Just in time for winter solstice, the longest night and shortest day of the year, my cousin gave me an invaluable gift. She called with news that she has the pictured decorative glasses that once belonged to our great great grandmother, Tempy Burton and our great grandmother, Josephine Burton Ford.
She took them out of the house where our grandmother used to live in New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina hit. I never even knew the glasses existed.
While I’ve seen pictures of Tempy as a slave in Mississippi, I’ve never seen a picture of Josephine. This glass is the first tangible item of Josephine’s that I’ve come across. Up until now, she’s been a statistic on a few census reports and a marriage certificate, a shared name with my father, Joseph Burton Ford. But with this discovery, she’s a real woman who according to the inscriptions on the glass was sometimes called Josie Ford and in 1905 visited Mt. Clemens, Michigan. Maybe she drank from that glass every night with dinner to be reminded of that town in Michigan known as Bath City because of its mineral waters or maybe she took a ceremonial sip from it just once a year on a special occasion. Maybe, she guarded the glass behind lock and key like my grandmother, Lillie Mae did and only brought it out at the request of inquisitive relatives.
Grandma Lillie Mae showed me a similar kind of glass trimmed with gold on a visit almost 15 years ago. She barely let my fingers graze the gold trim before she quickly returned it to the curio cabinet where she kept it and all of her other treasures literally under lock and key. I’d gone to see her at her home just outside of the French Quarters on the eve of my wedding with the express purpose of finding out about our family’s history. All I left with were a few scribbles on my notebook, an indecipherable tape recording, and a distaste for her house. It was in bad shape. Her cat and the detritus he liked to drag in from outside didn’t help nor did her penchant for hanging onto everything from 40 year old Christmas cards to old newspaper clippings. The house’s sagging porch and Grandma’s backhanded greeting of, “Is that you Dionne? You look like you’ve gained a little weight,” weren’t that welcoming. Grandma Lillie Mae and her house were a lot alike: hard to take, but enduring. Both managed to shelter five children, safeguarded our family’s treasures and weathered innumerable hurricanes including Katrina. Now, they’re both gone.
Grandma Lillie Mae’s house burned down this weekend. Grandma wasn’t in it (she died in May at the age of 98), but my uncle was. That’s why my cousin, Shawnique was really calling, to tell me her dad, my uncle, Henry suffered burns bad enough to put him in the hospital until the New Year. I’m praying for his speedy recovery. While I can’t say I’m sorry to see that old house go, I am sorry that my cousin and I, born only a month apart, who used to write each other with the same frequency that people now update their facebook status had to be reunited under the veil of bad news. We said we’d stay in better touch after seeing each other at Grandma Lillie Mae’s funeral back in May and indeed we have, sending a text here and there, trying to make plans for a visit. Now this.
It isn’t lost on me that this discovery about Josephine and Tempy’s glasses came on the heels of the fire.
Winter solstice ceremonies often involve fire, a symbolic cleansing to clear a path for hopes in the coming year. So, I’m hoping our family fire holds promise of renewed health for my uncle, renewed alliances for Shawnique and me, and renewal of our shared history through more discoveries about Tempy, Josephine and the rest of our clan.
Here’s to hope in the fire – Happy Winter Solstice everyone.