A house in Austin

August 23, 2020
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By Jacquelyn Dortch

One day my grandmother, Dorothy Faye Holley, came home and called a family meeting. I was 9 when she informed the family that she had been successful in purchasing a three-flat, and we would be moving.

There were eight of us living in a one-bedroom apartment, so we were thrilled. I remember us screaming and dancing at this news. We had so much fun packing and getting prepared for our new space. There we would have our own apartment and our own bedrooms.

I remember being in the car with my grandmother. We were headed over to see the new place – in Austin. When we pulled up to this big green house, I felt my eyes widen. It was unbelievable. We had a back yard, neighbors, a porch – it was amazing.

The green house would serve as the family hub. A place where my grandmother, my family, my aunt (Betty) and her children and other extended family would come to reside.

My brothers and I could not wait to complete our chores so we could go outside in the back yard. My brothers had a basketball rim. We had a driveway, where I could jump double-dutch. In the wintertime, we had a basement where we could gather and play.

There are so many stories to be told about our time here in this home. I will share some of my favorites. At one point, every adult was working the night shift. My grandmother, my great aunt, my mom and dad were all working overnight.

That meant we would be home alone. Me and all the boys, my two brothers and two first cousins, would be home alone at least five nights each week. We were all anywhere from 8 to 13 years of age.

We would pretend to be asleep when our parents were leaving for work. After making sure they were gone, we would get up to watch TV, eat cereal, and our favorite past time was playing hide and seek all over the building.

One night we were playing hide and seek. I hid behind the sofa and happened to peer out of the window. I noticed my grandmother, mom, and aunt were walking back toward the house.

Jacquelyn Dortch at age 9.

I started to run and shout, “They are coming back; they are walking; something is wrong.” I ran to get back into the bed. My brothers thought I was kidding. But then they could see I was serious. We narrowly escaped getting caught.

I remember Sunday mornings getting ready for church. My grandmother would cook bacon, rice and toast. There is nothing special about this breakfast, but no one could cook white rice like Mama. It was fluffy, buttery and just good! There would be gospel music playing all through the house; we sang and danced as we prepared for church.

Family holidays were the best. We lived on the first floor, while my grandmother and aunt lived on the second floor. A good family friend resided on the third floor. During holidays you could smell food coming from each apartment. We were up and down the stairs taking ingredients to the cooks.

Being the only girl in the house, I had to help cook. I would always protest. I told them I didn’t need to learn to cook because I was going to have a maid. We would listen to music while chopping, seasoning and cooking. These were some of the best times with the matriarchs in my family, my grandmother, mom and Aunt Betty.

My grandmother was the owner and proprietor of this family dynasty. The three-flat was divided into three apartments; however, the heating system was just one unit. That meant my grandmother carried the cost of heating the building. She charged below-market rent because we were family.

She knew everyone’s financial situation, so she made rent affordable. To meet the obligations of the building mortgage and utilities, my grandmother often worked double shifts.

Dorothy Faye Holley, the author’s grandmother.

She worked as a nursing assistant making just $3.35 an hour. I vividly remember because I would cash her paycheck at the currency exchange and secure money orders to pay her bills. At times, she would only have $20 left after paying bills, buying groceries, paying tithes and buying a bus card.

There were times when we didn’t see our grandmother. She was gone when we left for school and still working by the time we got home. If she did come home in between shifts, she was sleeping, and we had to be quiet. It hurt to see her working so hard, but that is who she was; she would do anything to keep the green house.

I recall one time, when things were particularly rough. My dad had been laid off from his job. My mom was working part-time while going to nursing school, and my aunt was not employed. We were just about out of food.

We were waiting for Mama to come home from work and cash her check so that we could get some groceries. We had syrup sandwiches for breakfast. For those who don’t know, that consists of bread and syrup.

My grandmother was going to stay at work because it had snowed so much that by the time she navigated the bus to come home, it would be time for her to go back. We were in a quandary because we needed her money for groceries.

She suggested we ride the bus to her job to get the money, but that would take too long. She then suggested we borrow money from a neighbor. My mother and aunt decided to do something different. We went on a manhunt for loose change in the house.

We looked in old purses and in couch seat cushions. We emptied our piggy banks. Slowly but surely, we were adding up money. I have always been resourceful and frugal. I had earned some money babysitting for my cousin, braiding hair and cleaning garages.

I had at least $40, but I could not let them know this. I went into my secret stash and got $15. I strategically placed the money where others could find it so that it appeared to come from this hunt for money. We scraped together roughly $30.

My aunt, my cousin and I walked a mile to the grocery store. We purchased a few cans of salmon croquettes, rice, biscuits, cookies, chips and soda. That turned out to be one of my most memorable times with my mother and aunt.

We ate heartedly as we laid on the living room floor watching Family Classics, a television series designed for family viewing. Later that day, when the snow stopped, we took the bus to meet my grandmother at work and to take her some food. We sat in the visitor’s lounge and had dinner with my grandmother. These times were priceless.

My brother got married at the green house, my mother used to have church there, my grandmother sold candy from the house, and we babysat neighborhood kids there.

Some of Jacquelyn Dortch’s family stands on the front stoop.

What may seem like just bricks and mortar was more than a foundation for the frame of the house. It was the foundation where our character, spiritual integrity and moral convictions were built and cultivated.

We spent countless hours sitting on the porch entertaining company. Our porch was never empty. People would drive by and see someone outside, and they would stop. This was the hub for family, friends and fun.

I remember the night we prepared for me to leave for college. The porch was littered with family and friends bidding me farewell. I looked back and saw that house in the rearview mirror as we drove away. I was apprehensive: The green house had been my safety net, but I knew it was time for me to go.

