From Aging to Saging
A sermon delivered by the
Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed
to the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto
on Sunday, 16 November 1997
Donna answered the phone when my grandmother called to say that my Great Aunt Irene had died. It was early Sunday morning. Predictably I was still working on the sermon. Afraid that I wouldn't finish, much less make it through the morning, she waited until after the service to tell me. We flew to Washington, D.C. When I arrived at 114 S. Street, the tall, narrow, brick row house that my family had inhabited since 1918, I raced up the stairs to the second floor, rushed down the hallway to her bedroom, and opened the cedar chest at the foot of her bed. Slipping my hands under the folded quilt I pulled out her diaries. Her strong, legibly written words were as close as I could get to her.
She had always been there. After I was born my feisty Great Aunt Irene, along with her sister, my grandmother and both grandfathers had converged on my parents' small apartment. A month earlier she had turned 60 and retired from the U. S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, so she was free to remain with us as long as needed. She stayed for two months before returning home, but I never stopped needing her.
I usually saw my Great Aunt Irene several times a year - when I was young every summer and most Christmases and the year I lived in D.C. every week. The numbers 1-1-4 were gilded upon the glass arch above the door. One ring, a little wait and great Aunt Irene was at the door saying, "Oh, my precious child." I braced myself. My head was pressed into her rosewater-scented bosom, and my cheeks were covered with kisses. Then I slipped inside to the familiar worn elegance - by the doorway a brass lamp that had once been used for gas lighting, the balding hallway carpet, great grandmother's rocking chair sat in the parlour next to the heavily stuffed antique couch. In the dining room a huge crystal chandelier orbited over the table, the cabinets were full of silverware, and the smells of ham, rolls and greens called me to the kitchen. I was fed. I was quizzed about how I was doing in school. I reported on my other activities. We'd play either Canasta or Scrabble, and she played to win. I was fed again and again. And I learned to be quiet while she watched her favourite soap opera. Eventually we'd end up in the parlour listening to her tales:
"My name is Irene Newman [and] I was born May the 7th, 1889. I was the sixth child of Mary Turner and John Thomas [Newman's nine children]. I was born during the time of the Johnstown flood. Oh, yes, it was a terrible flood. We lived in a three-story house and we were on the second floor. The water nearly came up that high. I'm not lying. This is all true that I'm telling you. The people had to move around in boats."
I hungered for her stories for she was the source of the most interesting facts about Dad and his family.
"It was about 1899 that my grandfather Newman's property was settled up," she said "and Papa had to go up in Virginia. When he came back all he brought with him was a shotgun. He didn't want any of the land and the only thing of value he could see was the gun. Mama was so disgusted she took that gun outside and chopped it up. That's the way Mama was.
"You know if it had not been for my mother, we would never have had any education. My father believed in putting his children out to work, and you were never too young to work as far as Papa was concerned. But there was one place Mama always sent you, just like she sent you to church, and that was school. Mama insisted that you go to school and if you didn't go it was because - you stopped." None of them dared, so all her children graduated from high school, and several continued their education and one, great-uncle Lloyd, became a physician. My family's expectations about education were clear.
The genealogy bug has bitten my father. In tracing our lineage back he hunts for death certificates and deeds, marriage licenses and census data. But what I got from my great aunt Irene was a living history and I never had to coax a story out of her:
"You see, Mama was born in Chantilly, Virginia on August 21, 1857. Her name was Mary Elizabeth Turner and for quite a while Mama lived with two white families... I guess my Mother was trained in the white people's house. She grew up with this man's daughter; they all came along together, you know. And everything that their daughter did, my mother did. I only know that she was well treated at all times."
When we asked who her father was Great Aunt Irene said:
"Child, she never mentioned her father. It was always these people whose homes she was reared in. You see in those days, children; it was slavery time. And my mother came along; she being a little fair child. I guess being one of the boss man's children... They didn't think it was so wonderful to have to be brought up the way they were - people came along and things happened. You see, Mama never, well, you know, that was just a period in my Mother's life that she didn't care to talk about. "
What made her stories so exciting was that, unlike my Grammy's edited and sanitised version, from Great Aunt Irene I "got the story" - very colourfully:
"Well, your grandmother met the cutest little trick in a Navy suit. At that time just everybody was wearing some kind of uniform. And Eleanor had a lot of admirers but when she met George Reed, that was his name, that was it. She had plenty of competition too, but she held very tight to him, and got her man. Yes, she did."
She also told us about what our father had done as a youth. How he'd refused to let his own grandmother into the house because his mother had told him not to let anyone in. And how he'd moved in with Great Aunt Irene after he'd had a big fight with his father. There is something comforting about knowing the foundation upon which one's life stands, and it is reassuring to know that your parents were once children who got in trouble just like you. I couldn't hear enough about what it was like:
"Now sit down and let me tell you children how it used to be when your daddy was your age," she'd say. "Back then Negroes had to sit in the balcony of the movie house. Of course, that was before the 'Republic' and the 'Booker T' were built and we had our own places to go...Did I ever tell you about Admiral Niblack's wife," she'd run on and, of course, she had but it didn't matter to me. "It must have been 1914. I went to work one afternoon and there my lady is packing and crying. I said, 'What's happened?' She says, 'The war's broken out. Admiral Niblack has to go to Norfolk, Virginia.' And she says, 'I'll be leaving the apartment and I don't know what's going to become of you.'" Aunt Irene leaned forward and her eyes flashed as she said, "Well, that didn't make any difference to me because I had already planned to take an examination and go into government, so that was all right. But when she found out that I had taken the examination, she got very angry with me because she didn't think that a colored woman had any business working in the government service. She says, 'I hope you fail.' And I told her, 'I can't fail. It's just a second grade examination.' Well, I passed. She broke up her apartment and I went to the Bureau of Engraving. Oh, well," Aunt Irene sighed, "you know, people have always been prejudiced, my dear, and they'll be prejudiced until they die."
