Ernest

In 1976 our school, and maybe all of America, went Bicentennial Crazy.  Bicentennial celebrations covered the calendar for the entire year. And, that was the year that my grandma Green volunteered to make me a Betsy Ross costume for the Colonial Halloween parade.  We’d already studied the original US colonies more than you can even imagine, but we took a field trip out to a “colonial village” set up to experience colonial life.  It was interesting, at first, because who doesn’t love a field trip? I asked the tour guide where all the Black folks were, and she told me that there were no Black people, they came much later as slaves.

Ok. Nobody was Black in colonial America.

So, we get back to school and it’s time to pick who we’re going to be in the parade. I chose Betsy Ross. The women in my family liked to sew, and I figured that’s how we would’ve contributed to the independence of our nation if we’d been in the area at the time. My costume was elaborate, and made almost exactly like the pictures my grandma and I looked up in the encyclopedia.

My colonial obsession did not end with the parade, though.  I spent most of my free time quizzing my elders about their ancestors, particularly those who’d been enslaved. The conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Did you ever meet the people in our family who were slaves?

Grandma Green: I don’t know… I imagine that the first people who lived in the big house down south used to own the rest of us at some point. If I picked out the oldest person living down that lane where I grew up, they might’ve been a slave.

Me: Did your dad own Mama Hester? He was the white one.

Grandma Green: No, he didn’t own her. They were married! He was colored.

Me: Looks white to me. *conversation stops cold.

Or this

Me: did you ever meet the people in our family who were slaves?

Grandma Dobbs: I may have… I must have….

Me: Were they okay? (thinking about how torn apart I’d be if I were a slave.)

Grandma Dobbs: Yes. But they didn’t like to talk about slavery, and it was rude to ask. (raises her eyebrows at me.) * Another conversation bites the dust.

 

I have only one story about our first American. Out of all the people who were enslaved, only one story remains. My grandfather used to tell all or parts of this story regularly, and even now, the generations beneath me can tell it. I don’t know if it is true, even, but this is the way it goes.

My first American was a little boy who was happy and free and swam in the waters of the Cape of Good Hope every day. One day, he was stolen away from his family and sold into slavery. He was taken far from home and told to forget all about it. He tried, but he couldn’t forget what Free feels like.

Seeing as how he was a little guy, he was purchased by the captain of a slave ship to serve as a cabin boy. He made several trips running slaves from the Caribbean to New Orleans, and he saw terrible things; the inner workings of people being beaten, starved and tortured for profit, and he learned to hate his captain. But he emptied slop jars and spittoons, and made his captain comfortable despite the hatred- he’d seen too many people get hurt and killed for the slightest disobedience. Instead, he made a plan.

The captain liked my ancestor and thought he was a smart kid, which he was. He taught him to speak, write and read English on the open water, as sort of a party trick for the amusement of his shipmates. Not only did my ancestor learn to write the name the captain gave him, he also practiced writing all kinds of things. And one night, after the captain was asleep, my ancestor wrote himself a note. It gave him permission to be absent from the ship to gather supplies, and was signed with an exact replica of the captain’s signature.

The next time they docked in New Orleans, my ancestor waited while the crew to unloaded enslaved Africans and cleaned the ship. When it was dark, and the crew was out carousing before the ship left port, he put his letter in the pocket of a suit of clothes he’d stolen from the captain.  He wrapped them in a bundle that he held up out of the water as he swam for shore. He thought he saw the captain watching from above deck.

The boy, now a young teenager, hid in the mail station in New Orleans for days, using his bundle from the captain as a pillow, bedclothes, shelter from the rain… he stayed put until the slave ship had left port without him.  When people asked him who he was, he showed his note confirming his name was Ernest Dabbs, as the captain stated in the note and signed with great authority. The name was one he’d stolen and practiced from a crate he hid near in the mail station.

Even though he was free, he knew he had to get out of town; his ship would be back eventually, or the real Ernest could show up wondering why he and a cabin boy running errands for a slave ship might have the same name. So, he rolled up the sleeves and pantlegs of his new clothes and made his way West, travelling with a group of Native Americans who’d come to town to trade furs.

Ernest went all the way home with these guys and settled in.  He finished growing up, and got himself some land. He took a wife and they made some children – who had children, who had children until one of them made me.  Red and White and Black. African Americans.

