At Age 82, Mom Remains a Mystery

At Age 82, Mom Remains a Mystery

images-1By Cheryl Mattox Berry

My mother, Josephine, has always been an enigma. That is, until about ten years ago when she started divulging family secrets and telling anecdotes about growing up in rural Mississippi and the men in her life.

Until then, this is what I knew about Mom: She was a dedicated nurse, disciplinarian (we called her Hard-Hearted Hannah) and devoted to family. She had several bad relationships, a short marriage to a drunk with aggressive behavior and a long-lasting one to a functional alcoholic.

Just about everything I learned about my mother I found out by snooping. From fourth grade on, I studied Mom and watched every move. I pored over her high school yearbook and memorized the Phillips Brooks’ quote next to her movie star picture: “Be such a man, and live such a life, that if every man were such as you, and every life a life like yours, this Earth would be God’s Paradise.”

I found out she had divorced her first husband when I walked into the bedroom, and she abruptly put away the newspaper. When she left, I got the newspaper and read every inch of agate until I found her name under the divorce heading.

She often brushed off the occasional question about her past with “That’s ancient history,” which was code for “That’s grown folks’ business.”

Mom began reminiscing about the past after the deaths of Van, her husband of 44 years, and older sister, Daisy, in 2008. Those deaths were followed by the passing of several cousins and the last beloved aunt in East St. Louis, Ill. It was a painful time for all of us, especially Mom.

I began going back to Memphis as often as I could, spending a whole week with Mom, who lives with my brother in the family home, where she fusses over her flowers and sits on the patio sipping tea under the crepe myrtle tree when the weather is nice.

Three years ago, Mom, my younger sister Erin, and I decided to take a road trip to Sidon, Miss., where Mom was born, and nearby Greenwood. For years, she had talked about visiting the Mississippi towns where she grew up.

I dubbed the daylong getaway “I’m Getting My Hat and Coat and Leave Here” trip. That’s what she used to tell us (five kids) when she was fed up with our antics. We knew she wasn’t going anywhere because she never said she was taking her purse, but we did settle down.

After driving long stretches of road surrounded corn, soybean and cotton fields, Mom began to open up about her childhood. We found the church where she went to school, which had been rebuilt after a bad storm. It’s next to the cemetery where her grandfather and younger brother are buried.

Mom told us about the first time she went to school. She followed Daisy, who was two years older and starting first grade. When the teacher found out Mom was only four, she told her to go home. She sat on the steps for a little while and then wandered about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road and back to the house – alone and unfazed.

Growing up in Mississippi in the 1930s was difficult. Fair-skinned with long black curly hair, Mom was often called “white girl” by kids in the neighborhood. The name-calling helped her develop a thick skin, which she passed on to me.

Mom and Daisy were shuttled between Mississippi and East St. Louis, where their father moved after splitting up with my grandmother. They alternated living with a host of sassy aunts, each with a unique personality.

One of Mom’s most vivid memories of East St. Louis was huddling under the covers during World War II blackout air raid drills. She said it was frightening to be awakened in the middle of the night by the loud siren and looking out the window into pitch blackness.

Sometimes, Mom would say things that made me wonder if she was making up stories. For example, she recalled hearing German prisoners march through Mississippi at night. That sent me straight to Google, where I learned that German and Italian POWs from North Africa were shipped to four major camps in Mississippi.

Mom’s life became more stable when they moved to Memphis when she was in the seventh grade. Surrounded by a large extended family, she blossomed in high school and developed an interest in nursing. Her career aspirations were put on hold when she became pregnant with me after she graduated from high school. She and my father, her high school boyfriend, didn’t marry because his parents had big plans for him.

He was one of the first black police officers in Memphis and well-known throughout the city. I didn’t get to know him until my senior year in high school. Mom never said a bad word about him when I was growing up, but she was clearly disgusted and disappointed when she talked about him for the first time a few years ago.

She also explained that she hit a rough patch when I was about five years old and sent me to live with an aunt in St. Louis until she figured out her life. I didn’t know what was going on at the time and thought I was on vacation.

I was reunited with Mom after about a year. She eventually went to nursing school and worked 28 years as a licensed practical nurse at the Regional Medical Center and later St. Peter Villa Nursing Home.

Because Mom was so secretive, I decided our two kids, who are grown, would know everything about us, from the song that was playing when I met their father at Northwestern University to what we had for dinner last Sunday. They roll their eyes when I begin my trip down memory lane, saying, “There she goes again.” I laugh and tell my story anyway.

There are still some questions that I have about Mom’s life. Maybe I’ll wait for her to fill in the blanks on our next road trip or one day I’ll summon the courage to do what I instruct my journalism students to do: Just ask the question. She’ll either answer it or say, “Oh, Cheryl Annette,” and leave it at that.


Beachgoers Let It All Hang Out

Beachgoers Let It All Hang Out

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

The beach, where bodies are on full display, is one of the few places where women don’t seem to be concerned about how their body looks or who’s looking at them. Who would’ve thought that fear of body-shaming doesn’t apply to bodies on the beach.

I had that epiphany while biking my favorite route on Hollywood Beach. I saw mature women in skimpy bikinis and revealing two-piece suits sashaying along the broad walk, sitting in cafes or soaking up some rays on the sand. No one bothered to cover surgical scars, bulging bellies, pancake butts and sagging boobs.

