“I remember Mama” or simply, “Mama,” was the name of a weekly TV show that ran from 1949-1957, when I was very young. Since there was only one TV set in the house, typical for the times, we watched the show as a family. Mama, who I’m sure had some other name that I don’t remember, was the center of the family – warm, steady, understanding, loving, and supportive. She was the person family members of all ages turned to for advice and comfort; AND she was a great cook. An old family friend, after seeing my post of my mother’s picture in honor of Mother’s Day on Facebook, remarked,
“She set standards for herself and her family, in honor, respect, societal conformity, personal deportment, family relationships, upward mobility, community building, wifely and parental responsibilities. On the stage of human life, she performed exceptionally and deserves life’s golden globe award.” Felix McLymont, M.D., 14 May 2018
That was my Mama. However, I called her “Mommy,” with an occasional “MAAA!!!” Mommy was a strong-willed woman who outlived two husbands and stayed in her home, alone, until she was 96. True to her maternal lineage, she was a force of nature. From the things she told me, she acquired her great qualities from the woman who reared her, the woman she called “Mama.”
My mother’s mother, Elinora Phillips Lee, died on Armistice Day, 1918, from complications due to the Flu, when my mother was just four years old and her baby sister, Vern, was just eight months old. Twice a year my mother was likely to speak about her mother: 11 November, now called Veteran’s Day, and Mother’s Day. On those days especially, she would recount her memories of her mother and reflect how much she continued to miss her. Perhaps just as important as her reflections on her mother were her reflections on her grandmother, Louise (Mary Louisa Smitherman Phillips Floyd Ingram), originally called “Big Mama” by my mother, but now known simply as “Mama.” It was she who would take charge of my mother and her baby sister, Vern, after Elinora’s death.
Exactly what happened to their father, Pinkney L. Lee, is not clear. He was apparently not a likable person. He reportedly drank and could be verbally abusive. Louise was adamant that he would not have custody of the children. A 1918 Greensboro, North Carolina City Directory entry was the last where he was noted living with the family. Sometime after Elinora died he reportedly went to Baltimore. I have never found a record of him there, nor has any other researcher I’ve asked to help search for information on him. According to my mother, sometime after she, her sister and grandmother had moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1920, they were summoned to Baltimore because he had died in an explosion and fire at the dry cleaner’s where he worked. Louise was being asked to identify his body. Louise took the children to Baltimore, where her sister Roxanne lived with her family. According to my mother when Louise got to the morgue to identify Pinkney’s body and theoretically take possession to bury it, she took one look and decided he had caused too much trouble for her daughter Elinora and the children. She refused to take custody and left him to the city of Baltimore to bury. I have never found a single record to corroborate this story, nor, as I said before, has any other researcher. I can only assume the city buried him as a John Doe in the Potter’s Field.
According to my mother, Louise was a stern but loving mother to her and her sister. She was a somewhat young grandmother at 36. Since my mother didn’t become a mother until she was 33, 36 must have seemed very young. My mother described Louise as a strong, independent woman, reportedly married three times. Her first husband, Samuel D. Phillips, was the father of her five children (although I have reason to believe that may not be completely accurate).
Both Louise and Sam were from the Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina area. Sometime in the mid-1890s, Sam went to New York, supposedly to seek better employment opportunities promising to bring Louise and their children when he got established. My mother said that someone told Louise that Sam was not only busy establishing himself financially, he had also become established with another woman. Needless to say, that didn’t go over well with Louise. Uncharacteristic for the times, Louise sued for divorce from Sam, accusing him of abandonment and adultery.  Quite surprisingly, given the times, she prevailed, the divorce was granted in 1899.  Supposedly Louise was met on the courthouse steps after being granted the divorce by someone who told her she would burn in hell for her sin (the divorce). She was not dismayed.
It was this strength of conviction and independence of spirit that Louise instilled in my mother and her sister. She taught them to believe “I am somebody,” long before the Rev. Jesse Jackson turned those words into a slogan for a movement. She instilled self-respect and self-esteem long before the feminist revolution. She was a stay-at-home mom with my mother and aunt only because she ran a boarding house. That was how she supported the family. There was never a hint that a woman could not be in charge of her own destiny. Louise believed in education, homeschooling my mother in her earliest years, after having sent her own daughters to obtain secondary education, again, not typical for the times. Both my mother and her sister would say she had standards and instilled values in them. She expected excellence, but not perfectionism.
