 1880 census, Sam Phillips was recorded in the household of William Robert Lewis, Sam Lewis’s father. Sam Lewis was also in the household. The two Sams didn’t just know each other from the community, they had lived in the same household. Can I say they were friends? I don’t know, but I can say they were more than acquaintances.

Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram and Elinora Phillips Lee, circa 1916

So, what about Sam Lewis and Louise? I have no idea how that relationship came about. I do know that my grandmother, Elinora, was born about 1895. This was about the time that Sam Phillips was beginning his quest for improved finances in New York. Sam Lewis was unmarried. He did not marry until 1907. Sam Phillips and Louise were having marital problems in that time-period, though they did not divorce until 1899. Did Louise find some solace with Sam Lewis from her troubles with Sam Phillips? On the other hand, did Sam Lewis try to take advantage of the fact that Sam Phillips was out of town and the marital strain with Louise? I have no idea. There is no evidence. In fact, if anyone in my family knew, they took it to the grave with them. I do not include my mother in that group. I am very confident she had no idea Sam Lewis was her grandfather, rather than Sam Phillips, but she is dead now, too.

Margaret Lilly Lee Williams & sister, Elverna Elizabeth Lee Means, circa 1920

Since discovering this information, I have found, on other sites, my DNA relationship to JL’s sister, daughter, and son, along with numerous cousins. However, I did not reach out to any of them. I really couldn’t find a delicate way to say that my grandmother was their father’s (or grandfather’s ) half-sister, “without benefit of clergy,” as a genie friend of mine says. As it happens, I didn’t have to reach out. JL’s daughter reached out to me. It was a gracious note. I responded. We quickly bonded and she was kind enough to share family pictures, including our mutual great grandfather, Sam Lewis. I shared pictures of my grandmother and her mother, Louise. I was also able to provide documentation about Sam’s life and family, information she did not have. And I had to smile when she said that (based on my picture) I look like her father’s family.

L-R Behind: Sarah Jane Lowe Lewis, Mary Lassiter Lewis, and Samuel Montgomery Lewis. L-R in Front: Thomas Norman Lewis, Margaret Lewis, and Imogene Lewis.
Posted on 15 Comments

#52 Ancestors – Winter: The Blizzard of ‘47

The United States Weather Bureau forecast for Friday, Dec. 26, said: “New York City and vicinity, cloudy with occasional snow ending during the afternoon.” It probably was the greatest understatement in Weather Bureau history. The New York Times Archives[1]

Snow began falling early in the morning the day after Christmas in 1947. My mother was in her last month of pregnancy. The phone rang all day with concerned friends suggesting she should call her doctor to see if she could go to the hospital, just in case the baby (me) came early. “No,” she insisted. The baby wasn’t due until the 6th of January (1948). She was fine.

There was no let-up, the skies continued to dump white, cold, heavy precipitation all day and night, continuing into the day on Saturday, the 27th. Roads were impassible, public transportation came to a halt, including New York’s famed Subway and elevated trains, with snow levels mounting and frozen rails. The City restricted all travel to emergency vehicles only. No travel across the various bridges that linked four of the five boroughs to each other (Queens, Brooklyn, Bronx, and Manhattan; Staten Island could only be reached by ferry) was permitted. My parents lived in Queens, just two blocks from LaGuardia Airport, overlooking Grand Central Parkway. My mother’s doctor was in Manhattan. The hospital where she was to deliver was in Manhattan. My parents didn’t own a car, but it didn’t matter. The roads were closed. The bridges were closed. They were stranded. About midday, my mother’s water broke. Now what?

Blizzard of ’47 (Associated Press Image)

My parents were frantic. They began calling everyone they could, but it didn’t matter. Even if people had cars (most of their friends did not), the roads were closed. More to the point, the snow was so high, cars couldn’t move. Even emergency vehicles were experiencing difficulties getting around. One of my parent’s friends suggested that they call a nearby bar and grill, known to be frequented by truckers. Perhaps someone there could help. They called. Most people at the bar were stranded themselves. However, one young man and a friend had a pickup truck. They felt that if they weighted the back of truck with snow and ice, they might be able to make the trip. They agreed to try, feeling concerned about the young pregnant woman.

