Delma Austin & Minnie B. "Idee" Graves
When I was asked to write about my grandmothers my first thought was: I’ll just write about my great grandmother, most people don’t know the difference anyway. She was such a force in my little family that, even though she died in 1973, her shadow casts down to my daughters and granddaughter today. But my second thought was radical: Suppose I actually did what I was asked to do and wrote about Idee?
(When I was a toddler learning to talk, that’s what came out of my mouth when I tried to say my grandmother’s name, “Minnie B.” One day she predicted that I’d grow into a very proper young lady and call her, “Grandmother, oh Grandmother!” with the emphasis on the “er.” Hell, I was waiting to turn into any kind of a lady, but in the meantime, I kept calling her “Idee,” and me and all my friends and anybody else I introduced her to called her Idee until the day she died and beyond.)
Of course, I have two grandmothers, everyone has two grandmothers, it just never seemed like I did because I never met one of them, and I know pitifully little about her.
It was 1959 or so, and I had only just met my father. I remember he came to pick me up at the cold-water flat where I lived with my great grandmother and my mother. We were walking and my hand was lost in his big, rough, mitt of a hand when he asked me what name I used for people who weren’t right in the head. This made me happy because I knew lots of names for people like that. I thought I’d pick one that I hadn’t used for a while so I said “loony.” Immediately I regretted my choice because he went on to say that my grandmother, his mom, was what I’d call “loony,” and that she had been living in a hospital for a very long time. Then he asked if I would like to visit her there? I remember being so sorry that I’d picked “loony.” Why hadn’t I said “insane” or “crazy” or anything better than “loony.”
Sadly, my dad’s mom, my grandma, died before any such meeting could ever take place. Many years later, my dad happened to mention, almost as if he could not stop it from bursting forth, that his mom’s funeral had been held in a store-front church, and that the only people in attendance were his dad, her three children who were his older brother and sister, and himself, and a guy his father worked with who did some preaching on the side.
My dad, who otherwise was a talkative guy and loved passing on family gossip even to one of his three daughters about one of their sisters, was stubbornly silent about his own Depression-Era childhood. When questioned he would only say, “We survived.” Or, “Still waters run deep…and muddy.” And then his childhood would be enveloped in a fog of silence that none of his daughters or our cousins dared penetrate.
Despite his recalcitrance, there was one story that I watched develop throughout his life. In the 1960s when I first heard it, he showed me a deep crease, across the bridge of his nose he said was a scar he got when he was two years old and fell out of a window; perhaps his mother wasn’t watching him, he didn’t know. In the ’70s when he had let his mustache grow down and curl around his upper lip and wore a dashiki and a black tam, he told my younger sisters that he either rolled out of the window, or perhaps his mother threw him out, because she went into the hospital shortly after that to never return home again. In the ‘80s he reported that he’d been at a party and met a woman who had retired from the very hospital where his mother had so long been a patient. Perhaps this woman even remembered his mom. In any event, she was able to get information and tell him that his mom had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Then, the story that my children heard was that he got the scar when his mother threw him out of a window because he was a bad boy and possibly deserved it.
Near the ‘90s my dad’s dad, Grandpa to his ten grandchildren, was on his deathbed. Intrepid cousins ventured to ask about his wife. My dad was eager to know if she had flung him from the window in a fit of lunacy. If my father was closed-mouthed and unapproachable about his childhood, he learned it from his dad who was closed-mouthed and unapproachable about everything.
The answer, one of the last things my ninety-something-year-old grandpa would ever utter, was that his wife had been hospitalized even before that incident. That she had been released from the hospital, and that’s when my dad was born. And that, no, she had not hurled my father from the window. My dad had fallen out. After that, when my dad explained the scar across the bridge of his nose, he’d say, “They say she didn’t throw me from the window.”
I don’t know if my dad or any of grandpa’s deathbed vigil keepers were fully convinced. Grandpa was a member of the same Baptist Church for over 65 years so I don’t guess he’d lie on his deathbed, but it had just become too good of a story to let go of entirely.
