Thank you Bell Atlantic!!!

It all started when the telephone rang… and I took Bell Atlantic’s advice and let my fingers do the walking.

I don’t know who was on the other end of the line, but I’d like to shake their hand, for sure!

There I was sitting between Nana and Granddaddy during what was supposed to be a ‘quick’ in and out visit. Yes. I really made the 60+ mile journey with every intention of saying hi, give a hug and head back home. Stop being judgemental. I wasn’t making good on the leaving front, though. Nana wanted to know about EVERYONE… so, I had to give her the details of each of the children. I was nearly finished dispensing with all the required information, when, as I said previously, the phone rang.

I’m not sure how things work in the homes of your grandparents, but in Nana’s house- you don’t dare leave whilst she’s on the phone. So there I was sitting on the couch, twiddling my thumbs.

I think I might have reached for a magazine (always handy) on the coffee table in front of me. That’s when I saw it.

You know I had to pick it up. The first thing I noticed was that Nana had written her name in it, but that’s not unusual, as she does it with all her books. Then I began flipping, nonchalantly, through the book.

I was just about ready to close the book and put it back on the table, when I noticed this:

 The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I knew those names. I have been researching them for two and a half years. I looked to my Nana for explanation, but she was still on the phone, grabbing away. My Granddaddy was no help, either, so engrossed in the football game was he.

I flipped through again and found a section of pictures. I won’t share them here, but just know, their stories are coming.

When Nana finally got off the phone, we had a FABULOUS discussion about our family history and the people in the book. And look and behold, Granddaddy even chimed in! He told me out of his own mouth that Rev. Tyler, who’ve I’ve long believed was an important Pastor in an area church (during the years of inception) was indeed the person I believed him to be. Nana also agreed with this. Though, it’s odd that two years ago, when I was going down this rabbit hole, Nana vehemently disagreed with my findings and Granddaddy was silent on the matter- only chiming in to tell me to look into his brother’s death, because they always believed something happened other than what they were told in regards to his WWII death.

I also learned that a particular set of relatives were steered clear of because they were crazy… I’m sure if you asked those relatives about Nana, they’d say she was uppity- so, you know take it with a grain of salt.

Oh and Nana let this book come home with me- a most shocking thing. Though she admonished me to return it in the same manner she gave it to me, no less than 10 times. I have a mind to copy all 100 pages. Is that wrong or illegal?

Well, it has been two days and I have finished the first read through of the book. I’m sure there will be at least three or four more reads, each time learning and grasping more of the stories to be told.

Until then, let me leave you with a few things I have already learned…

*The area where my family lives in Stafford, VA, is called Brooke (unofficial, but recognized by everyone who is a resident). But why is it called Brooke? Well apparently, there was a man by the name of Brooke, who owned obscenely amounts of land in Stafford and Fredericksburg. As was the custom of the day, Brooke was permitted to name his lands. Surprise, surprise, he named them after hisself.

The author, a cousin of mine, not only verified this information through traditional documentation in 1980, but also through the first hand account of her grandfather, who was a SLAVE on the premises when it all went down.

This book also talks about the one and only Pocahontas AND John Smith. Guess what? That encounter took place in Stafford, County and not near James Town as I  and others had grown up believing.

I am so in awe of this find and I can’t wait til I can flesh out the stories to share them with you all. Have you ever come across a unique find or discovery that opened a door into the daily lives of those before you? What did you find? What did you learn from it? I definitely want to hear all about it! Leave me a comment and tell me everything! Of course, I’d love it if you could hit the like/share/follow buttons too?

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The Dash

Generally, I find one interesting story to share with you that correlates with one or sometimes two or a few people from my tree. That’s what I do, right? I tell the stories of the dead. This adventure will veer from the path of tradition I have created, if only slightly…

Earlier this week, Monday, April 10- to be exact, John Thomas celebrated his 70th birthday. Or he would have, if death had not intervened on April 30, 1993. 

In any event, I would like to tell his story today. I guess therein lies the problem… John isn’t just someone on my tree, who I researched and am now telling you about; He was my dad. 

My dad and I in the early 1980s

So. Instead of trying to pick one story to entertain you as you take a brief break in your day, I am going to tell you about the dash.

Growing up, he was called Johnny. Spend an afternoon with his cousins and you will know that Johnny was a joker, who loved to have fun. 