The two young men arrived at the house and helped my father get my mother down the front steps and into the truck. The young man who was not driving rode in the back of pickup. I can’t imagine how cold he must have been. Upon arriving at the toll booth for the Triboro Bridge (now called Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Bridge), which they needed to cross to get to the hospital in Manhattan, the policeman, incredulous that they were able to drive at all on the nearly impassable roads, told them the bridge was closed and they could not cross. I’m not sure if my mother was screaming or not, but the driver explained he had a pregnant woman who was in labor, about to give birth right there in the truck and he needed to get her to her designated hospital, Wadsworth Hospital, on the upper West Side of Manhattan. The policeman peered in the truck window and apparently was sufficiently shocked by my mother’s demeanor that he allowed them to pass. Somehow, they made it to the hospital. In all the excitement and relief that they made it, my parents said a hasty thank you and were whisked away into the hospital, by hospital attendants, neglecting to obtain the names of their kind transporters. They made it in time. My mother was in labor for several more hours. I was not born until 12:47 am, on Sunday morning, the 28th. The snow also ended sometime overnight, having deposited 26.4 inches. It was the most snow since the Blizzard of 1888. Moreover, this blizzard was called a “mesoscale” storm because it snowed on one more centralized spot(rather than a region) with “a concentrated force.”[2]

Post-delivery was not then what it is today. My mother and I were kept in the hospital for eight days after I was born. Meanwhile, my father had to negotiate the aftermath of the blizzard. He worked at the Customs House in lower Manhattan, on the waterfront, near the ferry for Staten Island (and Ground Zero). Getting to work each day, and home again, required herculean effort. Although the Subway stop near the Customs House that he used was underground and was now functional, getting to and from the Subway in Queens was another matter. The bus he normally took was unable to negotiate the snow-packed streets. He had to walk 2.5 miles each way from the Subway at 74th St. and Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights to our home on Ditmars Blvd. in East Elmhurst. In addition, after work, he would take the Subway uptown to visit my mother and me, his new baby girl, in the hospital, before heading home. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to walk from the Subway at 74th St. to our house on a sunny, Spring day, much less trudging through nearly hip-high snow.


My Parents: Herbert and Margaret (Lee) Williams and me (Margo Lee Williams), circa April 1948

About 12 years later, the snow was falling; school closed early. My mother was on the phone talking with our neighbor, Thelma. My mother was explaining the snow was falling much like the day before I was born. She went on to tell the story of the young men who came and helped her and my father get to the hospital in time to be born. She credited them with saving our lives, since it was a somewhat difficult birth and one or both of us might have died without proper medical care. Thelma began to explain that her then fiancé, “Buster,” was supposed to come to her apartment to have dinner. He was late because he said he and his friend helped a young woman in labor and her husband get to the hospital in Manhattan. He lamented that in all the excitement he didn’t get their names. She went on to say that ever since they bought their house next door to us, Buster would comment from time to time that he was sure that young couple lived nearby, but he just couldn’t remember which house. He wondered if the baby and mother had survived and what became of them. It didn’t take too many more comparisons of the details to realize that my mother was that young pregnant woman in labor and that I was the baby. How amazing to realize the man who helped my mother get to the hospital and almost certainly saved our lives, was my much loved “Uncle Buster,” next door!

I can never experience a snowfall, much less a blizzard without thinking about my dramatic entrance or Uncle Buster.

References

[1] “Disasters, NYC: Blizzard of ’47,” NYCdata, It’s All Here! Retrieved from: https://www.baruch.cuny.edu/nycdata/disasters/blizzards-1947.html#:~:text=The%20blizzard%20of%201947%20was%20known%20as%20a%20mesoscale%20storm,of%20up%20to%2012%20hours.

[2] “Blizzard’ of ’47; New York Showed [sic] Under: December 28, 1947,” The New York Times Archives, Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/1947/12/28/archives/blizzard-of-47-new-york-showed-under.html?auth=login-google1tap&login=google1tap

Posted on 2 Comments

#52Ancestors – Disease: Luetic Myocarditis and the Death of Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram

#52Ancestors – Disease: Luetic Myocarditis and the Death of Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram

I was sitting at the kitchen table. Mom was at the stove. I told her that I had received a copy of her grandmother’s death certificate. “Oh,” she said. “She died from cardiac failure,” I continued, “caused by luetic myocarditis.” “She died from a heart attack,” Mom retorted. “I know,” I said, “caused by the luetic myocarditis.” “What?” she asked. “Tertiary Syphilis, also called Lues,” I explained. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, she died from a heart attack. What are you talking about? What are you trying to say?” she asked, eyes flashing, voice rising. “I’m not saying she did anything wrong. She was married more than once,” I continued. “She probably got it from one of her husbands, who knows what they were doing. There was no penicillin, at that time,” I reminded her. “No one’s accusing her of anything,” I said. “I don’t know what they’re talking about,” she responded, lips pressed closed tightly. She was clearly angry. I dropped the subject and never mentioned it again.

Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram’s Death Certificate

In 1978, I was busy collecting vital records on as many ancestors as possible. That included my great grandmother, Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram. When her death certificate arrived, I was quite surprised to read the cause of death: Heart Failure and Luetic Myocarditis, Compensating. She had died from complications of Tertiary Syphilis, also called “Lues.”

