The Good Mother, Part 3: And so the girl marries

Hi Mommy,

You and my father married in a double wedding ceremony with his brother and your cousin. It was an outdoor wedding, and from the one picture I have seen of you and your fellow bride, it was pretty and summer-casual.  Your sister showed me the picture; she said there weren’t many. I have never seen a picture of you and Dad together when you were a couple.

Dad comes from a big family that was as well known in that part of South Jersey as yours. He’s the 7th of 12 kids born to parents who had left sharecropping in Georgia to come to New Jersey. His parents’ parents had been slaves, and his maternal grandparents had also come to Jersey, along with several members of their generation. So Dad had grown up in the bosom of a huge extended family that stretched across Camden County to Philadelphia and as far out as Pottstown and Phoenixville. They were their own village — not much need to spend time with strangers, until it came time to do business or find a suitable mate.

This is what you and Dad had in common: a belief in the value of work, and a desire to make the best of whatever you were given.  Dad’s family had come through the Depression logging the Jersey pines,  becoming trusted caretakers for local  businesses owned by merchants who lived in the big city. doing day work, or whatever came along. Your family, too, was good at finding whatever work there was to be had.  Both families took pride in rejecting welfare, no matter how tough the times got. (Not that welfare was all that easy for black families to get in those days, but that is another story.)

So you had those things in common. Also, among your peers, you were unique in having been Someplace Else. Well you were unique among the girls. Dad had been to Kentucky when he was in the Army. His brothers had been to the Pacific theater during and after the Big War.  Living someplace else let you know something else was out there. But how to get to it? And what kind of dreams could a young Negro couple have anyway? Especially one where the husband was clearly too dark to pass for anything else?

This last point made your father-in-law skeptical, you told me.  Then again, Grandpop Jesse was a tough man.  Thirty-five years of hard work and no-nonsense family leadership had made it possible for him to own his own home and enough land to allow the family to grow much of its own food. I think you must have looked a little soft to him.  Jesse Albert Pearson came from field slaves; your olive skin and curly hair told him that your family had worked in the Big House. And as far as you knew, he was right. You told me about forbears who had been cooks and chauffeurs in Virginia and Maryland and more recently, among the big houses on Philadelphia’s Main Line.  Slavery was not part of your family’s story, as far as you knew.

You and my Dad shared a house with your cousin and her husband. The two brothers worked construction, until eventually Daddy got on at the Post Office.  There were arguments about things like muddy boots being left on clean kitchen floors.  Before long, both brides were pregnant, and the little house could not contain all the hopes and fears and tears and excitement and anguish.

Which is to say that neither marriage worked out, but babies were born and they were  much loved.  The second of those babies was me.

The earliest picture of me, aged 3
The earliest picture of me, aged 3. I'm on the left.

Here is what you told me about me before I was born.

First, I made you sick. You puked for seven months. Sorry about that. Scary thing for the girl that you were,  no doubt.  Perhaps a midwife could have told you that trick about eating plain yogurt before meals to dampen the nausea. In any event, with so many of the women around you seeming to have an easier time being pregnant, I got the impression that your sickness made you feel even more alone – a loneliness your husband was at a loss to understand.

Second, you didn’t have a nice maternity wardrobe. On TV, a pregnant Lucy Ricardo got to wear cute smocks — with big Peter Pan collars and dainty bows that matched the bows she would wear in her hair — while a bewildered but adoring Ricky tried to respond to her cravings and mood swings. In Chesilhurst, pregnant women wore their husbands’ pants and shirts used pots to boil their baby bottles, not expensive sterilizers. You tried to adjust.

Your father-in-law tested your mettle.  You told me that on one Sunday visit while you were pregnant, he called you to the backyard for a chat.  You don’t remember what it was about, but in those days, when an elder called you, you came.  He had a freshly-killed hog hanging from a tree, and he was just beginning to butcher it.  While he chatted amiably, he plunged a big knife into the hog’s belly and dragged it down to expose the entrails. Nauseous already, the hog’s reeking innards were about to make you swoon. As you fought to look attentive and keep from puking, your mother-in-law bustled out, alarmed! “Jesse!” she cried. “You can’t talk to Anna while you do that! The baby will have the face of a hog!”

When I was born, you told me Grandmom Mattie inspected my face to assure herself that it was quite human.  (When you told me this story I was in my 30s and Grandmom Mattie had been dead for a while. I took some comfort in remembering that she had told me I was pretty.)

