Of Serendipity and the Ancestors

It has to be more than coincidence that so many clues and links to my family history just keep being placed in my path.

Last Saturday I was at a Columbia University alumni luncheon, leaving late, as usual, because I had lingered to talk to just one more person! I found myself in line at the coat check behind three people who seemed to be together.  As it turned out the group included a very stylish older black woman and a younger couple who were dressed in matching navy blue jackets with white piping.  And as black people usually do when we’ve just spent the day in a setting where we are in the distinct minority, we exchanged pleasantries while waiting for our belongings.

Obiora Anekwe, Yvonne Foster Southerland, A'Lelia Bundles and Alexis Southerland Anekwe at Columbia University

Obiora Anekwe, Yvonne Foster Southerland, A’Lelia Bundles and Alexis Southerland Anekwe at Columbia University

Because they seemed friendly, I was inclined to keep the conversation going. “Were you here for the luncheon?” I asked.

“We were here for the alumni book fair,” the man answered.

As we shook hands and exchanged names, the older woman—who by now I’d surmised was the mother of the younger woman and the mother-in-law of the man—said, “A’Lelia Bundles? You’re kidding!”

“No really!” I smiled.

“I knew your mother,” she said. “And your Uncle Walker!”

Walker Perry circa 1948 at Lincoln University

Walker Perry circa 1948 at Lincoln University

So what are the chances of this? Coincidence? Serendipity? Or the universe working its magic? Yvonne Foster Southerland indeed had known my mother’s older brother, Walker Perry, who was born in 1926, and who was a student at Lincoln University from 1944 to 1948, when her father Dr. Laurence Foster, was chairman of the sociology department. I learned that Yvonne, who was born in 1937, and her younger brother considered my uncle as their “adopted big brother.”

A few days ago when I received a copy of her book, Legacy: Seven Generations of a Family, I read the following paragraphs:

“Never was there a student at Lincoln who was as close to us as he was. He became involved in every aspect of our daily lives,

Legacy by Yvonne Foster Southerland

Legacy by Yvonne Foster Southerland

having dinner with us several times a week, often driving our parents to appointments and taking us on Saturday mornings to Oxford for ice cream and comics.”

“When our weekly pay for household chores was insufficient (and it usually was due to fines imposed by our father), Walker would take pity on us and chip in for the ice cream and comics.”

A'Lelia Mae Perry at Howard University 1949 (from aleliabundles.com)

A’Lelia Mae Perry at Howard University 1949 (from aleliabundles.com)

About my mother, she wrote: “He had a very charming sister named A’Lelia Perry, who was a student at Howard University. When she came to Lincoln for dances, we were thrilled that she stayed with us, as we had the same affection for her as we had for Walker.”

“When Walker graduated from Lincoln in May of 1948, his father Marion Perry stayed with us, so we became close to his whole family.”

My uncle’s graduation marked the third generation of Perry men to attend Lincoln. My great-grandfather, Marion R. Perry, Sr, was valedictorian of his class in 1883. His sons, Marion, Jr. and Henderson, graduated in 1912.

Yvonne told me of subsequent reunions and visits through the years and of how she still cherishes the hostess gifts my late mother always sent after her visits.

A'Lelia Mae Perry, Marion R. Perry and Walker Perry at Lincoln University graduation 1948

A’Lelia Mae Perry, Marion R. Perry and Walker Perry at Lincoln University graduation 1948

And then there was the bonus of meeting Yvonne’s accomplished daughter Alexis Southerland Anekwe, a graduate of Spelman and of Union Theological Seminary, and her son-in-law Obiora Anekwe, an educator and artist, who received his masters in bioethics from Columbia in 2014.

Anekwe coverHe had been at the Columbia Alumni Book Fair that day to present Ancestral Voices Rising Up: A Collage Series on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a book of art and essays chronicling the tragedy of one of the most unethical medical experiments ever conducted in America. His work is stunning.

I am thankful for this serendipitous encounter and, once again, can’t help but think that the ancestors are guiding my steps.Anekwe Lynching Collage

Mud and Writing

Girls knee high mudSometimes writing is like slogging through mud. A vast, clumpy sepia sea that extends beyond the horizon. A molasses thick morass that will be there when the sun goes down and when it comes back up.

That’s what the chapter I’m writing right now feels like. Thigh high mud that clutches my feet and ankles. Mud that’s all over my arms and in my hair and in my cuticles.

But I remind myself that the only way to get to a thinner version of the gunk and muck is to keep moving. The only way to get to higher ground and clearer water is to push ahead on the journey.

With each step, the extraneous words and facts get rinsed away. Each time I edit another draft, I’m closer to replacing an amorphous mass with a manicured lawn and a garden of lillies, roses and poppies. Mud and water boots

At the moment, I’m not sure how I’m going to get there. The seventy single-spaced pages–22,000 words–that sit in front of me need to be whittled down to half that length. What I thought was one chapter is insisting that it is two. The writing gods have told me I have no control over this. That I was wrong when I thought I could combine these scenes into one chapter.

They have told me that they have been generous enough to lead me to new material–which at first can just look like more mud–and now I must find the gold nugget,  polish it and make jewelry! While I think sometimes they’ve sent me off on tangents and wild goose chases, I have learned to trust them. They’ve told me they’re depending on me to use those revelations to tell some stories that have been forgotten and some truths that have been neglected.

Boots muddy waterAnd so I slog along with faith that the final draft–the equivalent  of a long, warm shower–is worth the effort.