Looking for Eleanor – Part I

Eleanor-Mae-Daigre-©EleanorBrownn

Eleanor Mae Daigre (1900-1979)

I grew up with this photo of my mother. It sat framed in a nook of our living room. I never really thought about what the story behind it might be and my mother never talked about it. Her name was Eleanor Mae Daigre. She was born August 5, 1900 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She died in Los Angeles, California on December 29, 1979.

The photo was so familiar as I was growing up, it never struck me that there might be something unusual about it. In the years after she died, however, I began to wonder about the woman in the photo. I never knew her. It was taken decades before I came into her life. She adopted me when she was age 50 and the woman in the photo appears to be in her 20s. That would place it at the early part of the 20th century in the United States, a time not known for Black women in elegant dresses sitting for formal portraits in the South. Raised in the city of New Orleans, my mother came from a modest family. Her mother, Adeline, was a school teacher. Her father, Joseph, was a musician. She had six brothers and sisters.

As far as I have been able to discover, Eleanor moved to Chicago with her husband Chester Brown (my father) sometime in the 1930s. Then they moved to Los Angeles in the 1940s and lived in a housing project in Watts. She never gave birth to children, although she started a children’s center in Watts after WWII and cared for dozens. I’ve seen newspaper clippings. Eventually, they left Watts and bought a home in South Los Angeles on 82nd Street just east of Central Avenue. I was born in 1951 and adopted as an only child; they re-named me “Eleanor.”

Except for two cousins who came temporarily to live in L.A. — one in the 1950s and the other in the 1960s —  I barely knew anything about the Daigre Family. My mother took me to New Orleans with her for her mother’s funeral when I was less than a year old, but it seems she cut off any real communication with them after she left Louisiana in the 1930s. I’ve never understood why.

Recently, I posted this photo on Facebook in a group that focuses on African American history. It wasn’t the first time I had posted it online, but I was a bit startled by the response it got from the group. People scrutinized the picture in a way I never have. There were reactions from over 500 people and dozens of observations pointing to the beauty and historical significance of such a photo.

There are so many lessons in life to be learned, when we’re willing to look closely. What will I find?

To be continued…

Holy Week(end)

Well, it’s Holy Week and I’m feeling about as unholy as I can be. I’m just not feeling the spirit. In fact, I’ve been questioning this whole “God-thing” lately. I want to believe. I do believe — most of the time. But I find myself wondering. I fell down the stairs a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been in a lot of physical pain since that time with my back and right foot. Nothing like pain to make a believer a little cranky.

So my God (if He’s up there) has a sense of humor. I have a daily devotional that I’ve owned since 1999, and I have a habit of writing in the margins. On March 26, 2011 (right after I had returned from Australia, Canada, and was headed to Fresno) I wrote “I see the loving hand of God in every area of my life.” Now, mind you, this was at one of the LOWEST periods of my life. I was probably writing it as an affirmation.

On March 26, 2013 (not long after the life-changing car accident when I was as sick as I’ve ever been) I wrote “Learn to enjoy the seeking, whether or not you find.”

And I think the whole deal with Holy Week (the original one) was about wondering if God was going to live up to doing what he promised. Something like that.

Those situations in 2011 and 2013 worked themselves out, and there was a blessing wrapped inside both.

Okay, God. I get it.

Again.

The Fig Tree

Eleanor-Brownn-The-Fig-Tree

Mrs. Farley was an old woman who lived alone in the house directly across the street from my family when I was growing up in South Los Angeles. She was blind and in a wheelchair. My mother would make me go over there to keep her company. I didn’t like it. The curtains were drawn, it was dark and it smelled funny. I was about 7 or 8 years old.

Mrs. Farley had a huge fig tree in her back yard. When the tree was heavy and the figs would begin to drop, I’d gather them up off the ground. My mother would make jars and jars of fig preserves that lasted us for months.

Mrs. Farley was a very sweet and gentle lady and, although I didn’t want to go over there, there was something about her I liked. Her husband had died in World War I. This was the late 1950s, which means she must have been fairly young when she became a widow. She was the first black person to buy a house on the block. My parents were the second. This was before I was born, but my mother would always mention that. It seemed important.

On a fairly recent visit to the Auto Club on Figueroa Street, I came across a huge fig tree that sits in the courtyard to the entrance. The roots were above ground, which is the way these trees generally grow, I suppose.

Mrs. Farley would usually suggest I share some raw figs with her before going home. They didn’t taste as good as the sticky-sweet preserves, but they were okay. She’d take out old photographs and tell stories. I was impatient, but polite.

Being a child, I had no perception of what it must have felt like to be a woman of a certain age living with her memories. Now, I do.

Preserve your memories.
They’re all that’s left you.

— Paul Simon, Bookends