In addition to the many photos I took of Legos while I was at the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland last week, I also scanned about as many old photos from family albums that my Aunt Sharon maintains. I used a really good free app that my husband introduced me to called “genius scan” to reproduce all that I could in such a short time. This image is one of my favorite:
I’ve finally learned to recognize family photographs taken in Cleveland as opposed to those taken in Kentucky based on the homes in the background and the children in the photos. The houses in the background in the photograph above look like the one my Aunt remembers living in on 79th Street. Given that my Uncle Eric, the baby in the photograph sitting on my grandmother’s lap, is in the picture tells me that the family has relocated from Louisville to Cleveland because the twins, one on each side of my grandmother, were the last of my grandparents’ children to have been born in Kentucky.
Not only do I like the composition of the photograph, especially my grandmother’s centrality, but I like what I think it suggests about my grandparents’ generation that I find quite attractive. Both of my grandparents graduated from Catholic Colored High School in the late 1930s and my grandmother was quite bright, having graduated from high school at 16-years-old and also the recipient of a scholarship to Xavier University in Louisiana, though she did not choose to attend college. She chose to become a homemaker. For a black woman to have such a choice and to be able to exercise it at this point in history fascinates me. My grandfather wanted for her happiness, but I also think some scholars assume the reign of patriarchy when black men wanted their wives to become homemakers, but I don’t think that’s always true. In Louisville, during the time my grandmother graduated from high school, I think I read that the percentage of black women in domestic service was around 98%. I understand why black men and black women would want to stay away from labor that made black women vulnerable to the licentiousness, physical violence, and poor pay that often accompanied such labor.
By contrast, my grandmother’s best friend Josephine, who was also a graduate of Catholic Colored High, did go on to college and later worked as a teacher. Like my grandmother and grandfather, Ms. Josephine married a classmate from their high school. Ms. Josephine went on to have children, like my grandma, but she also held a career outside the home. From what I could tell, both choices for both women seemed equally satisfying. I don’t ever remember meeting Ms. Josephine, but my grandmother wrote to her and spoke of her often and nothing negative
was ever said about the choices they made. It seemed to me, then, that they were content with their choices, a choice the contemporary world doesn’t appear to hold out as an option.
My grandparents never longed for a bigger house, a luxury car, nicer clothes, better neighbors, luxurious or exotic vacations. They seemed to like the rhythms they created from the choices they made. If you were to tell someone today that you were happy with your life, I think you would be met with some skepticism: “Well, you say that now, but down the road, you will probably want to move up the ranks” or “I know that’s what you think now, but you’ll outgrow that house.” Today, if you decide that your life is good enough as it is, you’d be described as having low ambition. The one choice we seem capable of making is the one where you can accept that your life is not good enough as it is.
Now of course I don’t mean that issues of character and elements of one’s interior life should not be the objects/subjects of constant pruning, but for the strivers I spend a great deal of time around (it just comes with the territory of having to earn a living) such issues are never the topic of “upgrading” one’s life. Unfortunately, the few folk who are my dear friends who seek greater clarity in their lives, desire to become better listeners, want to have greater patience, and who aim to control their stress level are not the ones I interact with most frequently. The folk I spend most of my time around talk about wanting to make partner at a prestigious law firm today, though they’ve only recently graduated from college; they imagine that some quiet person in the office has her eyes on a better paying administrative post; they actually long to buy luxury goods; and worship people with money. Basically, I live in a world where most of the people talk about their ambitions the way that celebrities talk about building their “brands” or their “empires.”
I learned from observing my grandparents that time was the greatest wealth to pursue. Thus, I always wanted to be time rich so that I could control my movement through my days; I could linger over some things and skip over others. Time is a very precious resource and I’d just hate to waste it dissatisfied with my house, my car, my clothes, and my shoes. Longing is not living and my grandparents seemed content because they didn’t spend a lot of time fantasizing about the life they weren’t living or didn’t have. They found the place that was comfortable, felt like it was where they wanted to be, and they filled it up with the manifestation of the interior lives they so carefully pruned.