Not so long before my dad’s sudden death in 2011, I was on Ancestry.com researching my mom’s side of my family when I decided to see what I could find out about my mysterious paternal grandmother. Sure enough, there she was in the 1920 census of Springfield Township, Hamilton County, Ohio, a literate schoolgirl of 14. Her name was Delma Austin, and she was, for what reason I’ll probably never know, being raised by her grandparents, Price and Sarah Young who owned their home. Price worked as an engine spotter for a steam railroad. The census of 1900 yielded another tidbit: In 1893 Sarah and Price had had a daughter named Alberta - perhaps Delma’s mom?
At any rate, I inherited this picture of Delma from my father who got it when his father died. I don’t know the occasion, graduation or wedding, something important.
Now for Idee. She was my buddy, and I must say, that of the four generations who knew her, I may have been the closest one to her. Don’t get me wrong. Idee was loved. She had just pissed off almost everybody, or she was pissed off at them. I was about the only one with no grudges going either way.
Idee was born in 1915 in Russellville, Alabama and that pissed off her grandmother, my great grandmother’s mother, so much so that while my great grandmother was giving birth to Idee, my great, great grandmother went into negotiations with the mid-wife over the price of an extremely late term abortion! My great grandmother used to talk about rich white ladies tipping the doctor to do away with babies who had some deformity or who weren’t the right color, you know, part black. Then everyone would say that the poor little thing lost her baby in childbirth, which was sort of the truth. Anyway, according to Idee, the only reason she was able to avoid this fate was because my great, great grandmother, who had birthed twelve children and knew the value of a dollar, was too cheap to meet the mid-wife’s price. Not to be deterred, however, and over Idee’s mother’s protests, Idee said her grandmother tried three times to drown her in the afterbirth and three times Idee came up still breathing.
The reason Idee gave for all the shenanigans at her birth was that she was born out of wedlock to my great grandmother who was a school teacher in an even smaller Alabama town and risked losing everything if word ever got out that the schoolmarm had had a child by a traveling insurance salesman who dallied too long. Naturally, once Idee learned of the antics during her birth, whenever the conversation got around to her grandmother, she’d always whisper, “My grandma didn’t like me.”
Now you might think that this whole ugly affair bonded mother and child closer than anything else could have, but you’d be forgetting that there was still the problem of a thirty-year-old spinster lady with a baby on board. My great grandmother said she thought and thought and prayed and prayed until, she said, god gave her the answer. There was a very nice childless couple that belonged to the same church as my family. My great grandmother arranged for them to take Idee and raise her as their own. She called it a nigger adoption because it involved no paperwork. That’s how Idee got her name, Minnie B., Minnie was my great grandmother’s name and Beatrice was her adoptive mom’s name.
For seven years all went well or, as Idee said, “The Hamilton’s loved me to death. They spoiled me rotten. They gave me everything I wanted and kept me in white until I was six years old, the way rich white people did their kids.” Idee said she didn’t have to lift a finger - didn’t know how clothes got from the floor to the closet or toys back on the shelf. And when people came to their house and overstayed their welcome, the Hamilton's would whisper to Idee to show out and Idee knew exactly what to do. She’d start dancing and dance up onto the coffee table, and dance around and eventually turn her butt up in the people’s face and break wind. The Hamilton's would almost die laughing, and usually whoever had outstayed their hospitality would get the hint and leave.
Yes, all went well for Idee until the Hamilton’s actually did die, first Mr. Hamilton followed in close succession by Mrs. Hamilton, each after a brief illness. Then, it seems, the Hamilton’s relatives knew exactly what to do. They hurried and sent for my great grandmother to come get this interloper so there’d be no question of Idee inheriting. And my great grandmother did exactly as she was asked. She came straight away and collected Idee, but whatever one says when fetching the child you gave away, my great grandmother must not have said, because she and my grandmother seemed at loggerheads from that moment on.
My great grandmother, Mama to the three generations of daughters she raised, twisted and turned like the last leaf on a tree in the autumn wind, but the school would not believe anything but the worst, and her job was lost. Sixty years after the Civil War and there was still so much difference between the North and the South that her teaching credentials would not transfer when she moved with the other members of her family North to St. Louis. She resorted to day work, the term used for working as a maid in wealthy white people’s homes.
Still, Mama wanted Idee to take piano lessons like all well-groomed girls. Idee wanted to play drums in the school marching band, a brazen notion for a young lady in the 1920s and not acceptable for females for decades to come.
