Lolly was born over the river in Philadelphia, in the Nicetown neighborhood, in 1942. She grew up with nine brothers and sisters. Two brothers and one sister remain alive. All of her brothers would go into the military, fighting in the Korean or Vietnam war. Her father was a carpenter and her mother took care of the children. She hands me a photocopy of a photograph of her mother, a strikingly beautiful woman radiant in a sundress. Her mother, who had white, Cherokee and black ancestry, was nicknamed “Hollywood” because of her beauty and elegance. Her fair skin meant that at times she was mistaken for being white. The woman in the old black-and-white picture has dark curls. The promise of life is written across her broad, joyous face.
Lolly’s mother, born and raised in New Castle, Pa., lost her own mother when she was 5. Lolly’s grandfather remarried a year later, and the family moved to Bedford, Va. It was in Virginia that Lolly’s mother met her father, who was half black and half Cherokee. They lived in Virginia until 1936, when they moved to a black section of Philadelphia, in Nicetown. Her mother studied to be a nurse, but her father forbade her to practice because of the strictures of the church. Some of the whites, Lolly remembers, lived in large, fine houses on Erie Street.
“My mother corresponded with a church in Philadelphia,” Lolly says. “She had gotten sick. And so she had written the pastor and told him she was sick. This was the First Century Gospel Church of Philadelphia. They told her they would pray ‘round 12 o’clock and fer her to pray right along with ‘em, and she did. And my father came home that day and saw my mother hangin’ up clothes. And she said she was healed. They decided then to come up to Philadelphia.”
“My father and my mother were God-fearin’ parents,” she says. “We went to church every Sunday, and every Wednesday evening we was at church. I had a sister I was named after. Her name is Mary Lolly. She was 2 years old when she died. She come down with a bad cold. I guess it was penomia. We had two beds in the girls’ room. The boys’ room had two beds and a bunk bed, so ther was four beds in the boys’ room. When I came along I was at the end. Then my mother, she adopted a little boy. I raised him after [my mother] passed away the day before he turned 7. I was 19. It was the 30th of May and we had the funeral. She died of diabetes. My mother was 60 years old.”
“I left the church when I got older,” she says. “I couldn’t understand why you couldn’t wear glasses, couldn’t go to the doctor, but they went to the dentist. I’m thinkin’ [when] you go to the dentist and get a tooth pulled isn’t that medication?”
“I never knew my grandparents on my father’s side,” she says. “I never knew my grandparents on my mother’s side, except my step-grandmother. My father raised his sisters and his brothers. His parents passed away, but he never would talk about what happened. He never said nothin’ ’bout what happened to our grandparents on my father’s side.”
“The hardest part of my childhood was in the wintertime,” she says. “My father was a carpenter, but we never had our lights out; he always paid the bill. He saved when he worked in the summertime. He made sure he put money away to pay the rent and the public service bills. Food was the hardest. I ’member one time I was ’bout 5 years old. My sisters and brothers was in school. I come down and tell my mother I was hungry. And she said, ‘OK, wait, wait.’ So she made me some toast. I ate that. An’ then when my sisters and brothers came home from school that afternoon we had oatmeal. I ’member that night tellin’ my mother I was hungry, that that oatmeal didn’t fill me up. That was the first and only time I remember bein’ hungry. The next day was payday. My father came home and [had] bought food and everything, groceries and stuff. I had been near hungry, but that was the only time I can really say I was really, really bein’ hungry.”