I adored my mother, my Mommy. However, it was the spirit of Mama, and her lessons that I would learn from my mother and her sister. It was Mama’s guidance and wisdom that they would recount whenever they got together. Mama died in 1936, long before I was born, but in many ways, through my mother and my aunt, I remember Mama.
 Gabrielson, F., et al. Writers; Nelson, R. & Irwin, C. Producers (CBS Network). (1949-1957). “Mama,” (“I Remember Mama”), adapted from, Kathryn Forbes, Mama’s Bank Account. Retrieved from: Wikipedia
 North Carolina, Death Certificates, 1909-1975 [Database on-line]. Elnora Lee, 11 November 1918. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Margaret Lee Williams, Certificate of Death #156-12-009318, 6 March 2012. Date of Birth: 20 April 1914, Lynchburg, Virginia. Original in the possession of the author.
 North Carolina, Marriage Records, 1741-2011. [Database on-line]. Samuel Phillips and Louisa Smitherman, 23 July 1885, Asheboro, Randolph County, North Carolina. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1880 US Federal Census, New Hope Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Mon Ande Smither [sic– original says Ande Smitherman], head; Mary L. Smither [sic], daughter, age 13. NARA Roll: 978; Page: 185C; Enumeration District: 223. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 1880 US Federal Census, Cedar Grove Township, Randolph County, North Carolina. Lewis Phillips, head; Samuel D. Phillips, son, age 16. NARA Roll: 978; Family History Film: 1254978; Page: 155C; Enumeration District: 220; Image: 0602. Retrieved from: Ancestry.com
 Randolph County North Carolina Superior Court. Louisa Phillips vs. Samuel Phillips, Judgement [sic]. March Term 1899. Copy in the possession of the author.
 Randolph County North Carolina Superior Court. Louisa Phillips vs. Samuel Phillips, Judgement [sic]. March Term 1899. Copy in the possession of the author.
 New Jersey State Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. Louisa Ingram Certificate of Death #436, 11 April 1936, Elizabeth, Union County, New Jersey. Copy in the possession of the author.
Auntie Vern was my mother’s younger sister. She was born 9 March 1918, in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina. My mother said she remembered the day her sister was born. My mother had been sent across the street to stay with neighbors, the Dudley’s who had a taxi business. My mother had been hoping for a baby brother. When they came to get her to take her home and she heard that it was a baby sister, not a brother, she started crying and insisted they send the baby back and get a boy! My mother adjusted to having a sister and eventually became very protective of her baby sister. They remained close throughout their lives.
Vern’s first months of life were not easy. She had pneumonia, according to my mother and exhibited signs of “failure to thrive.” While still a baby, only about nine months of age, their mother. Elinora Phillips Lee, died. She died on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918 from complications of the Spanish Flu. According to my mother, their mother, my grandmother, insisted on hanging the laundry to dry, but it was a cold and blustery day. Her mother, my great grandmother, tried to get her to come in but she was insistent. Within two days she was clearly sicker, now with pneumonia on top of the flu. The next day she supposedly got out of bed, put on a new suit she had recently made, picked up her baby, Auntie Vern, got back in bed and died shortly thereafter.
Their grandmother, my great grandmother, Mary Louise Smitherman Phillips Floyd (later Ingram), affectionately known as “Big Mama,” became their guardian, known now simply as “Mama.” Indeed, for Auntie Vern their grandmother was the only “Mama” she would ever know. My grandmother had four other siblings, all living in the New York-New Jersey area. Some of those in Jersey suggested Louise bring the children, my mother and Vern, to New Jersey where they could help her care for my mother and her baby sister, Vern. They weren’t in New Jersey long when they had to return to North Carolina, Asheboro, where the family originated because Louise’s mother, Ellen Dunson Mayo, had had a stroke and Louise was needed to help care for her. A few weeks after getting to Asheboro, Grandma Ellen died. They stayed in North Carolina about three years before Louise decided to return to New Jersey. I believe she was persuaded to do so because the public-school education in New Jersey was superior to that of Asheboro’s and my mother was by this time school age. So, they returned to Elizabeth, New Jersey where Louise, Vern, and my mother lived with their uncle Percy, and aunt Moselle.