Mama wanted Idee to come home from school and get her lesson in the evenings. Idee routinely filled their one-room living quarters with her rowdy friends in the afternoon hours until Mama came home and chased them out.
Worst of all, Mama found out that Idee had been ditching class to go and see the traveling circus before Mama could even take her. There, Idee had fallen under the spell of a handsome young trumpeter who himself had run away from his Florida-preacher-father’s home. Long did Mama tell the pitiful parable of Idee pining at the windowpane, pulling her beautiful long plaits for the boy-man who had taken his pleasure then absconded with the circus. Long did Idee take consolation in being the last of her friends to get pregnant and drop out of school.
Idee displayed no qualms, no pangs of conscience about declaring herself uninterested in parenting and did not try to hide her very disdain for the child, my mother, who bore more than a little resemblance to the boy-man who was her father. As Mama told the tale, my poor mother may not have survived to mother me, if not for Mama stepping in to mother her.
Idee had other cares. She bragged the rest of her life about taking second place at the Dance Box. Too sharp-tongued for day work,
Idee folded clothes in a laundry and declared that she liked it. She moved out of the house with this man and married that man and was beat by the other and moved back in with my mother and Mama and would make drunken promises to her child that not only went unfulfilled but unremembered. She folded towels, never wishing or trying to advance. She argued violently and frequently with Mama and liberally expressed her disdain not only for her own child but for all children in the presence of her only offspring. Somehow these rows never stopped Idee from asking Mama for money or advice just as liberally, nor Mama from giving whatever she had.
In general, Idee carried on like the proverbial grasshopper who fiddled and chewed tobacco as if winter, nay, even fall, was stuff of legend. And while Idee caroused, Mama prayed – sometimes aloud – worried, and fretted, and upheld her side of past arguments to my mother who learned to always worry and fret and be uneasy lest some reason to worry and fret catch her unprepared to worry and fret. When days turned to weeks and weeks threatened to turn to months, instead of espousing the old adage that no news is good news, Mama would begin saving chicken gizzards and tails, Idee’s favorite chicken parts, and fretting to all who would listen that she’d seen not hide nor hair of her child until, once again, Idee would come tapping on the glass pane of our front door, grouchy and snappish if sober, funny and engaging if not.
Yes, it was as if there were two Idees. Drunk, happy, funny Idee drank scotch, looked down on bourbon drinkers; liked jazz - Arthur Prysock and Billy Eckstine, looked down on blues fans; knew almost everybody and bragged on her friends who bought houses out on St. Louis Avenue, made fun of the broken English she heard from uneducated blacks; bragged on her daughter’s big pretty legs and her educated way of speaking; had loud hurtful arguments with her only ally, Mama. Sober Idee moved quickly and surely, walked straight-backed and at a clip, and did not suffer fools or slow, indecisive people like her daughter. Sober Idee did not seem to listen to music, but liked her stories on TV, and didn’t even remember her favorite uneducated person whom she spun so many yarns about when drinking, Johnny. He couldn’t read or write, unforgivable; wasn’t certain about his age, so country; broke his leg and didn’t even go to the doctor, just kept limping along until it set crooked and his limp was permanent, whoever heard of such a thing! One time I asked Idee about Johnny when she was sober, and she said,
I said, “You know, Johnny, the guy who broke his leg and never got it set, tall, dark guy who paints houses. She flicked her hand and just kept talking.
Her favorite story of me, one that she told for her whole life, was of coming to our house and crying over some man, and me, a toddler, trying to comfort her with a tiny scrap of tissue that I’d picked up from the floor. She would laugh and forever wonder how I thought she could ever wipe her eyes with such a small piece of tissue.
Come to think of it, that story is pretty much the way it was between Idee and me. I had sympathy for the Idee I saw in front of me. She had not ruined my reputation or knocked me from the black middle class or argued with me or failed to mother me. She only lived with us between men so I mainly knew her as the entertaining visitor, always with a story of humor or woe but always something exciting. When I grew up I made Idee my drinking buddy, and when I had a car, my travelling companion. I could take Idee anywhere, and soon she’d strike up a conversation with whoever was around her. Often it would start, “You look like somebody I used to know. Did you ever know …” and she’d be off on a tale of this or that person. I was repeatedly surprised at how often whoever she was talking to actually did know whoever it was that Idee thought they looked like. Lots of times they’d be that person’s daughter or niece, or neighbor.
