How long has it been since you opened the mailbox and saw a handwritten letter from a family member, friend, or someone you used to know?
It seems the art of writing letters has disappeared. And oh how I miss it!
Rushing to the mailbox and finding a letter from an out-of-town relative, one of the 4-H friends I had scattered across the country, or a local friend who had moved away, was the highlight of many of my childhood days.
My grandmother was a letter writer, so there was always stationery, pens, envelopes, and a book of postage stamps at our house. Because my grandmother loved writing letters, she loved nice stationery. Even if the stationery didn’t have a pretty design or pretty color, if it was plain, then it had to be on fancy paper.
The most anticipated letters, the ones we waited for our grandmother to receive and then read to us, were the ones from her mother.
My brothers, cousins, and I were entranced by our great-grandmother for a number of reasons.
She wasn’t a medical doctor, but her title was Dr. Berthenia Horne, which was clearly stated on the pre-printed return address label.
She was part of the National Baptist Convention, so she traveled the world through her Christian ministry and mailed us pictures from nearly everywhere she went. One of my all-time favorite pictures is a picture of her kneeling at the monumental site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. I still have that picture and I pull it out for display every Christmas season.
As soon as I was old enough to write, my grandmother started including letters I wrote in the letters she wrote to her mother. As I grew older, I began writing and mailing my own letters, which started a letter-writing correspondence that lasted until my great-grandmother’s death in 1998.
I have this same type of long-time correspondence via handwritten letters with a few others.
My brother, Tony, and I have written back and forth since I first left home for college in August 1982. Our correspondence via letters continues to this day.
My brother, Ken, wasn’t too big on writing letters, so I still have the one letter that I can remember him writing me.
I also have a letter my uncle, Archie Thomas, wrote me when he was doing a tour of Iraq during Desert Storm in 1991. I was living in Detroit at the time, and my grandmother had requested that everyone in the family write my uncle. So, I did. I was overjoyed when I received his handwritten response.
The number of handwritten letters I get in the mail has the decreased over the years. This year, I’ve only received two, and both were from my brother, Tony.
I don’t know who to blame.
I could blame my oldest first cousin, Gloria, since she was the first one to call our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” and her parents Ann and Charles.
I could blame my grandparents for not relinquishing the titles “Momma” and “Daddy” when their grown children became parents.
And I could blame my mother and my uncles Charles and Archie for not insisting that we call them by their proper titles.
I could lay the blame on all of these folks, but until the family was all gathered outside under a tent watching boxing one Saturday night, I never knew there was anything to blame them for.
We were watching the Floyd Mayweather boxing match when my cousin Tonja’s daughter turned and asked, “Antmar, do you think there’s something wrong with my children calling me Alexis?”
Before I could answer, Alexis’ sister, Natasia, chimed in. “You couldn’t pay one of my children to call me by my name.”
TaSonia, their cousin, nodded in agreement.
“Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” Alexis countered. “Even if they call me Alexis, they know I’m their mother.” Then she turned and tried to get Tonja’s attention by calling out, “Ma.”
Until that moment, I’d never noticed that all of my cousins’ children call them Momma or Daddy. None of them refer to their parents by name.
My cousin Sonja, Tasonia’s mother, eyed me as I pondered Alexis’ question. As usual, she was ready to pounce on my response if it wasn’t what she thought I should say. So I knew I had to choose my words carefully. Before I could figure out how to answer this question in a way that would please everyone, Alexis inquired, “Didn’t all of y’all call Grandma Doris ‘Momma’ and your mommas Ann and Lois?”
She had a point.
My brothers and I called our grandmother “Momma” and our mother “Lois.” My Uncle Charles’ children called our grandmother “Momma” and called their mother “Ann.” My Uncle Archie’s children did the same. They called our grandmother “Momma” and their mother “Boot.” And, to all us, “Daddy” was our grandfather.
So I agreed with Alexis.
I also agreed that even though we called our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy,” we all knew who our parents were. Our parents gave up the title in My brothers and I lived with my mother and grandparents, but my cousins lived with their parents.
When we were growing up, a lot of my friends used to ask why I called my mother Lois. I knew what they meant, but I usually responded, “That’s her name.” I’m guessing the real reason we called our parents by their names and our grandparents “Momma” and “Daddy” was because we were copying our uncles who were still teens and our parents.
I thought this would answer Alexis’ question, but it didn’t.
“But is something wrong with children calling their parents by their name if the parent doesn’t mind?” she asked again.
I want to agree with Alexis because I’ve called my mother “Lois” and my father “Tyrone” my entire life, and I think I turned out okay. But judging by the response of my cousins, who also did this, I think I may have missed out on something by not being a parent like them.
So I’m turning this one over to you.
What do you think?
I have. I really have.
My mother was not an old lady living in a shoe.
Unlike that old lady, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do, my mother only had three. And she knew just what to do with them – put them to work.
For the longest time, I thought my mother had me and my brothers for two reasons: she wanted children and she needed a workforce.
The day I began walking my mother, the taskmaster, told me to, “Put that bottle down and get to work.”
