Here’s part two of my African American History Month story – what it was like growing up in my neighborhood in a small southern town. This episode highlights the largely untold stories of the unbelievable strength and resolve of black mothers who managed, as our preachers would say, to “make a way out of no way” in keeping families, community and traditions intact in the face of incredible challenges. So please join me as I take an imaginary walk through my old neighborhood and replay the “voices” and recall the unique experiences of “Momma Nem.”
As I made my way up Rose Street, the booming voice of Mrs. W could be heard from her front porch as she beckoned home her wayward son:
“Teddy, get in this house, now!”
As I turned the corner and headed down Tams Street, a hard fought sandlot football game had, much to our chagrin, to be suspended when Mrs. B. beckoned our starting quarterback and right halfback:
“You boys come home now. It’s time for dinner!”
On Sunnyside Street, my bike ride came to an immediate halt when Mrs. L called me from her front yard:
“Terry, I need you to run to the store to fetch me a loaf of bread. I’ll pay you a quarter.”
Further down the street, the gentle voice of Aunt R would have a calming influence as we lounged about in her living room playing checkers with her daughters, our cousins:
“Okay girls, time to wash the dishes. You boys get on home now.”
And back on the lower end of Tams Street the all too familiar voice of Mrs. B could be heard admonishing her two grandsons with her for the summer from Boston:
“I want you two to put down your baseball bat and gloves and come finish your chores.”
One couldn’t miss noticing the eyes of Miss M. peering the curtain on her back porch guarding her grapevine from opportunist young lads in the neighborhood.
“If I catch you boys out here again, I’ll call your daddies and they’ll give you a whipping.”
Without question, the effectiveness of those voices in getting us in line could be matched only by their menacing stares, the head games, and the kind that would run shivers up our spine and quickly get you to mutter “yes mam.”
“Son, since you cannot seem to stay of trouble, get out in the back yard and fetch me a switch because you have a whipping coming,”
Accompanying those voices were their hard and soft skills.
You see, years before the concepts of “multi-tasking” and “project management” etched their way into corporate lingo and management journals, Momma Nem had already mastered those skills out of survival. Because in between holding down multiple jobs outside the home, Momma Nem would take in ironing, babysit, take in and raise the off spring of relatives, serve as mid-wives, organize car pools, visit and bring dinners to the infirm and carve out time to work in church every Sunday as ushers and choir members.
And when our dads were absent for reasons of premature death, working second jobs, divorce, etc., you could still count on seeing Momma Nem at PTA meetings and in the stands cheering us on and yelling at referees during basketball games.
On the soft side, Momma Nem would sit stoically through funerals, pray softly and dab at their tears while holding their mourning families together while assuring us that “she’s at peace now.”
And they perfected to an art masking their fears when their sons boarded aircraft or Greyhound buses that would send them off to harm’s way in Southeast Asia, or in the big cities “up North.”
Clearly getting us ready for church on Sunday mornings was cherished time for Momma Nem when they would make sure that our shoes were brightly shinned, our legs and faces were greased down in Vaseline, our runny noses were clean, and our sisters’ hair was first hot combed then tightly plaited with white ribbons.
But among their great joys was sitting off to the side on Christmas morning watching their sons and daughters rip open gifts they purchased on lay away from Montgomery Ward, Sears, and Leggett’s. They’d smile. They’d beam. They’d pick up the discarded wrappings and head off to the kitchen to set the table for meals they started three days before.
Momma Nem, yes Momma Nem. Most of them have passed on now. But it was their powerful voices, love and unyielding resolve that was the glue that held our neighborhood together, a neighborhood that we all, decades later, look forward to returning to for strength, renewal and above all, sweet memories.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise. – Maya Angelou
- Voices of Asian American Women – by Terry Howard - March 25, 2021
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