My Ford City, PA family 1964
I remember the first time mom took us to meet her family. We journeyed by train from NYC to Pittsburgh where we were greeted with disapproving looks and whispered conversations by my
conservative rural relatives. A white woman mother to two dark skinned children in the late 1940s was unacceptable. She was often asked by strangers if she was the nanny, and when mom explained that she was our mother people would only shake their
heads in condemnation. During the summers my sister and I would spend days in the sun and our skin darkened due to our father’s background. The fact that mom was again involved with a man of color did not sit well with her backwoods family.
Her sisters would tease her that the next man she’d marry was going to be black. Overtime dad was accepted by mom’s family – winning them over with his cooking, charming them with his warm friendly demeanor and free haircuts.
Dad’s stint in the Merchant Marines during WWII gave him the expertise of preparing meals for the officers and crew as well as being the ship’s barber. The lessons I learned that summer were: don’t lock your father in the outhouse on
a hot summer day; stand clear of cousins or they’ll kick you in the stomach; and, always poke holes in the top of the container filled with fireflies.
I appreciated the simple
country life of my mother’s family and looked forward with anticipation to our yearly three month visits. I was introduced to story telling, Sunday school classes and the evangelist, Katherine Kuhlman. Bus rides into Pittsburgh to see her
always included bags of sandwiches and a variety of side dishes and drinks. We would get there early and stay late into the night so provisions were a necessity. My cousin Julie was born with cerebral palsy and my aunt would make weekly journeys
in hopes of a miracle. After years of surgeries and therapies she was still confined to a wheelchair. My aunt’s first eight children were stillborn, and Julie was her ninth. Sadly, that miracle never arrived but her faith in God stayed
strong and unswerving.
Each evening we would be entertained with stories retold by my extended family members. They would share my mother’s family history and photos of long
lost European relatives that I would never meet. Stories of horror and fantasy were always a feature, but my favorites were the ghost stories. One concerned my grandfather and his encounter with a ghost when my mother was just a few months old.
To this day, I don’t know the validity of the story but chills run through me when I think of the tale.
Summer vacations from 1952 to 1958 were spent at a small beachside hotel in Hollywood, FL. We had vacationed in Pennsylvania and Canada and Florida was a new location. I remember the first experience with racial bigotry
was in 1952 on our first road trip to the sunshine state. NYC was a cauldron of many cultures and nationalities living in the same building. On our journey we always took the Chesapeake Bay ferry where I found black and white drinking fountains
and restrooms. Of course, I asked mom, “Where are the brown ones?” Her response was to use either one, they’re the same. I decided to use both. I never gave much notice to skin color until our first trip through the
southern coastal states. Brother Fred was expected to help with the driving but he had other plans. After his discharge from the Navy he lived with us. Upon our return he announced his engagement to the girl across the street. He and
Rose had been dating and she had a car that Fred loved driving. Mom asked him why was he going to marry and his answer was, “She has a car!” I also found out later that she was also the first girl he dated who would not sleep with him
unless they married. So, they married and had two sons, Freddy Jr. and John.
Florida was paradise in the late 1950s. One could walk for miles on the beach and see
a handful of buildings. Hollywood was a sleepy seaside town on the brink of an influx of full time residents from the north. There are so many memories from those treasured years . . . harvesting coconuts on the beach, hunting for shells, driving
to Key West, tourist attractions. Our yearly two month vacations had a definite effect on Mom so much that she put a deposit on a home in July ’58. Needless to say dad didn’t like the idea from the start. NYC was changing and
mom wanted to raise her children in a better environment - and Florida offered her that opportunity. Dad's culinary experience would insure employment and begrudgingly went along, hoping that mom would soon abandon her dream once we returned home.
We hastened back to NYC where we packed a small trailer hitched to the back of the family car and journeyed to the sunshine state. September was weeks away and we still had to be enrolled in schools. That Christmas found us in our newly built home
where, for the first time, I had my own bedroom. Actually, it was the guest room – since I ended up sleeping on the living room floor when visiting family and friends would stay (which was quite often).