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.
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.
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.