Meet my mom, an un­her­alded hero of Black His­tory Month

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY DONNA BRITT

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.

COURTESY OF DONNA BRITT

Geral­dine Britt, the mother of Donna Britt, faced ad­ver­si­ties of vary­ing de­grees, from birth to adult­hood.

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