Yes, Idee was my buddy, and one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I couldn’t have been more helpful to her in her last years. Idee was poor, and so was I. Divorce had put me in the same public housing complex that she lived in. Just like that little scrap of tissue paper I gave Idee couldn’t wipe her tears away, now, as a single mother of two, my welfare check didn’t stretch any further than her Social Security check did.
Idee tried to look out for herself. Later in life, she had married a weekend drunkard named Lawrence and tried to play housewife and mother to his two little girls, all the while threatening to go back to work, saying, “I didn’t raise my child, what makes you think I’m going to raise yours?” But on a good day she’d declare that her predicament was due to god punishing her for not having raised my mother.
There was one problem with her marriage, besides Lawrence’s drinking that is; she had neglected to divorce Cleo, a fellow she had married and separated from twenty years prior. Her thinking was that she’d outlive them both and collect both their Social Security checks. Lawrence did his part; he died after a few years, and Idee sent his daughters back to live with their mother so fast it made my head spin. But that damn Cleo, he had quit drinking and moved in with his daughter and never did die! For all I know he’s still sitting at his daughter’s table well over a hundred and thirty years old now. Besides, it seems Social Security had seen Idee’s scam before. They denied Idee Lawrence’s Social Security, and no amount of appeals would reverse their decision, and there was nothing I could do to help her. When the insurance money that Idee had gotten from Lawrence was spent, she came to my apartment and cried, and there was nothing I could do. Then, that damn President Reagan decided that all the food stamps that old people like Idee needed was $10 a month. I got so mad I wrote him a letter and gave him a piece of my mind. I never got even an acknowledgement from him, and there was nothing I could do.
Idee was bored; she had always worked. Soon boredom gave way to depression and she began joking about suicide. I had to do something. It just so happened that a man named Pan Earth had just been put in charge of our community room and needed an assistant. He said that Pan meant love so his name meant love for all the earth. He hinted around that he could love me in particular, and I hinted around that my grandmother needed a job. That time I was able to do something, and a mutually satisfactory outcome was achieved for all concerned parties.
Slowly, I started getting back on my feet. I got a job and then another part time job. Idee’s TV had died, she loved TV, and I was able to get her a new one. We both had to choke back tears when she opened it.
Idee started having pain. It turned out that she had kidney stones that needed to be removed. Idee dreaded having the operation, but she was brave, and went right straight ahead with it. I remember, it was right before Thanksgiving. I brought Idee to my apartment to recuperate. At Thanksgiving dinner, we all went around the table saying what we were thankful for and when it came to Idee, she started crying, talking about how she didn’t want to die. I said, “What do you mean, Idee? The operation’s over, you’re out of the woods now, and I’m busy nursing you back to health. You’re not going to die.”
Less than a week later, Idee died, right there in my bedroom, right there in my bed. The last thing she said in her life was my name. To this day I believe that if she hadn’t died, I would have nursed her back to a full and robust recovery. I had her well on the way.
There are two things I know for sure about Idee. One is that my kids will never forget her, not after crying at the Thanksgiving table, foretelling her own demise, and then dying in the room right next to them. The other thing, and it was very important to Idee that I know this, she was not sorry. She made sure I knew that a few months before when she had joined her daughter’s sanctified church, it was only to get her off her back. Furthermore, she told me more than once that during the ceremony, when the pastor was going down the line of sinners, praying and speaking in tongues over each one them, then slapping them in the forehead to make them fall out in the floor under the spell of the holy spirit, that when he hit her, she just stood there and looked at him. He hit her three times trying to make her fall out. She said that finally she just turned around and went back to her seat. She said she wasn’t falling out, and she only told her daughter that she had accepted the Holy Spirit into her heart, so they could finally talk about something else! Idee made sure that I knew that she didn’t consider herself a sinner and didn’t need to be saved! If she didn’t like you, she didn’t like you, she didn’t care if you were her only child!
So, these are my two grandmothers. We had a whole envelope of pictures, but Idee took them off to the bar with her one time, and we never saw them again. That’s why I could only find two pictures of her now. In one she’s bending over, and in this one she’s telling me not to take her picture. That’s my great grandmother at the head of the table, who had just yanked off her glasses, and the disembodied fingers on the right belong to Jack, my mother’s husband.
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