Received Wisdom: Daisy McGee (1934-2013)
Daisy was the grandmother of my African American mentee. Aside from 11 children of her own, she raised him – plus his two sisters and three cousins – for ten years, from the time he was 9. She was fiercely protective of their safety and devoted to their well-being. She was a lovely person and a beautiful human being. She said:
When I was young I’d say I’ll have time to do this or do that. I’ll have plenty of time. But you don’t have plenty of time. When you’re old you can’t do it anymore. Now I tell my grandkids, there’s no tomorrow. Get your education and enjoy life. Because life is short.”
Daisy: I was born October 30, 1934, in Memphis, Tennessee. Daisy Bryant was my maiden name. I was the oldest of nine children. I came here [to Evanston, Illinois] to live with my father and my aunt when I was 13. I’ve been here ever since. I’m 77 now.
Me: Why did you move?
I wanted to come live with my father. My mother sent me.
Was the south a good place to grow up then?
Hmm, it was OK. My aunt lived in Tennessee and I lived with my mother and grandmother in Westminster, that’s in Arkansas, just a few miles from the border at the Mississippi River. I still have brothers and sisters in Arkansas. Back when I was a girl we would go to Memphis to visit my aunt. I went to a little one-room school out in the woods. It was all black. Back in those days everything was black and white. There was a lot of racism.
Jim Crow type racism?
Yes. If a black man walked behind a white woman he had to hold his head down, or else cross over to the other side of the street. He couldn’t look up at her. And if you walked into a restaurant they had white here, colored there. If you went into a store to get a bottle of pop, you had to go to the colored side. And over there’s the white side.
Did that bother you?
When I was young I just thought that’s the way things were. They had you thinking if you were black you were nothing. And you did feel like that. I tell the kids today, you’re so lucky. If you want to go into the store, as long as you have the money, you can go. But back then they only wanted your money if you were over there [in the colored line].
Back then you had to be careful.
Yes, especially the men. My mother would tell us – the nine of us, four girls and five boys – if we went into a store or some place else, you have to stand over here, in the colored line. There were lines for coloreds and lines for whites. Especially the boys, they had to be very careful.
There were still lynchings going on. Even after I had my kids, and they’d go down there, there were still lynchings. That’s when whites and blacks were down there marching, in the Sixties. [The last reported lynching in the United States took place March 21, 1981, in Mobile, Alabama.] When all those people went down there [to protest] and they were killed. See, that’s the way the south was. Take Martin Luther King: they were determined to kill him, to keep those protesters from marching. That was the south. I couldn’t believe it when they shot him, I said, I know that’s a mistake. I couldn’t believe it. I had ill feelings, but you have to get over that. Everybody’s not like that.
Did you come up north because your mother felt it was safer for you?
No, it was just because my father wanted me to come and I wanted to come.
What was Evanston like, in 1947?
Oh, it was beautiful. Evanston was a pretty place, filled with trees. I liked it right away. I went to Foster School and then [Evanston Township] high school. I liked school. But I didn’t graduate because I got married in 1954, before my senior year. I was in love, and I was pregnant too. My father was opposed to it, but we got married anyway. Nowadays people live together without getting married, but back in those days if you were pregnant you got married.
I started working and from then on I worked, two jobs most of the time. I had to. My husband was a drinker. He worked but in between times he was drinking.
What kinds of jobs did you do?
I worked at Presbyterian Homes [a retirement community]. Then when we moved here [to north Evanston] I worked for District 65 during the day, as a teacher’s assistant, and at night I’d clean offices at the Rotary Building. I always had two jobs, because you couldn’t make it with one. Working at the pre-schools in District 65 was my favorite job. I worked at Fleetwood, then Miller (it’s not there anymore), Dawes, Timber Ridge, Kingsley and Haven Middle School.
And that’s when you were having your kids?
Yes. I raised eleven children including two sets of twins. One of my daughters died, at the age of 41, from cancer.
Raising all those children, working two jobs. What was that like?