That’s it. The Story of Our First American. It is no Hero’s Journey.  It’s a story about a child abduction and how the victim survived. How he fought his way back from incredible trauma to be a member of a community again. There is no rebellion, no return to the wharfs of New Orleans to liberate his people. Ernest was just a kid who did the best he knew how using what he had.

Thanks Ernest, for not giving up. Wouldn’t be here without you.

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On Being Fifty

People keep asking today, “How does it feel to be fifty?” So, I’ll say it here.

It feels amazing! This, from a person who hates the over use of the word amazing.  This here really amazes me.

When I was in my late 20s, after a couple of years of being sick and tired, I got a really scary health diagnosis, and was told to prepare to live another ten or so years.

Right.

So, being a stubborn, scientific type, I went to the library. I ignored the doctor, failed to put a bar in my shower, and did not make plans to get to assisted living when I needed it. I did not show up when it was time to take treatments, in fact, I declined to participate in studies.  I figured if I had to die, I was going to go out whole – after a life fully lived.

First decision- I stopped eating anything that didn’t help my physical self to balance. I kept telling myself, “My body wants to be whole. Let me help.”

Secondly- I signed up for Tai Chi. I learned to meditate. I got a therapist. I practiced yoga. I prayed. Not one after another, but simultaneously. My evenings were entirely made of wholeness. I would visit the doctor periodically, to confirm what I already knew. That helps.

And then, my body healed. But I’m not writing this to tell you what a “Brave Lady Who Decided To Trust What Is” I am.

I’m writing to say thank you.

Thanks for changing your recipes so I could still come to the party.

Thanks for slapping cookies out of my hand.

Thanks for holding meetings on the floor when I was tired, without a second thought.

Thanks for walking more slowly, instead of telling me it might be time for a wheelchair.

Thanks for giving me happy music to listen while I exercised.

Thanks for letting me nap on your couch.

For praying with and for me, both when I saw you and when I didn’t.

Thank you for allowing me to believe that I could live.

And thanks for saying, “if this doesn’t work, I’m calling your doctor. And your mom.”.

But it worked. Because we let it!  That is amazing! And thanks for being happy for me that I am middle aged. It is my proudest accomplishment.

Point is, I’m really, really alive and kicking. This afternoon, the husband I swore I never take because it’s not fair to get married only to make a widow and I are going to pick up the kid I didn’t think I’d want to conceive and wouldn’t be able to see grow up from a camping trip with her friends. And yes, I’ll be the oldest mom waiting for her camper to unload and that feels like Grace.

Grace, Grace, and more Grace.

Thanks, Amen.

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Pursuit of Happiness

Sugarfoot logoI have a life. I am reasonably free. I haven’t yet exercised my self-evident right to pursue happiness. ‘Cuz this is not the happy I thought I would get. This is happy, but it’s not mine. My happy fits like a glove. That’s how I could reach this age and not be completely fulfilled in every-single-solitary aspect of my life.  Wrong happy.

Welcome to my self-talk, as I prepare for the second act of my life.

So, I made a breakfast meeting with an extremely accomplished woman who works in my town and does it in a way I admire.  Yeah, that’s not like me, talking to strangers, but I decided to make an exception, and did.

She came into the coffee shop where we’d agreed to meet, sort of parting the sea while I was at the counter getting a chai latte. She went with the hostess, telling me, “I’ll be over there.” I was only sure it was her because she asked me my name while the sea was parting. I whispered, “okay,” and hoped that the tea wouldn’t take too long.

After too many minutes waiting for tea while she looked at the menu, I met her at the table. After the tiniest bit of mandatory chit chat, we got right to it. I knew I’d like her! I told her, “I’m looking to go back to work full time. My baby is big, the book and two plays are completed. I want a normal job that uses what I’ve got. I don’t know how to…”

“Let me stop you right there,” she jumped in. “You know. You do, you know exactly what to do.” And then she proceeded to give me all of her secret sauce of professional success. She just told me, because I asked her.  I took notes and listened. Like, listened really deeply. She told me about companies that were hiring for what I want to do. She mentioned ways to get a position outside of “Job listings”. How to get funding if I want to focus on entrepreneurship.  She cracked open her phone and took me to websites I’d never heard of, gave me social media pointers and killer networking opportunities. But she cautioned me, before doing any of these things it is essential to know exactly who I am and what that’s worth.