By the time Vern was ready for high school Louise was sick, having problems with high blood pressure. Moselle was married and lived with her husband elsewhere in Elizabeth. From things I was told, Moselle was not the maternal sort; she was not helpful when it came to “parenting.” According to Vern, Moselle was something of a party girl. She “loved to have a good time.” My mother was living with a family in Corona, Queens, New York where she worked as a seamstress for the wife, Mrs. Charlotte Dietz who had a dress business. With no other options Vern was sent to live with another aunt, Maude, and her daughter “Maudie” in Flushing, New York.
Although she was in Flushing, she attended Newtown High School in Elmhurst, where she studied business subjects, including typing, shorthand, and bookkeeping, along with traditional academic subjects. She was athletic and ran track. However, she wasn’t getting along with either Aunt Maude or Maudie. By her senior year my mother was married. Aggravated with the way Aunt Maude treated Vern, my mother moved Vern to the Bronx to live with her and her new husband, my father, Herbert R. Williams. Louise was dead by then, so there was no viable option to return to Elizabeth. Besides, Vern liked New York far better than Elizabeth. I’m not sure why she didn’t like Elizabeth, she never seemed to have a reason other than to say she thought life in New York was more interesting.
Vern finished high school and eventually went to work for a local movie theater in the ticket booth. As she explained later, they needed her to be eighteen, she wouldn’t be eighteen for almost another year, but she told them she was eighteen. She doctored some papers and presto change, she had the job. Around this time, she met and married Paul Oden. However, the marriage didn’t last very long. Having separated from Paul she took advantage of the opportunity to move to Washington DC to work in the war (WWII) effort. She found work quickly and lived in a home for single young women. She missed home, however, and was known to show up on any given weekend, having ridden the train from DC, often having to stand much of the way because of crowded train cars. One of those trips was made because I had been born. My mother said that after seeing me she said. “Now we are three.”
Vern’s visits were always met with great anticipation and excitement. My mother was very fashionable, but somehow Vern seemed glamorous. She had short hair, that she spent time on curling and waving and pinning. She wore make-up all the time, and the ultimate cool factor for those days, she smoked. I was certain she had a grand life in Washington. After all, she worked in a big office. That had to be grand. When it was Christmas, or my birthday, or Easter, she always brought or sent beautiful gifts.
The first of many Easter vacation trips to Washington to see Auntie Vern began when I was five. My mother and I took our first plane trip, leaving from LaGuardia Airport which was across the street from where we lived in Queens. When the pilot mentioned how high we were flying, I announced I was certain we were on a jet. We weren’t of course. Auntie made sure to take us sightseeing to the monuments and shopping. I remember riding on the trolley. Auntie was indulgent, even letting me roller skate around her apartment. Like my mother she was a good cook and I loved eating her pound cakes.
It was later that year or the next year that Auntie gave up her single status for the second time. This time she married a young dentist, originally from Louisiana, Craig R. Means. They married at our house in New York. I got to be the flower girl. True to form my mother had everything organized. I felt very grand in my dress with my basket of rose petals. It was an elegant wedding.
Vern and Craig lived in Washington for several years. About the time I was around 10 years of age, Craig had the opportunity to buy a dental practice in Salisbury, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. Thus, began our trips across the Chesapeake, often at Thanksgiving or Easter to spend the holidays with them. Christmas was always spent “at home” in New York. In those days, Salisbury was a small southern town. It had a downtown area but was in many ways very country. Neighbors had chickens and a rooster that managed to crow every morning about sunrise, true to form. My aunt knew several families with children, so I was able to have fun with kids my own age, instead of spending all my time with the adults.
When I was about 12 or 13, Vern and Craig moved to Camden, New Jersey. They lived in a large townhouse, with front and back stairs. There were three full floors. It was on a main street, Broadway, next to a bar. A Roma gypsy family lived upstairs from the bar. They had a psychic reading business. Visits to Camden were much more solitary. There were no kids my age to play with and neither my parents nor my aunt thought the area safe, so I didn’t play outside. I spent most of my time reading, waiting for her to come home from work so that we could talk.
