Every holiday season a make my way back to Illinois, to where I grew up, to see what is left of my family and some childhood friends. Since my children were born I would drag them along. This year they had the choice to come with or not…. My son chose not to come, but my 14 year old daughter did. She did not choose to come for the presents or for my gratitude dragging her to see all my friends, but she came to see one person in particular, my grandmothers cousin Ronald. Grandma had always talked about cousin Ronald when I was growing up and I knew they were very close as children. My grandmother rarely spoke about her brother, Edward. I knew that he had died when she was 7, and he about 14, but I knew that he meant a lot to her. In this get together with Ronald I finally found out just how close they all were.
However, in this planned lunch that was not the information my daughter thought she would absorb, nor did I. She came to meet him and hear stories of a fascinating man who had been writing down his memoirs and had been sharing them with his family and extended family. A man who went to graduate school with Martin Luther King Jr. and marched in Selma. A man that was a minister and a very modern one through out his life. A man who went to Africa and had his roots traced via his DNA. A man that was not only a minister of the Methodist Church, but had studied all of the religions and respected and had friends in every faith. I wanted my daughter to meet this enlightened man. The DNA tests reveled that his, my, ancestors originated in Africa, which initially I found was fascinating until he reminded me that we (all of us humans on earth) are all from the same place, Africa. We are all human, we are all the same, yet why do we define ourselves so much by race when it was just evolution that changed our skin pigment depending on where our people migrated to; Darker skinned people live in areas where it is hotter and sun is abundant. They get plenty of vitamin D from the son. Cooler places like England – the lighter the skin to absorb more vitamin D from the sun. So if we are all the same why any hate? Why do we always want to know where we came from, even though it really is the same place? Why do adopted children sometime find a yearning to discover who their parents were? Well in this meeting with Cousin Ronald I found that is what I wanted to know most. Who was my grandmother? Her mother? Our aunts and uncles? Why did they make the choices they made in their lives? Why did Edward die and Ronald live when they both had Rheumatic fever, which was considered then, a death sentence. Why did Ronald’s mother die and who was this remarkable woman to give life to such an amazing free thinking human.? A man that could not even share his good work and daily stories with the family because they just would not understand. They would have said things like: ” Why would he get involved in the Civil Right movement? Why would he poke his nose places where it didn’t belong? Why cause trouble?”
I have always wondered who I have taken after… and I think it is Ronald. It is not just by blood, but the fact that we lost a parent as a teenager. We just stepped out in the wind to discover, because why not?
When my grandmother, Ronald and Edward were children, the death rate of children seemed as if it was a a constant rate… It was “common” but the pain that came with it was just as painful as it is today if not worse. There were no support groups, and no one wanted to end up or have to be put in an insane asylum… So pain was dealt with.. families helped out those who had lost and that pain was put into a box. Most everyone knew loss. Some just handled it better than others. When my grandmas brother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever it was considered a death sentence. Period. He died at home. When Ronald was diagnosed with it his mother demanded that the hospital treat her son even though the money wasn’t there. His mother was a great strong-willed woman. That singular lesson could have made him into the man he is today, but there were so many more that she bestowed on him.
When Ronald’s mother, nick named Toots, was in school, It was common that after Elementary school (grade 8) many children did not go on to high-school. The state requirement was that children must attend until 8th grade. After that children were expected to go to work and bring the family the money. High school was optional. Ronald’s mother wanted to go to high school, but lost that battle and the importance of education was ingrained deep into her son Ronald. When Ronald not only went to high school, then college, then graduate school, the family was up in arms. Why wasn’t he with a wife, children, and a job already? It was status, and that is just what everyone did. His mother said the family would not understand choices he would make and she was right. Ronald honored his mother with his legacy.