The only other thing I know about the circumstances of my birth was that I came at 6:30 in the morning, and my father had already gone to work.  I tried to come out while you were in the hospital elevator, and a nurse put a hand on my emerging head to try to hold me back. She yelled , “Stop that! It’s not time yet!” And you said,  “I can’t!” and soon after, when you reached the delivery room, I was born.  Six pounds, three ounces, but the lungs weren’t in such good shape and you said one foot was curled into a club, but I think you must have been mistaken about that, because no one else remembers it and that just doesn’t go away from wearing orthopedic shoes.

The important part is that I was here, and eventually my lungs got better, but your marriage didn’t.

My mother at work
My mother at work

The two of you split and I was moved around between Dad’s relatives and yours while you each saved up money to make separate homes for me.  Eventually, you got an apartment in a Camden rowhouse and an office job, most likely because they thought you were Italian and not Negro.  I came to live with you, visiting Daddy and his new wife in Philadelphia on the weekends.

The thing that I want to thank you for the most is that you never talked badly about each other in front of me.  And although there were many rocky times in the half-century to come,  the two of you managed to support me through the triumphs and tragedies of my life.  For this, I will always be grateful.

I love you, Mommy. Talk to you again soon.



The Good Mother, part 2

Hi Mommy,

What was it like for you to be back in New Jersey busting suds and picking crops, after spending those years in Hartford, Connecticut, learning etiquette, elocution and the other skills essential to becoming a proper bourgeoise? No doubt it was a shock, and not just for you. You loved your New Jersey family and they loved you, but sometimes you just didn’t understand each other, and maybe that was to be expected.

For one thing, your sisters and brothers couldn’t get over the way you talked. Your sister was chuckling about that just recently. South Jersey folks of that generation have their own kind of country drawl, but you had a New Englander’s clipped enunciation. You had a way of saying, “Look at the the dogs!” that sounded more like, “Look aht the dahgs!” making your family double over with laughter because they had never heard anyone speak that way. It hurt your feelings, but then, lots of things hurt your feelings, and you could say things that they found just as cutting.

Not that there weren’t good times there. Along the White Horse Pike, between Camden and Atlantic City, and over the Ben Franklin bridge to Philadelphia, there was a world to explore. Near as I can tell, your Mom, Eileen, moved you and the kids around, depending on the most affordable and livable arrangements available at the time. Mostly you were in Chesilhurst, near your grandfather Ashton’s family, and not far from where your father’s brother built a home.

And your dreams of high school proms, high school dating, and eventually, college receded into heartbroken imaginings.

Start in South Philly, a place that you all visited on occasion. Eileen’s father, John Henry Farrell, had his own “Sanitary Barber Shop,” as his business card said. John, Jr. was the first colored elevator operator for one of the big department stores downtown. And his brother, Wendell was a mechanic in the Air Force. Sometimes Aunt Gladys came to visit, and Eileen would get together with her and sisters Lynn and rarely, Edna, who moved to Elizabeth early on. Lynn was something of a glamour girl and you all got to be friend with her kids, all being around the same age.

Cross back over the Ben Franklin to Camden, either on the bus in a car like that big pink Studebaker your Mom used to drive. Camden was a working class town, but it was in much better shape than it is now. There was plenty of work at the Campbell Soup plant, and if some folks had to shop at the Goodwill on Broadway, there was also a Tiffany’s.

But if you were young, black and looking for fun in the 1950s, the action was down the White Horse Pike, in Lawnside.

A former stop on the Underground Railroad, Lawnside was the first self-governing African American community north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Peter Mott House there is now a historic landmark.  In the late 19th century, it was the childhood home of Jessie Redmon Fauset, the novelist, poet, teacher and editor credited with launching the publishing careers of such leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen.  For the last few years, they’ve celebrated Jessie Fauset Day in Lawnside with poetry competitions and historical observances. But in the 50s, Ms. Fauset had moved back to Philadelphia for a few years of genteel retirement before her death, in 1961.

The Spaniels

By the 1950s, the striving town of Jessie Fauset’s youth had become better known to local African Americans as a place for barbecues, picnics and dancing. Jack Brady’s Dreamland Cafe saw its heyday during your childhood, boasting the likes of Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughan. I never heard you all talk about Dreamland or the Cotton Club. But I did hear tell of the Whippoorwill and even as late as 1975, you all were still going to Loretta’s Hi-hat for family wedding receptions.