For the next few years, I thought the English language only consisted of the three-word sentences that my mother used. Go do that. Come do this. Hand me that. Pick that up. Put that down.
The tasks were never ending.
By the time my two brothers, Ken and Tony, came along a year and then two years later, I was ready to put in for my Social Security. Unfortunately, in those days, three-year-olds did not qualify for retirement.
I warned my brothers about the potential consequences of learning to walk, but they chose to ignore my warnings and walked their way into my mother’s workforce.
Two labor principles guided my mother’s workforce. The first principle was, if we could do it, she didn’t have to. The second principle was, do it right.
If we could cook, that meant she didn’t have to. So, although my grandmother constantly argued at my mother for not paying attention when she was trying to teach her to cook, my mother made sure my brothers and I knew how to cook.
If we could sweep and mop, then she didn’t have to. So she made sure we knew how to do both. Every Saturday morning, after cartoons went off, she sat and watched as we swept and mopped the living room, hallway, bathroom, kitchen, our bedroom, hers, and the front porch.
If we could wash our own clothes and then hang them outside on the clothesline, she didn’t have to. So, after we were done sweeping and mopping, we began sorting, washing, and then hanging up clothes. When the clothes were dry, we took them in, folded them, and then put them away.
My mother didn’t like ironing, so she taught us how to stand in a chair and iron.
She didn’t like doing the dishes, so we pulled that same chair up to the kitchen sink and washed dishes.
And she didn’t like looking at messy children’s bedrooms, so we made sure she didn’t see any messy children’s bedrooms.
Our mother wasn’t a perfect taskmaster. Her Achilles heel as a taskmaster was she didn’t like having to go behind us to straighten out a task we didn’t do right. So, because I was the oldest child and therefore labor supervisor, I always went behind my brothers to make sure our mother didn’t have to go behind us.
I was 11 when I discovered that there was no room for advancement in my mother’s workforce and that my mother had an Achilles heel. That’s when I stopped checking behind my brothers and I stopped trying to be her best unpaid employee. “We’re not doing all this work for free,” I informed my mother when she learned of the mutiny I was orchestrating.
“You don’t work for free,” she said. “You work because you live here. And you work because I buy you food and clothes.”
That ended the mutiny.
Like I said, my mother was not the old lady who lived in a shoe.
Some people you meet will greet you with “Hello.”
Some will greet you with “Hi. How are you?”
While others express their pleasure in seeing you with a nod and a smile.
However, I never expected “Where’s Peggy?” to become a standard salutation until the day a family friend, Willie Alfred, began greeting me with me, “Where’s Peggy?”
Every time I crossed paths with Willie Alfred – before he said ‘hello’ or asked how I was doing – he asked me, “Where’s Peggy?”
I usually responded, “I don’t know,” but that didn’t stop him from asking.
“How come you don’t know?” he would then ask.
“I don’t know where she is because I haven’t seen or heard from her in years,” I’d reply.
At that point he would shake his head to show his disgust with my inability to keep up with friends who had moved away without leaving a forwarding address. Remember, this was before the age of Facebook and social media.
“Well, you need to get busy and find her,” he’d respond.
I never understood Willie Alfred’s fascination with Peggy since he only met her once.
Peggy was hanging out with me at a friend’s party when Willie Alfred walked up and asked me who she was.
“Her name’s Peggy,” I answered. “She’s a friend of mine.”
“Well Peggy, you sure are pretty,” he said.
“Thank you,” she replied.
From that day on, every time I saw Willie Alfred he greeted me with “Where’s Peggy?”
During the first month or two, I humored him by responding, “She’s working.” Or, “She’s home.”
However, after a few months, these question and answer sessions about Peggy’s whereabouts began to annoy me.
“Where’s Peggy?” Willie Alfred would ask.
And I’d respond, “I don’t know.” Or, “I haven’t seen her.”
Even though I stopped having answers to his question, he didn’t stop asking.
This annoyed some of my friends even more than it annoyed me.
One day, Willie Alfred walked up to me and a friend of mine and asked, “Where’s Peggy?”
Before I could respond, my friend answered, “She moved to Tennessee.”
Willie Alfred shook his head in disagreement and said, “Peggy ain’t moved.” Then he walked away.
The very next time Willie Alfred saw us, he asked, “Where’s Peggy?”
“She’s dead,” my friend snapped. “Peggy is dead.”
Willie Alfred stepped back, stared sorrowfully into my eyes and asked, “Ant, is Peggy dead?”
Before I could respond, my friend reiterated, “I told you she’s dead.”
Willie Alfred shook his head and walked away with saying another word.
It didn’t take long for my friend to regret what he had said.
The next time we saw Willie Alfred, we smiled and waited for him to ask, “Where’s Peggy?” But he didn’t. He smiled and nodded cordially.
He didn’t ask about Peggy the next time I saw him. Or the next time. My friend had dealt a deadly Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf blow to Peggy and Willie Alfred’s salutation.
Willie Alfred died several years ago, but from the day Tony told him Peggy was dead until his death, he never asked about Peggy again.
I haven’t seen or heard from Peggy since the mid-1980s, but I think it’s time I found my old friend.
Anyone seen Peggy?