As part of my birthday month celebration, I’ve selected songs tied to a particular time and place, or occasionally multiple times and places, in my life. I associate these with my mom and my dad.
I wish I could find a recording of Be Kind To Your Parents that sounds like the pink vinyl we had growing up, possibly from Peter Pan Records. My sister Leslie and I would sing it to our parents, and I sang it to my daughter. Here’s Florence Henderson singing it, not as perkily as I remember it.
I’ve noted my father’s vinyl collection growing up, music I listened to in our living room. Of all his singles, Forty-Five Men In A Telephone Booth by The Four Tophatters is the one I most loved. I bought a compilation album mainly for this one track. We listened on a brown squarish record player that played at 78, 45, and 33. To listen to the 45s, one had to put an adapter on the turntable.
My mother, sisters, and I went to see West Side Story in a second run, probably at the Riviera or Strand Theater on Chenango Street in Binghamton. My baby sister was young enough that the ticket seller questioned whether she should be allowed to see the movie. When I heard Quintet, I thought, “I didn’t know you could have two competing melodies like that!”
My father owned an album by Joan Baez, a “best of” from 1963(!). One of the songs the Green Family Singers performed was this version of So Soon In The Morning, which featured Bill Wood. Leslie and I sang it at my 50th birthday party. My friend Laura and I sang it at my former church in the 1990s.
What is he listening to?
My mother came home from the grocery store. I went to the car to help haul in the food. When I returned to the living room, the stereo, playing the eponymous Vanilla Fudge album, was turned off. My mom said, “The record player must be broken. The song kept getting louder!” No, it was just the crescendo at the end of Take Me For A Little While, which retreated sonically in short order.
I was listening to the Tommy album by The Who. The last track, We’re Not Gonna Take It, was on. My father was in the room, reading the newspaper, I think. When he heard the lyrics, “We forsake you, Gonna rape you, Let’s forget you better still,” he peered over the paper with a look that said, “What IS that boy listening to?” But he said nothing.
Among the tales I heard about my mother was that she was born with a veil in November 1927. What’s that? According to this article: An en caul birth — or veiled birth, “as they’re also referred to -… [are] incredibly rare… where the baby is born encased in their amniotic sac.” It is a medical anomaly, estimated to occur “in less than one out of 80,000 live births.”
That’s somewhat interesting but nearly as much as the other part. “As is the case with many rare events, en caul births are thought to be a sign of good fortune…
“Susan B. Martinez, author and paranormal researcher with a doctorate in anthropology, writes: ‘The veil, it was believed…, protects its bearer against danger; thus was it superstitiously gathered and preserved as a valuable charm against malevolent spirits. The caul… made one ‘special,’ even destined for greatness.'”
Apparently, the veil was broken, and my mother was happy and relieved about this. She did not want the power.
Her mother, Gert, was very much into fortune-telling and the occult. Yet Gert sent her daughter to the Oak Street Methodist Church. My sisters and I were musing on why. Maybe it was socialization, or perhaps it was to keep the child occupied for a few hours while the mother delved into the dark arts. Of course, we have no way of knowing.
Yet there were at least a couple of times when my mother experienced unexplainable phenomena. One was when a voice told her to stop the car, which avoided an accident.
Another time, I wrote in 2015 about the house my mother grew up in. “I DID need the space heater… and the colorful quilt that kept me from freezing.
“One night in February , I woke up with a start. The quilt had caught fire, having fallen on the space heater. It generated an acrid stretch, which might have killed me if the fire, which I could somehow smother, hadn’t.
“A day or two later, I called my mom in North Carolina and told her this story. And she told me that she knew this had happened. She woke up from a dream or a vision, she called me mentally to wake up, and I did. This is NOT the type of tale my mother generally told, so I believed her, believe her still.”
For someone who attended church for decades, my mom had an odd lack of theological curiosity about her faith. When sister Leslie asked her what she thought “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” meant to her, she really didn’t seem to have an idea. My more pointed questions about her declaration that she just “followed the Ten Commandments” were without much context. Yet she attended Bible study reasonably often.
Moreover, she was highly active in the church both in Binghamton, NY, and later in Charlotte, NC. She was very sociable and sought responsible positions in the congregation.
My mom passed away a dozen years ago today, and yet she as much an enigma to me as she was the day she died.
It occurred to me that I’ve written a few times about my paternal grandma Agatha Green. For instance, here and here and especially here. I am reminded that she was born 120 years ago on July 26.
I’ve written far less about my maternal grandma Gertrude Williams, born August 10, 125 years ago. I think it’s because my relationship with her was more… complicated. She was born Gertrude Elizabeth Yates, daughter of Edward Yates and Lilian Bell Archer. For the longest time, even my mother believed she was born in 1898. I always remembered it because it was the year of the Spanish-American War.
Then one day in the mid-1960s, she went to register to vote. Unwilling to lie to a government official, she confessed her true age.
I thought Gert grew up in the house my mother always lived in until mom got married. But in the 1905 New York State Census in Binghamton, NY, she lived at 53 Sherman Place, a street razed c. 1960 to build a park near 45 Carroll Street. By 1910, she lived at 13 Maple Street with her parents and her younger siblings, Edward, Ernest, and Adina, or Deana as everyone called her. Gert had an older sister who had died before she was born.
