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: