This weekend marks fifteen years since visited 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 (believe it or not, Atlanta is technically farther west than Pittsburgh) 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.
I was really on my way to New Orleans for the first time. A conference presentation proposal I put together with 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, my professor, 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.
The only reasonable flight I could book was with Continental, flying me into Houston first, then a crop duster connection to Nawleans. Since I knew I had family in Houston, I managed to get something that is very hard to do in the post-9/11 age — an extended layover. Because my mother only had infrequent contact with her brothers, I had to do some pre-Google detective work. I went to Hillman Library and pull out old phone books to look up numbers for my uncles Paul, George, Hobart, Darryl and Robert.
It turned out that my Uncle Paul was no longer in Houston, that my uncles George, Hobart and Darryl constantly moved — their numbers weren’t always up to date — but my mother did have my Uncle Robert’s number. But him and his wife had fought over a telephone bill in ’89. And because my Uncle Robert refused to pay the bill, their phone service had been cut off for nearly five years. So I wrote my Uncle Robert about a month before to let him know I was coming. I also lucked out, finding a recent number for my Uncle George, which linked me to his new number. Between the letter 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.
It was a 6 am flight that my Carnegie Mellon colleague Marilyn Zoidis dutifully dropped me off for, picking me up around 4:30. It was still in the 40s, with the high that cloudy day 53 degrees. I barely went through security and boarded my flight at the barely two-year-old Pittsburgh International Airport when I just fell asleep. I was on my first flight to somewhere other than New York or Pittsburgh, and I slept through it as if I took this flight all of the time. I remember being more excited about meeting them than about the AERA annual meeting. Yet the only thing I thought of for two and a half hours was something in the middle of dreamland.
We 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. I got down to baggage claim, and there they were. Uncle George and Uncle Darryl were there, grinning and smiling as if they knew me 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, but about five minutes in, I had to ask them to open up the windows. It was 78 degrees in Houston, and it was just after 10 am by the time I had taken off my Georgetown sweatshirt. We 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 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 mother] 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 slightly younger brother at forty-three or 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.
I found out that someone on the Gill side besides me and my mother had made it to college, that my Uncle Paul used basketball to make it to the University of Houston, as part of Phi Slamma Jamma in the early ’80s with Clyde Drexler, among others. He left a year early to play in the NBA for the 14-68 Houston Rockets in the ’82-’83. My Uncle Paul played 28 games that year, before his knee problems and relative lack of talent (he’d likely be a starter on one of today’s weaker teams) left him without a basketball career after that season. But he also pulled himself up, went to ITT Technical Institute to learn about using laser technologies and lighting for entertainment purposes, and broke into the world of entertainment as a freelance laser light and lighting technician. As I’d learn more about the following month when I visited my Uncle Paul in Atlanta, he had worked with Earth, Wind and Fire and New Edition on their tours in the late ’80s, and was living as if he were playing in the NBA.
I learned a lot that weekend, had a lot of fun with family, and learned more about my mother’s side of my family in two days than I had in my twenty-four years on planet Earth. 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. Although they did follow my mother’s example by playing sports, getting their high school diplomas, and leaving Bradley, Arkansas and cotton country for a better future somewhere else. 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.