In March 1912, her father died. Yet, in July of that same year, her mother Lillian married a guy named Maurice Holland, a guy from either Texas or Mexico, depending on which subsequent Census you believe.
In the 1920 Census, the household was Harriet Archer (Lillian’s widowed mother), Lillian, Maurice, and Lillian’s four children. Gert, now 22, was working as a maid.
My mom enters the picture
Gertrude married a guy named Clarence Williams around 1927, and they had a child named Gertrude. (She will hereafter be referred to as Trudy to avoid confusion.) And they had a second child, who did not live long and died in early 1929.
In the 1930 Census, the household consisted of Lillian and Maurice; Gertrude, Edward, and Deana, Ernie having moved out; a nephew of Lillian named Edward Archer, 17; and my mother Trudy, 2. Here is a picture of Gert with her mother, sister, and daughter.
But where’s Clarence? Fuzzy gossip suggested that Lillian and maybe even Harriet (d. 1928) drove him away. I never got the real story. Gert is 32 and working as a servant.
By the 1940 Census, the residents were Maurice (Lillian d. 1938), Gert, Edward, Deana, and Trudy. Gert only had a 6th-grade education, and she was working as a housekeeper.
My sister has many undated pictures of people visiting 13 Maple Street, eating in the not-very-large backyard. So it was some sort of cultural mecca. What was THAT all about?
I’ve just seen the 1950 Census
It shows Edward, 47, as head of household, naturally(!), because he was the eldest male; he was a truck driver. Adenia, 42, was a stitcher. Gert, 52, was now listed as separated from Clarence (d. 1958) and not working outside the home. Trudy, 22, is a shipping clerk. She married Les Green, 23, on March 12, 1950; he was a cleaner doing remodeling work.
Eventually, in 1950, my parents-to-be moved into 5 Gaines Street, about six blocks away. It was owned by Gert and presumably her siblings.
I enter the picture
I was born in 1953. In 1958, when I was going to kindergarten, I was supposed to attend Oak Street School. Since my mother worked outside the home, at McLean’s department store, it was determined that 13 Maple Street would be my school address so that I could go there at lunch and after school, tended to by Gert and Deana. Ed had moved out by then.
Deana was cool. We’d play 500 rummy and Scrabble. I taught her canasta, which Grandma Green had shown me.
Gert was a pain. She would tell stories, but it was difficult following them or believing how much, if any, was true. She would indicate that we should not go near this person, who turned out to be a relative. Worse, she forbid her adult daughter and us to see her brother Ed because he was living with a woman, Edna, who was not his wife. After Ed died in 1970, my strongest memory was of Gert and Edna crying on each other’s shoulders at the funeral.
There were “bad men” lurking in the Oak Street underpass, we were told. The boogie man existed. When I washed the dishes, which I did at home regularly, she told me I shouldn’t because it wasn’t manly. This was one of the several times that Deana said to Gert, “Leave the boy alone!” When Deana died in 1966, I was devastated.
My mother was in a tug-of-war between her mother and her husband, which I alluded to here. Dad clearly did not like Gert. One time, we were having dinner, and someone asked Gert if she wanted some peas. She said, “I’ll have a couple.” My father put two peas on her plate. It was shocking and bite-your-lip funny and may explain why I can be such a literalist.
Mom’s first cousin Frances Beal, Ernie’s daughter, tells a Gert story here, in the fifth paragraph from the end.
When my parents and baby sister Marcia moved to Charlotte, NC, it became clear to everyone except Gert that Gert needed to move down with her daughter and son-in-law. She had a coal stove, which required going to the basement to shovel the coal into pails and carry it up rickety steps. I did this a lot as a kid, which I oddly enjoyed.
It was the task of sister Leslie and me to take Gert to Charlotte. She railed against it. Where would she get stockings? “They sell stockings in North Carolina.”
She lived in Charlotte until she died on Super Bowl Sunday in 1982. She was cremated in Charlotte but buried at Spring Forest Cemetery in Binghamton, less than 100 meters from 13 Maple Street.
I did love Gert, I believe. But I didn’t always like her.
This week’s Sunday Stealing is called Personal History, an interesting topic.
1. What would you like people to know about your mother?
I was thinking about this a lot this week. My father was the more outgoing and visible member of the couple. But I doubt they would have been been able to pay the bills if it wasn’t for my mom.
She was a bookkeeper at McLean’s Department Store in Binghamton, NY, then worked at Columbia Gas, not even a block away. When she moved to Charlotte, NC, she was a teller at First Union Bank, which eventually was swallowed by Wells Fargo. I probably got my love of numbers from her. When I told her we were learning base 2, which we were told was the basis of computers, she was clearly excited.
2. What would you like people to know about your father?
I’ll be writing about him on August 10, the anniversary of his death. My eclectic taste in music started with him.
3. What was your childhood bedroom like?
HA! After my second sister was born, my father put up two walls in the dining room, built a wooden shelf into the two walls, then put a mattress on top of that. My storage was under the “bed,” though my books were around the corner on a bookcase. My dad painted the solar system on the ceiling.
