“There’s Ma’s house!” My older sister, Althea, and I would scream in excitement as we approached my great-grandmother’s, Julia Dallas-Austin’s, house, 2247 Redwine Ave., College Park, Ga. I could always spot “Ma’s” petite frame sitting on her enclosed front porch, spitting tobacco, and overseeing everything. Ma looked like an Indian Princess: Flawless brown skin, what black people call “good hair” parted down the middle, with two long salt-and-pepper braids framing her face. Although she was small in stature (about 5’3 and no bigger than a size two), had a sweet smile and an overall sweet countenance, Ma was the family matriarch. She was stern. Regal. A taskmaster.
Ma often baby-sat many of her grandchildren and great-grand children. Unfortunately, Ma was “color struck.” She’d tell the darker-skinned children, “Get your old black self away from here!” and shoo them away. Ma gave birth to fifteen children, and at any time, one of her surviving thirteen would be at her house assisting with chores. There was no doubt whatever Ma said to do was done. Period.
I loved going to Georgia. It always smelled fresh and clean, like Momma’s Pine Sol. Momma loved visiting College Park as well. This was home. Louise Austin-Gipson epitomized what we call a “Georgia Peach.” Classic beauty, 5’7, flawless caramel-brown skin, stylish haircut, tailored clothes, witty conversationalist, vivacious personality, and sophisticated homemaker. It was no wonder Daddy was madly in love with Momma.
My father, Levi Gipson, was an all-around man type: 5’10, medium build, well-groomed, articulate, charming, and hardworking. A 1970’s “Denzel.” My father was comfortable talking sports or the arts. My parents seemed perfect for each other.
Daddy’s immediate job when we arrived in College Park was to carry all of our luggage into Ma’s house. My job was to bring in the goodie bags (whatever candy, potato chips, and cookies we accumulated along the way), as well as the road trip fried chicken, bread, bologna sandwiches, and potato salad. I am the “baby” of the family; happy-go-lucky and free-spirited. Daddy nicknamed me “Penny” because as a baby, I would only take the shiny new pennies out of his hand when he offered me money. I adored my father. I wanted to be around him all the time.
My older sister, Althea (her nickname was Tee-Tee), was my exact opposite—quiet, discerning, highly intelligent. Even as a child, she could comment on social and political issues, and she was a math whiz. I loved my sister because she was pretty and smart.
Going south was always exciting because we got to see our oldest sister, Clem, and her sons. Clem was born and raised in College Park. She grew up in Ma’s house, and because she was a decade older than us, we really didn’t know her well. Clem had a different father, and I only remember seeing him once or twice. He was rarely in Clem’s life.
Clem was a firecracker. It was easy to light her fuse. She was a heavy drinker, and she and liquor did not mix. It was hard being around Clem, because you never knew what would set her off. If anyone said something she thought was disrespectful, she would become belligerent, cuss you out, and threaten to cut you, family or not.
There didn’t need to be any special occasion to have a large crowd of people at Ma’s house. Most of her children and grandchildren lived fairly close, and at any given time, we all could find ourselves having a ball. The women would be sitting with Ma on the front porch or in the kitchen, making the most delectable Southern meals you could imagine: breakfasts of grits, cheese eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, coffee, milk, and orange juice. Dinners of fried chicken, catfish, greens, coleslaw, potato salad, green salad, and if Aunt Mary was around, we’d be blessed with her mouth-watering homemade biscuits from scratch.
The men sat around talking loud and drinking. They were animated and at times, you couldn’t tell if they were arguing or enjoying themselves.
Momma loved playing card games. Her favorites were “Tunk” and “Bid Whisk.” I remember seeing her get excited after she and her partner won a big pot. I would hear her gossiping with family about folk I never knew. Momma’s famous reply would be, “Well, God don’t like ugly, and He ain’t too crazy about pretty, either!”
Come late evening, we’d find ourselves still in family fun and celebration. Everyone would be so wrapped up in what they were doing, they really wouldn’t pay attention to anyone else. I do remember Daddy noticing he hadn’t seen Momma for a while. I recall him asking if anyone had seen her leave. No one had. He went room to room looking for her, to no avail. Something told him to start looking in the closets. Following his hunch, he began opening closet doors. No Momma. Relieved but still sticking with his intuition, he continued to check closets. In the farthest, smallest room of the house, he walked up to the closet and opened the door. There Momma was, curled up in the fetal position underneath a pile of clothing.
I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face. In later years, I would see that troubled expression many times. Not knowing what to make of this behavior but understanding something was very wrong with Momma, we all entered into a silent “pact” to keep this aspect of her behavior “a secret.”
by: Sanetta Gipson
About The Author: Sanetta Y. Gipson is an actress & songstress who resides in Los Angeles, CA. A former Runner -Up for Miss Black Illinois, Sanetta began her theatre career with leading roles in Little Shop Of Horrors, Dream Girls and Ain’t Misbehavin’.
Her television and film credits include Strong Medicine, Family Matters, The Wedding Singer, and numerous national commercials. Musically, she has worked with such talents as Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, Adam Sandler, Ice Cube, and Marilyn Manson.
“Our Family Secret” is Sanetta’s poignant memoir of her family’s decades long struggle with mental illness, marking her debut as a professional writer.