Oh, it was rough. I was working days and evenings, my husband was here at night. And if he’s drinking then he’s easy to get along with, but when he isn’t drinking he isn’t easy to get along with. I’d come home from work and the people next door would be on their porch whispering, “Those McGee kids…” And my kids, when they’d see me coming, they’d run into the house. That’s when I knew they had done something bad. It could be hard. But nowadays kids are worse.
Why is that?
I don’t know, but sometimes you’re afraid to walk the street. But my kids would be out running in the street, because their father, when he’d been drinking, he’d tell them to go out.
Was he drinking all the time?
No, he worked in between times. But he couldn’t keep a job, because when he was drinking a weekend and can’t go to work Monday, he’s too hung over, maybe they take him back Tuesday. But the next time they won’t take him back.
A couple of your kids had trouble with the law.
Yeah, that’s from drugs, being on drugs. That’s what drugs do for you. You talk to them, but after a while you just get tired of telling them what to do. They should know better. They’re adults. I did the best I could. I didn’t drink or do drugs, and I told them they shouldn’t either.
What was the most important part of child-rearing for you?
The main thing was to make sure we had a place to live and enough food to eat. Because we were scrambling. Where we were living before, on Hovland Court, it was too small, just two bedrooms. And I had nine children and was pregnant. It was always noisy, never quiet. My aunt knew someone in real estate and she came across this house, that’s how we got this house. We moved here in April 1965. That was the best day of my life, when we moved in.
Based on your life experiences, what are the most important lessons, the ones you’d pass on to others?
You have to work, that’s one thing. And in order to get a good job you need an education. So they really need to go to school. And they don’t want to do it today. Because then [if you don’t get an education] you have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. And then you’re still not making anything. With an education you can get an easier job and a job that makes some money. You can’t do nothing without a college education today. Used to be you could go right out of high school and get a job. Not any more.
Did you have trouble convincing your kids about the value of schooling?
Not with the grandkids, because I’ve taken more time with them. But with my kids, yes, because I was working most of the time. My husband was here. He was abusive, and they’d run away. I’d come home from work, change clothes and go right back to work.
How many grandkids do you have altogether?
I have 32.
What were your favorite times?
After my children were grown, going out with my girls to eat, or out to the casino boat in Elgin. Or we’d have a family potluck dinner at someone’s house.
Was it easier growing up when you did?
Yes, you were safer then. Now you don’t know what you might go out and find. You can’t walk the street [safely]. On Halloween we used to trick or treat and just have fun. The Emerson Y [the city’s segregated YMCA, which served the black community in Evanston from 1914 to 1969] had dances every Friday or Saturday night and we used to go. There was a drugstore where all the teenagers used to hang around at, that was at Darrow and Lyons. We used to meet up there and just have fun. We didn’t shoot and fight, we didn’t hurt anyone. Now someone’s always being shot or hurt.
Why is that?
(With anguish) I don’t know. I worry about the kids. I want them to be able to take care of themselves. I don’t want to leave them [the grandchildren]. But so far, the ones I’ve been taking care of, they’ve been doing pretty good.
Did you ever imagine there’d be an African American president?
No I didn’t. But you know Martin Luther King said one day there would be. But it was hard to believe. And they tried to get him [Obama] out.
How much of that was due to racism vs. politics?
I think half of it is racism. And his mother was white!
Do you ever think we’ll get past racial differences in America?
We’re making progress, but I don’t think we’ll ever get over it, no. There’s some black people that don’t like white people. I used to work with a black girl at Presbyterian Homes, she was from the south. She said they treated her bad down there. And you had to watch her, because when she went into a patient’s room – and they were all white – she’d be mean to them. Some black people are the same too.
But we’re making progress.
Some people say it’s actually better down in the south now than it is up north, for black people.
It may be, I don’t know. I haven’t been down there in a long time. I’d like to go back and visit. My brother has a farm down in Little Rock, Arkansas. I used to go down there every year. But after my mother passed, and my two sisters – I had two sisters down there and two brothers – after they passed, I haven’t been back. Of the nine children, there are five of us still alive: three brothers and one sister and myself. I don’t get to see them much.