Sadly in the news today terrorism dominates the headlines. Wars have been fought over who’s religion praises the right God or Gods since the beginning of times. Currently the Muslim faith is a target of discrimination because terrorists have incorrectly used that religions name for the reason they spew their terror. Jews were attacked in WWII by Hitler. However, I don’t think people understand that even not being in the “correct” Christian domination could get you persecuted. Wars in England happened over Catholic and Protestant. Kings and Queens alternating reigns changed which side was persecuted. That hatred was brought to America. Protestant and Catholic … the lines were drawn back then and you married your own. When my grandmother fell in love with my grandfather and he was Catholic she went to Ronald, the Protestant Minister to ask his advice. Ronald told her to convert and take on her husbands religion and in doing so their grandparents did not speak to either of them for some time. They didn’t even go to my grandmothers wedding. This was THE SAME religion. I want to say that we, the human race, has gotten more tolerant as time passes, but I really don’t know. Muslims believe Jesus existed. They just believe that he was a prophet and not the son of God. Both religions and the Jewish people have t same first testament. Why so many wars over different points of view of the same point of view? I feel I have gotten on my soap box here… so TBC
Ronald’s mothers free thinking and determined nature was enriched by a very important woman in history, Jane Addams. Toots and her family grew up in the tenements surrounding the Hull House which Jane Adams founded. It was a place that everyone could come to and learn and socialize and melt into the melting pot that America is with out hate or prejudice. So many programs we have today are in place because of Jane Adams; She pioneered Social Work, the first public parks for all children, sanitation, mandatory schooling regulations, prenatal care. Please read further on her: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hull_House
Fear: we are bombarded by fear every day as it is thrust into our faces by the various news outlets. The past as in the present is full of tragedy, poverty and sadness. However, we don’t spend as much effort acknowledging all the countless people that did good, that helped others. In reading about Jane Addams I see how she was influenced by her father and her father by Lincoln. My mind is blown away by how many people Jane Addams effected such as my ancestors and myself today. I have made a lot of errors in this life. I have done wrong. However, at the core of my soul I know right from wrong and that there is a passion in me to make life better for others. We are taught by many, even our family, to stay in “our lane”… “stay in our own business,” But thankfully someone comes into our life from one time or another that tells us it is okay to “get involved”, to follow our hearts. One of the things that keeps repeating in my mind is what Ronald told me his mother told him. I am paraphrasing, but in regards to him continuing his education, ultimately getting his masters and becoming a minister (sadly she would not see this as she passed when he was 17), “The family is just not going to understand.” They weren’t going to understand his path, his yearning for knowledge and helping people that weren’t just family, let alone a different religion or skin color. They weren’t going to understand the choices he made nor his view of the world, this boy that cheated death and survived the rheumatic fever that took the lives of so many loved ones they knew. He would not be following in the footsteps of the family of leading a “proper life” with a steady job, wife and children as soon as he was able. He would take his time. He would break so far away from the duty his great grandfather was instilled with, which lead him to provide for the family by emptying out houses in the alleys behind their homes as daily work to provide for his family. Ronald took a “leap of faith” that his mother instilled in him, and even though the family did not understand it, they supported him and housed him and was always “family” and treated as such. Even as time has worn on and the older have passed on, all family alive are still true to him, this great man of character. He was never able to share his stories of the civil rights movement and his part with the older generation, but he has with the younger and we eat it up and yearn for more knowledge. We are the future, my children are the future, and hearing good and bad lessons from the past are so important because it fuels our desires to be better. I want to do better than my grandmothers generation, but I want to honor how hard it was, and how much we owe our ancestors for making such strides in improving they ways of lives for so many.
My grandmothers grandmother was a baby when the Chicago fire erupted and her parents held her in the Chicago river as the blazed whirled around them. Chicago was now able to be reborn like a Phoenix after this tragedy, and even though mistakes were made and there is still very much violence in Chicago, it is better than it used to be and continues to get better because of the people that try and do make a difference. I encourage people to read about Hull House and Jane Addams.
I needed someone to tell me “They won’t understand”…. finally at age 41, I got that from my second cousins long deceased mother. After my fathers suicide I definitely had a “screw it, I’m going to do what I want attitude” as life is short, but even before his death there was something in me. I would want to do, and have done some things that was incomprehensible to others and I could tell that by the look in their eyes they gave me after I merely opened my mouth. I think I inherited some of Toots spunk! I have some great DNA. Research your roots. I guarantee you will be blown away by at least someone you came from…. Then make a difference so your great great grandchildren can be proud of you! I regret that I did not ask my grandmother enough questions about her childhood and her family. All I knew is her dad left, her brother died and she didn’t want to talk about it. I knew that Ronald had lived with her and her family for a little while. However, I didn’t know they were as thick as thieves and practically siblings. I did not know their day to day lives or her thoughts and dreams. Understanding when her father left and how close her and her brother were before he died would have helped me understand why she did certain things certain ways. Why when we were sick it was such a big deal. Why family was so important to her. Why she was proud to be a stay at home mother and grandmother and how grateful she was to be able to do it, as when her father left her mother had to work, she was left home alone a lot. When her brother died at 14 her mother used to take her and Ronald to the cemetery all the time or walk there and leave them alone at age 7. Secrets… every family has them. I understand why people keep them…. but the truth does set you free… and others.