In May 1989, I graduated from college. My family from Illinois and Tennessee came to attend the graduation. We had a great time celebrating. Throughout the evening, my grandmother seemed preoccupied. She kept saying she was concerned for my aunt Betty.

My aunt Betty had suffered with addiction for most of her adult life. She had stayed home with the children while the rest of the family journeyed to my graduation. My grandmother continued to talk about Betty and her concern for her.

It was approximately 11 p.m. when my grandmother called home to check on Betty. My grandmother’s sister answered the phone and reassured her that everything was OK but that Betty was “gone.” My grandmother seemed a bit relieved.

As we drove home the next day, my grandmother continued to say something wasn’t right at home. She was very pessimistic to the point that we were getting aggravated with her.

As we approached the house, I could see all the cars in the driveway and near the house. There were neighbors gathered around. I immediately thought there was a surprise party waiting for me inside.

My grandmother sat on the porch. She said she could not go into the house because something wasn’t right. I went inside, and as I attempted to go upstairs to see my aunt Betty, a family friend greeted me at the top of the stairs.

She ushered me into the dining room and embraced me tightly. She said, “Betty is gone.” I asked, “Gone where?” She said, “She died last night.” I did not believe this; I left and went to the back of the house where Betty slept.

As I entered the room, my little cousin, Betty’s daughter who was just 5, was on the sofa, I asked, “Where is Betty?” she said in her young innocence, “She’s dead; the people took her out last night.” I was weak, but not for me for my grandmother.

My grandmother had a premonition, a feeling, and she was right; there was something wrong. Betty had died at approximately 10:45 the night before.

My cousin, her son, told us that they had rented movies and was planning to watch television that night. Betty, however, went to use the bathroom first.

After a significant amount of time, he went to check on her. He knocked on the door but didn’t get an answer, so he forced the door open, and Betty was on the floor unresponsive.

He called for my grandmother’s sister, who was in another room. They tried CPR while phoning the paramedics, but it was too late. Betty was gone.

Betty died in the bathroom. For years, I could not use that bathroom. It was a constant reminder of what I had lost.

Matriarch Dorothy Faye Holley in front of her house in Austin, with one of her grandchildren.

Despite this tragedy, the green house was still the hub for family fun. Our family began to expand as we grew into adulthood and started to have children of our own.

The grandkids were always excited to spend time with their grandparents at the green house. We had barbecues and birthday parties. We often gathered to watch sporting events. My siblings and I would coordinate meeting up there.

The green house became a safe haven for me. It was a place I could go when I wanted to get away from my reality. You didn’t need an appointment. All you had to do was show up and ring the bell.

My grandmother would open the door, and each time greet you as if she had not just seen you a day or so ago. If ever there was an occasion when someone wasn’t home, we could sit on the porch and chat with neighbors as we waited.

In July 2005, my mother died in her bedroom. Suddenly, the place I cherished, a place of solace, had become a place where I felt a deep sadness. My grandmother was still there, so I had to embrace this house. I had to support my grandmother.

For the next nine years or so, although we visited often, we would take our grandmother to our homes. She said she felt depressed and haunted in the house. She had worked hard for more than 40 years to keep the green house a place where family could come when they needed a place to stay. This came with the extensive price of home maintenance and repairs.

There were times when family members didn’t pay rent. Life happened, and because my grandmother was so kindhearted and understanding, they didn’t prioritize rent. They forbade paying rent while still enjoying the luxury of cable TV.

Although there were capable people living in the home, my grandmother had to pay outsiders to shovel the snow and mow the grass. I and my cousin/brother were constantly helping with the finances of maintaining this property, even though we had homes of our own.

For nearly two years, I worked hard to encourage my grandmother to move in with me. She felt as if she had sacrificed too much to keep the place, and both her children had died there, so she was not willing to move.

She knew she was no longer happy there, but she was more concerned about the well-being of the family who remained in the building, putting their needs before her own.

In July 2014, I finally convinced my grandmother to leave the green house. Shortly thereafter, we learned she was terminally ill. She was to leave the hospital and go home with hospice support.

One of her final requests of me was NOT to take her back to the green house. She did not want to die there. She also asked me to help my cousin/brother to secure sole ownership of the building and to keep it as a resource for family and friends in need of shelter.

I fulfilled one of her wishes. I took her home with me, where she would ultimately make her transition. I have not been successful in helping my cousin/brother secure the property.

Despite my grandmother having a living will, a letter of intent and communicating what she wanted to happen with her building, her wishes have been usurped. She was manipulated into some unsavory business practices a few years prior to her death.

Sometimes I drive past the house just to sit and look at the porch. I can visualize happier times when we were all filled with hope and promise. I smile.

I remember the times when mama sat on the porch to catch her wind after working a double shift or before walking two flights of stairs; or when she sat on the porch clutching her purse and smiling, telling all the neighbors who passed by that one of us was coming to take her out.

Other times I cry as I recall them bringing my mother out in a black bag. I cry when I recall my grandmother getting off from a double shift but still take time to pick up the paper and debris from the lawn.

I cry because I miss my grandmother, my mother and my aunt. I cry because whoever comes to live there will never truly know the sacrifice, the love and loss that made this place a pivotal source of our family history.

Even if we are not able to keep the green house as a family dynasty, we will always have the memories, good and bad. It was certainly a place that shaped and changed our lives forever.

Jacquelyn (Jacqui) Dortch was born on the West Side of Chicago in historical K-town. When she was 9, her family moved to Austin to pursue better schools and a safer environment in which to raise their children. Jacqui remained in Austin until she purchased her own home in the western suburbs. She has committed her life and career to work and advocate for the people of color who reside in disenfranchised communities. For more about Jacqui’s life, read her story at http://www.maryjomama.com.

The author, Jacquelyn Dortch

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