Syphilis is an “STD,” a sexually transmitted disease. We used to call them “venereal diseases.” Syphilis was a common communicable disease in years past. Once a laboratory test for detection had been developed and penicillin was discovered, those affected could be successfully treated. In order to stop the spread of syphilis, those diagnosed with Syphilis had to be reported to the local health department. The health departments would then begin contact tracing to find all those who may have been infected by the person being reported. Also, it was a requirement in many states for those seeking a marriage license to be tested first.

 Syphilis is a sneaky disease. It comes in four stages.[1] The first stage, called Primary Syphilis, appears shortly after being infected. It is characterized by a blister or sore in the genital area, called a chancre. It will disappear spontaneously after several days. The second stage, called Secondary Syphilis, can appear after a few weeks and is characterized by a rash. The rash can be quite a serious skin eruption occurring all over the body. Again, it is likely to go away on its own. Then, nothing happens. That’s the third, dormant stage, sometimes called the latent stage. The unsuspecting person infected could believe falsely that they have recovered. Years later, several associated serious health conditions can arise, among them, heart disease. This is known as Tertiary Syphilis. In my great grandmother’s case, it had caused Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, leading to her “Heart Failure,” in her case called “compensating (as noted on her death certificate),” because her body had made adjustments needed to compensate for the loss of cardiac function — at least until that final heart attack.

Penicillin is not helpful during the fourth stage. It will kill the bacteria in stages one and two, or even the latent stage, thus curing the individual, but it’s more complicated in the fourth stage. Once the fourth stage appears, the penicillin will kill the syphilis infection, but it does nothing for the resulting associated diseases. If there are medications or procedures that can treat and manage the conditions, those can be used, but the damage has been done. The bottom line is that Syphilis is an infectious, communicable disease that before penicillin (and today if untreated) lead to other chronic diseases and death.  

There is an amusing twist to this story. My mother was upset at the suggestion that her beloved grandmother (my great grandmother) had died from what her generation saw as a disease associated with immorality. I saw it as fascinating that someone I could personally identify had died from a disease whose pathological course I had only learned about a few months earlier. In addition, at the end of the academic year I had participated in a show called “Follies,” wherein we created Saturday Night Live-style skits around diseases, class curricula, and professors. A classmate and I had choreographed a ballroom style dance to Maurice Chevalier’s song “Louise,” only we called it “Lues (pronounced LUeez, emphasis on the first syllable, not the second as in the name).”

Rehearsal for “Lues,” choreographed by Ron Lewis and Margo, Williams for “Follies” at George Washington University Medical School, 1978

That’s right, we created a dance about Syphilis. I wore white, he wore a tuxedo. Recognizing the association of Syphilis with “dirty sex,” we attempted to dress in a manner that would convey “purity.” It was a hit and my mother thought it was clever and funny. Unfortunately, she was no longer laughing a few months later when we discussed her grandmother’s death. Like I said, I dropped the conversation and never mentioned it again.

Ron Lewis and Margo Williams, “Follies,” 1978

References

[1] Mayo Clinic. (1998-2020). Syphilis. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/syphilis/symptoms-causes/syc-20351756#:~:text=Overview,membrane%20contact%20with%20these%20sores.

Posted on 2 Comments

#52Ancestors – Troublemaker: Uncle Jimmy

Uncle Jimmy never got into any serious trouble, nor was he getting into any “necessary trouble,” to quote the late Congressman John Lewis. No, Uncle Jimmy was mischievous, maybe even a little contrary. He made my father (his younger brother) and my mother shake their heads. I think he might best be described as a “character.”

Uncle Jimmy (Charleton Joshua Williams Sr. aka Charles James Williams) was born 13 May 1897 in Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida.[1] He was my grandparents’ second child, after my aunt, Lute Odette Williams (Aunt Lutie). I am really not sure how he got the nickname “Jimmy.” I remember asking once, but no one seemed to know. It has been lost to the ages.

Uncle Jimmy (standing); my father, Herbie, seated in front. L-R standing behind: (Great) Aunt Babe (Iva Williams); Aunt Lutie, the oldest of my father’s sibling; (Great) Aunt Missy (Jessie Williams); Lela Farnell Williams (my grandmother); (Great) Aunt Trim (Charlotte Williams)

Around 1900, the family moved to New York, then to Jersey City, New Jersey.[2] Aunt Lutie said they played with the children in the area regularly, sometimes that meant a good fight. One of the favorite neighborhood activities was baseball, really more stickball. One story that she told was about a time Uncle jimmy had been forbidden to go out and play. However, Uncle Jimmy could not be trusted to be obedient. So, his mother, put a dress on him. She reasoned that he would not be willing to go out dressed as a girl. Uncle Jimmy would not be deterred. At some point his mother realized that he was too quiet. Every parent knows trouble is not far when a child becomes too quiet. After checking everywhere in the house, but not finding him, she looked out the window. Much to her chagrin, there he was, “running bases and sliding into home,” in the dress! Of course, his joy at sliding into home was short-lived. His mother was striding towards him. He took off for home, but it was too late. He was sitting on pillows for the next few days, not sliding into bases.