And then, the bombshell: “Your daughter doesn’t need you. She can do all kinds of things on her own now, and she should.  The critical thing you do for her now is show her how to persevere.  Show her how you can be the person you want to be, and not rest on the person you have been.”

WHAT?!

What did you just say to me, lady I’ve never seen before this moment? How do you know what my soul needs?

She also told me to sit down with a pen and a pad and don’t get up until I have decided who I am now, after all the experiences, and the effort and the mistakes.  And then, she said, my job is to go out in the world being that, and I will meet my new position there.  Then, she paid for breakfast, passed me a business card, shook my hand really warmly, and walked back to her office after greeting some people at the table behind us.

Who knew? Angels are real.

Thanks, Amen.

 

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Enough

I’ve decided, in honor of being six months away from 50 years old, to keep only one Resolution for this year and it is this:

Enough.

It just occurred to me this winter that I am an old woman now.  Actually, it didn’t occur to me. I was told, gently and with great care, by another woman.  No, it’s okay, she was kind.  This has been happening for a few years, and I dismissed it.  I’ve felt young because I have a young child, I was reasonably fit, my mind is sharp, my hair is not grey, I’m not too wrinkled…. But now, hearing it live from someone I care about, well, it was time to face the facts.

I am growing old. I am almost half way to the “I’m Gonna Live To Be One Hundred” promises of my twenties.  I accept this, supposing this is an acceptance that any kind of midlife crisis having person should have, but this one is personal because, well, it’s my life I’m talking about. Please note, I didn’t say irrelevant, demented, or stagnant.  Just, old.

This world told me in my first half that I’m selfish when I want what I want, even if it does no harm, even if I haven’t even made any kind of announcement. So, I gave away the first half of my life. I gave myself to causes, lovers and loved ones, neighbors and friends.  I do not regret this giving, and I believe that all parties are better for it. Only difference for this half is that I’m going to give myself to me, too.

This half is mine. I will expect credit for all my contributions, and will be responsible for my mistakes. I want to be around people that keep me happy and uplifted. I want to eat when I’m hungry and sleep when I’m tired, and laugh.  I want to dance – a lot. I plan to smile only when I mean it, which I imagine will be often and cry on the regular, because I’m not holding my tears in for this half.

More than anything, I will be grateful. I learned that in the first half, for sure. The more I’m grateful for, the more grateful I have become. This New Year’s Eve was different though. I dug through my Gratitude jar this year, pissed that I was sick and watching fireworks on TV instead of seeing them for myself, but this happened.

Gratitude Jar

Me: I don’t want to read all these little slips of paper. This year sucked. This next year will suck too if I don’t get better in a hurry.

Jar: It didn’t suck at all! Come see what happened.

I went, despite my cold, and that jar was full of miracles. I found camping trips and more tomatoes than we could eat in my garden, and thriving kids, and a completed script and production offer for a play I wrote, and a pair of jeans that had room for my waist and butt at the same time.

How many miracles can there be?

I have cousins that crack me up and hold me up. There were parties of all kinds, some with costumes! That jar held art and song and good food, and there was love. And that is Enough.

That’s my only focus this year. If it works out, I may continue this way indefinitely. At least until I make one hundred.

thanks, amen.

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Ragtime Cowboy Joe

Summer was always the same in my house.  One by one, we children would go off to camp, two weeks at a time, until summer was passed.  The kids still at home would hang out with Grandma, spend time at local playgrounds. We’d sleep outside when the weather was good, eat popsicles and wait when it wasn’t.   Then, there’d be a vacation- the whole family on odd years, just mom and dad on even. It was fine.

Then suddenly, two weeks of hot fun in the summertime seemed meant for kids from privilege, kids who couldn’t make their own fun. My parents thought it might’ve been a waste of time- that perhaps we’d be too spoiled by adult led fun and games. Camp was cancelled, and we children went crazy.

“What do you mean you “need” summer camp?” My father cried.  “Know what Jan and I did for summer vacation?  We went to Rock Island.  We played stick ball, and read comic books.  That’s summer camp.”

“We went to Louisiana.”  My mother chimed in.  “One week with Mamma’s people, one week with Daddy’s.  It was plenty fun.”

