I don’t think that my mother had a premonition that she was going to die young; but, she stuffed lessons into me the way we women stuff our suitcases after a vacation of shopping—so full that we have to lay our full body weight on it to close it.
Whenever a parent dies, it’s too early. Sandra B, however, left me sad but with a Ph.D, in momma-wisdom.
It is common for me to interrupt assorted conversations between friends or family with, “My momma said….” or “Sandra B used to say…”
But, she truly counseled me, as much as I didn’t want to be counseled at the time, about the major areas of life: sex, marriage, race relations, being an entrepreneur, aging, raising children; to the menial: shopping in New York, days not to buy fish, and lipstick. And let’s just say that my mother wasn’t shy.
Now, I appreciate each lesson she taught. I feel that she gave me a cheat-sheet—a guidebook to life, so to speak. But even with it, the greatest lesson, she taught me, wasn’t when she was alive, but when she died.
My mom was extraordinary; and not in that “everybody is extraordinary after they die” type of way. She, on paper, objectively speaking was a Bad Mamma Jamma. In a time when Black folks couldn’t sit at counters and eat, she graduated salutatorian of her class, was fluent in French by the time she was 18, went on to get multiple degrees at universities who didn’t allow Blacks except exceptional graduate students, moved to Europe, and became a French professor back in the states. She later started her own businesses (real estate, barber shops, construction, etc.), joined social clubs, owned several rental properties, joined the local community center, and hosted some fine breakfast meetings at her home-blah, blah, blah.
But guess what, when she died, none of it mattered–really.
No one remembered if she was the valedictorian or the salutatorian. No one remembers how many houses she sold or what degrees she had. Her sorority came and preformed a ceremony in all white, but none of them remembers if she failed to dress appropriately at one of their meetings, or came late. No one remembers if the Bloody Marys she served at her breakfast meeting could’ve been a bit spicier or what pocketbook she carried to the PTA meeting.
Her best friend, a fellow professor, stood by her coffin long after everyone but family had left and my guess is that he was remembering the late night talks they would have–him drinking wine and smoking cigarettes–about the politics at Hampton University.
Her younger sister, my aunt, who barely said a word for a year following her death, later shared stories about how my mom would manipulate their mother to get out of washing the dishes, and how they would buy fresh fish from the fish truck that came straight into the neighborhood, and how my mom loved to eat fried chicken so much that my Grandfather said that she would turn into one.
My college best friend talks about how my mother quickly adopted her, naming her “Miss Kim” and how she could talk to my mother about anything.
My husband laughs about how my mom would take him to events and unabashedly tell people that she was dating him—just to see their reaction. Or about the time she asked him to rub her very crusted over, hoof-like feet with the peppermint foot oil that he had bought her early in our courtship. He did.
Her boyfriend likes to talk about her hudspah – never scared to talk to anyone, anywhere.
What I remember is the time she came and brought kittens to my kindergarten class; and the time she came and taught my 1st grade class French and then took us all to a French restaurant. I remember the times she would walk by my school bus stop in a green Adidas sweat suit and her hair wrapped up so the fog wouldn’t do its damage and I would pretend as if I didn’t know her (although we were the only Black family around, so it was pretty obvious that she was my mother). I remember her taking me to New York shopping when I was a teenager and riding roller coasters in Disneyland with me as an adult. I remember her sneaking me into Jonnhy Carson because she HAD to see him. I remember her eating popcorn and drinking 7-Eleven coffee all the time — and that she made the best homemade spaghetti and French fries ever. I remember her ensuring that every birthday I had was a big deal because hers was near Christmas too and she understood. I remember the look on her face when I came home with a tattoo at 17, my first boyfriend, when I graduated from college, graduate school, and when she came to my bedroom to show me a lump in her breast that made her a bit nervous.
Of course, I have many more memories. But what’s more important is what I and the people who actually think about her years later don’t remember: her awards, her titles, if she wore the correct stockings, if her purse matched her outfit, what clubs she was a member of, how much she made, if her house was always spotless, if she was invited to the hottest events.
What matters is who she loved, who loved her and the memories we have together. The rest of it doesn’t really matter.
It’s that simple. It’s her greatest lesson.