When my father was a child he gave his Kingston, Jamaica born mother the title of duchess. He told me it was because of the stately way she walked down Harlem avenues, the sharp way she dressed and one particular hat she wore which was like a hat that Grace Kelly wore in some movie when Kelly was playing a duchess. The name stuck. My father always saw her as royalty and she was. Both of my grandparents were so much for and to me, but grandma had a special place. From her healing salves to the way she taught me how to feel a good pie crust dough, to the way she showed me how to weed the vegetable garden and pick and cut pole beans to her serious questioning of my values through asking me questions about bible scripture, for example are the sins of the father visited upon the son, she helped me and my heart to grow strong and true. So of course, I had to ask my father about the grandparents and particularly about her.
Reggie Major: The truth is that my father was living in Greenwich Village, New York and my mother was living in Montreal and the two of them met in Buffalo, New York. She was about nineteen and I think he was ten years older than her. I haven’t the vaguest idea. At any rate they ended up in Harlem. Wilfred was born exactly one year and four days after me. So, we were raised almost as twins, not quite. We used to have an elaborate birthday party. My mother would have a big wash-tin, a galvanized washing tin and she would put party favors in it and cover it with crepe. And somehow, I have a memory of all these kids and stuff. It was just hip.
My mother believed in olive oil. She washed us in olive oil. Her washing of us was Ivory soap and olive oil. So everything went well. Now my father was an incredible swimmer, he grew up in Elutheria (Bahamas). He would take us to the beach. He would take us to the ocean, both of us at once. He did not teach us how to swim. He’d take us out (on a row boat in the Hudson river or on the Atlantic Ocean) and let both of us loose, and we were too damn young to worry.
dm: You weren’t scared at all?
Reggie Major: How are you going to be scared with this great big daddy of yours? And actually, the waves felt good to me. We did that a lot. This one time my parents had an argument when dad wanted to take us to the beach. My mother said no, because there was a big polio epidemic and dad took us anyway. That was a Monday and we both came down with upset stomachs because my father was a very indulgent guy so we had cracker jacks and other treats. I came out of my upset stomach and Wilfred didn’t come out of his. On Wednesday he was really bad; they called the doctor. Thursday the doctor came and my brother was hauled out of there to the hospital. On Friday a telegram came. I had to go downstairs, we had no phone. The phone was in the candy store downstairs. And I went down and found out that Wilfred had died. My mother fell out. And that’s when my life was completely interrupted.
dm: How old was Grandma when her father and mother and brothers died? (In the big flu pandemic of 1914)
Reggie Major: Around seven or eight. She didn’t lose brothers, they left. One went to Columbia and one went somewhere else. I know one went to Columbia because he wrote her during the Depression and said he had a lot of money and bring her behind down there. He was in Brazil then, but she didn’t want to go. He moved to Columbia later.
dm: So he went from Panama to Brazil to Columbia?
Yeah, yeah. So after Wilfred died the Duchess went away. I stayed at my Godparent’s house. I can’t tell you the time but it was a matter of months. I didn’t see her and when she got back she wasn’t the same. She fell out with my godparents apparently for alienation of affection which was ridiculous they were very affectionate people. She couldn’t cope and that was the last birthday party I had.
So you were five when he died and he was four?
Four and three. What happened, I didn’t recognize it until later, but the Duchess had an annual depression because of the astrology of our family. Dad was like the 31st of January, Howard the 1st of February, Wilfred the 4th, me the 8th, their anniversary the 9th of February and then her birthday the 23rd. And she was down. She started going down on Christmas and then worked her way down all the way thru February.
Why I decided that she had figured out how to take herself out was I was lollygagging and I hadn’t called her on her birthday. I called and she said, “I’m so glad you called I heard from everyone but you and I definitely wanted to hear from you.” The next morning she was dead. That was it.
I loved going to her house. Always those books to read. And always more books than the last time. She had the Readers Digest books but she had lots of other books too. She had Mandingo. (Laughter)
How’d she get that?
I didn’t ask.
Honey, this woman had it. You know I was a thief. I saw her reading Native Son and I took it. I stole Native Son and I finished reading it before she did. I finished Ulysses before she did.
So she was really educated in Montreal. You don’t pick up habits like that on your own, There’s got to be somebody around you. You just don’t pick that habit up without access to books.
I don’t know. I know she spoke French. But she refused to, she didn’t like it. Her aunt had her employed doing embroidery work. She was very good at embroidery and as soon as she left that woman’s house she stopped sewing buttons.
I credit her with a lot of my development. You know all the things she had around the house. She had me looking at stuff. She would be shopping for furniture and say, “Now Reggie you see this…”
Her underlying thing and that was that I was the only one outside of her husband who knew Wilfred.
You had a special place, memory that was a special memory and you could share it.
She wanted me to share that loss. Believe me, Wilfred was a profound loss for me. I could never discuss the loss he was to me. Oh, Lord, I prayed so hard. I was praying my ass off. These folks at Sunday school told me Jesus loved the little children and I was praying. She was always very unhappy. We had conflicts. I wouldn’t go to the grave. I couldn’t deal. She went on his birthday and she had other days she went. Three four days a year. And she say to me, “And you won’t even go to the grave.” And I said, “Duchess, come on.”
What was your fondest memory of the Duchess?
Oh Jesus. Probably… no it’s not hard. The first time she came out to see you guys. She was so pleased. And I was. Remember again, there was conflict all over the space. (My mother was not welcomed by her in-laws until after that visit.) The Duchess and Mrs. Davis came out and Mrs. Davis had a place that she could stay in Daly City. My mother came, and she figured she would stay the night (with us on 5th avenue in SF- 685 5th Ave.) and if it was not coo, then she could split. She never left. I cannot even tell you how well I felt with my mother thinking my kids were great.
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