4. What was your favorite activity as a child?
Alone: playing with my baseball cards. With others: playing softball/baseball/kickball. And singing.
5. What was high school like for you?
When we first got there, there was a certain hostility from some because my friends were identified as against the Vietnam war. But by the time I graduated, most of the school was against the war. I was on the stage crew and president of the Red Cross club. I was also president of the student government, which is how I sort of got to introduce Rod Serling.
6. Write about your cousins.
I have no first cousins. My parents were only children. Well, essentially. My mom had a younger sister who died as an infant. So my cousins were my mother’s cousin’s kids who lived in NYC and were a decade or more younger than I. Still, aside from my sisters and their daughters, they’re the closest relatives outside my nuclear household.
7. What was your favorite food as a child?
Spinach. Totally indoctrinated by Popeye.
8. What was your most memorable birthday?
My 16th was held at the American Civic Association, so it was a real party. Lois, who I’ve known since kindergarten, gave me Judy Collins’ album Who Knows Where The Time Goes. She was afraid it might be too country for me; it was not.
9. What world events were significant to you as a child?
The integration of the high school in Little Rock, AR. Sputnik. The Cuban Missile Crisis – I didn’t really understand it, but I grokked adults all being nervous. The assassinations of Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy. The massive 1965 blackout was the only time I ever heard my father worry about a possible Soviet plot.
To Starr Avenue
10. What did a typical day look like as a child?
During the school year, walk to school about half a mile, usually trying to vary my route. At lunch, walk home to my grandma Williams’ house for lunch, watch JEOPARDY with her sister, my wonderful Aunt Deana, back to school, then walk home with, in geographic order, Bill, Lois, Karen, Carol, and Ray. I’d walk home.
11. Write about your grandparents.
Gertrude Williams (1897-1982) operated out of making us afraid of the boogie man. I don’t remember her husband, Clarence Williams (d. 1958), though I may have gone to his funeral.
Agatha Green (1902-1964) was my Sunday school teacher and taught me how to play canasta. She was the first person I knew well to die, and I was devastated. McKinley Green (1896? -1980) was a custodian at WNBF-TV-AM-FM and would bring home stuff the station no longer wanted, such s the soundtrack to The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968).
12. Did you move as a child?
I moved from the second floor of 5 Gaines Street, Binghamton, NY, to the first floor when my mother was pregnant with her second child. Until college, that was it.
13. Who taught you to drive?
Several people tried, including the Okie, Uthaclena, my father, and a professional.
14. Which job has been your favorite?
FantaCo, the comic book store/mail order/publisher/convention, where I worked from May 1980 to November 1988.
15. What was the best part of your 30s?
Working at FantaCo, singing in the Trinity UMC choir
I’ve long been aware of how different my mother, my daughter, and I were raised. My mother grew up with her mother, Gertrude Williams, but also her grandmother Lillian (and her second husband, Maurice Holland), and her mother’s siblings Adina and Edward Yates at 13 Maple Street in Binghamton, NY. She had generations of mothers.
My sisters and I grew up with my parents, Les and Trudy Green, at 5 Gaines Street. But my parental grandparents, Agatha and McKinley resided just upstairs. My maternal grandmother, Gertrude, and her sister Adina lived just six short blocks away from us. In fact, my sisters and I went to 13 Maple Street at lunchtime during the school year and spent much of the summer there as well. It was a fair approximation of having generations of mothers.
The daughter of my wife and me saw her maternal grandparents maybe every six weeks or so. But they were over an hour away. Her maternal aunts and uncles weren’t close by either, though she at least has had a decent chance to know them and their kids, my daughter’s first cousins.
But my birth family was more geographically scattered. My parents moved to Charlotte, NC in 1974. Since my father died in 2000, my father and my father never got to meet each other. My mother and my sisters and niece Alex (daughter of Marcia) came up from Charlotte and San Diego a few times, and I went down to Charlotte with my daughter in 2009, when she was five. She doesn’t really remember my mom, who died in 2011.
So no local familial babysitters on either side except when we dropped her off in Oneonta for a few days.
The first time my daughter saw her cousin Rebecca (daughter of Leslie) was on television. Rebecca and Rico were on some show called Wipeout. My niece actually came in second. The first time my daughter saw her oldest cousin in person was at my mother’s funeral.
The next time was in 2013 when my cousin Anne invited Rebecca, Rico, and my family to Thanksgiving dinner. (That was also the last time I saw my mother’s first cousins Robert and Donald Yates before they died.) My family did see Rebecca perform in NYC in 2017, but we spent five minutes with RJ afterward. At least we all had dinner together in Syracuse in 2019; thanks to Shela E. for both of these opportunities.
This explained why my daughter was so annoyed with me, after the fact, that I didn’t take her to the Dave Koz Christmas show on Long Island featuring Rebecca. And it’s why she and I are going to see Leslie singing in New York City in June. Leslie’s coming to my daughter’s high school graduation, and maybe Alex can too.
My daughter recognizes that I want her – maybe she also wants for herself – to better know my (tiny) side of the family.
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