You’ve been on my mind a lot lately. I think about how you would feel about me and what my life has become. Would I have made you proud? How would you talk about me to others? I think a lot about the aspects of your life and the things that I continue to learn.
Looking back on your history, you were born May 11, 1940 in McLeenan County, Waco, Texas. Your mother, Leola Cherry (née Ross) was born in 1907, only 42 years after the end of slavery in Texas. Your maternal grandmother, Anna Ross, was born in 1890; making her only 17 when she gave birth to your mother. Your father, Lee August Cherry, was born in 1904. Your paternal grandmother was Georgia Johnson (born 1878). Her parents were Albert and Emma Johnson (née Morris). Emma’s parents were London and Silvia Morris (née Scruggs). London and Silvia’s names were found on a slave manifest out of New Orleans, Louisiana. The enslavement of African descendants in the United States ended December 6, 1865. This means that not only were London and Silvia both born into slavery, but their daughter Emma, your great grandmother, was 10 years old at the time slavery officially ended. Eventually, your father’s family moved from New Orleans to Texas, where actions were set in motion for Lee August Cherry and Leola Ross to meet one another, marry in 1926, and start a family.
You were the youngest of six children: L V Cherry, Viola Cherry, Carrie Louise Cherry, Lee Augustus Cherry Jr, Arthur Willie Cherry, and Charles Ethel Cherry (you!). The family story goes that you got your name, a boy’s name, because when you were born you were so fat that they actually thought you were a boy. Haha!! Is that what you told your kids?! Or are they just messing with us grandkids? I don’t believe that story at all! Haha!! It doesn’t even fit that your middle name is Ethel, a girl’s name. I’d love to hear the actual reason and story behind your name.
Just 24 years before you were born–when your mother was 8 years old and your grandmother was 26–the Waco Horror occurred (May 15, 1916). An African-American adolescent, who had been convicted of a crime, was dragged from the courtroom, castrated, his fingers were cut off, and he was hung over a fire which he was lowered into and raised out of for two hours. Over 10,000 of Waco’s 30,000 residents (33%) gathered to watch the homicide. This event became the epitome of the racially motivated lynchings. Between 1890 and 1920, about 3,000 African Americans were killed by lynch mobs, usually after Whites were the victims of crimes allegedly committed by Blacks; they primarily occurred in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. This is the environment your family lived in while it Texas–an environment where brutality, hate, and fear were part of your daily lives.
Your family ultimately made its way to Southern California; Orange County to be specific. In California, you began to build a life for yourself. You had a son, my uncle, who you named Darrell Lee in 1960. Then you gave birth to my mother, Deirdre Yvette, in 1963, the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Carla Denice and Jessica LaVone followed in 1964 and 1966 and lastly Theresa Renee in 1970. You were a Black woman raising five children in the 60s and 70s. I would have given anything to talk to you about this experience! To sit down and pick your brain about the political climate of the time; to be able to talk to you about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, JFK and Lyndon Johnson, and the war. I would love to listen to the Jackson Five, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, the Four Tops, James Brown, Sam Cook, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and so many others right along with you. Did you listen to Janis Joplin? Jimi Hendrix? The Rolling Stones? The Doors? Did these artists empower you, causing disenchantment with the politics and life you’ve always known, making you question the status quo? Would you balk at the conditions now; at the complacency around us?
You were also building a life with William F. Thomas, my grandpa. He had so many great qualities that you were clearly drawn to. I distinctly remember two stories he told me: one was about how he met Billie Holiday while he was serving in the Navy and the other was about how he had gotten a patent for what sounded like a carpet cleaner. He was dancing, singing, and smiling as he looked fondly upon this time in his past. However, he also had several personality and character flaws. He was often angry and aggressive toward you and your children. He fought with you frequently and, at times, physically. I say he fought with you because, from the stories I have been told over the years, you were never one to let him try to hit with you without a battle ensuing. Eventually, you had the courage and strength to end it and move out with your children. You were a woman in the 1970s who decided to do something that so many women during that period were unable and/or unwilling to do exactly what you did. This was a time of respectability; women were supposed to be married, be provided for, and taking care of their home. However, you did what you had to do, in order to do what was best for you and your children. You were homeless, living in and out of hotels, eating white rice for meals, and washing clothes in bathtubs, but it was all for the mental and physical health of your children. I find it both remarkable and extraordinarily brave that you did that. You should know that he always loved you, despite his frequent inability to express it.
I remember a lot about you. When I was a little, I remember you calling me your “ugliest grandchild”. Whenever you’d get a weird looking stuffed animal, you’d say that it reminded you of me. At some point, you even suggested that I looked like Inka, the Looney Tunes cartoon character. Although I was pretty young at the time, about 4 or 5 years old, and you never said so, I distinctly remember knowing that you were not at all serious. I would just smile and in a sense, feel lucky that you were saying it. Much later, my mom told me that the reason you would say that you would tell me was a sort of “preemptive strike”. Other people were saying that I was so cute and that you wanted to keep me from getting too self-centered and stuck on beauty as a measure of my worth. Thanks.
Another thing I remember is waking up early and watching the Golden Girls and The Andy Griffith Show. I also remember watching the Wheel of Fortune with you and my mom; you two were always so good at solving them. I often whistle the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show and it makes me think of you every time.
