My Mother Nana Heroes

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, a very well deserved observance dating back to ancient Greek and Roman cultures.  Mothers are both the most and least revered among us.  They sacrifice so much of themselves and their dreams, and some how it is never enough.  We still manage to be ungrateful especially in our teen years.  Then one day we grow up and come to ourselves and realize just how much it took to provide for us and give us some of what we wanted and most of what we needed.

As we mature even more, we dread the thought of becoming our mothers.  We begin to hear her little sayings and even her advice begins to slip into our conscious minds and out through our words.

I feel blessed that I recognized early on the sacrifice and struggle my mother experienced trying to raise my brother and I by herself after my father decided a carefree life was more to his liking.  She worked two jobs and sometimes three, and none of them afforded her the dignity she deserved.  but you would never know that if you met her. she carried herself with the utmost dignity and grace.  She did not let what she did for a living define who she was.

She had a number of dreams deferred, my mother did.  She confided in me once that she always wanted to be a writer.  I was grown and had already studied journalism when she shared that secret.  But she opted to get married rather than go to college as my grand mother told it. The other dream that didn’t unfold as she hope it would that she frequently mentioned for decades, “I always wanted to be married to one man and have his children.”  About 3 years into her marriage to my father, after I was born and right before my brother was due to arrive, it should have been painfully obvious that that dream was untenable.  But heartbreak would never permit her to summon her imagination to replace that dream with a new one.  She bought into the social conditioning that women were not complete without a man and that only a man could make you happy.  She could not see her way to make a different choice.

She eventually remarried decades later, but a melancholy always shadowed her.  My heart ached for her because my mother was the sweetest soul that deserved more happiness than she experienced.  She never grasped that her happiness was up to her.

In the most powerful way, her unhappiness taught me the power of choice and the necessity to have enough courage to choose my own path.  I was determined to make choices not based on what someone else thought I should do, but based on the vision I had for my life.  If it didn’t work out, I could at least say that I tried, but more importantly it would eliminate the potential for resentment of someone else.

Eventually my family got the hang of this independent streak and stopped resisting it.  in some ways, my mother would tell me years later, I became a role model for her.  “I wish I were like you” she would pine in one of our long conversations during a visit to my new city and job.  “But you are like me, more than you know”, I would tell her.  Even back then, long before coaching ever occurred to me, I was encouraging her to make a bold and different choice for herself.  No one knows what will make you happy better than you, I would say to her often.

She eeked out bits and pieces of happiness.  When she got a job with NYC Transit it dramatically changed the quality of our lives.  She traveled extensively and visited places neither of us ever thought of.  And she never complained.    She was resourceful and industrious as well she should have been.  She came from great stock and the best role models ever; my grandmother and great grand mother, Little Nana and Big Nana,  my Nana heroes.

My Nanas were intelligent and resourceful women who maximized every opportunity afforded them to make a way out of no way.  Everything they did was for the benefit of the entire family.

I was well into my thirties when I discovered the most shocking thing ever about these two women who I more than adored.

Rummaging through a box of old family photographs I happened across a picture of my grand mother and great grand mother dressed in formal attire.  They were holding bouquets of roses.  Wow! I said.  When was this taken and what was it for?”

“A recital”, my grandmother replied.  Long story short; my grandmother was a concert pianist and my great grandmother was a singer; a rather popular contralto on the recital circuit.  I was stunned.  I never knew that and I was very close to both of them.  Their performing careers were abruptly ended by WW II.  Everything and everyone stopped when the country went to war and the trajectory of lives were changed, some permanently. As the men were marched off overseas, women went to work in the factories to produce the goods needed to supply the armed forces and the country.

Not once did I ever hear them complain about their lot or voice regret about what could have been.  To them it was just life and since the cards in their hands had changed,  rather than throw their hand in, they played the hand they were dealt with all of the faith and tenacity they had.

They didn’t have nearly the opportunities available to me today to say nothing about living in the height of Jim Crow and other dehumanizing laws that restricted their opportunities and quality of life.   But they persevered and prevailed.  They went on to build the best lives they could.  They lived well, traveling, laughing and loving their friends and family. And they always looked their best.  They weren’t fashion plates, but always well put together.  “You tell people how to treat you by how you carry yourself” was drummed into our heads from before we were old enough to understand its importance.

They were never without employment of some type that I can recall.  If they weren’t working for someone else, they worked for themselves, baking and selling cakes and rolls for birthdays and weddings and church functions, cleaning homes, making dresses.

My great grandmother was a cook for a school and during the summer she was a cook for a camp. On Sundays she ran the kitchen at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

Any given week she had cake orders waiting to be filled. You didn’t have to look at a calendar to know the holidays were coming soon.  The orders for fruit cake would start coming in October, in addition to the pound and layer cakes.

They were lots of fun.  My great grandmother taught me how to knit and crochet and how to score baseball.  Baseball was her favorite past time, and since my favorite past time was sitting at her feet, baseball was my favorite too.

My Nanas had talents and skills and they used them to earn honest livings.

As I think about my mother and my Nana heroes today, I cherish the hundreds of lessons they taught me, some on purpose, some just part of the experience of being loved by them and in their presence.

When I think of them, I am reminded that I am truly blessed and highly favored.  I hail from excellent stock and exceptional role models. I hope that how I live my life honors them and demonstrates my immense gratitude. I hope I have been and continue to be a worthy student-daughter.

For all you mothers who have sacrificed, suffered in silence and put your dreams on hold or have had them deferred, how you play your hand will leave a profound and lasting lesson.

Believe and live forward!



Life is about choices.  What will you choose for you today? 

My Grand Mother and Mother, May 1995

My Grand Mother and Mother, May 1995

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