Some of Johnny’s many cousins…

One memorable story, I am often told is when Johnny would pull all the kids around in a blanket throughout the house. I know this was great fun,because he continued this tradition with his children- even pulling us down the stairs! I remember screaming along with my sister and brother as my dad yanked us through the hallways of our house. It’s great fun and if you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend you do it right away!

At some point, this fellow met my mom (a pretty wonderful lady) and they decided to get married- lucky for me and my kids and Johnny became Mr. J. 

Johnny and Valerie circa 1980 something 

Mr. J was a neighborhood favorite. Kids coming to the door to see if Mr. J could come out and play was just as likely to occur as them coming to see if I or my sibblings could come out to play. During the summer months, he could often be seen throwing kids into the backyard pool. 

If you were lucky, you caught him eating watermelon or crabs- because he was always willing to share that deliciousness with you. 

Summer evenings were reserved for trips to Carl’s Ice Cream (you may recall me telling you that this is a mandatory bucket list item) with friends and days were packed car rides to Kings Dominion- whatever it was, it was always fun with Mr. J.

When the rains came and the weather was bad, Mr. J could be found playing an involved and seemingly unending game of Monopoly (probably where my healthy affection for board games stems from) or Tetris on Nintendo (where my sister’s video addiction probably began)

Sundays after church, Johnny would claim the most comfortable spot on Nana’s floor, where he would either be cheering on his beloved Redskins (nothing I could do about that- much as I tried), playing Gin Rummy with Grandaddy and my Uncle Bruce or sleeping- especially if he had just finished eating Nana’s good home cookin’!

As you can see, a lot happened in the dash. More than is written here and that I will ever remember. Which is why I do what I do- to celebrate everything that happened between the numbers on either end of the dash.

As much as I enjoy talking to the dead- I encourage you to spend some time with the living and create some memories that others will enjoy celebrating some day. 

I love it when you click the like button and share, share, share! Don’t forget to leave a comment and tell me what you’re doing with your dash! I can’t wait to hear all about the memories you’re making and the fun you’re having while you’re doing it!

The Other Side of the Door

I am not sure if you have heard or not, but there is this great, empowering and fantastic movie in theaters right now. This movie takes place during the 1960s and is about the first woman scientist with NASA and how she got there. This woman also happens to be black. Just in case you were unaware, the 1960s weren’t the most friendly of times for black women, as this was a time when white people (in general) were not the most social group of people when it came to interacting with black people. The movie goes on to depict the hardships the woman had to endure in order to get her education and achieve her goals. These hardships included having to learn outside of the classroom and on the other side of the door. As you might have guessed, the movie I am speaking of is Hidden Figures. It truly is an extremely motivating story for woman and girls everywhere. And the best part is, it really happened.

Last night, I had the great pleasure of going to my home town, where the local NAACP branch hosted “Hidden Figures a Panel Discussion”, where the panelists shared their stories of life in the community during the post-World War II era through the Civil Rights and beyond. To say I was excited, was a complete understatement. Did I mention my cousin and my Nana were panelists? Oh yeah. I am determined to get my stories one way or another, I swear. (If that confuses you, you’re gonna have to read back a few entries to understand, luv.) Anyway. I drove an hour and a half for this and can I just say that I was more than slightly disappointed at the lack of ‘young people’ turn out, followed closely by my irritation that the ‘black’ turn out was not as large as I thought it should have been.

An hour and a half.

When we (my children were actually willing tag alongs for this adventure) arrived, the discussion had already began. The room was packed. I carefully wove my way from one side of the room to the other, where an empty seat awaited me and my mom’s lap awaited the baby. There was also a door right next to where my family (all gazillion of them) had chosen to sit. As babies tend to do, mine began to get fussy. I had only heard the panel answer one question. My mom quickly gave the beloved baby up to me and I found myself promptly escorted to the other other side of the door. At first, they left the door ajar and I could vaguely make out the questions and what seemed to be mumbles of reply.

I was embarrassed and frustrated that my baby, who has gone to theaters and museums and been so well behaved, was being fussy and a distraction to everyone. I was frustrated because I had been so looking forward to this experience and the stories being shared and I was being shut out and unable to learn from these elders and pillars of my community. The more frustrated and discombobulated I became, the fussier he got. I was trying every trick in my mommy arsenal and nothing worked.