After a few years, Craig developed problems with rheumatoid arthritis and could no longer practice dentistry. He went to graduate school in Ohio to specialize in periodontics with hopes of teaching at Howard, his alma mater. Vern moved back to Washington and returned to working for the federal government. Craig visited on weekends. Apparently, he visited less and less as time went on. Then one day the divorce papers were delivered. The marriage was over. I was a senior in high school. Auntie was single for the last time. She never married again.
As I got older, Vern and I grew closer, more like sisters. After finishing graduate school in New York, I moved to Washington to pursue additional studies. I moved in with her. We lived near the waterfront. When our building was sold and became a condominium, we chose not to buy. We found a new apartment home in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a bigger apartment. It would be her last move. She would live there for nearly 20 years. I, on the other hand, would move in and out as my life went through a variety of life changes.
One of those changes was marriage and the birth of my daughter in 1992. Since my mother lived in New York, it was Vern who would take the part of the grandmother, although we continued to call her “Auntie.” We had dinner with her every Friday night, and usually spent Sunday afternoons with her as well. During the week, once I returned to work, she was the primary caregiver. On the few rare occasions that my then husband and I went out, Vern was our babysitter. As it turned out, my daughter’s birthday was only a few days before Vern’s. Naturally, we celebrated both, often-times on the same day, which my daughter loved. They were kindred spirits after all. They were both Pisces. My husband and I often remarked that if our daughter was to choose between us and Vern, it would be Vern, hands down. They were inseparable. However, the love affair that my daughter had with Vern and my relationship with Vern was soon overshadowed by something that had begun before my daughter was born, but it would come to define our last years with Vern. Vern had Crohn’s Disease. She’d developed the symptoms around 1987. Now, about ten years later, she took a turn for the worse.
It was a weekday and I had been calling her all day to confirm that she could watch our daughter while we attended a PTA meeting. I figured she had been out with friends for lunch. Finally, after we had finished our dinner and it was time to leave I said we should stop by her lobby level apartment to see if she was home before heading to the meeting, and if necessary taking our daughter with us. We pulled up in the circular drive. I jumped out with my daughter and ran in turning the corner in the hallway to her door. I knew instantly something was dreadfully wrong. The newspapers were still in front. She had not left the apartment all day. I sent my daughter to the front desk to stay with the staff whom we knew well. I ran out to the van to my husband to tell him to park quickly and come in, I didn’t want to enter alone. We entered the apartment, still shrouded in closed curtains and shades from the night before. As we started down the hall we saw her, lying on the floor, barely conscious. I ran back to the front desk to tell them to call 911. I would learn that she had been on the floor from about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, through the day until we arrived. Her answering machine it turned out had not only my calls but those of another friend who was calling hoping to have lunch with her. This would start a three-year odyssey of hospital stays, bedside watches in ICU, 14 hours of infusions daily, and the final realization that she would never come home again. We tried every permutation we could devise. I tried to find an assisted living facility, but they wouldn’t take her because of the infusions, they said that she required skilled nursing assistance. I tried to acquire home visiting nurse care, but they said it was beyond their scope as well; she should be in a skilled care facility. I learned to do the infusions so that I could take care of her. However, she began to be angry about everything, making it impossible for me to control the situation. It was understandable. She had been the one in charge. She had been fiercely independent. She had taken care of all of us. She was finally realizing she would probably never be in charge of anything again, and she was stressed. We tried to make her room at the nursing facility comfortable. We took meals there with her when we could. She appreciated it, but she was angry. She blamed me for not getting her out of the nursing home, not taking her home, taking away her independence.
In late June of 2000, things began to unravel. She was admitted to Holy Cross Hospital, in Silver Spring, with what appeared to be an infection. My phone rang one afternoon, it was the doctor. He said there was nothing more he could do. She had an abdominal aneurysm that was most likely going to rupture in the next few days and she would die. I really don’t remember my response. I did manage to thank him for the call. When I visited her that day she was distant, uncommunicative, but not hostile. I wanted to tell her it was okay, but I really couldn’t find the words. I couldn’t even figure out how to start the conversation. I said I loved her and would see her the next day. I called my mother to come from New York, explaining that she needed to come as quickly as possible. I think she was having a hard time absorbing this news. She said she would be there on Sunday. I reiterated that she needed to come as quickly as possible.
