Most of the relatives on my mother’s side migrated from Tuscaloosa, Ala. to Johnson City, Tenn., where my oldest aunt, Julia Mae Cousin, established roots after she was married. Growing up, I divided my summers between Johnson City and Reform, Ala., where my father’s relatives are anchored.
Because I spent so much time with my cousins, we have always enjoyed a strong bond, stronger than some brothers and sisters. And because we were closer in age, I spent most of the early years romping the streets of Johnson City with Aunt Julia Mae’s kids – Hattie, D.D., Charles and Little Buddy. My cousin, Bertha Mae, was almost a decade older and she was more like an aunt than a cousin.
With her strong personality and huge heart, Aunt Julia urged her siblings to move to this small, east Tennessee town, near the Virginia-Tennessee border. Over the years, a parade of uncles and aunts acquiesced: Uncle Frank, Uncle Buddy, Uncle Percy, Uncle Padna (Jesse) and Aunt Kat. Mama (Martha L. Brownlee) and Big Mama (Sylvia Harris) were the holdouts, preferring to stay in Tuscaloosa but making frequent trips to Johnson City.
No one loved going to Johnson City more than I did. By day, I lived at the Carver Rec Center with D.D., Charles and Little Buddy and at night, Hattie would take me to one of the Black clubs. There was a rough one up on Wilson Avenue, but we knew to stay away from there unless Hattie and I had been dispatched by Aunt Julia Mae to look for Uncle Frank.
For the younger members of the family, nothing was more popular than our family reunions that featured us cracking jokes on one another. Aunt Julia warned us each year not to showcase our comical side, which was considerable, and this was the one time we brazenly disobeyed.
Everyone had a story about Uncle Percy, who perfected lying to an art form. Uncle Buddy, a Navy veteran who introduced me to world travel, was easy-going and fun. But he should have known better than to wear red socks to the reunion one year. As expected, we lit into him, accusing him of everything from having been cut on the ankles to working for the Red Cross. The next year, the first thing Uncle Buddy did was raise the legs of his pants to show us he was wearing black socks.
When he was only 4 or 5 years old, Hattie’s son Robbie surprised everyone by going to the front of the room and cracking on his mother. Hattie gave Robbie a look that only Hattie can give, but it was too late – Robbie had brought the house down. His brother, Phill, was accused of bringing a rent-a-date to one reunion.
Through those family reunions and hot summers, I grew closer to my younger cousins: Lynn, Phill, Robbie, Charlene, Audrey, Albert, Regina, Greg, the twins (Ronald and Randall), and “Suzie Q” (Katherine Madison).
I had already been close to Uncle Frank’s children, especially the older ones – LuLu, Dosha, Doris, Carolyn, Alberta, Knuck and Herman – because he held out a long time before moving from Tuscaloosa to Johnson City.
Over the years, the family elders died – Big Mama, Aunt Kat, Uncle Frank, Uncle Percy, Uncle Padna and, most recently, Aunt Julia Mae, who took over as head of the family upon the death of Big Mama. With each passing, the reunions became fewer and fewer, to the point that we don’t hold them anymore.
In recent years, I have said family funerals have become our family reunions. I told it as a joke, but it was the painful truth.
At my cousin Charlene’s funeral last week, family relations had deteriorated to the point where it was obvious that funerals can no longer be used as family reunions. For a variety of reasons, some relatives refuse to speak to others. I remain on speaking terms with all of my cousins and have made it clear that whatever dispute they have with one another will not alter my relationship with any relative. I have made appeals for a truce, but my cousins are strong-willed and nothing I or anyone else can say will get them to move off of dead center.
My cousin Lynn said it would be like this when Aunt Julia Mae passed, but I did not want to believe it. Now, I have no choice but to accept that reality. Uncle Buddy and Mama are the only two children of Big Mama’s still living. And sadly, this next generation of relatives are nowhere near as close as I was to my cousins growing up.
Neither Big Mama nor Aunt Julia Mae would be pleased that our once close-knit family is in shambles. But as long as I have breath in me, I am going to try to get my family back together. I know it’s a very long shot, but I owe that to Big Mama and Aunt Julia Mae to keep trying.
George E. Curry is President and CEO of George Curry Media, LLC. He is the former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA). He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at twitter.com/currygeorge, George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook, and Periscope. See previous columns at http://www.georgecurry.com/columns.