Just as I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be hearing all these great stories from the back vestibule area, they SHUT the door. What had barely been audible before was downright stifled now. I was fuming. They had not said anything about not bringing children. We were in a library meeting room for crying out loud! By this time, I not only needed to calm the baby down, but I had to calm myself down as well. I slipped out the door labeled “Employees Only”. Outside, the presence of another mother of a young baby greeted me. I looked up at the door from which I had just come and was struck by an incredible irony…

Here we all were there to learn about the empowering lessons the panelists had to share from an era when I would not have been able to drink from the same fountain as my best friend and the two of us had been quietly shepherded out. Mind you- we were not asked. And as if that were not ironic enough, we exited through a side door, designated for a specific group of people.

The enormity of what I felt is indescribable. I did not experience any real segregation and yet I could slightly begin to know what the branches before me had felt or experienced.

I finally managed to get the baby to go to sleep and stepped back inside. I didn’t dare go to the door and let myself back into the room. N0, I sat in the chair and strained to hear the musings and reminiscing going on on the other side of the door. It wasn’t until I coughed that the door was opened and I was asked if I would like to come back in, as if I had voluntarily left in the first place. I caught the tail end of the Q&A, but honestly, I couldn’t tell you what was said, so angry was I still. And who could I direct my anger toward? Nobody. That’s who.

Just like the characters in the aforementioned movie; just like the people on the panel; just like thousands of slaves who were here long before you and I were twinkles in someone’s eye- there was an anger that simmered just beneath the surface with no real release insight.

And so here is my take away… We have to do better. All of us. I am not saying that we all have to agree one hundred percent of the time or that we even have to like each other all the time. I am simply saying that if we are not conscious of the injustice that has come before us- even when we are in the business of educating others to those very biases- then we are doomed to repeat them. And honestly, do we really want to live in that world?

I don’t have any catchy questions to ask you guys today and I apologize for that. Thank you for reading- especially if you read all the way through to the end. Now go forth and do what you can, where you can (no matter what is, be it befriending the kid with no friends or standing up to a bully or getting involved in your local government) to not repeat the iniquities of our past- no matter what they may be.

Broken Branches

Go outside and look around at all the trees and bushes you see. I guarantee that you will see some broken branches, some twigs that have snapped off and even some limbs that look like they might fall with the next storm or strong gust of wind…

The same is true for our family trees- they just might not be as obvious to spot, nor as easy to talk about. The broken branches in our trees come in all forms, much like those you see on physical trees. For me and my tree these broken branches are found in the form of mental illness.

Understand that by no means am I saying that the people in my family tree, who have dealt or are dealing with mental illness are broken. As you read further, you will see that they are, in fact, some of the strongest parts of my tree- the roots, even, metaphorically speaking.

I have to admit that this will be one of, if not the hardest thing I have ever written, because it is personal and it is extremely close to home and yet, I have to get it out. I am not the only one with broken branches…

You’ll remember I started my journey into genealogy as a way to occupy my mind, as I was (and continue) healing from a head injury. You may also recall that what sucked me into family history, for real, was Horace- who was struck by a train, while walking to visit his daughter in the hospital… Horace happens to also be the first (of what will be many) broken branches in my tree.

I was having a relatively good brain day and my Nana had come to visit. I was excited to show her all the work I had accomplished on our family tree and I had questions, too. My main question was about Horace. I wanted to know who he was visiting in the hospital. I wanted to know what kind of man he was (especially since the newspaper had called him ‘beloved colored man’ and she was the one to ask, because Horace was her grandfather).

“I don’t know” was the response I got as we sat on the couch together. I didn’t understand how she would not know what kind of man her grandfather was. Sure, he died two years before she was born, but my children know about their grandfather, my dad, who went into the light when I was still a mere child and we all know about my great aunt and uncles, Nana’s sister and brother, who went on the great migration years (maybe ions) ago… So, why would she not know about her own grandfather. It didn’t make any sense to me and so I began probing further. Sometimes, having had a head injury works to my advantage, because I am practically given carte blanche when it comes to being blunt and no one ever considers it rude, so on that day I pushed the envelope. “Nana. you always tell us about how much family is important and that we need to always know where we come from and you don’t even know where you came from. You have to know something. Otherwise, you are just being a hypocrite.” I didn’t see it then, but as I am remembering that day, I can clearly see the hurt that stung my Nana’s eyes- or maybe, that is just the way my brain is choosing to remember things and interjecting how I would have felt onto her. I’m honestly not sure…

“My mother never really knew her father. He went away when she was a young girl.” My Nana explained to me, with so much patience and love and I still didn’t understand. I remember asking her what she meant by that and that what she said next astonished me, but most of all I remember the shut down that happened almost immediately after the next words out of her mouth… “He was sick. Mentally. And when my mom was young he was in the state hospital.” Because even I could see that there would be no more discussing this, I let it go- but not before dashing to my room to write myself a quick note to quietly look into this further.