My husband, daughter, and I spent all of Saturday with Vern. I think he and I took turns overnight, but I don’t really remember, oddly enough. I do know we all came to hospital early Sunday morning. I had contacted some of her close friends who began stopping in to spend a few minutes with her. Our priest stopped by after Sunday services were over. He said the prayers for the sick and dying. She nodded and thanked him. My mother and step-father finally made it. My mother was clearly in a kind of emotional denial. Here was her baby sister, dying. The nurses came in and out making sure she wasn’t in pain. At one point they tried to adjust her oxygen, but she told them to take it away. I said it would make breathing easier. She snapped that she knew that; she wasn’t an idiot. We let it go.
As the evening wore on, my mother, who was herself in her late 80s was tired and I felt it was time for our daughter to go home and get something to eat. It didn’t really look as though anything would happen that night. They could all come back in the morning. Her friends bid adieu, and my mother said she was going to get something to eat and get some rest after the road trip. She said she would be back. My daughter kissed her “Auntie” and said goodnight. My husband said a few words to her quietly. She seemed to be sleeping. Everyone left the room and I pulled my chair up to her bedside and took her hand. I said, “Well, it’s just you and me now.”
I’m certain the others had not reached the elevator when I realized her breathing suddenly changed. She never spoke again of course. I held her hand and told her I loved her as I realized her breaths were farther and farther apart. Then she didn’t take a breath. I kept telling her I loved her. I had seen people die before, but I was never holding their hand. I was stunned how quickly her skin cooled. I rang the nurse’s bell. When they responded I told them she had just died; I doubt the others had even made it to their cars. The nurses came and fixed her body, removing the IVs. I called the house and told my husband they needed to come back. To my surprise my mother did not come back, only my husband and daughter. The nurses called for the chaplain on duty to come and say prayers with us; she was a very sweet nun. We thanked her. The nurse then suggested that she would give us an envelope and we could clip a piece of her hair and her fingernails. My daughter liked that idea. We gathered what personal items were in the room along with our envelope of clippings. We kissed her one last time and walked out into the July evening air. Our hearts were broken. We didn’t like that she had suffered so much in the past years, but we were devastated to lose her. I doubt my daughter will ever get over losing her. Neither will I.
I didn’t know anything about the home property where my maternal ancestors lived in North Carolina until I started doing my genealogy research in 1976. Although my mother had spent her early years in North Carolina, it was not on those lands, nor had she ever seen them until we took a trip together to meet our newly discovered cousins in 1982. Neither had I nor my father ever visited the town where his family was from in Florida. “Home,” for most of my life meant the home where I grew up in Queens, New York, a neighborhood called East Elmhurst, now affectionately called the “Double-E” on one of our Facebook group pages. It is a neighborhood that has boasted many African American notables, including Malcom X, Ella Fitzgerald, Willie Mays, and former Attorney General Eric “Ricky” Holder.
My parents had been living in the Bronx before buying the 1920 two-story, Dutch colonial on Ditmars Boulevard, overlooking Flushing Bay and LaGuardia Airport, in March of 1946. In those days it was a primarily German and Italian community. Those homes on Ditmars that faced the bay originally were actual bay-front homes, complete with the ability to bring small boats up to the backs of their homes to anchor them there. Some of those homes still had the mooring fixtures embedded in their back yards. The area in those days was known as North Beach, and included, besides an actual beach with beach house, a large and popular amusement park, called North Beach or Bowery Bay Gala Amusement Park.
By the time my parents bought all that had changed. The beach and amusement park had been turned into LaGuardia Airport. There was a waterfront park with tree lined walkway, benches for relaxing, and sand boxes for children to play. Further down going towards what is today Citi Field, was a marina popular with various celebrities. Between the airport, bay, park and Ditmars Boulevard, cutting off the former beachfront properties from the waterfront was Grand Central Parkway, dotted with overpass walkways so that neighborhood residents could access the bay front park. The beach house was eventually converted to a community center where many a late-night party was held. Although our house was on the opposite side of the street from the Bayfront, we still had beautiful views from the Master bedroom whose windows faced the Bayfront. Memories of what the area looked like then are readily accessible to me not only in family pictures, but in a scene in the original movie “Sabrina,” with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and William Holden, which features a scene driving along Grand Central Parkway right through this community.