Behind where the family lived in Jersey City was Morris Canal.[3] As was wont to happen from time to time, children and others fell into the canal. Once again, Uncle Jimmy had been told not to leave the house and not to go near the canal. However, looking out and seeing his friends out playing was just too much temptation. His friends were not just playing ball, they were playing by the canal. Those who could swim were even jumping in. Presumably, it was summertime and hot; kids wanted to cool off. There were two problems with regard to Uncle Jimmy: he’d been told to stay away from the canal and he couldn’t swim. Somehow Uncle Jimmy ended up falling into the canal. Aunt Lutie was screaming for their mother to come. Hearing the commotion, she came running out of the building. “Oh my God! Please, please save my boy!” “Please,” she pleaded, “Save my son!” Fortunately, someone did help him out of the canal. “Thank God,” my grandmother exclaimed with relief – as she reached for a board and chased Uncle Jimmy back home, scolding him all the way for his disobedience. More pillow time followed.

“Morris Canal From Green’s Bridge,” c. 1895, albumen print (William H. Rau)

I’m not sure Uncle Jimmy ever really ceased being that headstrong boy that he was growing up. My grandfather was known to have to visit the principal to discuss Uncle Jimmy’s behavior from time to time. Although Uncle Jimmy had gone to John Keasbey Brick Agricultural and Normal School, in Enfield, North Carolina, he left before graduating to join his father “on the Road,” working as a waiter on various railroad lines from Florida to New York, eventually working exclusively for the New York and New Haven Railroad.[4] One would think after being on his feet all day on the railroad he would want to do something more sedentary on his days off. Not so.

Uncle Jimmy liked to walk. He would walk long distances. We lived in Queens in New York City, but he thought nothing about walking over the bridge into Manhattan, wandering around “the City” as we called it, sightseeing and people watching. Sometimes he would take his dog with him. One summer day, he decided to walk over to the City with his dog, despite the fact that it was a very hot day. Late in the day Uncle Jimmy came by to see my father. Uncle Jimmy was irritated. While he was out walking, he caught the attention of a policeman. He wasn’t doing anything criminal. He was walking. With his dog. That was the problem. The policeman noticed that the dog, not Uncle Jimmy, was panting hard and clearly exhausted. The policeman asked Uncle Jimmy how far he had been walking. He told him he had walked over the bridge from Queens. The policeman was shocked. He asked “Can’t you see your dog is exhausted?” I’m not sure the policeman had any water, but he called a taxi over and told Uncle Jimmy he was to take the dog home and give him water. He threatened to take him and charge him with animal cruelty if he ever saw the dog suffering again. Truthfully, it’s New York, the chances that they would cross paths again were slim to none. Nevertheless, after my father chastised him, Uncle Jimmy finally agreed he would not walk the dog over the bridge again, no matter the weather.

All that aside, it was Uncle Jimmy’s final years that were most troubling and sometimes troublesome. Uncle Jimmy had been an alcoholic for years. I would say he was primarily a “maintenance” drinker. He drank all the time, but was completely functional (not to worry, he didn’t drive a car). I’m sure he drank more on his days off, but he always held things together. Unfortunately, his body was not in agreement. Uncle Jimmy had a cerebral aneurysm, after which he spent time at the State Hospital at Creedmoor. He recovered and returned home. Now retired, he took shorter walks, but otherwise stayed home most of the time. `Then came the first of several 911 calls.

Elmhurst Hospital Center, Queens, New York

Uncle Jimmy’s wife and son had died several years before, so I’m not sure who made the call the first time Uncle Jimmy went to hospital under curious circumstances. Since my father was Uncle Jimmy’s designated next of kin, the hospital called him. The doctor explained that when the ambulance arrived at the hospital (Elmhurst Hospital),[5] he pronounced Uncle Jimmy dead and had his body in a cubicle to wait for attendants to prepare to move him to the morgue. However, the Emergency Room was busy. They did not attend to Uncle Jimmy right away. When an attendant went to see after his body, they found the bed empty. The attendant began asking if anyone had seen what happened to him. Another patient said they had seen him go down the hall. They found him — very much alive. After checking him over and finding nothing remarkable, the doctor released him. My father took him home. Over the next few months these bizarre events repeated themselves. Eventually, my father became quite matter-of-fact about the calls saying Uncle Jimmy had passed. Now my father would say, “just give it a few minutes.” The doctors usually thought my father was being unkind, unfeeling. Then, the doctor in question would call back, saying he hadn’t believed my father initially, but yes, Uncle Jimmy had come around and was alive. I didn’t know it then, nor do I think my parents knew that this phenomenon had a name: Lazarus Syndrome, after the biblical story of the raising of Lazarus.[6] I have no idea if the doctors ever identified the phenomenon or reported it. However, rather than thinking something divine was happening, we were amused by the various doctors who were rattled by Uncle Jimmy’s dying and rising again, and again.