That is how I learned about prejudice - not first hand, but from stories leaping from her life. However, I also learned about prejudice from her in direct and painful ways. Sometimes she'd snap "Where'd we get this black child from?" and I'd sit there squirming on the parlour sofa reflexively looking at my hands and wondering if she meant me. Now I understand that the prejudice she saw in others had affected her, as well, but back then I'd feel a twinge within, as I doubted her love and my own goodness. I wasn't about to say that to my great aunt Irene. Instead I fell silent and waited for her story to move on. All I wanted was to hear more of her memories and earn her approval, and that pining just increased, as she and I grew older.
When Donna and I decided to get married I told Great Aunt Irene before my parents. I knew that she would be pleased with whatever I did. Which isn't to say she wasn't critical. She'd say terrible things about people and fought with my grandmother, her baby sister, incessantly, but her barbs were never directed at me. Well, she didn't like when my hair got very long. "Where did we get these nappy headed children from?" was her usual dig. However, I was able to talk to her not just because of her almost unconditional acceptance, but also because it seemed to me she'd already done anything I might think of doing. She talked about going to Atlantic City and Manhattan. She talked about all the parties she gone to and the wild weekends. She talked about all the men that had courted her. There "Mr. Pinter, a man from Canada. He fell in love with me, just watching me," she said and there had been Billy Hawkins whom she had married. She loved him but he was always begging her for money, and when she found him cheating on her she ended it.
She had no children of her own, but she had lots of children and Donna became one of them when we arrived in D.C. five days after our wedding. Donna didn't quite know what to do with all that hugging but she knew she'd been adopted. After we became the ministers of the First Universalist Church of Rochester we could no longer make it to D.C. for Christmas, so when Charlotte was four years old we started a tradition of driving to D.C. to celebrate her birthday - her's was on May 1, Grammy's, May 19, and Great Aunt Irene's, May 7. She was 90 years older than Charlotte. Anticipation filled me, as it always did, as we wound south through the Appalachian Mountains in May of 1986. Charlotte had turned 7, while Grammy would be 89 and Aunt Irene 97.
We followed our ritual; a day at the Smithsonian, a visit with cousins, a big birthday party, and listening to Aunt Irene tell her tales. She loved to tell them as much as I loved to listen, and when we weren't there she wrote them down. I coveted her diaries and she told me right where I could find them if she should die.
This time some of her stories were about my mother who had died the previous November. "Child. She was such a lovely girl we were glad to have her in the family, and you know I told her mama that I'd look after Lee. Lord knows I tried." She talked about how hard Mother's life had been, and spoke with a compassion I had never let myself feel. If anything I felt ambivalent about my mother's death. My grief was entwined with relief - Mother was released from her pain and I from her well intentioned but reckless incursions, into my life. Great Aunt Irene spoke of Mother's health problems, of raising four children while caring for a schizophrenic brother and a failing father. "Mr. Edwards wasn't good for anything anyhow," she snapped and I winced. It hurt when Great Aunt Irene dismissed granddad that way because I loved them both. Finally she shook her head and concluded, "Well, I did the best I could by her." It sounded as if she'd completed one last duty.
The morning we headed home we drove down from Grammy's house to 114 S. Street to say good-bye. I gave Great Aunt Irene a hug and a kiss. I crossed the street and opened the car door. I looked back at her standing on the top landing of the two-storey brick row house. It loomed behind her and she looked frail, small and bent as she waved good-bye. I hesitated, began to wave and then knew within that this might be the last time. I left Donna and the kids sitting in the car, walked back across the street, bounded up the stairs two at a time and hugged her again. Now instead of my head being buried in her bosom, which was still how it seemed when she hugged me, I felt as if for the first time, that her head was resting on mine. I held her with a firm tenderness - trying to hold on to her for all eternity. If at that moment I had asked her how she was she would have given me the same answer as always: "I have no just right to complain. The Lord has been good to me. He surely has."
Early that autumn Great Aunt Irene fell while coming downstairs from the second floor at 114, and after remaining in a coma for over a month she died. Sitting on her bed I opened one of her diaries. It was dated February 12, 1958 and was addressed to my Dad: "My Dear George: Since I can not be with you I think I will tell you a story. Years ago you were always asking about your ancestors. I don't know much about them myself but I am going to start with my father who was John Thomas Newman..." Five months later Donna, Charlotte, Elliot and I began a sabbatical. We went to Switzerland where I had lived as an adolescent and later as a young adult. One May day I wandered up a mountain path until I came upon a red bench. Sitting there, I looked beyond the green flower-filled pasture at my feet to the serene Wetterhorn across the valley. My white-haired Great Aunt Irene appeared before me and I could hear her saying, "Oh, my precious child," as she squeezed me to her bosom. A burning sensation in my nose. A tear formed. Then, she faded away and there was my Mother's visage with her brave and anxious eyes. When she too vanished I felt bereft and alone. I put my head in my hands to shut out the world, but the melody to a spiritual drifted into my mind: "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." I began to weep as the infantile cry - I want my mommy - echoed in my head. I hadn't known what I was seeking that sunlit day as I walked up the road and along the little gravel path. What I found was grief, and then something else. One moment tears streamed down my face and in the next I felt connected, and knew I had been loved as I was, and simply because I was. I realised that my Great Aunt Irene and Mother were within me and had already taught me what I needed to know: to love myself as I am and simply because I am.
I felt whole as I walked down the path. I had wanted her diaries but the things that mattered most were within me. I'd learned about partying and passion, about prejudice and pain, and that my life and my children's were a continuation of her story, and most importantly, I learned about love in being loved.