“If you don’t recount your family history, it will be lost.” — American writer Madeleine L’Engle
Better late than never, I always say. I’m saying it again as I start researching my father’s family history. Never mind that I said it 30 years ago when my father, and presumably many of his family members, were still alive. “Presumably” is a subtle hint that my father was not close to his family. I can count on my fingers all of the Aldridge family members I’ve met.
In stark contrast, my mother’s family would travel halfway across the country for a reunion, for Christmas or just because someone said “let’s get together.” They are still like that.
A couple of books on mom’s family history, plus reams of research, already exists thanks to two people. One is a cousin in mom’s generation who some years ago explored family lineage tracking an inherited illness prevalent in the family. The bonus was an excellent family history dating to the 1600s and the arrival of the Johnson family’s ancestors in America.
The other contributor was mom’s youngest sister, the unofficial family historian for their generation—the children of Arthur G. Johnson in Kentucky. It was a job she took seriously, researching to supplement what was already done. It became a passion and the volumes of photos and records that occupied a room in her Ohio home still exists today with her children.
Our sum total of knowledge regarding dad’s family consists of those few relatives we met personally, scant stories from my grandmother, and a few pages of notes my youngest sister obtained from a source neither of us remembers. What we do know is that our father was the last of 13 children born to a family of South Louisiana and Mississippi heritage. His mom died giving birth to him, and his two oldest sisters set out to raise him, also providing his name. One was dating a boy named Leon, the other, a boy named Dallas. Thus he became Leon Dallas Aldridge. The name with most uncharacteristic of origins would be carried through two more generations.
Not long after birth, he was reported to have contracted one of the childhood deadly diseases of the 1920s—some type of “fever.” His father (Willie Aldridge) wrote to his own brother (Sylvester Aldridge) telling him “the baby was sick” and they didn’t think he would survive. Sylvester’s bride of three years, a feisty, little woman from West Texas named, “Hattie Lois,” who was 17 years his junior, wrote back to reply, “no way,” that she was coming to “get the baby.”
Sylvester and Hattie drove from Mineola, Texas to Doyle, Louisiana in a Ford model T, and took the child home with them. She nursed him back to health, they legally adopted him at the age of 11, and he grew up in Pittsburg, Texas, living to the age of 83.
I met only two of dad’s many siblings, his oldest brother, Zebadee, and a sister, Willie Lee who was named after her father. Zebadee ‘s wife, Vada, had family in Terrell, and that’s about all we know about her. Zebadee was the only Aldridge family member I recall coming to visit us, something they did frequently.
Willie Lee and her husband, whose name I don’t recall, lived just outside Baton Rouge near the Mississippi River in the tiny community of Tickfaw, Louisiana.
My one and only trip to visit dad’s family was with my father and his brother, Zebadee, to pick up a new 1961 Ford Zebadee had purchased in Baton Rouge. On that trip, we visited my dad’s sister and his biological father who lived nearby. To my knowledge, that was one very few times my father ever visited his real father. Willie Aldridge lived alone near the Mississippi River in an old Southern dog-trot style home that I’m pretty sure had never known a coat of paint.
My favorite memory of that trip was Willie making coffee by stirring grounds in a skillet and boiling them in a coffee pot before straining the resulting liquid through a cloth. Zebadee was never without a coffee thermos wherever he went, and I’m guessing everyone in the family knew that. When we left, Willie told Zebadee to get his thermos out of the car, and he would put the rest of that coffee in it for the trip home.
Just like it was yesterday, I remember sitting in the back seat on the way back to Texas listening to my uncle and my dad talking. Zebadee asked dad if he wanted some of the coffee. Dad looked at him and said, “No, but save it. I’m pretty sure we can use it if we run out of gas.”
One facet of this genealogical exercise is to document as much family history still lurking in my mind as I can—stories and memories for my children while a sufficient number of active brain cells to get it done reamin. It’s something that for most families, if you don’t do it yourself, no one else is going to do it for you. Looking back, it’s something I wish I had started sooner rather than later.