A grand gift

February 02, 2003|By Donna M. Owens

ESTHER, CHARLES, Pauline and William.

It's doubtful you'll ever see their names mentioned in the pages of some history book.

But here, at the onset of Black History Month, I think of them tenderly, reverently. They are my beloved grandparents - all of whom are now, sadly, deceased. William proved a stalwart presence until his death at 90 about a year ago. With the myriad activity that occurs each February honoring great leaders and traditions in the African-American community, I can't help but acknowledge the people right within my own family.

My parents notwithstanding, they are my heroes and "she-roes."

Charles and Esther Armstrong, my mother's people, came to Baltimore in the early 1940s from Maryland's Eastern Shore. My grandfather had been a waterman, earning a living from the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay.

But dredging for oysters was sometimes perilous (two brothers had already drowned), with scant room for advancement. And like so many rural blacks who migrated to big cities, both my grandparents thought this city would offer better opportunities for their growing young family.

"Granddaddy" found work as a laborer at Key Highway shipyard, later training there as a welder. While "colored" men were not particularly welcome in the trade classes or the union, maximum bodies were needed during wartime to help build ships for the defense effort.

But post-World War II, work stoppages and layoffs became far too frequent for a man with nine children to feed.

So Charles wisely weighed his options and moved on, taking on two full-time jobs with never a complaint.

He hauled garbage on a city sanitation truck from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., then caught a few precious hours of sleep before walking to his "porter" shift at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he eventually retired as a housekeeping supervisor.

My grandma Esther, a gospel singer with a gift for oratory, held down the home front with brisk efficiency.

Family legend goes that on washday, as she hung clothes out on the line to dry, her whites were so clean and sparkling that neighbors would actually come over to admire them. Once, someone even made off with the sheets!

Through four decades of marriage, Charles and Esther managed, despite the discrimination and roadblocks of the times, to live a sepia-hued version of the American Dream.

They burned a mortgage, bought a new Chevrolet, even owned a beachfront retreat "down home" long before it was fashionable.

My paternal grandparents, Pauline and William Owens, raised a brood of nine in more than a half century together.

"Mombea," as everyone fondly called grandmother, was a first-rate homemaker and cook (hot yeast rolls were her specialty), jazz lover and the embodiment of gentle goodness.

She had to be, because the man we all called "Grandfather" was something to handle. Dapper and street-smart, he was a gentleman hustler - a professional gambler well respected despite his racy occupation.

He carried himself with dignity and class, usually attired in a crisp suit and tie, accented by a hat and his ubiquitous slim black umbrella.

A whiz with numbers and dates, William might have been a mathematician or accountant had he not left school early, questioning its value for a black man in a then-segregated world.

Instead, he realized entrepreneurial dreams - at one point owning a string of popular billiard halls in Baltimore and Towson.

Grandfather came to champion education, often boasting of the college degrees that six of his children - including my dad - received. But sheepskin or not, he and my grandmother deeply loved all my aunts and uncles - warm, colorful and creative individuals.

I never had a favorite grandparent. But because I was in grade school when both maternal grandparents passed, and in my late teens when we unexpectedly lost my father's mother, I particularly appreciated and cherished my time with Grandfather as an adult.

The feeling was mutual, though not exclusive. He relished his role as family patriarch, doting on every one of his nearly three dozen grands, great-grands and great-great grands.

I smile remembering his infamous crack-of-dawn telephone calls, during which he dispensed all manner of career, financial or personal advice. And I can still hear the snazzy, ebullient way he answered his own phone - with the trademark phrase, "Let's talk about it!"

When I helped eulogize Grandfather at his funeral mass, it escaped me at the time that his death marked the end of a certain era in my life.

All of my beloved grandparents are gone - at least physically - and I miss them terribly. I want to ask them questions about their lives, our ancestors. I want their sage wisdom to help guide me.

Still, I carry their formidable legacy in my heart.

It's in every lesson they and my wonderful parents have instilled about strong moral values, faith in God, respect for one's elders, the rewards of education and hard work. Most especially, their example helped illuminate the importance of love and family.

These things transcend race, I know.

But since this is the official month to recognize the history of heroic African-Americans, I thought I'd thank Esther, Charles, Pauline and William one more time.

Donna M. Owens is an award-winning free-lance journalist. She lives in Baltimore.

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