I wasn’t born yet. My parents had been married twelve years when they bought the house with no children in sight. They believed there would be no natural children and they had begun to grapple with whether to adopt or not. A year later I was born. I like to think the house had something to do with it. The house was on a 40X100 square foot lot. There was a large maple tree in front along the curb. The house had a nice grassy front with garden border. The driveway led to a two-car garage with an upper floor storage area. There was a good sized back yard with both patio area and grassy area, large enough for entertaining as well as the swing set with slide. I spent many hours playing on the swings, glider, slide, or hanging from the cross bars.
Inside was a six-room house with wrap around, enclosed porch, unfinished basement, and storage area in the attic. There were three bedrooms and one and half bathrooms. There was an eat-in kitchen, formal dining room and living room with bay window and a lovely stained-glass window high up on one wall. That house was my world.
I started my life in that house in the rear bedroom which was then called the nursery. It was a bright, west-facing room. It looked out over the back yard. By the time I was about three and half I was moved into the larger middle bedroom, with big-girl furniture. That room was on the side of the house and faced a balcony of the neighbors. It could be fun talking with various people over the years as they stood on the balcony and I leaned into the window, which was screened. I always speculated about being able to pull off such acrobatic feats as swinging from my window on something akin to a zip-line across to the balcony to save myself from some imaginary threat. I lived in the middle room even after college when I decided to stay in New York to attend graduate school. Regardless of where I lived it was always referred to as my room. Even in my absence most things in the room stayed as they were when I last lived there. It was the room where I would always stay when visiting, married or single. In later years, after my mother moved to assisted living and then died I came home for various occasions, some work-related, some not, but I almost always stayed in “my room.” It helped me feel anchored, rooted, in a good way, as if somehow, no matter what else was happening, all was right with the world.
My world in that house had been, for me, idyllic. Summers meant bike-riding, shooting the basketball at the hoop (I didn’t get it in often), playing on the swings or skating with the kind of skates that required keys and attached to your shoes. For a few years when I was very young there was also an inflatable pool my parents erected in the back yard. If the weather was not cooperative, there was always the porch which was large enough to at least skate on, and comfy enough for playing with dolls or reading books. We also walked across the street and across the overpass to the park along Flushing Bay to watch “warm=ups and take-offs” from LaGuardia Airport, skip stones across the water, or walk to the marina to see which celebrity yachts were tied up there.
Winter had just as many pleasures. When I was growing up, before the increased heat in the atmosphere from increased car usage, plane traffic, and homes and hotels built on previously open land, there was significant snowfall in the winter. Snows of five or six inches were not uncommon. Snowfalls would have to approach eight or ten inches or more before anyone thought to call a snow event a storm. For me, snow was a welcome sight. It rarely meant missing school, but what it did mean was the opportunity to build snowmen, snow forts or tunnels, and sledding! My father and I would go across the street to sled down the steep hill that led to the steps that climbed to the overpass to the bay front park. We would sled literally for hours, until neither of us could feel our hands, feet or lips. Finally, my mother would start yelling across the street that we had been out there long enough, and we were going to get sick, stating emphatically that we had no good sense. Probably not, but we sure did love every minute of it.
I also loved ice skating. Our home was near Flushing Park where the 1935 World’s Fair (and the 1965 Fair) took place. Some of the structures were still in use. One of those was the pavilion used for skating. One side of the building was for ice skating the other for roller skating. I took some lessons and frequently went on Saturday mornings with friends. I liked it enough that I was able to persuade my father to acquire a backyard skating rink that I used many afternoons after school, before dark, practicing what were called school figures.
I loved the outdoor life. I loved mowing the lawn, planting flowers, and having backyard barbeques. I liked sitting with the neighbors on summer nights watching the passing traffic, listening to stories, and catching lightening bugs/fireflies (we used both terms interchangeably). It is true that if playing with friends around the corner and it became dark enough for the street lights to turn on, it was time to go home. It wouldn’t be more than five or ten minutes before you would hear mothers begin yelling out windows or standing at backyard fences for us to come home. Needless to say, when we did get home we would be questioned about why we didn’t come promptly before being called. If we were too late, we knew we would be punished, grounded, for at least one or two nights.
