Columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. reflects on what is lost when the last of a family’s generation passes away.
There were 13 of them in all, born over a period of 27 years.
Lillian, who grew up to run a numbers racket, was the first, born in 1906. She was followed by Sadie, Vivian and Virgie. Richard, a college professor and poet came next, followed by Paul, Vina, Annie, Edna and Leonard, my dad. Then came Ruth, Carl and finally, Mildred, born in 1933.
As she was the last to be born, a few days ago she became the last to die.
I wrote about Aunt Millie and her decline from dementia three years ago in this space. As these words are written, I’m preparing to go to Chicago to bury her. And thinking about what it means when a generation dies.
I have no more blood aunts and uncles. Not on either side. My sisters and brother and cousins and I, we are it. We are the “grown-ups” now. We are the family.
It is a sobering realization familiar to many of us of a certain age. Firsthand memory of the Depression, the war, the Holocaust, is dwindling at a sobering pace, disappearing one heart attack, cancer diagnosis and stroke at a time. But those of us who are of a certain age and also African American are losing those things, and other things specific to us.
We are losing firsthand memory of you can’t walk here, and you can’t eat there, of you can’t try that on and you can’t look that man in the eye. We are losing our exodus, how it felt to flee Greenville, Jacksonville or Shreveport on the first bus or train heading north or west, toting suitcases tied with rope and cold chicken in grease-stained paper bags.
We are losing that. And we are losing stuff they used to say.
Like, “I ain’t studdin’ you,” which meant, “I’m not bothering with you.” Nobody says that anymore.
Nobody says, “You don’t believe fat meat’s greasy,” which meant, “You don’t believe this obvious thing but I’m about to teach you in a very painful way.”
We’re losing “seditty,” which meant pompous, “ninny,” which meant a woman’s nursing breast, and “haints,” which meant spirits. Uncle Carl used to have a saying about the futility of “if:” He’d say, “If the worms had machine guns, the birds wouldn’t mess with them.” Except, he didn’t say “mess.”
We are losing that. And we are losing their superstitions. My dad almost had a heart attack one time when we were walking and I passed on the other side of a utility pole. Turns out it’s bad luck to split a pole. And every New Year’s Day, my mom served chitlins, black-eyed peas and greens. The greens were supposed to bring folding money in the new year, the peas, pocket change, and the pork entrails — if you can believe this — health.
Laugh if you want to. I laugh, too, every New Year’s, when we serve the same meal. I laugh and wonder if the tradition will survive me.
Time takes what time will. It takes the generations that shaped you. Eventually, it takes you, as well. Such is life.
So yes, I am mindful of all that we are losing. Not just their superstitions and words, but also their home truths and rough wisdom. Like “Use your head for more than a hat rack,” and “There’s no such word as ‘can’t’.” Like, “A man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” and “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.” Like, “Father, I stretch my hand to thee…”
You pass this stuff on to your kids, but you never know if they’re listening. Just as, I suppose, my folks never knew with me. I’m surprised to discover that I actually was.
Maybe that’s the blessing here, the sun lining the cloud’s edge in silver. Maybe the things they taught us are not lost with them, after all. Maybe they are only buried in us all, buried way down deep.
You know, like roots.