Many years ago as I sorted through the collection of items my bachelor brought into our marriage, I discovered a small china bowl, chipped on the rim and faded by years, a product which came free in boxes of laundry soap decades ago.
"What's this?" I asked, by now expertly flipping items into trash bags when Tom's back was turned.
"That's Hattie's bowl," came the answer. "Don't you dare throw that away."
Then he explained. Hattie Lee was the housekeeper in his mother's childhood home in West Point, Miss. For 14 years she served the Grizzle family, cooking, cleaning and giving broadly of her love to Sam and Margie Grizzle, and their daughter Margie. (Our daughter Margie is the third generation to carry the proper name.)
Hattie appeared in many of the childhood accounts Margie told her five children as they grew up. Lovingly told, those memories became a part of the fabric of the stories her children would tell her grandchildren years later.
"That's the bowl Hattie was allowed to eat from." She had her own fork, spoon and drinking glass as well, although those have been lost to time.
A 'colored' woman, the dishes had been designated to her alone, and set aside after she left the household's employ -- considered too dirty to be used by the rest of the family.
Since that moment, the bowl has been treated tenderly -- on display or carefully packed away on our travels. My reminder that I live just one generation away from a time in which a beloved 'colored' woman's dishes were too unsanitary for use by the white folks.
After our last move, I was clearing out boxes and totes, putting things away in our new home. At the bottom of the box remained dust bunnies and a scrap of paper. I almost dumped the whole thing in the trash, but took a look at the yellow paper. It was Hattie's obituary which read, "Hattie Lee, colored, wife of Pete Lee, died this morning at 10:30 in her home on Athens Street. She was born in Strong Station and lived in Clay County practically all her life.
"Hattie worked for Mr. and Mrs. Sam Grizzle for 14 years and for Mr. and Mrs. Harold Clark for the past three years. She reared 14 grand-children, and was one of the most influential of her people. She was a member of a Baptist Church at Strong. All who knew Hattie are saddened today because of her going."
This scrap of paper now lives in a small frame on my desk. A reminder that I now work just a generation or so away in a profession in which giving three inches of typeset to commemorate the death of a 'colored' woman was extraordinary for the time.
The theme of this year's Black History Month is "Black Women in American Culture and History" which "honors African American women and the myriad of roles they played in the shaping of our nation."
Hattie Lee is part of our family's heritage -- she played a role in shaping the childhood of my mother-in-law, and in turn the man I would marry.
I've shared the story of Hattie's bowl with our children, along with other stories of how black people were treated -- even as recently as in my own childhood. To them, such tales are unfathomable. So far from their upbringing and experience are these, they halfway suspect I'm embellishing stories which I know I've quietly understated.
My children describe their friends this way, "They are funny, smart, and they make good grades. He's a good guy."
When I've pressed my son for some physical description I get, "Oh, they are about my height. Dark hair. Brown eyes. Little overweight."
It never occurs to him to mention what color the friend's skin might be.
That's the best gift I can return -- a generation we've raised who are the realization of a dream -- friends who sit comfortably together, close as brothers, who first describe one another by their character.