February 25, 2004
Raymond Curtis Bowen, Sr.
Raymond Curtis Bowen, Sr. died last Friday at the age of 91. As one of his many grandchildren and father of 3 of his 21 great-grandchildren it falls to me to carry on. I am writing this of my own accord as part and parcel of my own memories.
He taught himself Latin and Greek and was fond of explicating the meaning of words. We Bowens are autodidactic, back to Charles Sparrow the ex-sharecropper and Chico's father. Although Charles didn't survive the great flu epidemic, he did survive the migration from North Carolina to the horsey set of Connecticut. He was a squire, a horseman and from what I know of the scant family history, was the operator for the one elevator in the state, at the Statehouse in Hartford. But he and his wife both died and left his sons orphaned to be raised by the Miller Family several of which I have long heard of but have only recently met.
Chico was a Mason and an Elk. He had a large round head and a deep booming voice which was seldom raised. His knowledge of the intricacies of the black Episcopalians of New England was encyclopedic and I gather it is from that through my own father that our parsing of sermons and philosophies proceeds.
He was a man to have a drink and a smoke with and treated both with barely restrained enthusiasm. Every day was an opportunity to find a high backed chair, have a nip and speak in hushed tones about... who knows? Those things happened fairly high over the head of young Michael, but knowing my father and uncle I can certainly divine.
Chico was an old school gent, of course. He was the first black fraternity house manager at Yale. So his was the job of keeping the lid on the fracas of privileged white boys of the 50s. I presume it was the 50s, I don't really know the exact dates, but it was certainly before my father applied and got dismissed wthout appropriate consideration. Not that UConn Stearns was such a horrible alternative, but such was the typical humiliation of the times. When I think of Chico, I imagine such things.
Chico's room had books, a globe, a stand of pipes and a basket of canes. It gains focus in my memory as that of an officer in the East India Company. Wood, brass, tobacco, iron, vellum. My parents were raised hard. Chico would, no doubt be assailed as an abuser of children in today's persnickety terms. Those canes were not simply for assisting his progress down the sidewalk, but in assisting in ass whipping. He was most certainly a disciplinarian. A black child in the 40s was beat by loving parents in advance of beatings expected by hating whites. How could blacks be beat down by racist cops and maintain their dignity? It started in the home. We don't like to talk about such things, yet somehow being a combat veteran makes one Presidential.
The love of his life was my grandmother Lucille. They were married until she died, now almost 20 years ago. 'Miss Madam' was utterly proper and suffered no fools. It speaks precisely of the two of them when my grandmother was interviewed by some reporter back in the day after my uncle received his PhD in microbiology. Was she surprised that a black man could achieve such a thing? "No", she replied, "he's my son and that's what I expect of him." I went to visit him when I was about 13. It shocked and surprised them that I cut my spaghetti with a knife. She swore she let her son marry the wrong woman when she found out I had no idea that a spoon was to be used. At the time, they lived in new condos on the Sound. I recall grey icy days staring out of the window of their pristine building. Chico, just before I had arrived had put the finishing touches on a model ship. He had also built one in a bottle and challenged my poor brain to figure out how.
In those ways, my grandparents, unassuming as they seemed at a glance represented excruciating discipline. They had made it through the Depression. She had fought polio and won. There wasn't time for foolishness in life, not from an orphan. And in spite of all this Chico exuded warmth in a consipratorial twinkling of his eye. His respect for his wife and her rule of law was absolute, yet within the confines of that proper dignity was a jovial old fellow, and fellow is precisely the word he would use. He was full of good humor - I wish I could have known him as a man.
He worked troop trains, my grandfather. He stayed on after the war and worked for the New York, New Haven & Hartford for many years. He was in service as most working black men of his generation to the maintanence of things that kept the basics rolling. I didn't and couldn't know his politics but knowing my uncle, father and aunt, I know he harbored no illusions about what being colored meant. Still I imagine him stirred by A. Phillip Randolph. Pops says he was a fan of Marcus Garvey - I didn't know until tonight that Charles Sparrow was a serious Garveyite.
Such things are unfortunately shrowded in the mysteries of Alzheimer's. By the time I was ready to ask them, he was unable to tell them reliably. When he would come to visit California, my father would try to get him to write. My brother would record him on tape. The results often said less than anyone would expect. He would talk about his friends and not of himself. He would speak of the times but not their meaning. He would recite some breif genealogy of someone unknown to us all. He would describe the weather on the day that the Andrea Doria sunk.
In ways, he was only known to us through his expectations of us, and now can only be known in that way. He that holds great expectations and love. He that demands respect. He that minds us. Always distant as a man and now departed his presence is almost the same. He defined the gruff arrogance and hearty laughter that is a Bowen. He owned himself and watched many die before him. Now it is his turn to return to the dust. We'll honor him eternally.
Posted by mbowen at February 25, 2004 07:25 AM
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Tracked on March 1, 2004 10:03 AM
As someone who also recently lost a grandparent (http://mhking.blogspot.com/2004_02_01_mhking_archive.html#107581918533305577), I can feel your pain, as well as see your love for your grandfather. It falls to us to honor our grandparents' memory. And you do so with your every deed.
Posted by: Michael King at February 25, 2004 08:53 AM
Sorry for your loss, all of our thoughts are with you and your family.
Posted by: djspicerack at February 25, 2004 09:55 AM
Thank you for your insights on your grandfather. My thoughts are with you and your family today.
Posted by: Darmon Thornton at February 25, 2004 10:34 AM
Thank you, Michael. My thoughts are with you.
Posted by: Charles at February 27, 2004 05:57 PM
Your Gramps was quite the man, Michael. That's a beautiful tribute to him.
Posted by: Christopher at March 2, 2004 10:00 AM