Meet my mom, an unheralded hero of Black History Month
Always the little girl haunts me.
Her innocent face flashed in my mind last September when a friend counseled me on how to confront my elderly mother’s mounting health issues. “Let her go,” the friend — who at 94 was even older than Mom — suggested. A still-active businesswoman, she spoke with compassion despite never having met the wom tradition, she was coaxing me to release.
“I should let Mom go,” I wanted to tell her. But what will happen to the little girl?
An “illegitimate” child resulting from her teenage mother’s rape by a distant family member, the little girl was born in 1924, when the circumstances of her birth elicited more revulsion than sympathy. Unmarried Negro church girls in her suburban Philadelphia home town weren’t supposed to get pregnant under circumstances, so the child’s expectant mother was hidden away in a neighboring town until her baby’s birth. Her unwanted infant — a female, which made her even less consequential — was placed in a Philly boardinghouse run by aloof strangers. Yet unlike the institution’s other leftbehind children, the little girl had one sure source of affection: Nana, the grandmother who visited weekly on her day off from keeping house for a wealthy faman ily.
Every few weeks, Nana was joined by a pretty, stylish young woman whom the little girl realized must be her mother. At age 7, the little girl was grievously burned over much of her body after her dress caught fire in a backyard blaze. For days she lay alone in a hot, upstairs bedroom, unseen by medical professionals. Arriving for her weekly visit, Nana found her tiny, scalded body stuck to her sheets. Snatchany ing her up, Nana dashed, screaming, into the street. A passing car stopped to rush them to a hospital, where the child heard doctors whisper their doubts that she would survive.
Last May, that little girl turned 92. Certainly, every nonagenarian has a fascinating story. Yet Black History Month reminds me that the traumatized child who became my mother is one of numberless counted-out black girls
boys — and how rarely the 28 days set aside to celebrate artists, activists, scientists and lawmakers evokes them. Mom’s unexpected survival and the full life she fashioned from it brings to mind millions of unheralded black Americans whose example was even more powerful for their loved ones than that of the extraordinary achievers the month typically honors. Men and women of her era thrived despite relentless denials of their intelligence, beauty and talent, and the most severe challenges to their livelihoods. Their grace, like my mother’s, humbles me.
On Christmas Eve 1932, six months after entering the hospital, Mom was finally discharged, moving into a brick home in Media, Pa., occupied by Nana, my grandmother (who also worked “in service,” like most of the era’s black women), as well as an aunt, uncle and their brood. Every resident of her new home embraced her. Yet the hidden-away child lived on behind her scars, still seeking the acceptance that had come too late. Some empty spaces aren’t easily filled, no matter how many good intentions are shoveled into them.
Like many people, Mom wore her mask well. A lively woman infamous for verbalizing thoughts others would never dare utter, she led a successful life that included attending Temple University, marriage, an award-winning sales career in my home town of Gary, Ind., for a black life insurance company that served “Negroes” when larger carriers refused to, and raising my three brothers and me.
In 2014, my friend Mary Jo and I threw a surprise party for Mom’s 90th birthday. Dozens of relatives, friends and church members crowded Mary Jo’s Silver Spring home to celebrate the chic firecracker who still drove herself to the mall and whose youthfulness astounded even her doctors. But several uterine tract infections, followed by lung disease, pneumonia, a blood clot and lesser maladies, led to a tsunami of drugs, hospitalizations and rehab center stays that sapped her. With disbelief morphing into alarm, I watched my energetic, high-heel-sporting mom become all but bedridden.
Few of us know how we’ll face our parents’ mortality. The little girls and boys inside us will hardly consider it. What I never expected was for a wounded inner child to emerge full force as my mother’s health worsened.
I have few memories of the little girl appearing during my childhood. Standing under 5 feet tall, my petite mom was a commanding-enough presence to stand up to my 6-foot-1-inch dad, collect insurance premiums after dark in Gary’s toughest neighbor- hoods and rouse her kids from bed on the day of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral, making us don our Sunday best to watch it on TV.
Surely the only mom I knew who roller-skated well into her 40s wouldn’t slide into a chairbound life without a fight. So when she said, “Of course I want to walk!” I believed her — until she repeatedly told therapists who could help her she was too tired to make the effort.
Was it the abandoned child who liked having strangers feed and ferry her? The more unmotivated Mom seemed, the more I pushed her. The more palpable the little girl’s resistance, the more fervent a combination of masseuse, cheerleader, medical researcher and drill sergeant I became — rubbing Mom’s limbs, coaxing her to exercise, demanding she walk every therapist-prescribed minute in her Wheaton apartment. Trying to be a perfect daughter, I felt like a perfect bitch — hectoring the mother whose every directive I once followed, ignoring the little girl looking daggers at me.
Slowly, Mom improved. But I felt drained by the daily beseeching, by the grinding relentlessness of organizing and monitoring Mom’s doctors-therapistsprescriptions-insurance glitches- medical-equipment-filled existence. Shifting between my familiar daughterly role and a new identity that felt eerily parental, I felt my “real” life become background music. I realized: I can’t keep this up.
And Mom still wasn’t walking, despite experts’ suggesting she was capable.
My wise, elderly friend understood. One of her most energetic friends had also sagged into postillness immobility. Enticing her from her wheelchair, my friend marched her reluctant buddy around her kitchen until it hit her: This former spark plug didn’t want to work hard enough to regain full mobility. She’d had to let her go.
