On My Mother’s Side – Meeting The Gill Family

April 5, 2014

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

Continental Airlines ticket stubs/itinerary, Pittsburgh to New Orleans (with Houston layover), April 2-10, 1994. (Donald Earl Collins).

This weekend marks twenty years since visiting my extended family on my mother’s side for the first time. It was Final Four weekend ’94 when I hopped on a Continental Airlines flight from Pittsburgh to Houston. To think that until April 2 ’94, I hadn’t been farther west than Atlanta or been in any other time zone seems far-fetched now that I’ve crisscrossed this country enough times to earn hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles. To think that for years I never felt I had a family to talk about at all or that what I did have wasn’t worth talking about. That all changed that weekend.

A conference presentation proposal I put together with Bruce Anthony Jones — my unofficial advisor in the School of Education at Pitt — had successfully made it through the difficult American Educational Research Association’s review process. So me, Bruce, and two other School of Education grad students were headed to the Big Easy to take in the sights and the serious scholarship that would be discussed, ad nauseum, the first full week of April. I managed to get a layover in Houston, all so that I’d have the chance to meet my extended family for the first time. Between the letter I sent to my Uncle Robert and my first adult conversation with a Gill relative other than my mother or Uncle Sam, I hoped that someone would be at the airport in Houston to meet me.

I landed in Houston around 9 am local time. I slept well on the flight, but I had only had about five hours total sleep before arriving in Bush country. I expected a dump of an airport, but the George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport (it wasn’t call that at the time I think) was as modern as Pittsburgh’s then two-year-old airport. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they could see me from a mile away. “I knew it was you, with that Gill nose,” he said as he walked toward me and gave me a big hug.

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

Historic Third Ward, Houston, Texas, March 2012 (not the part I got to visit). (Nelson Bowman III; http://www.myhbcuinterview.com)

We got in George’s car, stopped by a gas station near downtown Houston first, to get gas and to get me something to eat and drink. Then they immediately went to the Third Ward to hang out with friends and play basketball. They only let me take three shots, and I missed all three, tired as I was. “We need real ballers out here,” my Uncle George said.

My uncles were good, but given the amount of time they spent on the court, they should’ve been. They both played basketball in high school in Bradley, Arkansas. Heck, all of the Gill boys played at least two sports growing up. My Uncle Sam played four — basketball, football, baseball, and track — and all of the others at least played basketball and football. George at thirty-two and Darryl at twenty-eight (neither of them like me calling them “Uncle,” with me being twenty-four at the time) were still in pretty good shape, though Darryl complained about his midsection. They kept asking me, “Are you sure you’re a Gill?,” based on three shots I missed, including two that rimmed out.

Eventually I’d meet my Uncle Robert, his wife and sons, my Uncle Darryl’s girlfriend and eventual wife, and a few of Uncle George’s friends that weekend. Of all of the family meetings that took place, none was more meaningful than me sitting down to dinner that Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon with three of my uncles at one time. They grilled me with more questions than I’d get from my dissertation committee some five months later. “How big sis [my Mom] doin’?” “Do any of the kids play sports?” “What’s it like livin’ in the big city?” Even though my mother had been on welfare for eleven years, and living in poverty for some thirteen — working or not — they still thought that we were doing better than they were living in the middle of Texas. I tried, but failed, to convince them that our poverty was real.

It was a weird conversation, seeing that it was happening in the dining and living rooms of my Uncle Robert’s ranch-style house, a four-bedroom, two-bath home with a carport, backyard and decent front yard in suburban Houston. They owned four cars, and a leaky boat that needed some repairs. Pretty good for a man with a high school diploma and someone who was a shift supervisor for a local trucking company. Uncle Robert was the man, a six-five rail-thin man who looked almost like he could be his brother Sam’s twin instead of his slightly younger brother at forty-four years old. But Uncle Robert and the rest of them all assumed that since my mother hadn’t come running back to Texas or Arkansas for help that things were all right. They weren’t, as they’d learn a year later when the 616 fire left my mother and younger siblings homeless.

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

My Uncle, Robert Gill, Houston, Texas, received April 3, 1994. (Robert Gill/Donald Earl Collins).

Beyond that, I learned a lot about the family. I confirmed some of the stories that my mother had told me over the years, including the one about my half-Irish, half Choctaw/Black great-great grandmother who was born in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) in 1880. I also learned that my grandmother Beulah was originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, that I really did have a great-grand aunt in Seattle, apparently New Edition lead singer Johnny Gill’s grandmother or great-grandmother, making all of us related.

