Monday, April 18, 2011

The Spirit of Phyllis Hall

Rich and Forever Giving

When my mom died last fall, she was ready to go, though she nevertheless regretted that she had reached the point where death might be welcome. She didn’t want to linger in her dying, nor did she laze about much in life. Loving always, but not particularly interested in showing it. She had friends, people who loved her, but she still lived her life in a kind of isolated splendor. She wasn’t much for passing out compliments, either, though she celebrated each of us for the virtues she believed we possessed. But she loved us. Gift aplenty.

Now Perry Hall’s mom has died. It has taken me a day or two of thinking about it to fully grasp what Phyllis Hall gave me that no one else did. And in understanding what she did for me, I know I feel a portion of the loss that the Hall family must feel.

Perry’s been a friend my whole adult life. We don’t see each other much anymore, but if I needed him and I told him so, he would come. As I believe I would come for him. A friendship with a man like Perry would be gift enough from Phyllis Hall, but it’s only a fraction of what Phyllis gave me.

In 1970 I spent a good portion of the summer living at Perry’s mom’s house on Hobart, a street one block from Trumbull Street in Detroit. Perry lived there, too, of course. A whole lot of others, brothers, sisters, grandchildren and cousins, lived there, too. And if they didn’t live there, they were around daytime, or nighttime, or mealtime, or bedtime, or maybe all the time; there was no roster or schedule.

During the day Perry and I worked at Ed Bowyer’s Insight Magazine. The magazine was an exemplary editorial vision, but Ed didn’t have the resources to execute that vision. The first issue, showing the statue, Spirit of Detroit, tying off an arm and shooting up, created quite a stir. Insight lasted, two, maybe, three, issues. But it was beyond doubt an important place to work and Detroit was a fine place to engage in struggle.

We ran one feature, an interview of a group of black Detroit-area Vietnam vets, over a couple of issues. The interview was raw, poignant, portentous; full of the anger and frustration of African American men in America in the ‘60s and’70s.

At night Perry and I would return to the Hall homestead, share food and drink, socialize, visit neighbors; a group of autoworkers, members of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) lived across the street, sharing space with grassroots activists who worked for radical Detroit city councilman Ken Cockrell. Life that summer felt relevant and rich. But the key to it all was Phyllis Hall.

She worked a swing shift as a matron at the Detroit House of Corrections, in my mind’s eye a large, dark, forbidding place. But I knew it was a place Phyllis could handle, even as I was sure that I would barely survive there.

Sometimes on her way home from work, Phyllis shopped for groceries and cooked at midnight. Whoever was awake would gather at the table. Others would rouse themselves from sleep. There were never enough beds, so on occasion, waking for midnight dinner, I would find one or two of Perry’s nieces or nephews sleeping on top of me. That always felt like a kind of loving comfort that I did not experience again until my own infant children slept soundly (and with a profound weight) on my chest.

It didn't matter how many people were at the house during those late night dinners, who was sleeping or who was awake, because there was always enough food. Maybe because there was always plenty of love.

I never figured out when Phyllis slept. I’d guess that since she was so busy taking care of everyone else she probably wasn’t getting enough sleep herself. But she lived through Hobart Street and so much else in her life, and lived well for eight decades, so maybe it was caring for others that kept her whole and thriving.

I didn’t see Phyllis much after that summer, but I knew I’d get a warm welcome anytime I came by. I never told her how loved she made me feel, I don’t think she needed to hear such things. But now that she’s gone, I feel the need to note some of the gifts I received from her, gifts I’ve been unwrapping my whole life.

Some time in high school, I lost my innocence about race. By college I knew that equality and meaningful integration and shared understanding were, without struggle and pain, beyond our collective reach in the United States. And I knew that whiteness was both a privilege and a sort of stupidity about the world. And I thought these things with a kind of sorrow I couldn’t evade despite varied and creative efforts to do so; especially after Martin Luther King, Jr., the most enduring heroic figure in my life, was killed. But Phyllis’s house was the place where my whiteness mattered least, and where I did not have to evade the sorrow because I could briefly set it aside. All that counted, so far as I could tell, was the content of my character and that every other person coming into Phylli’s home.

In Phyllis’s house, we were all affirmed.

And, thinking of those late night meals, I am aware that what we all dined on together may not have what we wanted, but it was all that we needed.

Phyllis Hall was the exemplar of the kind of person Sweet Baby James advises us to be:

“Shower the people you love with love,
show them the way that you feel.”

I'm happy to have known her.


  1. What a beautiful tribute to a powerful and loving woman, Jeff, as well as a potent little sketch of the times. Margaret

  2. "we were all affirmed" Amazing

  3. Thank you both for responding. Personally, I am incapable, on any consistent basis, of treating people the way Phyllis reliably did. I can muster occasional bursts of real compassion and a kind of nurturant love, but Phyllis is the first person I ever met who did it all the time.

    And it wasn't because she was an invariably optimistic person, or a natively sunny personality. Her treatment of others was a kind of leadership strategy. The way a matriarch raised and protected and guided her children, all of us, through troubled times. She was a war chief.

  4. Love that Jeff. Now I see where Perrys' heart came from .

  5. Mr. Epton, My name is Kelly Hall Hairston. Likely I was Perry's niece at the house on Hobart. Phyllis is my grandmother. Thank you for your beautiful words about my very special Nana. I, too, love the truth in your words "we were all affirmed" as I feel exactly the same way about my Nana. When asked to describe her I explain to folks, that no matter how you felt when you got there, when you left Nana you felt better, smarter, stronger, prettier/more handsome, and more empowered. Even if you felt great before seeing Nana you'd feel even greater after. Of course, I could say so much more about Nana but I'm sure there is a limit on what I can post here.

    I loved her and she loved me and all her family, both those who shared her blood and those who shared her heart. This I know for sure.

    I hope you don't mind if I share your words with others.

  6. Hey, Kelly. I am so pleased to hear from you. I remember you as an adorable little girl, though I must confess that I don't remember whose daughter you were, Harriet's or Emily's. And, of course, you may share "The Spirit of Phyllis Hall" with anyone and everyone. Talking about your Nana is the best way I can think of to further spread her gifts to us.

  7. Hi Jeff,
    I am Emily's daughter. Phyllip (note the spelling) is my older brother. Harriet's son, William, is my cousin. I'm sure it was tricky to tell who belonged to whom sometimes.

  8. Hi, Jeff, I just learned about your posting from my daughter, Kelly. I just celebrated my birthday; my Mom and I celebrated our birthdays together, hers the 9th and mine the 11th of October. I was her 21st birthday present. I can count the times on one hand that we did not celebrate together, so this one was strange to say the least. However, she would have wanted me to enjoy it to the hilt and with the love of my children and others I did. I really appreciate your remembrance of Mom; she certainly made everyone feel her love. So much so many of my exes continued to hang around the family and Mom, long after our relationships petered out; something I learned to accept as just what Mom did to people. Thanks, again.