My Aunt Dorothy’s 85th Birthday

On August 16, my Aunt Dorothy celebrated her 85th birthday and when I asked her what she wanted she responded, “let’s go to the casino in Montgomery, Alabama on Saturday!”

Aunt Dot had received an invitation from the casino to come celebrate!  A free t-shirt was promised (provided that there were enough points on the casino game cards). I had passed through Montgomery many times, but never stopped so I was up for a four-hour round trip with Aunt Dot and my sister, Brenda.

It had been a while since I’d gone to the casino. I don’t cotton to casinos because they are designed to make most people a loser and I don’t like giving my hard-earned cash to a computerized game machine that is next to impossible to beat! It’s also why I rarely play the numbers.

My Aunt Dot has always been lucky.

Luck is luck and a power far greater than I can sum up. But at the same time, Aunt Dot has been lucky for as long as I’ve known her and that’s been my entire life, so I at least expected HER to win something.

We ALL lost!

Some are lucky.

After standing in line to cash in the paper tickets that the computer gives you as change. (The ticket can be taken to a cashier or alternatively, can be dropped in a bucket where they are collected for charity. Aunt Dot cashes in her tickets because “I don’t know what charity they are giving my money to! I contribute to the National Negro College Fund and nothing else.”), watching a raffle where various amounts of money were won, and retrieving my aunt’s T-shirt, we decided to go to the Civil Rights Memorial at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I have been intrigued by Maya Lin’s installations for some time and we were all mesmerized as we circled the fountain, touching the water and reading aloud the names of the slain and events that challenged the very core of America’s conscience.

Aunt Dorothy (L) with my sister, Brenda

My aunt and my sister witnessed first-hand, the Civil Rights Movement as had many in the south. My sister was at A&T State University, during the Greensboro sit-ins. I was too young to remember much. The pain on their faces as they circled the fountain bore witness to the past. Being there was painful but uplifting. My aunt prayed. We all did. The experience reminded me of the blues.

We piled in her little red Honda and headed back to Atlanta. We talked.

“I started working for white folks at 10”, she said. “I kept white babies. They had fat feet. I was so little and they were big fat babies. I hated having to take care of them but mama wanted me to work. There was nothing else for us to do, other than work in the fields.” Eventually, she left the south. Most all her siblings did as well. My sister too, briefly to Boston. My mother and father didn’t.

“What’s your middle name?”, I asked.

“Lee”, she responded. “I’m a Lee, Harry’s middle name is Lee, Willie Lee. Robert Lee. Your mother’s middle name was different. Mae. I think Mama just used the same names because she had so many children (there were 11, one died, 10 lived). The rest don’t have middle names. She just got tired of naming I guess.”

She talked about her third husband Henry, now 87, who does not go out much anymore. “He just sits on the porch. I can’t get him to do anything anymore,” she complained. I thought, ‘he’s 87’ and smiled to myself.

Towards the end of our journey, it dawned on me that I was sitting next to my mother’s sister! I know that sounds crazy but sometimes you forget about things like that. My aunt has known me for 63 years, my entire life, longer than my mother who died in 1977. My sister was in the backseat asleep and I was sitting next to my mother’s sister. It was then that I realized the gift of a road trip for Aunt Dot, wound up being a gift to me.