It was settled. No camp for us.

He always sings

Ragtime music to his cattle

as he swings

Back and forward in the saddle

Of his horse

(a pretty good horse!)

A syncopated gaiter

Such a funny meter

To the roar of his repeater.

How they run

(pfew!)

When they see old Joe a-comin’

cuz the western folks all know

(what do they know?)

He’s a high falutin’, rootin’-tootin’

Son of a gun from Arizona

Ragtime Cowboy

Talkin’ ‘bout a cowboy

Ragtime Cowboy Joe!

It was my brother’s theme song that summer there was no camp.  He learned it the summer before, when camp was allowed.  It was written in 1912, and he had no idea that it was corny, finding it inspiring for a brisk bike ride.   He taught his friends the tune, and they sang it together as they rode around the neighborhood on their imaginary horses, which were really bikes, playing Cowboys and Indians.

The Indians, by the way, were always the good guys in our neighborhood.  I didn’t even meet anyone who played with cowboys as good guys until I was thirty.

Anyway, I imagine they were singing Cowboy Joe right up until the moment that he took a header over his loose handlebars and split open his forehead. Either that or the theme song from Starsky and Hutch. He walked back to the house with his friend pushing his broken bike, informed us that he probably needed to go to the Emergency Room, and waited for us to stop screaming to get help.

This was a couple of weeks after my sister tried to make biscuits, and started a grease fire.  Ms. Drier from next door came over, and dumped baking soda on it after the fire department was called.  Little brother answered the phone for my dad’s midday check in and stated, “Can’t talk now dad.  The firemen just got here.”  Then, he hung up.

Dad got home in what seemed like seconds later and told us we’d have to have fun in a way that no one got hurt.  And if we couldn’t handle staying alone for a few hours each day, we’d be grounded.

Forever.

A few days later, I was pretending to be a drum major of a marching band. No one was getting hurt this time because there was no fire, no outdoor stunt man clowning around.  No one gets hurt when it’s just your imagination, right?  I spun a yard stick from the basement, stomping all around the house while I hummed Stars And Stripes Forever.  For my finale, I threw the stick high in the air and did the splits.  The yard stick crashed into an oil painting my uncle Jimmy had just sent from his studio for my mother’s birthday present.

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

This trashed painting hangs in my office to guilt me into avoiding distraction

Dad got home from work, and said, “Sit down somewhere.”  My sister ran for a chair, my brother and I just sat down where we’d been walking.  There was no time to find a seat when he took that tone.

“You’re destroying our property, marring your bodies and ruining perfectly good food. Worse yet, you are pissing off my wife.”

“At least they are creative.”  Mom said in our defense.

“I think they’re just dense.” He said to her. And to us he said, “Do. Not. Piss off my wife.”

“They’re smart enough to know how to get back to camp.” Mom told him. And she was right.

The next year, we went back to camp:   My sister took a scuba diving exploration in the lake, my brother went back to YMCA camp, and I went with the Girl Scouts. All at the same time.

And no one had to run when they saw us a-coming.

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Take Me To The Water

Once, I was sitting poolside in a ritzy resort.  I was near my Catholic-rooted Italian and Armenian husband, and an American expat who’d been living most recently in Belgium.  “Americans are, oddly, the most religious people in the world.”  Said the lady.  We nodded, and looked for the pool guy who was expected to be bringing another round of drinks any second. ”What religion do you practice back home?”  She asked.

“We’re Baptist.” We said in tandem.

“What!  Baptists are crazy!” She shrieked.  “They hate everyone.  Blacks, Jews, Gays…. I can’t believe you’d be Baptists!”

“What’s wrong with Baptists?” I asked. She went on for a while but in summary, Baptists are like Amish, but really mean.

What she didn’t know is that I didn’t exactly choose to be Baptist.  I am.  Cradle raised Baptist.  And to tell the truth, if I’d been born Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim, I’d probably practice that, to the same extent I do now.  A person like me needs order, and tradition, and Faith.  I just do.  I know how much Baptists are loathed, and there are things I hate about us, too.  And yet… I am Baptist.  At Baptist church, I know when to stand up and sit down, and when to say Amen. Moreover, at my Baptist church, I know that I am loved.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below

Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Amen

-Thomas Ken, 1674

That feels like home.  As flawed as it is, home it remains.

