Maternal Kin, Photographs, Virginia, Vocation

Look at that.

John Allen on Aberdeen worksite

I rode through Aberdeen Gardens two or three times while I was in Newport News. “By Negroes, for Negroes” reads the historical marker near the school. Boxy, red-brick houses counterposed in neat lines along streets named for community heroes. My grandfather John C. Allen Jr. was a drywall supervisor during their construction in the late 1930s. Though he disdained the building standards, he briefly moved his family into one of the duplexes when my mother was three weeks old. Semi-furnished. A chicken coop out back. A vegetable garden. By 1940, the family was gone, into the two-story house on 35th Street that my grandmother called home until she died. There’s a rose alongside the porch that still blooms where my grandfather planted it, and he passed in 1948. This house is the most constant edifice of the whole of my life. My Gibraltar. Upstairs, my grandmother slept in the double bed that they brought with them from Aberdeen, along with a squat chest and a nightstand. Solid oak in a simple Shaker style. “Not a drawer sags to this day,” she told me, marveling. She pulled one precariously far out. “Look at that.” I gently tested its solidity. I laughed.


Above, John C. Allen (third from right) and his drywall crew at Aberdeen Gardens, circa 1937, and floor plan of Aberdeen Gardens home.