Family is just about everything to me, but family is not something that I spoke much about until I had children of my own. In fact, I was more likely to change the conversation when discussions about family arose.
My earliest recollection of family is somewhat disjointed. I learned rather abruptly that the couple that I knew as mom and dad, who had rocked me to sleep as an infant, kissed my skinned knees, filled my Christmas stockings with my favorite treats, and encouraged me to sing to whomever would listen to my four year old rendition of the latest Motown hit were harboring a secret.
That secret came to light when I was about seven years old. One sunny and peaceful afternoon while I was playing on the front porch with my favorite doll a strange little blue car pulled in front of our home followed closely by a police car. Both cars stopped directly in front of our driveway.The police officer stayed in his car, but two ladies got out of their car and walked briskly up the driveway to the open porch door.
I don’t remember any words. I don’t remember any shouting. I do remember my doll laying face down on the floor and the wet face of the woman I called “mommy,” standing in the doorway in her blue apron as I looked back at her over my shoulder. I never laid eyes on either of those faces again.
An illicit child, conceived by a married woman who already had three children was quite the scandal in 1960. I was blessed to not have been born into a wealthy family. The families of wealthier girls and women usually sent them away for nine months, or worse, paid to have the “problem” quietly go away.
Poor people – well they just talk and whisper words that children are not supposed to understand like adultery, illegitimate, and bastard. I suspect these words landed much more painfully on my mother’s ears and heart than mine. After all, she bore the ultimate consequences of an exposed love affair. As a result, she had lost her husband and the baby girl that resulted from the affair.
I think it took a lot of courage for my single mother to acknowledge to the world her shame and to reclaim her child after seven years. She had only mentioned my father to me two times. The first time was when I was twelve years old and he showed up at our home asking to meet me. That was the only time I ever laid eyes on him. The second time was about two years later when I learned that she was very sick and needed to send me away once again.
I don’t know when my mother learned that she had cancer. I have wondered if the thought of her own mortality gave her the boldness she needed to reclaim me. We had seven years together. She told me to be courageous and to go to places she had dreamed of going in life. She taught me to be strong and curious. But most importantly, she gave me a connection to an ancestry that I might never have known. This is the heritage that I pass on to my own three children and now, to my granddaughter. My mother, Edith Williams, died one week before Mother’s Day; just one month before her thirty-ninth birthday.
It turns out that I come from a long line of strong, courageous, hardworking women who survived life’s complexities with determination and grace.
My gggrandmother, Zilphy Claud was born a Virginia slave in 1820. The 1857 Southampton County estate inventory of Philip J. Claud, recorded the value of Zilphy and her unnamed child at $500.00.
I have often looked at her photograph and wondered would I have looked as proud and strong if I had lived the life of a nineteenth century American slave. I wonder if she ever knew her mother and father. I wonder if she ever longed for the land of her ancestors. I wonder if she knew that she had been a free woman for seventeen years when she died at the age of forty in 1880.
The newest addition to my family bears the name of her ggggggrandmother. My first grandchild was given the middle name of Zilphy after Zilphy Claud. Young Zilphy is the daughter of my own first born. She is beautiful like her mother. She is also inquisitive, independent and strong-willed like her mother. I like that! I am proud that the legacy of Zilphy Claud lives on.
Zilphy’s Garden is dedicated to my ancestral past and future. It is my hope that as we share our family’s journeys of life, health, and wellness that others will find hope and strength to do the same.
Eat well… Be well,