At some point, Uncle Jimmy’s overall health began to decline. He was hospitalized at Creedmoor again. Finally, early one morning in April 1977 (correction, 1978) a call came saying that Uncle Jimmy had died. Typically, my father responded that the doctor simply needed to wait a few more minutes. This time the doctor said no, he was dead. My father was shocked. He got out of bed, dressed, and headed to the hospital to identify Uncle Jimmy’s body. Sadly, there would be no resurrection that morning.

Mount Olivet Cemetery

Uncle Jimmy was buried in the Williams family plot in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Maspeth, Queens, New York.[7]

Charleton Joshua Williams Sr., “Uncle Jimmy”

[1] 1900; Census Place: Manhattan, New York, New York; William Williams, head; Charleton, son; NARA Roll: 1108; Page: 3B; Enumeration District: 0616; FHL microfilm: 1241108 Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7602/images/4114671_00408?pId=38268885

[2]  1910; Census Place: Jersey City Ward 6, Hudson, New Jersey; William G. Williams, head; Charleton Williams, son; NARA Roll: T624-890; Page: 15A; Enumeration District: 0127; FHL microfilm: 1374903. Retrieved from: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/7884/images/31111_4330912-00928?pId=161538181

[3] Morris Canal, Wikipedia. (4 July 2020).  Retrieved from:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morris_Canal

[4] New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroads. (1 August 2020). Wikipedia. Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York,_New_Haven_and_Hartford_Railroad

[5] This is the same Elmhurst Hospital featured in many news reports about the Corona virus pandemic in New York City, in March 2020. http://wikimapia.org/1171173/Elmhurst-Hospital

[6] Whiteman, H. (26 May 2017). The Lazarus phenomenon: When the ‘dead’ come back to life. Medical News Today. Retrieved from: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317645

[7] History of Mount Olivet Cemetery. (n.d.). Mount Olivet Cemetery. Again, no one is sure how or why some records, including his death certificate and thus name in the cemetery, were recorded as Charles James Williams. Retrieved from: http://www.mountolivetcemeterynyc.com/

Posted on 8 Comments

Pandemic

Pandemic

“Mommy,” I called out. “Mommy?” I heard her walking with deliberation toward the Master Bedroom where I was in the “big” bed. Coming to the side of the bed she asked, “Yes? Did you need something?” “Mommy, what did you do with my other half minute?” She answered without skipping a beat, “I used it to make up your bed, why?” she asked in her calm, reassuring, mommy voice. I rolled back over, facing away from her and said to my “friend.” “She used it to make my bed.”

Mommy and me in Buffalo 1957
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams and me in Buffalo. NY, 1957.

It was 1957. Frankly, I’m not sure what month. I think school was open, but I’m not sure if it was open, or was about to open. I just don’t remember that. I do remember that conversation as if it was yesterday.

It was supposed to be a fantastic day. I was getting a new bedroom suite. I was so excited. I was getting a full-size bed with bookcase headboard. There was also a dresser with three sets of drawers, two sets of moderate sized drawers flanking a set of smaller sized drawers. The dresser had its own full-size matching mirror. It should have been the best day. It wasn’t. Overnight I spiked a fever. It was very inconvenient timing.

I couldn’t stay in my old bed. It had to be dismantled and moved out, along with my other furniture. The new furniture was coming, that day. So, my parents moved me into the Master Bedroom. Now, it’s important to understand that for a house built in Dutch Colonial style in 1920, Master Bedroom meant nothing more than it was the largest bedroom. It was located on the front of the house. My room was the middle bedroom, both in location and size, the “back” bedroom, which overlooked the backyard, was once my nursery, now a guest bedroom when needed, but was primarily my mother’s sewing room. Next to the back bedroom was the bathroom. In other words, the Master Bedroom was all the way at the other end of the hallway from the bathroom. Not a great location for someone who was sick, including being nauseous. There was a solution, of course. My parents brought me a bucket of some sort. I believe it was a metal waste basket that could be easily cleaned.

Hallway to Bath view
View from Master Bedroom to Bathroom. Other bedrooms along hall to the right.

I was sick. Very sick. I believe my fever must have approached 102. My mother was constantly running in and out of the room checking the thermometer. I was vomiting. She was dutifully emptying and cleaning the pail, then returning it to my bedside for the next unsettling event. She would wash my head, arms, and hands with cool washcloths. She would encourage me to suck on ice chips to keep from getting dehydrated. She would tell me to try to rest while she went off to attend to getting my room ready for its new accoutrements. Periodically, I would call her to ask if the furniture had arrived. “No, not yet,” she would say.

