As I was thinking about Black History Month, the infamous family tree assignment crossed my mind. The family tree project frustrated me when I was in grade school and it frustrated me when my children came home trying to figure out the names of the family members to write on each limb the photocopied tree. I was always frustrated because many of the kids in my class who were not African American boasted proudly about their family lineage and they could trace their families back many generations. They would say thing like, “My family is from Ireland” or “My family is Scottish.” On the other hand, African American students were not able to trace their families back beyond two or three generations because the histories of slaves was not valued and documented or as in the case of my family the white men who willed themselves into my family tree remained anonymous. As a result, there was a incorrect presumption that all of our ancestors were from some part of Africa and people seemed to be alright with that presumption. It was confusing to me as a child and my confusion was compounded and layered as my children were each asked to complete the same exercise that never seemed to produce the same excitement that our childhood peers experienced after completing this project.
Despite the confusion and frustration, we always did our best to complete the family tree assignment. However, we couldn’t manufacture information we didn’t have available to us so our trees never had as much detail as the majority of the students in our classes. Every time the assignment was given, I would be a part of a conversation with the my parents and elders of the family about our family history. Aunts and uncles would report their limited information about the family history. While this began with some frustration, I recognized that even this project afforded the family a cool experience. The fun thing about this exercise was that we would always learn some interesting family trivia or a cool story about a family member.
As I recall, it was during one of these research calls that we learned that one of my mom’s sisters accepted a bet to bury live baby chicks in the backyard. After a gasp and a comment that revealed our shock, we were quickly told that the baby chicks were unearthed and saved because their parents came home and one of the kids who promised not to tell reneged on the promise and told. There were ten children in my mom’s family so I imagined five or six kids running around in the backyard when Mama Love and Grandaddy Jodie got home. My mom and her siblings were probably playing and daring each other to complete tasks like kids might do now when someone had the bright idea to dare my aunt to bury the chicks. I laugh now when I think about how my aunts, uncles and my mom who as children standing around trying to look like everything was normal when their parents got home with looks of guilt and nervousness on their faces and in their body language.
When my daughter was in middle school and working on the tree project, we called one of my mom’s sisters to pick her brain about our family history. This aunt told us stories about her school days. She said that she had to learn and recite the Gettysburg address. I made both my kids get on telephone extensions to listen to this story after I realized that my aunt, who I believe was in her seventies at time, could still recite the Gettysburg address. She recited the address for my kids and then went on to recite her high school graduation speech. She said that every student had to recite a speech at graduation.
It was during one of these research expeditions that we learned that the girls in my mom’s family had a reputation for being good cooks. My mom had older sisters who were older and more seasoned cooks. A woman in the community sometimes hired my mom’s sisters to help her clean her house. Often they would cook while they were at the house cleaning. After my mom became an teenager, the woman hired her to work around her house and because the older girls cooked, the lady decided to ask my mom to bake her a cake. My mom said that she figured it couldn’t been that hard to make a cake so she collected all of the known ingredients and proceeded to mix the batter with nervous anticipation about the outcome. Mama reported being nervous because it was her first solo attempt to bake a cake and the poor lady had no idea. My mom’s smile and her laughing eyes were followed by a gut wrenching laughter that left her sitting in the chair having to recompose herself in order to finish the story. As she chuckled there was a rhythmic rise and fall of her shoulders. All she could remember was that the lady learned a valuable lesson that day. Mama said, “I used up all of that lady’s baking supplies – her flour and sugar and butter and eggs.” Mama kept laughing and shaking her head as she recalled the fear about whether the cake was going to rise or not after she put it in the oven. She also wondered when the lady would discover that she was experimenting with the costly ingredients. Well, time did reveal all in this case and Mama learned a valuable lesson about disclosure before experimenting. It turns out that the lady gave her some pointers on baking and paid her for her day of work.
While the family tree project did not produce the expected results, it did enable us to document stories that might never have been told. This blog entry reminds me of the importance of documenting our special family moments. As older family members have died in the last couple of years, I have cherished the memories we shared. Moreover, I realized that we need to find ways to preserve the memories and experiences we share with the folks we care about the most. With the invention of the phone camera, many memories are memorialized through pictures, but I recommend that you write the stories that that are associated with the events because one day your family may want to know the story behind the smiles and laughter.