After doing some research into the matter, I came to understand that dear Horace was in the state hospital very shortly after the Civil War. I have also done enough digging to have enough information to reasonably believe that Horace’s parents were enslaved and that Horace, himself, was either bought as a slave by a BLACK woman named Sally (possibly his own aunt) and continued to be labeled ‘slave’ or was made free after Sally purchased him. At any rate, it is Sally who raised him. It is with Sally that he is listed on the Census until 1870, when he begins to be listed with his parents. That is a lot. Especially for a child. So, in my own mind, I concluded that Horace had every reason to be in a mental institution. I never questioned what happened to lead him there. I decided I would not look further into it.

This worked well, until I began discovering other broken branches. All in my grandmother’s line. They were everywhere. Distant cousins, close cousins (here I begin to use the term ‘cousins’ in a very loose fashion, as not to disclose the actual relationship between myself and any living relative, who suffers and struggles with mental illness currently). These broken branches were found so frequently- it was mind boggling. And it became obvious that mental illness can be inherited and passed down the line. I think the old people refer to this as generational curses and they couldn’t be more spot on.

I started to take a more in depth look at all this brokenness. It became easier to spot the possible moment of when the break occurred in the midst of all the documents, stories and information I had gathered. It was murky waters for sure. It was painful, because it made me look at my own life in a not so positive manner. It was depressing and it hurt. My head injury stems from one of these broken branches- a real life snapping point for this cousin and I just happened to be underneath of the falling pieces. I have never blamed this cousin for this breaking. I will never blame this cousin for the breaking. Sure, I’d had anger, but isn’t that to be expected? But, here I was getting angry all over again and this time, I wasn’t angry at the cousin. I was angry with the tree itself.

Having broken branches has become such a stigma, a great thing to be kept hidden and secret, that I wasn’t prepared for the falling pieces. And, I’m not just talking about this cousin. I had to look at my own life… My dad died when I was 12 and my behaviors and actions that followed were horrendous. I spiraled into a deep depression and hatred of self. I was locked in a mental hospital for two weeks. I had no idea why I was doing the things I had done or said. Some doctors said I was grieving and we all grieve differently, while others were quick to label me as bi polar and others still repeatedly said I was a bad apple. But, what if my family had shared the stories and the histories of all these broken branches? As I grew into young adulthood, I fell in love and got married, but I was so ashamed of my thoughts, I didn’t know how to talk to him or trust his love. At times, I couldn’t bring myself to even crawl out of bed and so there I stayed. The way my home looked at times was an embarrassment and I’m sure a thread of the discord we faced. Eventually, we divorced and went our separate ways, but after discovering all of the broken branches, I wonder if things might have been different- if I’d only known what I was up against, instead of allowing me to think I was an isolated incident, wrapped tightly into this bubble of space and shoved to the back of the closet.

I remembered another cousin who seemingly snapped and meta morphed into a completely different person and tried to beat her child and infant grandchild into nonexistence and then days later, when the child and grandchild were placed into a domestic safe house, she believed and acted as if she had done nothing wrong. Would that outcome have been different? Would there have been such a strain on the family relationship, if we had all known about the broken branches?

Even more recent than that, I have had to watch one cousin struggle with their broken branch, which resulted in a baby being born and taken. I have had to watch the fight against governmental powers that be to bring this baby home and out of a system designed for children who are abused, neglected or all around unwanted and all because not one person ever spoke up and said beware of the broken branches.

And that’s the point of this diatribe, isn’t it? No one ever spoke up. No one ever bothered to connect the dots that were sitting there, numbered and everything, for all to see- if  they had just bothered to look. Everyone was so quick to clean up the mess, that they forgot to post the highway sign, ‘Beware of Falling Branches’. If they had, at least we would have been looking up. Not so much ready to point a finger at the slightest change in wind, but ever ready to jump in and say, “you are not alone.” Those four words can make huge change and have tremendous impact. Yet, no one (not in my tree or yours) attempts to calm the storm before it has a chance to cause the broken branches. This alone, is why I believe those broken branches are some of the strongest in our trees, because they whether it without any help or comfort from others.

BUT. I am breaking the cycle. I am pulling back the shade. And I say to those broken branches, “you are not alone. We will get past this. You can talk to me and most importantly, you can count on me.”