When the invitation to be baptized was opened one Sunday earlier this month, my daughter said to me, “Can I go?”

“Go where?”  I asked her.  “We’re almost done.  We’ll be leaving in two minutes.”

“Up front.” She pantomimed walking to the front of the church, where new members sit to get their names on the church roll and be baptized.

“Oh! Yes.  Are you ready?”

She nodded and put down the sweater she had lying across her lap.

“Should I go with you?”  I was discombobulated.  Being baptized is a huge deal in our faith. It’s the ultimate expression of free will. But I had problems:

  • Her dad was somewhere in Iowa at a motorcycle rally.
  • She’s only eight years old.
  • What does she know about faith?

She nodded, and started leaving our pew.  I hustled behind her, and found her waiting for me at the aisle, with her hand extended.  I took it, and we went to sign her up.

As we passed the row my mother was sitting in I could hear her classic sporting event yell. “Yes!”

I looked back to tell her with my eyes to be quiet, but she was ignoring me, caught up in the moment of her grandchild joining the Christian Jubilee, “Whoo! Get it girl!”

The Good Baptist part of me was delighted. The rest of me was terrified that she wanted to sign up for a team that doesn’t have a very good reputation.  “Christian” people have done rotten things in the name of God spanning back since the beginning of the church. Killing, lying, cheating, love of money, generalized jacked up oppression…I won’t list all the specific examples here, I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. I am often creeped out by the atrocities committed in the name of God.  Could we teach her to be a real Christian, loving her neighbor as herself? Casting no stones?

I’d told her from the time she first saw someone be baptized that it was entirely her decision, and we’d support her, any way she felt moved. And so, I did.

She was Baptized this past week, and her father and I, plus her extended family, stood with her in support. She cried once she got out of the water, overwhelmed by the emotions that can flood a person rising up from the water of a baptismal.  She came to my arms, where I think she belongs, and whispered in my ear, “I did it!”

“Yes, you did.”  I told her, kissing her flushed cheeks. And then I told her again what I’d said the first time I ever saw her- her cheeks were flushed and she was crying then, too. “Welcome home, baby.”

Glory be to the Father

And to the Son

And to the Holy Ghost.

As it was in the beginning,

Is now, and ever shall be

World without end.

Amen, amen.

Hubbard Park lodge

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Swimming In The Water

When my little daughter was a baby, we’d bring her along to swim lessons with her older sister.  We wanted for her to be unafraid.  She loved it, and would float peacefully on her back while her sister dove and splashed all around her.  When people would ask her how she was doing that day she’d say in her froggy baby voice, “swimming in the water”.  That meant good.  If you asked her what she wanted to do, the answer was always swimming the water.  The pool was definitely on her favorite things list.

Years later, we put her in lessons of her own, so that she could learn to officially swim, and she was petrified. She’d stand at the side of the pool as though she’d never seen one before, let alone loved swimming in the water.  And because life without a beach is just odd, and she gets further and further away from us each year, we kept her in lessons until she became comfortable again.

And that is me, these days.  Staring at the pool, petrified.  Things that used to be easy and peaceful are suddenly not going so swimmingly. Maybe I’ve been out of the pool for too long, and I’m old enough to know the dangers of the deep end.

She's always ready. Am I?

She’s always ready. Am I?

I watched my baby from an upstairs observation deck the last time she took a swim test.  I was calm when she started out but as she approach water that was well over her head and she started looking around the pool, my breath caught in my chest. It was a very long way to the other side, and we both knew it.

At 6 feet, my palms were a little sweaty.  Why wasn’t the teacher next to her?

At 9 feet I thought, “Shouldn’t she have one of those float-y things?”

And I held my breath at the deepest of the deep end, waiting for her to touch the wall.  I exhaled, no one drowned, and I watched her swim back until she could climb out on her own.  She threw me thumbs up, and grinned.  Maybe she could feel my worry through the glass.  I was standing up – one hand pressed to it after all.

That’s what I remembered this week.  When things get scary, start swimming.  Looking around, considering how far I am from the end is not getting me there any faster. I know what I’m doing, in fact, it’s one of my favorite things!

I’d better go get back in the pool.

Thanks, Amen.

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