Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesdays with Dorothy: Finding Family

(This is part of a series. For Table of Contents go here)
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In our meetings together, I wanted to find out as much as I could about Dorothy’s family of origin. I was sometimes amazed at the things she could remember from her early childhood.

Memories of Mother

“I was nine years old when my mother died. I was laying in the bed with her and my daddy came in. He had been drinking. He picked me up and said, “Dorothy, she’s gone,” and I said “You’re a liar, she’s not gone.” I slapped him across the face because I didn’t understand. He started to crying. He wouldn’t let me go to the funeral because I had the flu.”

*    *    *  

“My mother was really sweet, she had jet black hair and she wore her hair in a ball behind her head like my grandmother (I never saw my grandmother except in a picture). My granddaddy – he had a black mustache and beard, and he had long hair – it came down to his shoulders. He wore them short knee pants and black stockings and high-top shoes. He worked at a saw mill in Sylacauga. He was my mother’s daddy.”

“My mother used to go to work, she didn’t have no regular job, but she worked cleaning off the graves in the graveyard. All of my toys were homemade. I had a pasteboard box that my mother would put my toys in to keep under the bed. I would pull it out to play with them. I didn’t really hear about Santa Claus, not until I was 10 years old, and then I didn’t really know who he was.”

“I can remember when I was little my mother would put me up in the chair and I would try to help her wash the dishes, but I would just play in the water. She used to take me up to Uncle John and Aunt Lula Hosey’s house. We didn’t have no car, we had to walk everywhere we went.  Me and my cousin Louise, we were children at that time. I used to go visit my Aunt Lula and Uncle John. Where they lived there was a big sand pile and a creek. We used to play in that creek. Louise was 5 years old at that time. We got separated and she used to write to me and then we lost contact. Then she wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

The Songs we Sang

“I remember spending time with my grandfather. He would sing that song to me ‘Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain.’

“He would sing it:
            Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain, uh huh.
            Chicken’s goin’ in Sourwood Mountain, uh huh.” [singing to the tune of “Froggy   
                 Went a’courtin’”]

It would go like that. And my daddy, he would sing Mexicali Rose, and   Molly and Me and the Baby Makes Three.  When he weren’t drunk, he could sing really good.

I don’t remember hearing my mother sing, but I do remember I had a doll, and I had a little rocking chair. I was rocking with my doll one time and I was singing,  Jesus Loves Me.  I jumped up – I wasn’t mad or anything, but I chunked my doll across the room and went into the kitchen. Then I thought,  Jesus loves me.  And I looked up – my mother had a picture of Jesus on the wall and I thought it was a lady. I said,  That lady is so beautiful, who is she?  My mother said it was a picture of Jesus. I heard that song,   Jesus Loves Me  somewhere, and I just sang part of it then I got up and threw my doll. I don’t remember why I did that.”

Dogs and Chickens and Spankings

“I remember I had this lil ol’ dog.  Every one I got would have fits, and my daddy would have to kill it. I did have a dog, my mother named it Spot, it was a pretty black and white collie, and somebody killed it. I waited for it to come home, I waited and waited but he never did come home – somebody killed it in the woods down below the house. I really loved that dog. It was one of my Aunt Gladys’s puppies. She had a dog named Black Gal, and Spot was one of her puppies.

“I remember one time going fishing with my legal guardian and her husband. She had baited the hook and everything. I got It hung up in a bush, I snatched it off and broke the line off on a bush. We had gone a ways and she asked me if I was ready for her to put my hook in the water. I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, I am,’ but I had broke [the hook] off. She asked me what did I lie to her for, and I said I didn’t lie, but I did, and she whipped me for lying to her. And then I remembered telling her that my hook got caught in a bush and I broke the line off of it. She whipped me so many times. She whipped me one time for breaking one of her hen’s legs. I was sweeping up in the yard with an old brush broom. I didn’t want the chickens to use the yard for a bath room. I hit one of her laying hens and broke its leg with a rock. She whipped me good for breaking that hen’s leg. She had to put glass eggs down for that hen to ever start laying again.

“The hen lived and her leg healed, but I got my legs nettled for it. One time she whipped me for singing that song, ‘There’s not a Friend like the Lowly Jesus.’  Well I didn’t know the lyrics to it, I thought it was ‘There’s not a friend like the long-necked Jesus.’ And she said, ‘I’m going to whip you for making fun of that song, Dorothy, You are not to make light of that song.’ She whipped me good, almost took the blood where she whipped me.”

*   *   *

“I was ten years old the first time I heard Fats Domino sing Blueberry Hill. At that time I was living with my legal guardian. One night we had gone out to an oyster fry, me and my legal guardian, and I remember her daughter Vera’s boyfriend was in the car with her. Vera really disliked me. I seen him kiss her, and I said, “why don’t you kiss me?” it made her so mad, she hopped out of the car and run in the house. Then she came back out. Later when we got back she said “I could kill that little hussy – asking my boyfriend to kiss her.” I was standing there taking it all in, and I was snickering the whole time. From that day until this, she hasn’t had any use for me. I reckon she’s an old lady now.”

*   *   *   *   *

Finding a Sense of Family and Place

Having a home place was important to Dorothy. After I got to know her, I drove her down to Sylacauga on several occasions so that she could touch base with where she was born, though there was no house or family to go to.  She had told me before that when her mother had died, the family had not been able to afford a headstone for her grave.  Still, she wanted to be able to visit her mother’s grave. On the first trip that I took with her to Sylacauga, I knew it would be a hopeless endeavor to get Dorothy to her mother’s grave. We did find an old cemetery a few miles out of town.  As we walked around the graves, we found one that was unmarked where the ground has sunk down a bit in the outline of the hole that had been dug. Since it was an unmarked grave, we talked some about “what if” that was where her mother had been buried. Knowing, of course, that there was no way to know who was buried there, we still lingered a bit and took some time to remember the mother who had died when Dorothy was just a child.

Dorothy did have some relatives still living in Sylacauga, but none were willing to see her. On one of our trips to Sylacauga, Dorothy gave me the name of a cousin whom she wanted me to contact to see if she could visit when she came to Sylacauga.  I was able to find a telephone number and talk with the individual, but there was no willingness to have any kind of visit.

I had no idea what the cousin’s perception of Dorothy might have been. Maybe they knew each other as children when Dorothy was living with the stigma of being poor and “retarded.”  Perhaps words had been whispered throughout that person’s life about the relative who had to be “locked up in an asylum.”  At any rate, the cousin could not be persuaded to even meet briefly with Dorothy. I felt sad for Dorothy that I would have to tell her that her cousin would not be seeing her. I also felt sad for the cousin who had no idea of the person Dorothy had grown to become and now would never find out.

When I told Dorothy of my lack of success in arranging a visit with her relative, she looked a bit disappointed, but then took it in stride. I think that she had actually attempted to make connection before, but wanted me to try this time in case there was a better outcome. At any rate, Dorothy spent most of her life attempting to create family by keeping trusted friends within her circle of contacts. She also had a way of drawing in case managers and healthcare workers to establish close friendly relationships. Most people who had any kind of professional relationship with her enjoyed that contact. Whether she did it consciously or unconsciously, Dorothy was insuring that those who could help would be there when she needed them.

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