Ethel Morgan Smith
I am my mother’s oldest daughter. And I look like her, except she was prettier, with long curly hair, pecan colored skin, high cheekbones, and a figure like the number eight. We were never close. I was the one who grew up and moved away.
My mother’s life was difficult and painful. She never complained, although she ruined many holidays for my sisters and me by weeping about her dead child not being there. Her first born was a perfect child who could read at age three and recite scriptures from the Bible when she was four. This daughter died from hookworms at age seven, before my sisters and I were born. When I was in elementary school and brought home report cards with straight A’s, my mother’s response was always the same, “Your sister would’ve made A pluses.” I was fortunate in that I had teachers and a community to support me. I never held my mother’s pain against her.
Her first husband was killed on the job when the gas truck he was driving exploded. She received no money for his death. Twelve years later she married my father who died in an automobile accident when I was six months old. Finally, she married my stepfather and had two more daughters. My grandmother moved in with us after our grandfather died. She supervised the assembly line of household chores and homework assignments. Our mother showed no interest in anything other than cleaning the white folk’s house. With our grandmother there, Mother had the courage and means to kick my stepfather out of the house and out of our lives. Her third husband, my sisters’ father and everyone’s disappointment, was a tiny man with a processed hairdo and copper-colored skin that shaded more toward red in the summer. He never had much to say except on the weekends when he had been drinking. We often didn’t see him after paydays on Fridays until late Sundays, when he would stumble home without money or food.
None of us could live up to the perfect dead sister, who would always be perfect. My sisters had no interest in trying. I tried all the time, maybe because I was the oldest and felt some connection to her. A sad photo of her hung on our living room wall. When the doctor told Mother that there was nothing he could do for her only child, she and my grandmother scraped together $10 in 1946, and hired a white man from Eufaula to come and take a photograph of her dying child so she would never forget what she looked like.
Mother worked as a maid for the same family for nearly 50 years; she earned $20 a week, plus food from the store; which couldn’t be sold to white customers because it was slightly ruined. The white woman promised Mother her house since all of her relatives were dead or lived up North, and showed no interest in her or the store she owned. She even said we were more like family to her than her Yankee relatives. Mother repeated this story to us all the time, especially on holidays. My sisters and I dreamed of living in the house with the big screened-in back porch, shady oak trees, and a yard full of flowers.
After the white woman died, the relatives showed up and stripped the house even the red and white curtains on the windows that Mother had sewed and kept starched and ironed. The house sat and fell into ruins. Our grandmother ordered us never to go by the house again even if we had to walk an extra half mile. She told us that one heart could only be broken so many times.
When my sisters and I had children, we saw a different Mother; she joked with them, played checkers with them, cooked for them, but mostly hugged and kissed them. The first time I witnessed this behavior I wept with gratitude; Mother still owned some love, even though it had been buried deep in the folds of her pain.
My sisters and I were able to buy her a house on a special FHA program. She and my grandmother became companions. Other houses soon popped up in the area. Friends and neighbors planted gardens and flowers together. They watched Oprah and the soaps together. They went to church and doctor appointments together.
After Grandmother died I felt my mother slipping away. Six months later her best friend and neighbor of 60 years passed too. Mother tried to cling on but she lost her bearing, but not her wit. She was known not to ‘bit her tongue.’ One day I received a phone call from my sister telling me that a neighbor had found her wandering around the neighborhood in her night clothes saying she was going to be late for work.
Soon afterwards my sister took her in her home, but that didn’t last long; Mother needed special care. We finally put her in a nursing home. She stopped eating. My sister told me that when a nurse tried to talk her into eating, my sister said, Mother told her, ‘You eat it.’ Just a few weeks later she was gone. I tried to get home, but wasn’t able to. I was in the middle of finals at my university. I wanted to say thank you to my mother, and reassure her that the ancestors would be waiting for her with both hands. But most important she would be with her little girl again.
One of my classmates from high school delivered the eulogy at Mother’s funeral. He talked about how she had baby sat for him and his wife, and half of the time they couldn’t afford to pay her the $2.00 a day she charged for caring for their two children. She never asked them for a penny, he continued. My son and I laughed a little and held hands. The classmate went on to say that when he was a little boy, my mother would tell all the little Black children in the community to come to the back of the store between 2-4 every afternoon. She would give them Ike & Mikes, potted meat, saltine crackers, moon pies, Vienna sausages, spam, and RC colas. He went on to say most of the time that would be the only meal they would have had that day.
Later my son and I asked him why they had to be there between 2-4 pm. He told us that was when the white woman was taking a nap. My son and I toasted with a glass of champagne to Mother.