Maybe after 92 oft-difficult years, Mom really is tired, I thought. Maybe a woman who’s survived a beloved son’s inexplicable slaying by police, divorce, the deaths of dozens of friends and relatives, and a near-century of blackness in a nation whose progress on racial matters alternately encouraged and enraged her deserves to be taken care of, no questions asked. “She is entitled to be herself,” my friend said. “Not like you’ll be at her age. Stop pushing her.”
But you don’t know the little girl! I wanted to shout. The one who never got over being told her hair was too nappy and her nose too wide; whose worth deserved to be seen by her teenage mother, her absent father, everyone who left her scalded and alone in that stifling room. How could I abanand don her, even if she wanted me to?
Did I mention this child was adorable? I first realized I wasn’t alone in seeing her when my younger brother Bruce, who’d flown in from Los Angeles to help out, asked: “Have you noticed sometimes Mom looks like a little girl? And she’s really cute?” The child was most evident when Mom felt challenged — snapping “You’re hurting me!” to therapists bending her stiff knees to maintain range of motion, or glaring at my brother when he pressed spoonsful of yogurt against her teeth when she refused to eat.
At such moments, Mom’s face was replaced by a guileless toddler’s with an expression of betrayal so heartbreaking that we were hard pressed to push her. The child’s wary gaze searched for anything that might be dangerous or ugly in a situation or individual. A protective shield Mom had developed decades earlier, the gaze was meant to help her avoid being ambushed by life’s cruelties. I’d lived with it forever — and despised when it landed on me.
Sometimes, I disliked the little girl, too. I resented her demands, her petulance and occasional meanness. Some days, I imagined visiting that loveless boardinghouse. Climbing the stairs, I’d find the pre-gaze Mom. Cradling the child in my lap, I’d tell her how beautiful she was, wrap her in the warmth whose absence took such a toll on us both. My wise friend shook her head at such fantasies: “You have a life, talent, a family to get back to,” she said. “You can’t make up for what your grandmother didn’t do. You can’t. “Let her go.” One morning last June, I was considering skipping a much-anticipated getaway with my husband because Mom was battling another urinary tract infection. For days she’d lain motionless in her bed at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, answering questions in a raspy whisper. Murmuring in her ear my reluctance to leave her, I heard her groan, “Why?”
Eyes filling, I reminded Mom how years ago in Pennsylvania, I’d sat at her mother’s bedside after her last stroke. Ironically, the woman whom Mom most blamed for her abandonment had been a perfect grandmother to me, and I adored her. Though unconscious, Mom-Mommy responded so powerfully to my voice that a nurse told me she expected her to wake up. But after I briefly retreated home to tend to my kids, I returned to a very different Mom Mommy. Vacant and rigid, she died days later in my arms. “If I go, you might leave, too!” I blurted to Mom, sobbing. She looked at me. “Everyone dies,” she whispered. “Go. Live your life while you have it.” Shocked, I gasped, “Promise you won’t leave?” She nodded.
Mom stayed. I practiced — mostly unsuccessfully — letting go. In late October, she was back at Holy Cross with breathing issues. On oxygen support fulltime, she was often frightened, impatient and out of breath. One particularly rough morning, the little girl emerged to glare at me, hissing, “Donna, help me!” Frustrated by my impotence, I fled the room.
Two hours later, Mom slipped into total unresponsiveness. Alarmed by the doctor’s expression, I prayed over her immobile form, reminding her how much we loved her. “Go if you must,” I whispered. “But I hope this miserable day wasn’t your last.” Five hours later, I was staring desolately at Mom’s face when her eyes popped open. “What are you doing here?” she asked. I couldn’t believe it. Laughing and crying, I blurted, “I thought I’d lost you!” More radiant than she’d been in a year, Mom said she felt great, yet had no memory of the previous six hours. Scheduled for another out-of-town trip the next day, I watched my laughing mom flirt with my stepdad, tease her nurses and field phone calls before I dared to ask if it was okay for me to leave town. “Go!” Mom exclaimed. “I’m fine,” she said, offering a smile whose brilliance staggered me. Suddenly, we weren’t mother and daughter or caretaker and invalid but kindred souls, basking in each other’s presence. Reassured, I left, stopping by next morning for a quick, pre-airport kiss.
That night, I got the call from my husband at my hotel. Clutching the phone, I tried fruitlessly to connect the words “passed away” to my exuberant mother. She’d let me go. Left me grappling, like every newly motherless child, with a fact so unfathomable it had to be fiction.
My first Black History Month without her has been fraught with memories. So many mentions — of Thurgood Marshall, who as a young lawyer judged a writing contest my teenage mom won; of singer Marian Anderson, who taught voice lessons blocks from that hated Philadelphia boardinghouse; of educator Mary McLeod Bethune, whom Mom decades ago met on a train and chatted with for hours — sting. Daily I wonder: Will this hole in my history heal?
It hurts less when I tell myself that during those six lost hours at the hospital, Mom peeked into the afterlife she’d sidestepped nearly a century ago. It was so lovely that she — and the little girl who never abandoned her — returned long enough to share their joy and a smile bright enough to light the path for another little girl to live her life while she has it.
Geraldine Britt, the mother of Donna Britt, faced adversities of varying degrees, from birth to adulthood.