Remembering My Cousin, Pearlie Mae

by on February 28, 2012 · 19 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, From the Soul, History, Life Events

I wrote in the guest book of her obituary:

Pearlie Mae. What can I say.
On my family tree.
A cousin but like a big sister to me.
Part of my history.
Here when I arrived.
Could always count on her love.
In my heart she will always reside.

She was a prominent member on our branch of the Windham/Windom family tree. Our grandmother’s Lillie (hers) and Alma (mine) were sisters. It’s hard believing that she’s now resting in peace with those two extraordinary women.

Her obituary states how selfless and loyal she was to family and friends and confidantes and I sure got a sense of that early on in life.

There aren’t many people like her. I mean how many teenage girls would let a little sweaty playful boy in grade school tag along on her dates, for goodness sake? If some of those dudes’ glares could have been manifested through other parts of their bodies I’d still have finger prints around my neck or I’d be at the bottom of a pool of water in a rocky outcropping in Sabino Canyon with cement blocks tied to my feet. She would instruct them to “Take this ball and play catch with him” as I reacted like a tail wagging puppy eager to fetch. I was way more than they bargained for as they, of course, would have preferred to, rather than race me in the park to some chinaberry tree, make out with her underneath the tree. But all they could do was grumble because I was part of the deal. Her love for me was real.

When I look back I can see that our existence was like a snippet of Black History, a story of our people’s struggle. We both, in my early years of life, lived in true shotgun apartments, with short barrels, if you will, where you could trip at the front door and regain your balance at the back door. Mine had indoor plumbing that barely worked, with a toilet that seemed to have supported one butt too many. Hers had one outhouse for all the tenants featuring a toilet with an overhead tank that flushed by pulling down on a rope which appeared to have just one more tug left. That bathroom made the slop-jar high on a list of things to buy the next time you were in Sears & Roebuck – if you could afford one and if you couldn’t then you, as the saying goes, “didn’t have a pot to piss in.” At Pearlie Mae’s house they had two or three and when I spent the nights there my chore was emptying them. Hey, no wonder she was so nice to me (smile).

Our abodes were so rundown that I thought, in my innocence, that we surely must have been living in them for free, especially after visiting the homes that both Pearlie Mae’s mom, Bessie, and mine cleaned long before my mother got a job worthy of her Howard University degree. Homes with living rooms. Dining rooms. Guest rooms. Sometimes two or three bathrooms. Dens. Offices. Dumb waiters.

But we had dignity and much of my sense of decency and morality stems from Pearlie Mae modeling for me how I might want to consider living.

She definitely didn’t want me to become like a few folks in our neighborhood who gave up on life, succumbing to the notion in our society that we colored folks had no worth, that there was nothing for us to hope for or aspire to. I remember hanging out with her one day when we ran into Pete, one of a handful of heroin addicts on our street and she said to Pete: “Pete, it’s so sad to see you this way” and he replied with a glassy eyed “Yeahhhh,” that must have lasted a minute. He was in a world we had no privy to, walking on clouds in some faraway place, in his nod with nothing but superficial good feelings running through his bod, trying to subdue his immense pain, unable to face a world that was hostile to his race.

Pearlie Mae mumbled “Hmm, hmm, hmm” under her breath as we walked away from our troubled neighbor and friend and I said “Yeahhhh” with a glaze in my eyes and she said “Boy, you crazy. Nothing about this is funny” and gave me the biggest hug and her parting glance at Pete was filled with both pity and love, in it a wish for him to have a better life. She didn’t cast him aside. She truly was as stated in her obituary: selfless and loyal to family and friends and confidantes. She tended to her mother in her final years of poor health like a one person skilled nursing home team. Such dedication to someone she loved was truly something to behold.

I’ll always remember when she got married to Joe Purdie, an airman, and they went away to England, leaving me with a feeling of abandonment but I learned from her that distance does not necessarily equate to “out of sight, out of mind” because when she returned to Tucson her love for me was just as strong as it was when she left and so was mine for her.

She lived a wonderful life giving all she had as an educator, as a mother to three beautiful daughters, Lillie Anne, Clara Denise, Jo Michele, as a grandmother to their children and a great-grandmother to their children’s children. No finer human being has ever appeared in the Milky Way. So:

Pearlie Mae. What can I say.
On my family tree.
A cousin but like a big sister to me.
Part of my history.
Here when I arrived.
Everyone who knew her could always count on her love.
In many hearts she will always reside.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Debbie February 28, 2012 at 11:21 am

Pearlie Mae…love the name. Thanks for sharing.

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avatar Ernie McCray February 28, 2012 at 11:28 am

You’re welcome. It is a cute name.

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avatar judi Curry February 28, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Beautiful, Ernie. Once again you have delivered an eulogy that brings tears to my eyes.

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avatar Ernie McCray February 28, 2012 at 7:15 pm

Well, I didn’t want to make you cry – but I think we’ve both learned over the past couple of years that it’s all right to cry since it’s gonna happen anyway, huh? I’ve never been ashamed to cry but I find myself crying over anything that has a shrapnel of poignancy attached to it.

