In my Jamboree posts the week before last, I alluded to a special mission I had attended to as part of my trip to Southern California. I took part of the time I was there to meet my father’s step-mother.
I never knew that my father had a step-mother, as such, until the last few years, or so it seems to me. My parents tell me that I had met her (let’s call her Miss Mary) at my brother’s wedding 25 years ago in Los Angeles, but I have no recollection of that at all. In any event, I would have been 29 years old at the time, and that would have been the first I’d heard of Miss Mary.
In the last few years, I’ve become aware that my father has kept in regular contact with Miss Mary, calling her about every other week and writing her from time to time. A few weeks ago, he couldn’t seem to reach her. She’s 94 years old and lives alone. Dad called me, quite concerned, and asked if there was anything I could do. I first checked with various sources to ascertain if she had died; these were inconclusive at best. I dialed her number on the chance that Dad had dialed the wrong number. The number just rang and rang without being answered.
When I tried later, it was busy. A final try got a ring, but no answer.
After consulting several geriatric and law enforcement professionals, I called the Los Angeles Police Department’s division station for Miss Mary’s area. I explained who I was and that I wanted them to go to Miss Mary’s address for a “welfare check.” The officer on the telephone said they would do that.
Within an hour, I received a call back from the LAPD. They were at Miss Mary’s place and they had found her “little dehydrated, a bit disoriented, but otherwise fine.” They gave her water and juice. I conveyed the message to my father immediately after I received it.
On the Jamboree trip, I had planned to visit the grave of my paternal grandmother, Jessie Beatrice Bowie (buried under the name Jessie Manson Tidwell), which is in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, a thirty minute drive from Burbank. But I realized that her grave will always be there (or at least for a very long time) and Miss Mary may not always be here. So I decided to go see Miss Mary.
Miss Mary lives in a usually quiet area of southwest Los Angeles near the 110 freeway. (That morning it was not quiet, however, as LAPD helicopters roared overhead tracking a fugitive and LA news media choppers swarmed around the law enforcement airplanes).
I rang her doorbell and waited. I could hear a television on inside and voices, also. When nobody came to the door after a decent interval, I took out mt cell phone and dialed Miss Mary’s number. I heard the telephone ring and a voice said, “Somebody’s calling me.” Nobody answered the telephone, so I left a message saying who I was and why I was there. Then a woman’s voice said, “Somebody‘s at my door. Let him in.”
A woman of about 30 years old opened the door and smiling, said,”Come in.” I stepped into a small but uncluttered living room. At the back of the living room, I saw Miss Mary.
“Miss Mary,” I said, “I’m . . . . ” She cut me off quickly.
“I know who you is,” she said curtly. “You your daddy’s son.” She was coming toward me in a walker, but at a pretty good speed and with a decent gait. Her voice was clear and strong.
“Sit down,” she commanded. And to the younger woman, “Get him a cup of coffee.”
“Uh, I don’t drink coffee, Miss Mary.”
“You don’t? Well, the you’re no friend of mine!” I actually couldn’t tell if she was joking or not. I sat down on her sofa as she sat in a chair across from me. She was wearing a pair of blue slacks and a pressed pink shirt. She seemed to be sizing me up.
“What on earth possessed you to call the police to come to my house the other day?” Miss Mary demanded, her Texas drawl unseasoned by more than six decades in southern California.
Again, I wasn’t sure if she was angry or not.
“I-I, uh, well, Dad was . . . we were concerned about–” I stammered.
Miss Mary cut me off again. “No, that wasn’t it,” she said forcefully. I started to protest, when Miss Mary held up her hand and said, “It was the spirit of the Lord made you call the police.” Her facial expression softened into a smile.
“Yessir, it was the spirit of the Lord!” she exclaimed again. “How else would you know to call Los Angeles from Sacramento to save my life? It was the Lord’s doing!”
Miss Mary had a bit more dramatic take on the situation than the LAPD had. She said she had fallen asleep the night before and had not turned on her air conditioner because the evening was cool. She slept on the sofa until the mid-morning hours. By that time, the heat wave had commenced in LA and Miss Mary was sweating and drained of energy. She said she couldn’t get up to get water or to turn the air conditioner. After awhile, she could barely move at all. She knew she would die if she couldn’t get up. She was preparing her self mentally for just that occurrence when the police showed up. The sofa being close to the door, she was able muster enough energy to let them in.
“They were like angels,” Miss Mary said of the officers. “I’m going to witness about this in my church!”
After these preliminaries were over, we started discussing family matters. Miss Mary had been born in Cameron, Texas, 12 or 15 miles from my grandfather’s birthplace in Rockdale, Texas. Contrary to family legend which said that they had never met until both ended up in Los Angeles, Miss Mary said that she and my grandfather had known each other in Texas. She said that she and a girlfriend left Texas in about 1941 to find better jobs in California.
When they got to LA (they went by train), they almost immediately found wartime jobs in a shipyard. A few years later, on the way to work on a bus, she ran into my grandfather, by then divorced from my grandmother. They renewed their acquaintance and later got married.
Miss Mary confirmed several details of family history that I was not sure about. Having grown up in the same county as my grandfather, she knew his family. For example, I asked her if she knew my grandfather’s father, Otis Manson. She said, “He was a white man; he took good care of his family.”
And who was his father? I asked. Miss Mary replied, “I don’t know. You know, people didn’t talk a lot about things like that in those days.”
The census records describe Otis Manson as variously mulatto or black. But Miss Mary’s declaration added credence to my father’s story of having seen a white man on a horse in Midland County, Texas, in 1948 and being told, “That’s your grandfather.” What she said is also consistent with my theory that Otis Manson was the son of George Preston Birdsong, scion of a landed Upson County, Georgia, family, and Matilda Manson, a free woman of color who lived near George Birdsong. [By the time Miss Mary was born in 1914, George Preston Birdsong had returned to Georgia and died in 1905].
Miss Mary pointed out that at age 94, she cooks and cleans for herself and goes to church. [The younger woman with her that day is sent out by an agency at certain intervals to check up on her].
Miss Mary told me the basic genealogy of her family, the details of which I had already researched before starting my trip. But you know, there’s just something special about hearing a living person describe their family when the vital facts square with your research!
It was a wonderful hour and a half spent with the most interesting and energetic 94 year old I’ve ever met.
Before I left, we took some photos. And that’s the saddest part of the story. It was a new camera and I wasn’t completely familiar with its operation. I either deleted the photos or never actually got them on the memory card. Which means I’ll have to go back!
July 12, 2008 Saturday at 11:30 pm