I called the cab stand and Miss Henrietta, the operator, answered saying, “Orange Mound Cab Stand.” As always, without giving a name, I asked, “Is my Daddy there?” I heard her yell, “James, your baby is on the phone!” When Daddy came to the phone, he asked, “Are you alright? Where y’all at?”
I was seven years old going on eight, and my little brother was one going on two. Reflecting on what happened in 1951 and 1952, it’s as if the ring of the call I made was a bell tolling for the demise of our fragile family. Except for during the first months of my life when James rented a room in a boarding house to which he could bring Lottie Mae shortly after I was born in 1944, it was during 1951 and 1952 that we lived together as a family.
It wasn’t long before we were once again living with our mother’s parents on Hollywood Street. Sometime before my eighth birthday in 1952, our mother’s father was called to Chicago to help take care of his gravely ill brother. After being in Chicago for a short while, he sent for our grandmother to join him.
Because our mother, Muhdear, also was gravely ill with what had been diagnosed as terminal, our grandmother insisted that Muhdear, my brother, and I go to Chicago with her. Muhdear did not tell our Daddy that she was leaving Memphis and taking us with her. She was too sick to remain on her own with us in Memphis, and she knew that Daddy would never allow her to take us to Chicago. He didn’t know where we were until he received that fateful call from me.
In Chicago, my grandparents were able to rent what was called an attic “apartment,” in the same building where our grandfather’s sick brother lived. The apartment was one long room under the eaves with enough space for a small bathroom, a stove, and refrigerator. The eating table was at the foot of the bed, the only space available.
Leaving her baby boy with her parents in the “apartment,” Muhdear and I were essentially homeless, sleeping on couches and makeshift floor pallets at the homes of various cousins, aunts, and uncles. During the day, Muhdear sometimes took me with her while she looked for work.
Life in Chicago made me long to go back to Memphis. Because our condition was so bad and she was so sick, I frequently asked Muhdear if I could call Daddy to come get us. Years later, when I asked what made her change her mind to allow me to call our Daddy that day, this is what she told me:
Snow was deep and the street cars would not wait for you to get on with children. One day, I got up on the streetcar and paid my seven cents. When I looked around, you were still on the platform. This really scared me, and I began to wonder if I could take care of my children in my condition. I knew that if anything happened to you all, I would rather be dead, and I knew if anything happened to Rabbit’s (James’) children, he would kill me because I left him and took you all with me.
So, when Daddy arrived to take us back to Memphis, she got in the car for the sake of her children to make the risky but necessary trip back to Memphis.