Doctors made house calls in those days. My pediatrician came early in the day. I adored Dr. Rosen. He was the best person, the best doctor, and seemed like another family member. He came, making the half hour drive from his offices. He checked my temperature, he listened to my lungs, he announced that I had the Flu. I don’t remember my mother’s comment, but her face looked concerned. However, she was always cognizant of how her reactions could affect me. Dr. Rosen basically said to continue doing what she was doing: aspirin, cold compresses, liquids, call him if there was any change. With that my mother thanked him for coming and began to usher him out. She told me she’d be back.

As the day went on, I developed a new symptom. I started to become delirious. I didn’t think it was so bad. I had a “friend,” an imaginary friend. We had fun talking and laughing. At some point, she “asked” me what happened to my other half minute. I told her my mother probably had it. That’s when I called her to ask. Apparently, Mommy was not enjoying my question. Alarmed, she called a neighbor, “Aunt” Perlene Dedick. Aunt Perl and my mother were close as sisters. She came over to see how I was doing and calm my mother’s fears. She suggested witch hazel baths. She was certain if my mother did them a couple times an hour that it would bring my fever down. So, they began.

Aunt Perl and me 1957
Aunt Perlene Dedrick and me, 1957

Finally, mid-afternoon, the furniture had arrived. Mommy really was making up my bed and reassembling my things in my room. With the bed now made up and my fever beginning to break, I was finally feeling better. After my father got home and they had eaten dinner, they came to move me into my new bed. Sick or not, I was very happy.

Mommy-Daddy-Me 1956
My parents (Margaret Lee Williams & Herbert Randell Williams) and me, Summer 1956

My mother (and my father) continued to be attentive as they cared for me over the next few days. My fever finally returned to normal. I stopped vomiting. I was no longer delirious. Life returned to normal. I still have my furniture.

Bookcase Headboard (3)
My bed and bookcase headboard

Years later I was talking with my mother when I had an “ah ha!” moment. I realized that the reason she was so distraught, though composed, was because she was having flashbacks, to 1918. In 1918, her mother had died in the “Spanish Flu” Pandemic. Seeing me delirious sent her right back to her four-year old self, watching her mother sick with the Flu and delirious, insisting that her own mother, my great grandmother, bring her her nine-month old baby, my aunt. Not long after that she was dead. My mother and her baby sister were orphaned. That event would color her entire life and even impact mine.

Louse Smitherman Phillips and Elinora Phillips Lee circa 1915 (2)
My grandmother (standing), Elinora Phillips Lee and my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram, ca 1916

My mother was gripped by the fear that she would die before I was grown. Flu season brought additional fear and anxiety and flu shots became a part of my life. On the other hand, I was not afraid that I would not live to see my daughter grown, but I did make her aware (when she was old enough to understand) that there was always the possibility that something could happen to me. I worked hard to help her learn how to be self-reliant, but always know and remember that I loved her. She was taught relatively early, especially as the child of older parents, that death was a part of every life. Unfortunately, she saw a lot of it as she grew up.

Margo & Turquoise Williams 2009 (2)
My daughter, Turquoise and me, 2009

My grandmother died on 11 November 1918, Armistice Day. For the rest of her life, that date, 11 November, would bring back those memories for my mother, causing her great sadness. Even as I moved away to college and later left New York, where my family lived, moving to the Washington, D. C. area, we always talked on 11 November. She would always relive those last moments.

Margaret & Verna Lee circa 1920 (2)
My mother, Margaret (L) and her baby sister, Verna, circa 1920

“I don’t know why she insisted on doing it, but she got out of her sick bed to do some laundry and proceeded to hang it on the line outside. The next day she was clearly worse. She was delirious, but I think she knew she was dying because, suddenly, she got up and dressed in a new, all white suit she had recently made and then got back in bed. I crawled in the bed next to her. She asked for the baby to be given to her. A short while later she was dead.”

Doc 19-Elinora Phillips Lee Death Cert
Death Certificate of my grandmother, Elinora L Phillips Lee, 11 November 1918

Posted on 1 Comment

#52Ancestors – Luck: Petition to Free James Walker, Randolph County, NC

I have Walkers in my family, but I wasn’t doing any research on the family at the moment. Recently, I happened to check a Facebook message on a group page I belong to. Someone had posted information about the Race and Slavery Petitions Project,[1] in the Digital Library on American Slavery at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.  I hadn’t looked at this database for quite a while. I decided to look at the petitions for Randolph County right then.

Most of the petitions were from groups of white residents imploring the state to restrict free people from other states (probably mostly from Virginia) from entering North Carolina. These petitions were mostly in 1827, with a few more in 1834. However, there was one petition by Robert Walker to free James Walker, age 40, in 1835.

Robert explained to the legislature that James was an honorable man, hard working who was married to a free woman and that they had five children. Robert went on to say that it would greatly improve James’ ability to care for his family if he could be free to join his family full time. However, the legislature did not agree. Robert was admonished that the only qualification for manumission was meritorious service. They also mentioned the “present highly excited state of the times,” probably referring to Nat Turner Rebellion of just a few years before. Petition denied. Fortunately, that was not the end of the story.