Losing a child is every parent’s worst fear. How did you get through that?
That was hard. I couldn’t believe it. We didn’t think she was going to die. People have cancer and they manage to live, but she gave up. I would take her food and take her to the doctor. But the chemo damaged her heart. And she told me she could fight the cancer but she couldn’t fight her heart. She couldn’t even walk to the park, she was out of breath, tired all the time. She just gave up. We didn’t think she was going that fast. She was just 41, and had two children.
Were you with her when she died?
No, but that afternoon I brought her some food. That’s when she told me she couldn’t fight it anymore. And she went to the hospital. The doctor told me she had fluid in her heart. He said they could draw it off. But she wouldn’t take the oxygen and she wouldn’t take the medication. And that night she died. She said she was tired and didn’t want to live anymore. I told her, just take the medicine. I tried to talk her out of it, but she just wouldn’t listen.
You’ve had some tragedies in your life. What makes you happy?
I like being by myself, because I’m never alone. If I’m alone I’ll watch TV or work in the yard. Or just get my thoughts together. Right now there’s four of us living here. But three more are coming, they’re in Chicago, in foster care. But as soon as school is out, they’ll come live here, until their dad gets his own place. He lives with someone else right now.
What are you most proud of?
My children. And lots of grandchildren (laughs)! And I’m able to help them when they fall down.
Did you have goals for yourself, growing up?
Yes, I wanted to have my own home for my children and myself. And always have a job.
What’s it like, getting older, and living to an old age?
When I was young I’d say I’ll have time to do this or do that. I’ll have plenty of time. But you don’t have plenty of time. When you’re old you can’t do it anymore. Things you want to do you can’t do. But once you’re there [old], it’s just one of those things. You have to make the best of it. Do what you want to do when you have the chance to do it.
What do you wish you had done when you were younger?
I always wanted to travel. I said, “Well, one of these days I’ll travel.” But I never did, except to go back to Tennessee. I think I’d want to go to Europe, just to see Paris and London. Now I tell my grandkids, there’s no tomorrow. Get your education and enjoy life. Because life is short. When we were children, Christmas and Easter, it seemed like five years to get there. And now it’s another six months, it’s another holiday. Everything now comes so fast.
If you had the chance to do some things over, what would they be?
I would go to school, finish high school. I would have gone to college. High school doesn’t prepare you. You can get a job but you’re still not going to get paid [much]. And I wouldn’t have got married as early as I did. I wouldn’t mind having five kids, but then I’d be able to take care of them the way they should be taken care of, to stay home with the kids.
Does anything still surprise you about life?
The way I’ve lived, and with children and all, nothing surprises you anymore.
Do you believe in God?
Yes I do. I don’t go to church that often. But I believe there is a God. And I believe in heaven and hell, yes. I believe in treating other people the way I want to be treated. With respect. I don’t believe in doing bad things to people. That’s what I tell the kids.
I belong to Mt. Pisgah Church, it’s a Methodist church near here. I’d go more often but since I’ve been sick and taking this medication all the time I don’t sleep well at night. And then I tend to sleep in the morning and I oversleep. But I’m going to start going again. I used to go every Sunday, and I enjoyed it. My granddaughter goes every Sunday.
How do you reconcile the world’s suffering and evil with an all-loving God?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s God acting or something else. I think sometimes you can bring things on yourself. Like they say, you reap what you sow. If you do something bad to someone else, something bad is going to happen to you too.
How do you face the prospect of dying and death?
When you’re young you don’t think about it. When you’re old you do. I don’t want to die and I hate thinking about death. But I know one day it’s going to come. So I try not to think about it. When I die, I hope to just slip away. I don’t want to suffer.
Do you think you’ll be with God when you die?
I hope so. (Laughing.)
The interview was conducted April 9, 2012. Daisy passed away from congestive heart failure on May 1, 2013. She was 78.
Received Wisdom is intended to capture the thoughts and experiences of older people, specifically those over 75, in the belief that a lifetime of struggle, survival and joy – in other words living – has endowed them with special insights and knowledge worth sharing.
Lester, that was really good. Thanks.