Daddy tells me there was a place next to the Tippin’ Inn where you go could for food and dancing if you weren’t yet of drinking age. That’s where he and his brothers used to go before he got drafted into the Army during the Korean War. He was going with your older sister when he got drafted. Then another man took your sister to the altar while the man who would become my father was doing his bit for Uncle Sam. It was later, after he got back, when he met you.

In the meantime, your older brother and sister were hitting the Hi Hat and you and your closest brother E  were winning dance contests at some of the local joints. Not that you all even needed to go out to have a good time. Even in my youngest childhood, I remember how you and your Mom and brothers and sisters would get together to eat, play pinochle and dance.

Grandmom cooked for white folks on the Main Line, I recall, but her family menus were strictly down home. Ham, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, candied yams, string beans, potato salad, cornbread, apple pie, sweet potato pie, white potato pie, tomato soup cake — there was always something good in Mom’s kitchen. Maybe somebody put some music on a record player or maybe it was just a radio. The bop was the dance of the day.

Maybe it was at one of those contests that you met Thornton James “Pookie” Hudson from the Spaniels. Their signature  tune, “Good Night, Sweetheart,” had come out in 1954 when you were only 15. You told me that the two of you dated for a time. Given that Pookie was five years older and touring regularly, it’s likely that the relationship was more serious on your end than his. Nonetheless, you told me that you lost Pookie to a girl named “Tina” — a girl who so captured his heart that he wrote a song about her that the Spaniels recorded. You played the song for me; it mostly consisted of Pookie wailing her name.

I got an email from a cyberfriend when Pookie died in January, 2008. I thought about telling you, but I didn’t want to make you sad. I suppose you know by now.

Another time, you told me you met Arthur Prysock, and even sang backup for him. I never did hear the whole story, but I got the impression it wasn’t a serious thing — maybe even that he just let you get up on a stage with him one night and sing behind him. Who knows? It was one of those things you would say and leave unexplained, the same way you would say that we were related to Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday. Who can say?

From what I’ve read about Lawnside in those days, it was a place where everybody mixed with everybody, so hanging out with  big stars such as the Spaniels is not as exotic as it might seem to us today. African Americans flocked to Lawnside because they weren’t allowed to be anyplace else.  Not long ago, Dottie Smith, a singer who played the Lawnside clubs in those days, told an interviewer:

“On Sunday, a lot of people would leave church and go right over there for the rest of the day,” she said. “That’s why it all felt so much like family. There were grandmothers and kids and musicians and shriners and everybody from all walks of life. Blacks didn’t have a Blue Book or a Country Club. Lawnside was where we went. It cost practically nothing to enjoy yourself. I remember in Philadelphia there used to be this weekend saying that it was time to ‘go down the ridge and over the bridge,’ which meant heading out for Lawnside and the clubs and all.”

You were popular with the fellas, I’m told. At your memorial service, a man who had grown up with you, whom I only knew through your church, talked to me about your beauty with all the wistfulness of an old man remembering his first schoolboy crush.

This was your life: work, child care, hanging out with friends on your off hours. School was not part of the picture for you or your peers. Dropping out of high school to help the family was pretty common in the 1950s. Heck, it wasn’t unusual to meet kids who had bailed on elementary school. Nobody was sending truant officers out to make sure poor black kids went to school.

The jobs available to blacks in Camden County didn’t require more than an elementary school education. They were jobs that needed strong backs more than good brains. Also, you had to have a high tolerance for being called “boy” or “gal.” And never talk back to a Jersey cop. People warned each other,  “They’re as bad as the ones in Mississippi,”

But you had seen another world – a world where a black woman could get an office job, instead of having to clean a white woman’s house or wash her clothes. A world where little black girls took ballet lessons and dreamed of going to college. A world with doilies and flowers and husbands who save up their money to buy you a string of pearls. A man who, as you were fond of saying later, “brought something to the table.”

That was the world you wanted. Sometime in 1956, when you were 17 and he was 24, you decided that my bookish father was the man most likely the partner you needed.

Yes, Ma’am. I’m going to get some rest now.



The Good Mother

My mother's father
My mother's father

Where do I begin?

Hi Mom,

You asked me many times to write the story of your life. I always resisted, but I think you always knew you would get your way.

Here is your beginning, or the earliest you that I remember from our conversations:

An undated childhood photo of my mother
An undated childhood photo of my mother

You are young – five in your memory, but the documents say you must have been closer to seven. You are in a line of people at a church, and someone is holding you over a box where a man in an Army uniform lays sleeping. “Say goodbye father,” the adult says.

It is 1946; he had been in a VA hospital since before the War ended. His name was Owen Barnes, Sr. You had no other memory of him.