That my uncles were and remained close was heartening, and that they managed to get decent and good-paying jobs was encouraging. It also gave me some sense of reassurance, if not pride, in the fact that they had put their lives together in Houston without any real guidance from family. By the time I boarded my flight to New Orleans that Sunday evening, I felt like I knew enough to talk about my family, mother’s and father’s side, for the first time.


Walking In New Orleans

April 12, 2012

My AERA 1994 annual meeting program for New Orleans, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

Only in the past two decades have I done any travel worth mentioning (see “My First Vacation, Valedictorian Included” post from March ’12). When I have traveled, it’s mostly been for work or for career.

Some of my most significant career-related trips have been as a result of presentations at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meetings, which will be in Vancouver, British Columbia (I won’t be in attendance this year — too expensive, and other reasons beyond that). It is just about the largest gathering of academic professionals that I know of in the US/Canada, with 15,000-20,000 attendees and presenters.

Over the years, I’ve attendance five AERA conferences, and presented at three (in ’94, ’96 and ’07). The first one, though, was the most memorable, for a variety of reasons. For one, I actually spent my first two days of this nine-day trip in Houston, as I managed to arrange a layover before heading out to New Orleans to visit the Gill side of my lineage for the first time (see my “We Are Family” post from April ’09). That was strange, mostly in a good way, as I could see my mother reflected in the eyes and accents of my uncles and cousins.

Holiday Inn, French Quarter, New Orleans, 2012. (Google Maps), where folks stayed for AERA 1994.

But New Orleans was a unique experience beyond my two days with my extended family in Houston. The night I arrived, there were five homicides, including at least two in the French Quarter. About an hour after I check in at the rundown Holiday Inn in which I roomed with my professor Bruce Anthony Jones, another professor, and a doctoral student from Pitt’s School of Education, we went for a walk on Bourbon Street. It was a nice, warm and breezy night for the walk, at least until I saw two people doing ballistic vomiting on a corner about two blocks from our hotel.

The next day, that Monday afternoon, was our presentation on multicultural education. We went and met up with another Pitt education doctoral student at some restaurant a couple of blocks away for lunch, all dressed up and ramped up for our presentations. It was sunny and warm at midday, the perfect day to eat outdoors. When we ordered, I hadn’t really noticed the fact that all of the drinks on the menu were alcoholic ones. I asked Bruce about the Citron Lemonade, and he said, “That’s a good choice.” Despite years around my alcohol dad, I didn’t know that the Citron part was Absolut Vodka with a lemon twist.

Apparently, neither did my fellow grad students. I was on my second one when I felt a serious buzz, before I

1-liter bottle of Absolut Citron Vodka, April 11, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins).

slowed down to savor the taste of lemons, sugar and vodka on my tongue. The other two students seemed similarly relaxed. I said to Bruce, “[y]ou didn’t tell me that this drink had vodka in it!”  Bruce said to all of us in response, “but you’re all relaxed now, right?,” in reference to our presentation. His comment reminded me to look at my watch, which showed that our presentation was in fifteen minutes. We hurried to pay our bill, walked quickly to the Marriott, and did what turned out to be a solid presentation.

The business part of the week was over, but the rest of the week in New Orleans became a learning experience. I did an informational interview with two professors from Illinois State University, who told me to finish my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon. Barbara (one of the two Pitt doctoral students) and me checked out the blues and jazz bars in the Quarter, and went to Armstrong Park for an Afrocentric event that Saturday. I took the trolley out of downtown to the Tulane district and then back to experience more of the city. And I bought pralines on behalf of Kate Lynch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, who apparently loved the stuff.

But the most disturbing part of the trip occurred between that Friday morning and Sunday morning. The other Pitt grad student had been acting a bit strange during the week, spending less time at AERA, sleeping in late at our hotel, and not interested in hanging out with the rest of us. Then, he just disappeared. He packed up and left without a note and without paying his share of the hotel bill. We didn’t know until the following Tuesday that he had spent the weekend in Biloxi, Mississippi, allegedly hanging out on the beach.

I said to Bruce, “[m]aybe there was just too much testosterone in the room for him.” Bruce didn’t say anything, as he looked completely confused. I knew that at least one of the professors with which we roomed was gay, and that Bruce was in the closet as well. I assumed, correctly as it turned out, that my grad student roommate bugged out because he needed a release from the tension he felt being around these professors. Me being heterosexual and spending the week at AERA and on the town, I didn’t notice that my grad student was gay until after he’d disappeared himself.

It was a sad way to end such a wonderfully strange trip. New Orleans was a great city with a diverse culture and history, and despite Katrina and the city’s Whitening, maybe it still is.  I just have no desire to return, as once was enough for me, good and bad.


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