It’s devastating when your mother moves on to become an ancestor. As a daughter, I journey through grief. As a genealogist, I tell her story.
My mother, Alice Vivian Dickinson was born in Harlem, New York, New York in June, 1919. She was the eldest daughter of Hazel Edna Weaver of Cleveland, Ohio and Frederick William James Dickinson of Hamilton, Bermuda. When my mom was a toddler, her parents moved to Cleveland to be near my grandmother’s family.
Soon joined by younger brother, Frederick and sister, Hazel, Mom grew up in the Great Depression when the family struggled to make ends meet. She was always proud that her parents owned their house and were able to keep it during those difficult and challenging times.
Many years later, when her own children would complain about what was for dinner (because frankly, Mom wasn’t the best cook in the world), Mom would say –
You just don’t know what it’s like to be hungry.
A true product of the Depression, Mom always had a well-stocked pantry and a humongous freezer full of enough food to feed three families. We used to laugh about her stockpile, but to Mom it was insurance against her ever being hungry again.
My mother was always an excellent student. She graduated a year early from high school and followed in her mother’s footsteps to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C. Mom graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Literature.
Throughout her life, she was passionate about Spanish and Hispanic culture and enjoyed practicing her language skills with a circle of bi-lingual friends here in Michigan and in Mexico, her self-acclaimed second home .
While in college, my mother experienced Jim Crow racism first-hand. It wasn’t that racism was new to her. She’d felt the sting of it in her own bi-racial family where they could only visit their White relatives at night in Cleveland, not even the deep South. But in Washington, there were separate facilities for “coloreds” and Mom used to tell us about how she had to sit in the balcony in the movies because that’s the only place they were allowed.
In 1944, Mom was invited to visit Detroit by former college roommate. She went to a picnic with friends and met Thomas Melvin Batchelor – a brilliant, red-headed, freckle-faced medical student who won her heart with his winning smile. My parents were married the next year in Cleveland, Ohio.
Mom and Dad settled down as newlyweds in Detroit. There Mom taught school at Spain Elementary and Dad finished medical school at Wayne State University. This good start to their life together, though, was shaken up by two tragic events.
In 1946, my Grandmother Hazel died after a 15 year battle with breast cancer. It was like she waited to see her eldest daughter married and happy before she made her transition. Mom never got over this loss and even in her nineties, would say how much she missed her mother.
Around that same time, my father had his leg amputated because of a bone infection that was caused by an injury he suffered in Detroit’s 1943 race riots. Nowadays, this would be something that could be cured but antibiotics hadn’t been invented yet.
Despite this rocky start, my parents moved on to raise a family and build a comfortable life together. Mom stayed home and raised us kids. I was the eldest of three.
My mother was devoted to my sister Paula, brother Thomas and me and committed to making sure we had a good education and exposure to a wide range of experiences from ballet lessons to scouting to art and music lessons. It is rumored, though, that she would leave the house while I screeched out songs on the violin and Paula plunked on the piano. At some point, I guess Mom gracefully accepted that hers was not a musical family. We still aren’t.
I remember my mom always telling me to be “tactful and subtle”. As an adult, I thought she was telling me not to rock the boat, to accept the status quo. But I came to understand that my mother was an activist in her own quiet way.
What she was really saying was to stand up for myself, push the envelope when necessary and make change happen with my actions. These days, I translate my mother’s words “tactful and subtle” into –
Walk softly and carry a big stick.
As her children got older, my mother returned to school to get her Master’s Degree in Bi-Lingual education. She also studied at the University of Guadalajara in Mexico. Mom loved learning about other cultures and traveled extensively. In midlife, she even expanded her studies to include Arabic and Transcendental Meditation. Boy, did we used to snicker when Mom went off to meditate. Now I snicker because I do the exact same thing!
My mother also had a love for the arts, music and fashion. As I think of her in my mind’s eye, I remember Mom as a petite and elegant woman who was a lifelong fan of the little black dress, pearls, great shoes, perfect eyebrows and her signature red lipstick. To this day, my sister and I kid each other about going out of the house without lipstick on.
As she described herself, Mom wasn’t a “joiner,” so her social life was less about organizations and more about family and close friends. But over the years, her affiliations included Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and the Cotillion Club Wives Auxiliary. Descended from seven Revolutionary War patriots, my mother became an active and enthusiastic member of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution after I became that organization’s first Black member.
When Dad passed away in 2002, we had to move my mother into assisted living because of dementia. In 2008, we found a wonderful group home called “Sierra House” in Warren, Michigan where Mom spent her last years in a loving environment with regular sessions of karaoke – her favorite activity. Here’s a picture of my mother during that time. She was about 91 years old.
On the last night of 2012, we had to rush Mom to the emergency room. She was diagnosed with pneumonia and a very contagious strain of the flu. After five days, she came home but never regained her strength.
On Sunday a week later, we were sitting with Mom trying to coax her to eat and she gave us one of her “looks”. Now back when we were kids, Mom’s looks were calculated to freeze us in our tracks when were doing something she didn’t approve of. And we did freeze. This time, though, my mother’s look had a different tone. It was a deep, loving and soulful look that said, without a single word –
Alright my darlings, it’s time.
There was no misunderstanding Mom’s look that day. She was telling us that she was ready to let go. So we called Hospice of Michigan, they came out and all of us together supported my mother during the week of her very deliberate and purposeful transition.
My mother passed away peacefully on January 20, 2013 – one year ago today. She was 93 years old.