According  your birth certificate, Owen worked for the WPA when you came along in 1939. You were baby number three. He had married your mother, Eileen Farrell, in 1934, when she was 17. They lived in Camden, New Jersey. On your birth certificate, she is listed as a housewife, but there are stories about her doing domestic work as well. She was an amazing cook, and handy around the house, besides. He went into the Army in 1942.

Perhaps Eileen wanted to escape a painful and lonely youth. It’s certainly possible, considering that her own mother, Edna, had died in childbirth when Eileen was only 8 and by all accounts her father’s remarriage had done nothing to assuage his bitterness at life. He was still a bitter man when I spent time with him 60 years later, trying to understand how your family’s past contributed to who you had become, and who you had not.

According to family lore, the root of your grandfather’s bitterness lay in his learning, as a young man, that his absent father was white. He saw a photo of a white man who looked like him among his mother’s things, asked who that was, and was told. He never spoke to or saw his mother again. When she died, he made the arrangements, paid for the funeral, and did not attend. When I asked about his father being white all of those years later, he snapped, “I’m colored!”

John Henry Farrell, my grandmother's father
John Henry Farrell, my grandmother's father

Eileen spent much of her childhood with her mother’s family, the Ashtons, in Chesilhurst. The Ashtons were Native American. You once showed me a newspaper clipping about her grandfather, George

Edna Ashton Farrell, who died in childbirth in 1925, was my mother's maternal grandmother
Edna Ashton Farrell, who died in childbirth in 1925, was my mother's maternal grandmother

Ashton, leading some Native American organization. I can’t find it now.

But that is another story. We were talking about you. Your life changed dramatically after your father died. Your mother could not afford to care for all of her babies,and you were sent to her sister Gladys in Connecticut. I never asked your mother how it felt to have to give up her children to be raised by others. I got to see enough of her interactions with all of you to know that it must have been agony. She loved you all and all of you loved her.

Compared to her widowed sister, Gladys was living high on the hog. She had been able to get a job at Pratt and Whitney during the war. She had a working husband and no children of her own. She took you and one of your younger brothers.  She taught you to call her “Mother,” and upgraded your wardrobe. You learned to set a proper table and value formal education. You formed an ambition that she encouraged: to go to Fisk College and then Meharry Medical School. [I never got to ask you why it had to be Fisk. You had no connection to Tennessee. Although you spoke of us having relatives in Virginia and Maryland, I don’t think you had ever been South.] You had a best friend named Gertie and a crush on a boy named Jerry that still put a lilt in your voice when you told me about him in the 1980s.  It was a nice dream, and then it ended.

It should be noted that there is a dispute as to what actually happened that sent you back to New Jersey. The story your sister tells starts with a precipitating incident that I recall hearing from you as well. According to the story, one day the milkman showed up to collect his fee. Aunt Gladys told you to say that she wasn’t home. You told the milkman, “My Mommy says to say she’s not at home.”  And then you laughed and said, “Aunt Gladys was maaad at me!”

Mommy with her Aunt Gladys, whom she learned to call Mother
Mommy with her Aunt Gladys, whom she learned to call Mother.

If I remember the story you told me correctly, you were 14, which would make the year 1953. Eileen had come to visit Gladys in Connecticut. By that time, by my count, maybe six of her children had yet to be born. I’m guessing the twins had already been stillborn.

My mother's mother and one of her babies. My mother was probably a toddler when this was taken.
My mother's mother and one of her babies. My mother was probably a toddler when this was taken.

You said you were upstairs when you heard Eileen and Gladys arguing. By then you had grown accustomed to thinking of Gladys as your mother and Eileen as your aunt. Gladys didn’t want you to go. She said you had a chance at a future; at the very least you needed to finish high school. Eileen said something like, Anna does not need a diploma to do what I need her to do. She can get a job. She can help me take care of her brothers and sisters. I’m her mother. It’s not up to you to decide.

And this declaration swept you down the steps, against all decorum. You landed in the living room and wailed, “CAN ONE OF YOU PLEASE TELL ME, WHO IS MY MOTHER?” You never told me what they said, but the answer came, nonetheless.

Your sister, who says she was there, says she has no recollection of this conversation, or such a declaration on your part.

Either way,  you did not get to graduate from high school in Hartford. You were back  in Chesilhurst New Jersey, trying to make sense of what had become an alien world.

I hope this is okay for a start. Talk to you again soon. I love you. Give Grandmom a hug from me.