In Praise of My Aunt, the Matriarch, Upon Her 91st Birthday

Wednesday, October 4, 2017 || By Michael Romain || OPINION || @maywoodnews 

Feature image: Janet Linyard Howell, during her younger years. | Jeffrey P. Howell/Facebook

My great-aunt, Janet Linyard Howell, turned 91 last month, which, if I’m not mistaken, makes her the oldest living Linyard any of us Linyards know — one of the last matriarchs in a family full of them.

Aunt Janet was born into a country gripped by depression, a few years before Martin Luther King. Jr. was conceived. She grew up in a Maywood where blacks and some Jews were relegated by racial restrictive covenants to a section of the village bounded by St. Charles Rd. and Madison St., and 10th and 14th Avenues.

For decades, my great-aunt lived in a small house just off the corner of 13th Ave. and Madison St. During holidays and special family gatherings, her backyard was a place for Linyards everywhere (of all ages and experiences) to come together and ‘fellowship,’ as we’d say. The house has since been razed and Aunt Janet has moved, but the symbolism of that house, and its memories, still resonate in me.

Over the weekend, I went to Conner-Heise Memorial Park, on 10th Ave. and Washington Blvd., to cover the vigil held for 14-year-old Michael Jones, who was shot in August while walking near Warren St. and 11th Ave.

Michael was shot in the same area where Andrew Burnside, 18, was murdered in January. Both boys were killed during the transition from late afternoon to early evening, around the time when other children were headed outside to play.

Those killings took place blocks from where my great-aunt’s backyard used to be and a brief walk from Washington Dual Language Academy, formerly Washington Elementary School — for a long time, the only school where blacks, including my great-aunt and her siblings and their children, were allowed to attend in Maywood.

At the vigil for Michael Jones, his adopted sister, who had been raising him for four years after his adopted mother was stricken with Alzheimer’s, said she had come expecting answers (from the police, from neighbors who may have seen something, from anyone) about her brother’s death and, after hearing only prayerful appeals, had braced for the possibility that she would never know who killed her brother and why.

That too many kids are killed in Maywood, year after year, is tragic. But the greater tragedy is that we rarely know their killers. And the greatest tragedy is that we rarely know the kids — living or dead.

I thought about the Maywood of my great-aunt and her children, and the present Maywood, and I realized that they are, for many people, vastly different places even though both are still contoured by race.

Back then, Maywoodians were, by and large, fortified against the reality of racism by a deep sense of common identity and of community reinforced through intergenerational bonds of trust and respect. There were people, like my great-aunt, to whom the young could turn for counsel and wisdom about shared struggles.

Today, that sense of mutual identity, of community, is frayed. The young are alienated (through time and space and technology) from the old. There are fewer opportunities for elders to chastise, fewer teaching moments, fewer exchanges in the backyard. If you were at Michael Jones’ funeral, you would forgive me for the platitudes.

You would have seen pew upon pew of people not yet 21, crowding out the adults, forced to fall back on juvenile notions of strength and weakness while trying to process the heavy fact that their peer, dressed in his football uniform, is lying in a casket. They’re all children, I kept thinking. A sanctuary full of kids mourning a kid.

Moments after speaking with Michael’s sister, I had another conversation in the park with someone who shared a story.

One night in Maywood, not long ago, a boy who I had actually once known (or should say was once familiar with) was shot while hanging out with some friends. When the coast was clear, his friends carried his limp body inside of a nearby house and helplessly watched him die.

Children are growing up in a spiritual and cultural void where getting old, and with dignity, is becoming merely conceptual and increasingly out of reach. For meaning, the young turn only to each other. They live and die together, like soldiers who forge bonds in war. That way of living may be somewhat valiant at times, but it’s no way to grow old.

This is why it’s important to praise matriarchs in public. Take a look at these photos of my great-aunt and her immediate family, who call her blessed (she still shops regularly, still ‘hangs out’ during girlfriend moments with her daughters and is alert enough to appreciate her son’s sermons).


Memorize this grace, because there are forces in this world that would have us forget it. VFP

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