As I helped Aunt Delores with restocking the kitchen pantry, I told her I wanted to document the family history. She was the last of her generation. She was in good health for a woman in her 80s, and would probably be with us a while longer, but I didn’t want to suddenly lose her and have no record of the family history. She didn’t respond, other than glancing at me, and continued to take non-perishables out of the grocery bags and place them on the counter for me to put on the shelves. I wasn’t sure if I should prepare myself for a good telling-off, or if I should break out my recorder to begin to document the next words she spoke.
There was always some task attached to Aunt Delores’ stories. Cooking, hair braiding, sewing, knitting, all had a story to go with the activity. She was the family oral historian. No one else talked about the family’s history. She told me once, that I reminded her of herself as a child. “I was always up under some adult asking questions or eavesdropping on grown-folk conversation. They would scold me and tell me I was being too womanish for asking about adult business. I was just curious. But, they eventually told me everything.”
We finished putting away the groceries and then went to the living room. She sat in her favorite chair and reached down to open the basket that held her knitting supplies. She dropped a skein of deep turquoise yarn onto her lap with a set of extra long knitting needles that looked almost as thick as my pinky. She pulled at the hem of her dress until it bunched up at her knees, exposing the tops of her knee-high stockings, and creating a pouch that would not allow the yarn to roll off her lap as she pulled at it while she knitted.
“You know, the problem is that we are covered in shame. We tell lies to make ourselves look good to the world. We are so afraid to be discovered as less than perfect.” I listened to my aunt as she wound the yarn around the knitting needle and began to stitch and purl. Her movements were smooth and nimble. The click, click sound of the knitting needles created a soothing rhythm as I sat on the large ottoman at her feet and listened.
“Every family has secrets,” she continued, “from the poorest person on earth, to the Queen of England. Our family is no different. We do what everyone else does, we hide certain facts so we can keep up a good public image, and good standing in the community. That used to be a really big thing when your grandparents were raising us. For example, the worst thing that could happen to any family was for one of the girls to turn up with child, and no husband. The entire family would suffer for that. It happened to Jacksons. Remember Ms. Adele? Her little sister, Petunia got pregnant when she was 15. The story they gave everyone was that she was needed by family out west to care for a sick relative. She had a little girl. They took the child from her and sent her back home once her milk dried up so nobody would know she had a baby.” She had completed two rows of her creation and looked over her glasses at me.
“You may want to start writing this part down, honey.” I went over to the sofa, where I had rested my pocketbook and pulled out my mp3 player. I made sure I cleared some memory so I could record my aunt for a few hours. I also grabbed a pen and small notebook from my purse to take additional notes. I sat back down and turned on the recorder.
“There were seven of us. Dexter, Isaac, me, Florence, Angeline, Prentice and Leon. Everyone thinks I’m the oldest child. I’m just the oldest girl. I never knew the two oldest boys. They passed on long before I was born. No one talks about them. As a matter of fact, if you were to ask anybody else in the family, they would tell you Dexter and Isaac did not exist. My mother fell in love with a young man when she was just a teenager. I don’t know his name. She only spoke of this one or two times that I can recall. They would often sneak off to see each other. They were very much in love and wanted to get married, but granddaddy didn’t want his daughters courting until they were much older, and they young man’s family was very particular about their associations. One day, granddaddy caught them together in the shed, just going at it. The young man ran off, but mama got the beating of a lifetime. She was already pregnant. It was a wonder she didn’t lose Dexter. The young man was the son of the town’s only black doctor. They were practically royalty. Once word got out that he had been caught with mama, his family packed his bags and shipped him to Canada to stay with family there. Then they began to blame mama for seducing her son and half the other boys in town. Granddaddy was a pastor at the time, and Grandma was a school teacher. People stopped going to granddaddy’s church and pulled their children out of the school. All the people they thought were friends, shunned them. Mama was sent away to live with family in New York and have the baby. After she had Dexter, she decided to go find her sweetheart up in Canada. She made her way there when Dexter was about three months old. She showed up to the address she was given, knocked on the door and a young woman answered. It was the young man’s wife. The young man acted like he didn’t know her, never seen her before. They gave her a few dollars like she was some kind of beggar and sent her on her way. She was devastated. She returned to New York, broken-hearted and depressed. Every time she looked at her son, she got sick. So, late one night, she bundled her son up and went out to the bridge. She gathered some heavy rocks and put them in a basket. She fed Dexter, so he would be quiet. She bundled him and the rocks in the basket in such a way that he would not get loose, and she tossed him over the edge of the bridge.”
She continued to knit one, purl one. My eyes were wide and my mouth was open and I thought of the sweet woman who used to give me sweets and anything else I wanted despite my parent’s protest. She killed her child!
“Did she ever go to jail for that?”
“No. Once family in New York found out what she did, they hurried and sent her back to her parents, who were living out west at the time. Granddaddy started a new church and grandma was teaching again. It was there that she met her first husband. He was quite a bit older than her, in his early thirties, when they married. She just made nineteen. But, granddaddy approved of him. He was educated, a lawyer, I think. But he was mean man. He used to beat mama, and he had some other ‘lady friends’ around town. So when she got pregnant with Isaac, she thought he might change, soften toward her. He didn’t. He beat her even more after she had Isaac. See, Isaac was born fair-skinned with hazel eyes. Mama was brown-skinned, with dark eyes. Her husband was dark-skinned with dark eyes. He took one look at the baby and accused her of cheating. She hadn’t cheated. The baby looked like my grandmother. She was so stressed out, she couldn’t produce milk for him. He got very sick and eventually died from malnutrition. She thought Isaac’s death was God’s judgment for her getting pregnant out-of-wedlock and for killing Dexter. He husband divorced her and put her out. Once again, she was the cause of shame in the family. Granddaddy told her she needed to leave town. He would not let her live under his roof, again. He told her she was an embarrassment and that he would not see her pull the family down anymore. She left with nothing more than a few dollars, a few pictures and a few pieces of clothing. She came up here to Washington state. She never went back to her parents. One of her sisters reached out to her when we were kids. She stayed with us for a week. She said something to mama about her ‘sinful past’ and the need for her to repent to be welcomed back into the family. Mama called her everything but a child of God and turned her out of the house! She never spoke to her sister again.”
She put down her knitting and looked at me. I stopped the recorder. She scratched her leg and pursed her lips for a moment and then said, “I want you to write down the histories. I want you to share it with your kids and grandkids, in the right way and time. Not everybody is going to be able to handle these stories. Nobody wants to think of their favorite relative as less than pure and holy, but we’re humans. We’re flawed. We make mistakes. Lord knows I’ve made my share. Shame is a powerful thing, sweetheart. Very powerful. I’ve told you a little something about your great-grandparents and your grandmother. Now, I’m about to tell you about people you know. You can’t share this information with anyone. They will hate you for what you know. So, if you can promise me that, I’ll tell you the rest of our story.
She was right. I heard some of the things my family members had been involved in, including Aunt Delores. We were not angels, but we kept a good reputation. Most knew us to be a God-fearing family. We worked hard to keep our secrets. I knew which family members hated my aunt because of what she knew. But, she knew enough to keep them quiet and in check. I was a younger member of the family, they would slaughter me if I revealed their past. Shame was a powerful thing, indeed.
“I understand, Auntie. This will stay between us.” She nodded and picked up her knitting needles again. I turned the recorder back on and she continued,
“Mama and daddy met at brothel…”