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The Prodigal Daughter Returns…Again

It was a busy summer. Busy but good. I decided about halfway through that I wouldn’t get back to blogging until September. And this post has been sitting in my draft folder since then. For the first time I couldn’t pull the trigger.

Let me back up a bit. Sometime in the middle of the summer, about the time I declared my blogging sabbatical, my father received a random email from a white woman in upstate New York via an ancestry.com account that he had long forgotten and was no longer actively using. This woman was the granddaughter of his grandmother’s employer. Yes, my great-grandma Mattie, a woman I had never heard of before, was a domestic worker.

But this time, I wasn’t the one telling the story. And that bothered me more than I knew. Hence, the whole post in the draft folder thing.

You see, my father wasn’t close to his father’s family. His familial world  began and ended with his mother, an Italian immigrant, and his father, a black GI. And so, my paternal side of the family is small. Two aunts and an uncle. Four cousins who come in boy-girl pairs. And a whole host of people whose names I don’t know and assumed I would never meet.

Mom’s side is different. She has eight siblings. And they have kids. And they’re kids have kids. And the elders…boy do they have stories. Every last reminiscent blog post or essay or talk I have given about my family comes from a combination of archival research, historical knowledge, and these first- or secondhand stories from mom. It’s a joy to make them my own.

But Mattie. This didn’t feel like a story passed down. These weren’t fond memories of extended family members. It was Mattie through a stranger’s eyes. Pictures of her holding children who weren’t her own. Her Lemon Pie recipe that had been annotated and altered by her employer. Faces of children and friends I don’t recognize.

And there isn’t a single person in my family I can call to make sense of it. To ask if they knew what Mattie liked to do outside of work. Who her friends were. Where she went to church.

But I do have an email belonging to a woman in upstate New York who I have never met.

It’s funny because even now most folks never think about domestic workers’ families. So, I find it an incredible act of humanity that this woman, sifting through her late grandmother’s scrapbooks and memoirs, thought that perhaps Mattie had a family somewhere who might not know this about her life. Who might not know that she was famous for her Lemon Pie. And she was right.

But I don’t know how to ask a stranger for stories about my family. It’s not a Saturday morning phone call with my mother. Even in archives, thanks to the magic of headphones and music, I can transform a library table into my mother’s kitchen table and sift through old photos like they are my own personal family album.

I’ve never had to ask permission. And so, another piece of writing in the draft folder. It begins:

My name is Shana. I am Charles Russell’s daughter. My father mentioned that it was okay for me to reach out to you regarding my great-grandmother Mattie. I was wondering…

I haven’t been able to finish it. But putting my feelings down here somehow feels like a step forward. Soon I will pull the trigger on that one. Once I can continue to recover from being stuck in the emotional mud. In the mean time, this marks the end of my blogging sabbatical. Gotta get back to making stories my own, rescued from the cutting room floor.

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About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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