Friday, May 23, 2008

My Black History: Yet More Little Gifts


My great-grandparents, Mattie and Jake, and their children. My grandfather is third from the right.


I have written before (here and here and here) about how genealogy can be a hard, boring slog, after the first few months of discovery. What keeps me going are the little gifts I receive--surprise calls from long lost cousins, a hidden name on a census that reveals an answer to a family mystery, a fading photo of an ancestor found on a Web site, etc.

Last weekend, I got a huge gift. My cousin Barbara, who has moved to the family's ancestral home, and her family, came to visit, and brought with her a treasure trove of information about my mother's paternal grandparents. Until last Saturday, I had never seen my Great-grandmother Mattie and Great-Grandpapa Jake. They were just names, bits of old stories my mother used to tell. Now they are real. I know now how much my beloved Gramps looked like his father. And I know how my great-uncles and aunts looked at my age. It was a wonderful experience and I am grateful that my cousin shared these heirlooms with me.

As I have explored my family history, it is the women that fascinate me most. I guess because I identify with them and because I lament how history erases them. My male ancestors--I can kind of make them come to life with draft registrations, military records, land deeds and such. Women--at least in the early 20th century--can rarely be found in those documents. What's worse, their names change. Sometimes Jane Doe becomes Jane Jenkins and you can never find her again. (Another reason for women to hang on to their "maiden" names.)

So, I was especially excited to see my great-grandmother and to learn a little about her, like that she was a writer--a prolific poet. How a black woman finds time to raise 10 children on a farm in the Deep South in the early 1900s, and also write poetry, I don't know. (I can't even find time to clean the living room.) But I am glad that she stole time to do this, and I think it tells me a little about her. Her poetry reveals much, too. It is filled with humor, lessons that she must have taught her children, and honor for her God and his creations.

Great-grandmother Mattie was very "girl power." This poem makes me chuckle.


Adam in the Garden

God gave to the first man, Adam, a beautiful place to live.
And for his comfort and pleasure, a woman he did give.
At first they both were happy, as husband and wife should be,
until they ate the forbidden fruit that grew on a certain tree.

They were walking through the shrubs and flowers, their Lord they did a-spy.
They wrapped some leaves around them and quickly tried to hide.
But God called out, "Oh, Adam! Have you eaten of this tree?"
Adam said, "Lord, this woman bit the fruit and passed it on to me."

Adam stood right there in the garden, wrapped up in all those leaves,
knowing that God gave him the law, yet put it all on Eve.
So wives, you may as well toughen up; you needn't fret or stew.
Your husbands will always break the law and put all the blame on you.

Creative Commons License
Adam in the Garden by Mattie Rivers Millender is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.


And this is my favorite, because these are words needed more now than when they were first written.


When the Curtains are Lowered

When the curtains are lowered and the chapter is closed
on the life that you have lived.
I wonder how the case will be with you
who never had nothing to give.

Who never gave a penny
to help those in distress.
Who never bore a burden
that the weak and faint might rest.

Who never gave a piece of bread
to the beggar at your door,
forgetting the fact that the Bible says
you must reap just what you sow.

Who turned your back on the outcast
refusing aid to give.
When just a little kindness
would have helped him a better life to live.

Who never had time to visit the sick,
"Too busy!" you'd always say.
Too busy to visit a dying friend
and bow with him to pray.

Who never helped a neighbor
when he was out and down.
Yet hoping in the great beyond
to have stars adorn your crown.

Who heeded not the widow's cry
in her hour of dark despair.
When orphan children were crying for bread,
you knew not, neither cared.

Perhaps, there's one who suffered and died
who lived just across the street,
whom you could have given a load a bread,
a glass of milk, or piece of meat.

Oh, yes! You always planned to help,
but just kept putting it off,
'Til death relieved the suffering,
then, or course, the chance was lost.

When you were asked for a little donation
to help on the foreign field,
you needed your money for your own use,
so you turned down the needy appeal.

You, who talk of religion while
the people around you live it,
you'll admit that God's cause needs money,
but let the other follow give it.

You can talk about the pearly gates,
but you cannot enter in,
if you fail to serve your maker
by serving your fellow men.

Will God, the Father, welcome you
in that eternal home,
or will he bid your soul to hell
and never more to roam.

What excuse will you render at the judgement bar
when these things are brought before you?
When you are face to face with the many things,
the things you failed to do.

It's not the value of the gift you give,
but in the spirit in which you give it.
It's not the length of the life that you live,
but in the manner in which you live it.

When the curtains are lowered and the chapter is closed
on the life that you have lived,
I wonder how the case will be with you
who never had nothing to give.


Creative Commons License
When the Curtains are Lowered by Mattie Rivers Millender is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

I am but one of Mattie's descendants who loves to write. My love of writing, and any skill that I have at it, comes from my mother. My uncle (my mother's brother) is an excellent and creative writer. As are my aunt (my mother's sister) and her daughter, my cousin. And I can't imagine that there aren't more poets and writers among Mattie's many descendants. Maybe she is our ancestral muse. Perhaps she lit the creative flame that drives us all.

4 comments:

Erica said...

wow

Your great-grandmother had a real gift for words; those are both powerful poems. It is clear where you get your own talents :)

parlance said...

Those are beautiful. Thank you for sharing these.

NOLA radfem said...

Wonderful poems! The first one made me laugh out loud!

Pursuit Of Yours said...

amazing poems! please post more of your grandmother's work if you have any. Such a talent.

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