Freedom Petition for James Walker
Petition for freedom of James Walker

In the 1850 census, James and his wife Absily and their three children, Amy, Franklin and Henderson, were listed as free.[2] They were living next to Robert Walker and his family.  Was there any evidence that Absily was the wife that Robert was referencing in the petition?

1850 census: James Walker
James and Absilly Walker, 1850, Randolph County, NC

Robert Walker said in his petition that James’ wife was a free woman. Looking back at the 1840 census, I wondered if there were any free people of color living in his household. There was. There was one male, in the age category, 10-23.  No slaves. Listed in the next household was a woman of color named “Absila Moze.”[3] There were seven people in her household: one male under 10; one 10-23; one 24-35; one female under 10; two females 10-23; and one 36-54. It’s difficult to say exactly who is whom. However, based on Robert saying James was 40 in 1835, none of these age groups seems appropriate. In the 1850 census, James is listed as age 53 (not 93 as the abstractor wrote). Ten years earlier he would be 43, so not the age of any of the men listed in either Robert’s household or Absila’s. Was he there but listed with the wrong age group? Was he somewhere else? It’s impossible to know. Absila, on the other hand, was listed as 48 in 1850, so she was likely the female 36-54 in the 1840 census.

1840 census James Walker
1840 census, Absilla Moze

All that aside, how was James a free man in 1850 when the legislature denied the petition and there does not appear to have been any additional petition? There’s no indication. It seems that Robert simply decided to give James his freedom despite the legislature. Lucky man!

James does not appear in the 1860 census. Neither does Absila. In November 1855, a Thomas Walker filed for letters of administration for the estate of Absila Walker.[4] It was an intestate probate. Since James was not the one seeking the letters, it can be assumed he was already dead. Thomas relationship was not specified, but there was no Thomas of color in the 1850 or 1860 census. None of those purchasing items from the estate were identified by relationship. There were the recognizable names of Amy, Henderson, and Franklin. There were other Walkers purchasing items, but there was no way to know from the estate documents how they were or were not related.

It doesn’t matter. What matters was that James and Absila were able to live out their lives as free persons, despite legal obstacles. Lucky indeed!

References

[1] Race & Slavery Petitions Project. (  ). Par Number 11283502; Petitioner: Robert Walker.  Digital Library on American Slavery, University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Retrieved from: Petition for Freedom of James Walker

[2] 1850 US Federal Census, Southern Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; James Walker, head. NARA Roll: M432-641; Page: 139B; Image: 285. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[3] 1840 US Federal Census; South Division, Randolph County, North Carolina; Absila Moze of color, head. NARA  Roll: 369; Page: 77; Family History Library Film: 0018097. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

[4] North Carolina, Wills and Probate Records, 1665-1998 [Database on-line]. Absilly Walker, petition for letters of administration by Thomas Walker, November Term 1855. Images 721-733. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com

Posted on 5 Comments

#52Ancestors-Favorite Discovery: Mommy’s End Table

I think all my discoveries have been favorites in one way or another. However, thinking about Valentine’s Day, which occurred this past week and thinking about my parents and their close relationship, I remembered there was a discovery during my childhood that does make me smile. I was about ten years old. This discovery involved my parents’ love story. It was made when I went in my mother’s drawers in her bedroom. No, I wasn’t sneaking. I was looking for something or other that I can’t remember and stumbled on my discovery. No, I was not in any way forbidden to be in her drawers. Nevertheless, somehow, when she learned what I had found, she seemed surprised that it was there.

Mommy & me on Ditmars-Spring 1948-b
My mother, Margaret Lee Williams, holding me in front of our house in New York, 1948

As I said, the discovery was when I was about ten years old. As the title states, my discovery was in my mother’s end table. As I said, I have no recollection what I was really looking for, possibly some photos, because she kept lots of family pictures in her end table. That day, I noticed a blue box tied together by gold, gift-wrapping ribbon. I probably opened the box thinking it held more pictures. It did not. I took the box to my room to further examine the contents. Yes, now I was sneaking, because the box held love letters, love letters from my father to my mother.

Daddy on Ditmars-Spring 1948-c
My father, Herbert Randell Williams, in front of our house, 1948

I don’t know how many letters there were, at least thirty, but I no longer have access to the box, so I cannot check. I’ll get to that in a moment. I began reading the letters. The letters were all from my father to my mother. There were no letters from her to him. I was interested to learn that he called her “Peggy.” Her name was Margaret. I knew that some Margarets were called Peggy. She did have one friend (not a childhood friend), Ethel Valentine, who called her “Peg” occasionally. However, I had never in my whole life heard my father call her “Peggy.” Never, ever, ever.