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avatar Bertha Gutierrez February 29, 2012 at 12:13 am

Ernie, thank you for sharing your beautiful memories of Pearlie Mae. I am sure she is watching over you from the heavens above still loving and caring for you as she always did before.

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avatar Ernie McCray February 29, 2012 at 10:54 am

Knowing her, Birdie, she definitely is watching me from some high place.

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avatar Jacquenese Barnes Price February 29, 2012 at 6:37 am

With tears in my eyes from joy and sadness, you have once again brought to life such beautiful memories! You so aptly described a lady that was an important part of my upbringing with LilliAnne, Clara Denise and Jo Michele. And once again, it made me realize how closely tied our community was and should be now for the Merediths (Ms. Purdie’s) grandparents lived next door to my great-aunt and uncle (the McNeils) and the Maxwells.

Ernie, once again, thank God for you; you are a treasure – so glad I am a part of that great community, neighborhood and family!

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avatar Ernie McCray February 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

Thanks, Jackie: Ah, the McNeils; you’ve brought back some great memories for me. Mr. McNeil is the only person I’ve known who, like so many people who would say to a boy or young man, “How you doing, son?” – would say to a girl or young woman, “How you doing, daughter?” I thought that was so cool. He and Mrs. McNeil were two of the nicest people I have ever known. And they lived across the street from the Neals who had a dog named Rusty who collected letter carriers and meter readers rear ends. Even the Neals were scared of that rascal.

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avatar Shirley March 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

A beautiful piece, Ernie. I love the photo of Purlie Mae–the big legs that were “fine” in those days. Was the picture taken in front of Friendship Baptist Church? I think I recognize a familiar house across the street. Of course there were a lot of houses like that one in the old Dunbar neighborhood. So many familiar details in your story to identify with–slop jars and all! Write on, my friend. Your work is stellar!

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avatar Shirley March 1, 2012 at 10:37 am

And now I correct my spelling error–it’s Pearlie, not Purlie–that was someone else!

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avatar Ernie McCray March 1, 2012 at 11:17 am

Hey, Shirlgirl: I was trying to figure out where that picture was taken too. Just one more house in the photo would do the trick because that house looks so familiar and I’m sure it is familiar. The more I think about it, you might be right about the location being in front of Friendship as the house looks like it might be one of those near Jimmy Smith’s pad. Oh, well, where’s CSI when you need them?

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avatar Shirley March 1, 2012 at 12:49 pm

That’s exactly what I was thinking–Jimmy Smith’s home–the house belonged to his grandma, Mrs. Hamilton. See–our memories aren’t gone completely!

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avatar Ernie McCray March 1, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Mrs. Ora Lee Hamilton. We shared the same birthday. And for a while our beloved fourth grade teacher, Josie Daniels, with her fine fine fine self, lived in that block. Back to Mrs. Hamilton. She and my grandfather used to get it on. I could tell because he was a man that never stopped talking or engaging people and when he’d return from her house he had nothing to say and couldn’t look me in the eye. Then after a while he’d return to being Charles Albert Chatman and start chatting non-stop and send me to the store for some “cream.” Vanilla. And all would be right with the world except for the 105 degree temperature. We had to eat our cream in a hurry didn’t we?

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avatar Lauren March 1, 2012 at 3:36 pm

Ah Ernie, such a very beautiful tribute. You have a way of making me cry and laugh all at the same time. Your love – and the memories you describe – feel so real it becomes palpable.

Love,
Lauren

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avatar Ernie McCray March 1, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Memories. What would we do or be without them?

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avatar Shirley March 1, 2012 at 8:25 pm

Hilarious story re: Ms. Hamilton ( widow, btw) and your grandpa! Some real “creepin'” took place in our hometown, right? Little of it escaped our notice.

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avatar Ernie McCray March 1, 2012 at 11:01 pm

As Roy Junior would say: “Life ain’t no good unless you creepin’ and peepin’.” And that ain’t all he’d say. One of my all time favorite of his was, when a waiter served him a 16 ounce steak: “Damn, you could hold church on this meat!” And this one, when he was standing on a corner on the strip watching all the women go by and somebody asked him, “How you doin’, man?” and he said: “Hey, Jim, I’m just standing here waitin’ for the swellin’ to go down.” I miss that dude. At the last Dunbar reunion I went to he had me laughing so hard at something he said that my back went out. I can’t remember what it was but it was when the photographer had us standing waiting so long and he said something like: “Hey, dude, I’m about to faint but I guess that’s okay because there’s so many Negroes up in here I’d never hit the ground.” He missed his calling; just one of his callings because he hustled so much money acting like a hick on the golf course and taking people’s money that he must have died rich. And you remember his mother, Lillie Walls. Could she sing some gospel? I know she’s in heaven because God can’t help but love her voice. Anyway, let me shut up about Tucson. Catcha later, amiga.

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avatar Shirley March 2, 2012 at 7:18 am

Now I’m throwing my back out–laughing! Yes, I remember Mrs. Walls. Only Mahalia Jackson was a contemporary of hers in regards to a dynamic singing voice.

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avatar Ernie McCray March 2, 2012 at 10:50 am

Mahalia. Hmmmm…

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