On this day as I remember the wonderful woman my mother was, I think of Mom’s favorite Karaoke song that pretty accurately describes her philosophy of life. We had someone sing it at her funeral and it brings me a smile now through the tears that have flowed off and on as I’ve written this post. The song – Que Sera Sera. If you’ve never heard it, here it is in memory of Mom:
Thomas Jefferson Parker was born around April, 1878 in Harris County, Georgia, the son of Isaiah Parker Jr. and Anne, a former slave. Isaiah and Anne, or “Charity Ann” as our older relatives used to refer to her, were a common law marriage because mixed race marriage was illegal then in Georgia. Thomas was one of the youngest of Isaiah and Anne’s 16 children together and my paternal great grandfather.
The first reference I found to Great Grandpa Thomas was in the 1880 US census for Harris County, Georgia. He’s listed as 4 years old there, which would mean he was born in 1876 –
My great-grandfather in the 1880 US censusThe next time I can locate my great-grandfather is when he married my great-grandmother, Modesta Lockhart. I was thrilled to find this copy of their marriage license dated 2 March 1898:
After their marriage, I found Thomas and Modesta in the 1900 US census for Nance, Muscogee County, Georgia. Thomas is 22 years old and according to this record, was born April 1878 – two years later than what’s shown in the 1880 census. But I’ve been doing genealogy long enough to know that people just didn’t seem to age a consistent 10 years between each census. Often they got younger which made the census like a fountain of youth for some people – like Great-Grandpa Thomas.
Thomas’s family in the 1900 census also includes his mother, my great great grandmother, Ann Parker and for the first time – her birth year of 1825 and birthplace of Virginia. Ann died before the next census in 1910 so having this information about her as a former slave is an important nugget of history for me.
Last but not least, Thomas Parker’s daughter, Beatrice is listed in the 1900 census as a one-year old child. She was my grandmother and I remember her telling me that because she didn’t have an official birth certificate, this census record was used years later as proof of her birth:
After 1900, I can’t find my great-grandfather in any official records. It’s like he fell off a cliff! What I do know about him from this point on is from our oral family history. Here’s what I learned –
- Great Grandpa Thomas supposedly left his wife and family and went off to Oklahoma for the oil rush. That kicked off in 1905, which was also around the time his mother Ann died. I don’t know anymore about the circumstances of Thomas leaving but I don’t think my grandmother ever quite forgave him and she talked about that from time to time.
- After my grandmother got married, she and my grandfather moved to Detroit so he could find work in the auto factories. Grandma brought a trunk with her that she said her father gave her. Years later, she would show me the trunk and laugh that she didn’t have anything to put in it for that trip to Detroit. It struck me that while she might have been angry with her father over his leaving the family, she hung on to that old trunk until she was in her nineties because it reminded her of him.
- My great-grandfather became a traveling minister in his later years and went to preach in different towns throughout Alabama. Interesting because his slaveowner grandfather, Reverend Isaiah Parker did the same thing in Georgia many years earlier before the Civil War.
- Thomas Jefferson Parker died in 1963 in Anniston, Calhoun County, Alabama.
- Oh – and Thomas became a family name with both my father and brother being named after him.
Bea, that’s a mighty fine spring well you have in there. Mighty fine.
Grandma never said but, OMG – do you think he took a drink??
This is the first post in my 2014 weekly series of family stories as part of the 52 Ancestors 52 Weeks challenge. Sadly, this first story is about someone no one remembers anymore, someone whose name is never spoken –
Frances Elizabeth Weaver.
Frances was my maternal great-aunt. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio on September 1, 1905 to my great grandparents, Jennie Daisy (Hood) and Prince Albert Weaver who married in 1889. Their eldest daughter, Hazel Edna was my grandmother and Frances was the last child, the baby of the family. The picture below is Frances as a toddler. She’s already showing a bit of personality with that wry smile of hers, don’t you think?
Because my great grandparents were a biracial couple, they had family who wanted nothing to do with them. From our oral family history, I know that my great-grandmother, who everyone affectionately called “Dom”, was especially careful to make sure that her mixed race children were surrounded with love and affection – probably more than you would expect in an average turn-of-the-century family. I bet little Frances got the benefit of all that love and was adored by her parents and older siblings.
By 1910 when the census taker came around, Frances was only four years old. [see excerpt from the 1910 United States census below]. My Grandmother Hazel would be soon heading off to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Siblings Clara and Ernest were still at home and twelve and fifteen years old.
What the census doesn’t reflect is that there were two other sisters who died young – Dorothy Phyl, who died in 1893 as an infant and Doris Evelyn, who died at three years old only a year before Frances was born.
Unfortunately, Frances would die young, too. I hope she enjoyed her short childhood, because she was only eight years old when she came down with lobar pneumonia. It was caused by a strep bacteria – the kind that antibiotics could easily wipe out today. But when Frances got ill in 1914, it would be decades before antibiotics became a viable treatment option in the 1940s and why an illness like pneumonia came with a death sentence.
As you can see from the chart below, pneumonia, pointed out by the black arrow, was a major cause of death in 1900, but not years later in 2010. No – sad to say, we replaced that health risk with a greatly increased incidence of heart disease and cancer. I digress though. I’m sure that’s a topic for another blog post some day.
Frances’s pneumonia was complicated by an inflammation of the lungs called “pleurisy”. Those two conditions combined to cause her death on January 17, 1914. She was eight years old. Even though I obviously never knew my great-aunt Frances, I hate to think of her dying so young and of the impact of that tragedy on my great grandparents, who had already lost two children.
So I prefer to think of Frances, outside with my great grandmother, in this long ago photo. Frances smiling for the camera and so charming with the big floppy bow in her hair. I also like to believe she’d be glad to know that someone thinks of her, from time to time, and remembers that she once lived.
RIP dear Aunt Frances. You’re long-gone but never forgotten – not if I have anything to do with it.