616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Bradley Arkansas, Depression, Faith, Gill Family, Happiness, Homelessness, Jim Crow, Joblessness, Mary Louise Gill, Mount Vernon Hospital, Resilience, Self-Awareness, Self-Loathing, Self-Reflection, Sixty-Fifth Birthday, Underemployment, unemployment, Welfare
Today, my mother turns sixty-five years old. My mom has now officially hit elderly status, which reads and sounds so weird, considering that she’s only twenty-two years and two months older than me. That Mom’s here at all at sixty-five is really a not-so-minor miracle, considering how hard her life’s been from day one in ’47.
This was what I wrote about my mother’s first thirty-five and a half years of her life, courtesy of Boy @ The Window:
Mom came from a long line of folk whose lives were hard and impossible ones, where they couldn’t take handouts even if they wanted to. She was born to Samuel and Beulah Gill in October ’47, their first of twelve children and her father’s second overall child of thirteen. The Gills of Bradley, Arkansas were tenant farmers who lived in the Red River valley in the southwest corner of the state and five miles north of the Arkansas-Louisiana border. The town was a one-flashing- yellow-light-four-corner one. Just over five hundred people lived there, with farms, shotgun houses, and ranch-style homes neatly segregated between a few affluent Whites, lots of po’ White trash and the abundantly poor Black side of town. The conditions she grew up in included corrugated tin roofs and outhouses to boot.
Being born into this family in the late-’40s meant that Mom’s life would be a difficult and emotionally tortured one. She started doing household chores when she was five, helping with her siblings when she was six, and graduated to hoeing and picking cotton by the time she was eight. There wasn’t the time, energy, and experience in the household for Mom to receive any affection or nurturing.
With all that and her mother’s constant neglect and occasional abuse — she was once beat with the back of a hair brush for not getting ready for church on time — it’s amazing that Mom wanted to get married or have kids. Yet I knew that what little nurturing and affection Mom received came from her great-grandmother, her aunt, and high school basketball. All served that role as Mom grew into an attractive six-foot woman. Her great-grandmother, half-Choctaw and half-Irish and originally from Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), taught Mom to see herself as beautiful despite her dark complexion. Her Texarkana, Texas aunt taught Mom her basic adult survival skills. And high school basketball took her as a senior to the segregated state quarterfinals in ’65, an amazing feat to say the least.
Still, it was a hard life, one that Mom had vowed she’d never live again. That’s why she moved to New York in the first place. I’d heard these stories for years, and like her, I believed that our lives would get better through sheer hard work. Welfare was never to be something we would live with.
After nearly seventeen years in the New York area, never had all but finally arrived. She had spent my whole life up to that point telling us not to take “handouts,” that she’d “never be on welfare.”
By her thirty-fifth birthday at the end of October ’82, my mother no longer had full-time work at Mount Vernon Hospital, with her hours cut and four mouths to feed. That weekend, all we had left to eat in our two-refrigerator kitchen was a box of Duncan Hines’ Devil’s Food cake mix, Pillsbury All-Purpose Flour, and some sugar. That Saturday and Sunday, we truly ate like Torah-era Jews. Mom made us pancakes out of the flour, without baking powder, eggs or milk, and cooked down some sugar in water to make us a crude
Between an abusive Maurice for a husband, the loss of an already insufficient income after not joining her union in a strike, and two toddler-age kids (and another one on the way), the period between May ’82 and April ’83 was probably one of the lowest points in her life.
As I’ve realized over the years, though, Mom’s life was always hard. It was simply a matter of degrees, not of distinction or difference. The mistake of marrying Maurice, becoming a scab (see my post “The Quest For Work, Past and Present” from August ’12) and leaving my older brother Darren at The Clearview School for fourteen years has had an impact on all of our lives to this day. Just as much as fourteen years on welfare, the three-year-long loss of our home at 616 in the ’90s (see post “The Fire This Time” from April ’08 for more) and my late sister Sarai’s twenty-seven year-long struggle with sickle-cell anemia. “Wow” is only the beginning of a description of calamity that has been my mother’s life, about as long as the first hundred digits after 3.14.
What’s made the difference? My mother’s belief in God or Jesus? Her general sense of resilience? Her uncanny ability to deny reality and frequent lack of self-reflection? But I’d say that Mom has learned to expect little from this world and, unfortunately, even less for herself. She often expected the worst, and then being surprised at how not-so-bad “the worst” was, could continue to soldier on.
So I wish my mother a happy sixty-fifth birthday. One in which she can just spend the day at her church in New Rochelle, and then just rest and be. Only one of my siblings lives at 616 these days, and apparently spends more time out and about than he does at home. So, I hope my mother can relax, knowing that she has endured all the evil that this world could throw at her, and despite her view of life, has come out on the other side, badly damaged, but still here.