Despite being a small family, I was an only child with only one cousin my age, our home was always filled with happy loving family friends. My mother loved entertaining. We had formal dinner parties, as well as more informal events. Almost every week various friends dropped in on Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons to enjoy dessert and conversation. Holidays, however, were a different matter. They were occasions for grand dinners (no pot-lucks) of at least three and sometimes as many as five courses, accompanied by the appropriate wines. Since my birthday was during the Christmas holidays, my birthday parties took on a heightened sense of festivity that included my own formal luncheons when I was older.
My mother was a wonderful cook. She made everything “from scratch.” We had fresh vegetables homemade cakes, breads, pies, and cookies. She was an adventurous cook, willing to try foods that many others were too timid to cook. Christmas dinners were not limited to Turkey, ham, or roast beef. We had duck or goose as well. She made mincemeat pies and homemade fruitcake. Easter usually meant a leg of lamb. Her menus were varied and eclectic. She cooked tongue and kidneys along with the traditional meat loaf. We had dandelion and beet tops as well as turnip or mustard greens, kale and spinach. We not only ate watermelon and cantaloupe, we also ate cassava melon, ugly fruit, persimmons and pomegranate. Although our daily meals were eaten at our kitchen dining area, the meals were no less sumptuous. Sunday dinner was often in the dining room and usually marked by one of her scrumptious, homemade desserts.
Unfortunately, nothing ever stays the same. As the years passed, all was no longer right with the world. My aging mother began slipping deeper and deeper into a dementia that left her lucid but not always rational. Her own decline meant she was less and less able to cope with her second husband who had Alzheimer’s. Her once meticulous home began to show signs of decline as well. Simple repairs were ignored, real cleaning stopped, only her penchant for being tidy saved the day. She stopped paying bills or she payed them three times over. Most frustrating was her unwillingness to allow anyone, including myself, to help her. One saving grace was that we maintained a joint account set up after my father died in 1982. It made it possible for me to pay her bills without her even realizing it. In her mind, all was right with the world. I attempted to help her clean or cook on visits, but she was less and less tolerant of anyone touching her things. Eventually, I had to insist that she move to an assisted living facility. She was 96. She had been in our home nearly 65 years.
I continued to come home to visit and look after the home. I had the building painted outside, the roof replaced, the furnace replaced, the water leaks repaired, including replacing bathroom fixtures. I put up the small artificial Christmas tree at the appropriate time. It was a far cry from the large eight-foot, live Christmas trees we had traditionally, but it maintained the spirit. I arranged all the Christmas china and glass ware in the buffet, put the Christmas tablecloth on the Dining Room table, and red candles in the candlesticks. Even though I might not be there for Christmas Day, it made me feel good, still grounded. I still had my home. However, more changes would come.
In 2012, just short of her 98th birthday, my mother died. I continued coming to the house and paying to have the yard maintained. In July 2015, I gave my last party. It was a barbeque with my niece and her family, my daughter and some of her friends, and my boyfriend and me. I had wanted to have another Christmas celebration in the home, but the Flu put an end to those plans. By the summer of 2016, I began packing the contents and making some renovations with an eye to selling. There was no way I could continue maintaining the home and paying New York real estate taxes. My daughter wanted desperately for me to keep the house, as did I, but there really was no feasible way that I could do that.
I was determined to sell the house to a private family. I did not like what I saw happening when homes were sold to developers. They were destroying the community, destroying its history. I was lucky, I was able to hold out long enough for a wonderful family with two children to buy the house. They have continued to renovate the home (it needed a lot of work). They have family over and have barbeques in the backyard while children run and play. It was the best I could do to preserve the community I loved.
On the other hand, Although I own my own home in Maryland, I now feel homeless. I feel displaced. I’m not of course, but it’s how I feel. Since the home in North Carolina which my cousins call the “home place” is now rented out, I feel alienated from that land as well. I still enjoy visiting the community, but I feel like a visitor now.
I like living where I live in Maryland. I live near my only daughter. I’m active in the community and at church, but it’s not home. This is not my homestead. I’m an alien in a strange land. I’m still a New Yorker, but now I’m a homeless one. I haven’t been back since selling the house. Really, there’s nothing to go back to. Although I’m sure I will visit one day soon, it’s just not not home any longer.