Mommy-Aunt Ethel & Me on Ditmars Stpring 1948-a
L-R: Me (Margo Willimas), “Auntie” Ethel Rose Valentine, & my mother, Margaret Lee Williams, 1948

It seemed all the letters were written while my father was at work. Writing them in the evening before leaving for the day or at lunch. It made sense because he worked at the US Customs House in lower Manhattan where there was a post office in the building. My father was declaring his undying love as well as expressing how much he felt she showed him love. Apparently, they had taken a vacation together in Atlantic City. I was surprised. My parents had talked often about their vacations to Atlantic City. They usually spent two weeks. My mother packed a steamer trunk that I had seen in the basement. She used it for out of season clothes storage. She told me how hot the sand was, that it could be painful walking from one’s towel to the water’s edge on a truly hot day. She said unlike the sand on the beaches on Long Island that we frequented in my childhood, the sand in Atlantic City was not white, but dark. She described it as black. Having since visited black sand beaches in Hawaii as well as the beach in Atlantic City, I would say dark. I recognize that my mother did not have that frame of reference. As I said, those trips were made after they married. I was reading about their trip before they married. Yes, I was quite surprised, but that wasn’t my only surprise in the letters.

It seemed my father was in competition for my mother’s affections. It’s not that I thought she had never been interested in another man, I just didn’t realize she was dating someone else at the same time she was dating my father. In his letters, my father was begging and pleading for her to drop her other suitor—Willard. Willard? Who was that? No one had ever told me about a Willard. He was not one of our current family friends. On the other hand, I don’t think I had met many friends of either of my parents from their youth. There was a family we visited frequently who lived in Summit, New Jersey (we lived in New York City), named Marrow. I was also acquainted with a family who lived near us in New York, named Dietz. I did know that my mother lived with them before she married my father. She worked for the wife who had her own dressmaking business. The Dietzes were more than employers, however. My mother and their daughter, Dorothy, were close in age. They were friends, good friends. In fact, they called each other “sister.” I called the parents “Grandma” and “Grandpa” Dietz. They treated me like one of their grandchildren. That was it. Those were the few friends from before my parents’ marriage that I knew. Never, ever, had I heard of Willard. I was quite intrigued by the idea that my mother was dating someone else besides my father, someone he seemed to think was a threat. Here my dad was, begging her to marry him, not the mysterious Willard.

I went to a small private school growing up. There was a total of thirteen students in my class most years, five girls and eight boys. We were a close group. Those four other girls were my best friends. Oh, we had our squabbles, but we were like sisters. So, what did I do? I took the box of letters to school to show my “sisters!” Everyone was fascinated. They all read them. We all wondered about the mysterious Willard. We giggled over the fact that my father called my mother his little “Peggy.”

5 girls from Foxwood
L-R: Marel d’Orbessan, Maxine Wilchfort, Corlee Abbott, Me, & Betty Grigalauskas, ca 1958

I don’t remember exactly where I had hidden the box once back home from school. I had not returned it to its resting place in the end table. It might have been in one of the compartments of my bookcase headboard or maybe it was in my schoolbag, because she did realize I had it at school. Needless to say, my mother was not pleased. It’s funny because I don’t remember being punished. I do remember feeling bad that she was so upset. She put the box high on a shelf in a closet and admonished me to never touch it. It was her private business she told me and not to be shared with my friends. That was the end of that.

Bookcase Headboard (2)
My Bookcase Headboard in the house where I grew up in New York City

I was in my teens, maybe even college age before I brought it up one day at the kitchen table with my father present. My mother was not thrilled, but grudgingly joined the conversation. My father loved the idea that he got to tease her about Willard. According to him, he caught her one evening after taking her home, going back out to ostensibly meet with Willard. She swore that was not what happened. It was interesting watching them each try to advance their version of the past rivalry.

Years after that, I asked my mother to retrieve the box. I said it would be nice to read the letters together, assuring her that they represented a beautiful time when she did, in fact, choose my father. She went to the closet to retrieve the box, but there was no box. She swore she didn’t know what happened to the box. She seemed to look in several other places, but the box was nowhere to be found. We never did find the box. I think she threw it away. I used to think she put it where she couldn’t remember, but over the years, I have looked everywhere I could, especially after she died, and I was dismantling the house to sell it. The box never made an appearance again. I’m sad because I think it would have made a nice book to give my daughter about her grandparents, my parents, especially since my father died before she was born.

Although I no longer have the letters, what I do have is the memory of my parents’ marriage. Indeed, my father did win my mother’s heart, vanquishing the mysterious Willard. My parents had a long, loving, and sometimes boisterous, marriage, that lasted from 1935 to 1982, totaling 47 years and one day when my father died, leaving my mother brokenhearted.

me, Mommy & Daddy at Aunt Mellie's-1
L-R: Me, my mother (Margaret Lee Williams) & my father (Herbert Randell Williams), , ca 1950