Acts of Nature

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o1GrnE05aBA]

My heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in Haiti, dealing with the devastating effects of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the strongest in 200 years.

I listened to the news this morning on the radio in my kitchen while I cleared breakfast plates, the same place I was standing as I took in the news of Hurricane Katrina, 4  years ago.  My grandmother, uncle, aunt and two cousins were living in New Orleans when Katrina hit, but they’d had enough warning and resources to seek shelter.  My grandmother’s nursing home moved all of its residents to Baton Rouge in anticipation of the storm and my cousins, aunt and uncle found shelter as well, mostly in other states.  I was a nervous wreck waiting to hear word that my family was okay and can only imagine the anguish families and friends are feeling now as they await word from their beloveds in Haiti.  (Click for ways to help).

I’d actually been on my way to visit my grandmother when Katrina hit.  Warnings of the impending storm as well as scheduling problems on our end made us delay our trip.  When I did finally get to see her a summer later, I had a list of things I’d been meaning to ask her before another act of nature (a storm or old age) took her from me.

“Do you remember what it was like for you growing up? Do you remember your parents?  Did you ever meet Granpa’s people, like Tempy or Josephine and what were they like?”  Grandma Lillie Mae  was already in her 90s, could no longer walk, but her memory was fantastic.  Whenever I called her on the phone, she’d say, “How are your two babies?” and “How is Dennis?”  amazing me with her recall of my  husband’s and daughters’ names and the ages of my girls as well.  That summer day in New Orleans, a year after Katrina, she was having a hard time hearing me with all the other  people in the room wanting to shower her with love and attention too.  She bounced from straining to hear my questions to smalltalk with my family, until she heard me ask about Tempy.

“Tempy was our cousin,” she said, “Tempy and Al Smith.  They were famous musicians and they moved to New York.”  I of course was talking about Tempy Burton, my great great grandmother, but Grandma Lillie Mae revealed a gold nugget of information.  She’d been close to or at least knew of Tempy’s grandchildren, Tempy and Al Smith. That meant my grandfather had been in close contact with his cousins probably more consistently than the summer vacations I’d spent with mine.

As Grandma Lillie Mae talked about my grandfather’s cousins, I got a snapshot of what her younger life might have been like, newly married and beginning a family with the support of her husband’s extended and musically talented family.  I wondered if she got to see the Smiths perform on stage, but she didn’t answer this directly.  She just beamed when she described the Smith’s musical accomplishments, and I imagined there was a special security in being attached to her husband’s sprawling clan full of siblings and cousins since she had none.

I had no idea then that I would end up meeting a Smith descendant, my cousin Monique or how valuable Grandma Lillie Mae not answering my direct question would be.

What pressing question would you ask one of your ancestors if you could?

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5 thoughts on “Acts of Nature

  1. Just the other day,my pre-schooler came home and told me that a classmate lost a grandparent, who she said, was now in heaven to watch over and wait for loved ones. I couldn’t help but give her a big kiss and a hug as I thought to myself that she really is paying attention at mass every week. Then she stepped back as in a scene from the Lifetime channel, looked me in the eye and said, “I hope the Colonel and that brown lady are waiting for you Mommy.” It took me a moment to regroup from my five year old consoling me as my middle aged peers would, and then it hit me. She’s seen and heard every picture and story about the family and processed it, just as she pictured her G.G.G.G. Grandparents waiting for us in heaven to meet and greet. I now see that she’s fully aware of the daily Family Tree searches, contacts with Cousin Dionne, and spur of the moment questioning of Noni and Popi. She doodles on the eight foot piece of paper roll that I took from my older daughter’s art desk and taped to the dining room wall, and can name all of our relatives that have a picture. I’m hoping to find all of the answers before she questions me.

    I would give anything to ask my G.G.G. Grandfather if he loved my G.G.G. Grandma Tempy Burton.

  2. I would ask my father why he never told me anything about his family. When I was a child I always wondered why I didnt have grandparents,aunts, uncles, or any relatives on my fathers side. He would always tell me that they all died when he was very young and that I should stop asking.He would actually get angry with me so I would wait awile before asking again. I am an interracial sixty six year old woman born of an African American father and an Italian immigrant mother.I knew my mothers family very well but Daddy’s side was invisable.All my life I struggled to find my Black idenity but it was so hard because I was raised in an Italian culture and that is all I knew.
    All I knew untill two months ago!! I had found a little information and told my daughter Monique. She went on Ancestry.Com and all of a sudden I had names of my grandparents and all family members. Of course they have all passed away but I had names!!Eliza,David,and Margie were all real people and they belonged to me!!!! I dont think I could ever put into words what this meant to me but it gave me somethng I needed all my life. It gave me an identity. I truly belong to someone.
    In my mind I have come to know my new family and picture them in my head. My grandmother Margie is my favorite because my father used to tell me I looked just like her.This makes it easier for me to relate to her. I call her “MY LITTLE MARGIE” wish I had the chance to have met her.
    I will thank my daughter till the day I die for giving me this wonderful gift.I have always said that before I died I had to find that missing part of me and now I have! I am whole thanks to Monique and all her support.

  3. I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your journey with us. I love checking your blog and watching how you weave together all of the pieces of your family into a beautiful tapestry. It is very inspirational and you are a gifted writer.

  4. The one person I would ask questions of would be Johanna Smith Blount my father’s great great-grandmother whose name neither he nor I knew before setting out on this journey to answered his question and desire to know “From Whom We Came.”

    I would ask Grandmother Johanna where were you born, who are your parents? How did you come to the James family? How were you able to purchase the 40-aches of land transferred from Matthew James to you in 1854 and placed in his mother’s name because of the laws of the land.

    Another question would be where in Louisiana did Granddad (your husband) Samuel Smith die and was he related to Edgar Smith who came to Ocean Springs with the James family. These are but a few of the questions I would ask, there are many more.

    Late one night in 2006 while thinking about Johanna’s life and death, scenes appeared before my eyes as I pictured this in my mind, which I now call:

    “A Tribute To Johanna”

    At the time of her death, her spirit rose above the house built on the forty acres of land she had owned for forty-six years, legally some twenty- years. Johanna’s spirit floated over the land she had lived and toil on, over the land she had bought while still enslaved by the James family. Johanna passed over land others tried to take from her by claiming ownership. As she came to the homes of her children, she lingered but for a moment, praying that future generations will come to know her, the life she had lived. Over and around the homes of her descendants she floated until her spirit joined all those who had gone before her.

    As, I gazed into the night sky, I knew in my heart she was looking down please to know some one hundred and four years after her death she lives again. She is no longer an unknown to the children of her children’s children and their children. They will know she went
    ‘From the Big House, to Johanna’s House, to a Street Named Blount’

    Johanna Smith Blount’s body was, laid to rest at Evergreen Cemetery in the Old Fort Bayou community of Ocean Springs, Jackson County, Mississippi.

  5. What an inspiring woman Johanna was. How empowering that she was able to own some of the land that she once work in enslavement. It’s nice to know that our people are keeping each other company in their eternal rest at Evergreen Cemetery.

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