You were quite a cook. My mom tells me that you fed me some of your food well before I ever should have been eating solids. After that, I refused to eat baby food, which makes perfect sense to anyone who has ever tasted your food. As you probably remember, I was very quiet as a child and I would just sit nearby, watching you cook. I am sure I learned a lot just from watching you. One particular time that I can think of your food, I was 5 years old and I had fallen off of my bike; my chin hit the curb and busted open. I couldn’t eat dinner that night because chewing was so painful and, on top of that, you had cooked this giant feast of a Sunday dinner. So, you made me my own batch of mashed potatoes. I still have the scar on my chin and a love of mashed potatoes to go with it. As part of your cooking technique, you would use your hands to mix the potato salad and let me taste it, right off of your fingers, to make sure it tasted just right. Lastly, there was nothing that irritated you more than when people would come in and steal the food you were cooking, which happened quite often. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I dislike it also.
I remember one time when I was about seven and you were having some back pain. You asked me to rub your back for you and you said that I was a good masseuse. Another time, you were staying with my family and you and I were sharing a room. There was something wrong with your foot and it was in one of those boot casts. We were cleaning our room and you said that I did not have to sweep the floor, but I wanted to do it anyways. I ended up sweeping up a pile of dirt and you said that I was an excellent cleaner. These seem like really small things, but they stand out to me because I had impressed you. I thought that if you were impressed-someone who didn’t give out compliments for just any ol’ reason-I must have really done a good job.
You always ate fruit cocktail, but did not like the cherries in it. All of us kids would always want them, but there was never really more than one or two in a can, so everybody couldn’t get one. Funny thing is, I don’t even like cherries! But, when it was my turn, I’d still eat it. Sometimes, you and I would just sit and talk. You would be drinking your coffee, which you were always happy to let us have a sip of, or two; Jovon was especially known for begging for some. I don’t remember what we would be talking about; actually, I can’t even conceive of what we would have even have been talking about since I was so young, but you talked to me nonetheless.
I’ll never forget the night you passed away. You were having complications with your diabetes and had to have part of your leg amputated. You were recovering well. I remember visiting you at the hospital and you were smiling. They even let you go home. But suddenly, things were not going so well. A blood clot traveled to your heart. After all that you had been through, a tiny blood clot took your life. It was September 28, 1992. The call came in the middle of the night. I heard my mom screaming. I knew exactly what the call was about. I felt it in my heart; I felt it in the core of my being. We drove the two hours from 29 Palms to Orange County, in the middle of the night, in silence that was only interrupted by sounds of crying. Boys II Men’s End of the Road came on the radio. I was so devastated. I hated God for so many years for taking you. You loved Him and He was supposed to protect you. You were only 52! I felt as though I had been forsaken by God and by the doctors. They were supposed to just take your leg, not your life. It was routine; why couldn’t they have stopped that blood clot. I was so mad that you couldn’t even see me turn 10, the biggest accomplishment of my childhood. I cried and I cried. Everybody cried. You were such an important person in my life, even though I never got a chance to say it to you.
I could never have imagined that the thought of you would become a distant memory–but it happened. I started to think less and less about you. Your absence started to become less painful. I stopped expecting you to be there on visits. I stopped being able to hear you voice in my head. I forgot your smell…the smell of your perfume…the smell of your hair. Now, I was betraying you. I went on with my life, my life without you, and I felt so guilty about it. As these tears roll down my face, and I struggle to type the words I have long thought, I know that you deserve so much more than to have simply been forgotten.
I am a professor now, Granny. I turned 10 and then I turned 16 (on Easter). I got my driver’s licence and graduated high school. I went to L.A. for college and went to Wisconsin for my PhD. Your granddaughter, only 4 generations beyond slavery, has a Dr. in front of her name. When I finished my doctorate, I moved all the way to New York for work. I’ve had some medical issues; can you believe that I also have a blood clotting condition? I have had to take an aspirin every day for the past 7 years. But, I don’t have diabetes, even with all the sweets I like. I love music and I cooking and cleaning are often therapeutic for me in many ways. I have also loved and fallen in love.
Granny, I may have come to peace with your death, but I have never stopped wishing you you were here. So badly have I wanted you to have been here so that I could share all of these moments with you. Things may seem as though they have all gone great for me, but that hasn’t been the case. I wish I could have gone to you; I wish I could have talked to you, to hear your gentle reassurance that things would be okay. I needed your strength, your love, the warmth of your hugs. I needed you just as much as anyone has. You see, I am not the only one who had forgotten about you, Granny. Our family has forgotten how much you valued a family’s love, how much you valued the time we spent together, and everything you taught them about acceptance, forgiveness, and perseverance. We need you here so that you can lead by example, so that you can sit at the head of this family and tell them when they need to get it together. We need you here so that you can tell us how such petty things were never meant to cause rifts between your nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren, especially after everything this family has seen and overcome.
Yes, I know I am wrong. Deep down, I know that you never left. The lessons you imparted, while easily forgotten, will never die. Your audacity to desire change, your strength, your courage, your acceptance, and your altruism will always be here. Your legacy is in all of us, in your children and their children’s children; therefore, you have always been and will continue to be here with all of us. Your body may no longer be here, but, as long as we remember, you will never be gone.
Your Ugliest Grandchild