I returned to Michigan as a reporter after being away for nearly 20 years. When I was a boy, was taught almost nothing about the history of the African-American experience or the history of Detroit or even the history of my family for that matter.
Confronted by the hard realities of our time and our city, I went looking for my own story which is inextricably linked to the story of Detroit -- white, black and red. I was surprised by what I found.
In the spirit of Black History Month, this is the first of three essays on myFOXdetroit.com that will culminate in video form on FOX 2 in coming weeks. Portions of these essays will appear in my upcoming book, “ DETROIT: An American Autopsy,” due out this fall. -- Charlie LeDuff
DETROIT -- I finished shaving and dressed. My wife and I loaded up the baby in the SUV and drove to my aunt's funeral in a rural corner of Oakland County, where the land rolls like a ship on the swells. A boat, a house, a lake, a foreclosure sign.
"Jesus, it's Whitey McWhiteville out here," my wife said distractedly, noticing a white-faced lawn jockey. She is a white girl who grew up in Detroit — not the suburbs — which makes her a special kind of white person.
"Have some respect," I barked at her. I don't know why. Maybe it was the idea of the funeral. My people don't handle them very well. There is usually a drunk screaming from an upstairs window, like a stewed sailor on night watch. Sometimes it is a fistfight. One time, a cousin threw a beer bottle at his brother's casket as it was lowered down the hole, screaming that his brother could keep the dime deposit.
I turned up the radio. Manfred Mann was singing, the blackest-sounding white man there probably is. Blue, black and white, can't we get anything right? An appropriated sound of course, but righteous enough in its own way.
The funeral for my aunt was weird in the fact that it wasn't weird. It was normal. It was white. It started on time. Everyone wore a tie and jacket. Aunt Marilyn, my father's sister, had raised the ultimate American family. A husband of 49 years, seven children, 22 grandchildren or something like that. No divorce. No death by misadventure. Catholic to the point of evangelical. Her progeny lining up single-file to each place a rose in a vase. It was simply odd in its normalcy, it’s clean-scrubbed sweetness. Who were these people? Where was their bitterness? Their bite? Their whiskers? They couldn't possibly belong to me. And then a brassy woman stepped out of a dark corner.
"Yes?" I had never seen her before.
"I'm your long-lost Aunt Debbie."
I stood there blankly. She was a well-put-together blond in a black dress, with red lipstick. A smoker, I thought, by the sound of her voice.
"Your father's half-sister?” she offered helpfully. “Your grandmother, she was my mother, Betty. I'm your father's half-sister."
"Her name was Betty?"
"Yes, your father's mother. We had the same mother. Betty."
"Well, first Betty Lancour. And then Betty LeDuff when she married you father's dad. And then Betty Zink when she married my dad. She died when she was 35 years old. Alone."
"Those are a lot of names."
"Yeah, they are."
"How did she die?"
"A heart attack, I think."
"How is your father?"
"I haven't talked to him in a decade," I told my new Aunt Debbie. "Not since my sister's funeral. She was 35 too."
"Oh, wow," she said.
Like a gossip with a secret, Aunt Debbie wasted little time telling me her son's girlfriend just had her feet amputated because of a virus and that the muffler just fell off her car, making it difficult to fulfill her job, which was to shuttle around the Amish back in Pennsylvania.
This was more like my family. I liked her.
Grandma Betty died alone. Who was she? And who was Grandpa, for that matter? It occurred to me, especially now that I was back in Detroit, that for a man who had spent his entire professional life criss-crossing the planet asking others the most pointed and personal questions, I didn't really know much about my family. Or myself. A boat without an anchor, bobbing across the shores of Whitey McWhiteville.
I went looking for Grandma Betty.
The radio dispatcher sent scout car No. 10-1 to see about a dead woman, according to the police report. It was 3:35 in the afternoon on March 8, 1956. It was cold outside. Patrolman Mitchell Adamek found a youngish woman lying dead in the back bedroom of Apartment 207 at 2665 Gladstone, on the west side of Detroit, near the Sacred Heart Seminary. She was dressed in a slip, nothing more. There were no visible signs of violence to her body. Adamek contacted the homicide squad anyway.
On the dressing table was a bottle of Anacin tablets, a bottle of Bufferin tablets, a bottle of nose drops and a bottle of codeine cold remedy in liquid form. In the corner stood John W. Migan, a narrow-shouldered dentist who, at the age of 34, was still living with his mother. He told Adamek that he had been dating the woman for the better part of three years and that he had last seen her about 2 a.m., when her dropped her off after an evening of spirited partying.
When they were done having a good time, Wigan went home to his mother. He returned later that afternoon to find his girlfriend dead. The woman, Betty Zink, was my grandmother, but as I began digging into her story, the more I realized she could have been my sister.
It seemed to me looking over her police report that the dead don't take their sorrows and confusion with them, they pass them on like watches and amulets.
Born Betty J. Freed in 1920 to a traveling salesman and a Chippewa Indian woman from Mackinac Island, my grandmother had married and divorced twice in her short life. Her first husband was an elegant, swarthy-skinned man named Royal LeDuff, my grandfather. She bore him two children — my father, Roy Jr., and Marilyn — before the marriage ended in divorce. She then married Robert Zink and bore him two children, Debbie and Bob. That marriage also rapidly dissolved, Betty divorcing herself of Zink and his fists.
By all accounts, she was a fantastically handsome woman, with dark brown hair, gray eyes and a full, curvaceous figure. A door-to-door saleslady, according to the death certificate.
But she was wild and ill-equipped for the domestic life. Both sets of children would end up living with their fathers while Betty lived with her demons. She danced with the liquor bottle and dined with barbiturates. The coroner determined her cause of death to be heart failure, but he did not perform toxicology tests. He did note, however, that her liver was in an advanced state of failure. She was 35.
More than 50 years had passed since her death, and no one had ever mentioned her name to me. No photographs had been passed down, no story. A ghost in the attic. A beautiful woman who was haunted by something unknown to all but herself. A woman who medicated herself into a slow oblivion, to the point of failing organs. A woman who met a dark and sad death, just as her granddaughter Nicole would.
Why had no one spoken about any of this until a long-lost aunt emerged from a dark corner of a cold Catholic church to tell me?
I asked this of my father, Roy, when he called after hearing through the family telegraph that I was nosing around. I hadn't spoken to him in about 10 years.. In fact, I hadn't spoken to him probably more than a dozen times in my life, and then it was usually at funerals and family functions. We didn't know much about each other beyond the fact that we shared a name and blood.
"You've got to understand the thing about this family," he told me. "We were all just pieces of everything, there was no whole there. Nobody really knows the truth."
I was beginning to understand, now that I was home in Detroit, that things are rarely what they seem — they're an amalgam, a fictionalized version of the truth served up to suit people's needs and help them get on with the difficult business of living.
It is like that in most places I suppose, with most families.
After listening to my father’s recollections of his mother, our conversation turned to his father, my grandpa Roy LeDuff. I had always been told that LeDuff was a Cajun name, with its roots in swamps of Louisiana. This is what my father had been told too. I would come to find out this was a lie.