All the angst that women have about their bodies is apparently left behind when sun-worshippers hit the beach. Funny how we spend hours searching for the perfect bathing suit and coverup to hide our flaws, then get to the beach and see that women with just as many – if not more – imperfections are exposing more flesh.

When I moved to Florida in 1988, I was shocked to see retired French Canadian women wearing swim suits that I thought were more appropriate for younger women with tighter bodies. Now that I’m of a certain age, I’ve become one of them. I don’t care what other people think of my body.

Don’t get me wrong. I still work out, watch my calories and try to stay in good shape. However, I no longer agonize over not being at a certain number on the scale or not wearing a certain size.

I’m finally comfortable in this body.

If someone is at the beach criticizing how I look, she’s missing the whole point of being there, which is to get away from it all, including the expectation of others.


“Free your mind… and your ass will follow.” – George Clinton, singer

Speak Up!

Speak Up!

voiceBy Cheryl Mattox Berry

Why are women so afraid to say something when they’re treated unfairly?

That’s the question that keeps running around in my head as the media report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. It seems that many of these women suffered in silence until someone else stepped forward.

The reasons given for not reporting offensive behavior are fear of job loss and increased aggression by the accused, and doubt that management would believe them. These are legitimate concerns, but at some point you have to put on your big girl panties and speak up.

I find it ironic that we march up to the school and complain loud and long when we think a teacher, principal or another student has mistreated our child but won’t do the same for ourselves. Employ that same sense of outrage to address work-related issues, such as sexual harassment.

It pains me to hear stories about how badly some women are treated by their bosses and co-workers. I always ask, “Why don’t you say something?” The response is usually a shrug and a comment that she isn’t like me. (FYI: I’m not afraid of anyone and speak my mind.)

Feeling like a victim can lead to depression, stress, high blood pressure and a myriad of other health problems that ultimately affect your job performance.

If you haven’t told anyone about unwanted sexual advances, here are some ways to handle the situation. First, tell a co-worker what has been going on and explain how it makes you feel. This is the next best thing to having an eyewitness. Then, report the predator to your supervisor.

Chances are you’re not the only target. Ask around to see if other women have had similar experiences. Gather these women and go to your supervisor as a group to lodge a complaint. There is power in numbers, and this approach keeps you from being singled out by the offender if that is a concern.

If no corrective action is taken, go to the next level of management and keep going higher until you get results, even if means filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Use your voice, and take back your power!


Let Go!

Let Go!

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

If we could get rid of bad stuff in our lives as easy as the folks in the TV commercial for the letgo app, life would be a lot easier.

Unfortunately, we have to work hard at removing obstacles that keep us from being our best selves, but It can be done with discipline and determination. As we approach Easter, the message of resurrection and hope should fuel our desire to do better and be better people. That often means letting go of bad habits, bad people and bad activities.

Are there some things on the list below that you should let go?

  1. Unhealthy romantic relationships
  2. Toxic friends
  3. Poor eating habits
  4. Meddling
  5. Lying
  6. Mismanaging your money
  7. Jealousy
  8. Spreading rumors
  9. Procrastination
  10. Alcohol and drugs

It’s difficult to look at ourselves objectively and admit faults. If you don’t think you have any, ask your BFF whether you fit into any of the categories above. Be prepared for the truth. When you hear it, don’t be defensive. Ask for examples. Sometimes, you get into the habit of doing something and don’t realize it’s a bad thing.

With this new information, develop a detailed plan for how you’ll let go. For example, if you tend to fall into relationships with the same type of no-good man, you need to accept the fact that you’re the problem and need to be more selective.

Try this exercise. Write down the qualities you desire in a man, i.e., sense of humor, shared values, hardworking, Christian, etc. Now that you know what you’re looking for, don’t settle for anything less because you’ll end up unhappy and alone – again.

Keep the list in your phone and refer to it when you meet someone new. Look for a soul mate the same way you shop for a car or house – long and hard until you find one just right.

Remember: When you let go of something, you’re not losing that thing, you’re allowing yourself to construct a healthier lifestyle.

Retire “Fearless Girl” Statue

Retire “Fearless Girl” Statue
Fearless Girl

Fearless Girl

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

Who needs the “Fearless Girl” statue on Wall Street to show that women are courageous? I don’t. We saw millions of fierce women at the Women’s March on Washington and around the world the day after Donald J. Trump’s inauguration.

The 4-foot, 250-pound bronze girl, who is facing down a charging bull that is a permanent fixture in New York City’s Financial District, is just another marketing and entertainment gimmick. She’s cute, but we don’t need her to be the face of the movement.

Erected by State Street Global Advisors March 7 on the eve of International Women’s Day, the “Fearless Girl” statue was supposed to be a temporary display that encouraged corporations to put more women on their boards.

It has since become a tourist attraction and internet sensation. Visitors take pictures next to the statue posed just like the pony-tailed girl in a windblown dress or snap shots of her with pussy hats or “Make America Great Again” caps.

The “Fearless Girl” statue trivializes our mission. Advocating for women’s rights in this political climate is not child’s play, which begs the question why a girl was used instead of a woman.

I wish they had sent “Fearless Girl” home Sunday, the day she was supposed to be moved to a permanent location. However, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio liked her so much that she will stay put until International Women’s Day on March 8, 2018.

De Blasio said the girl “spoke to the moment, that sense that woman were not going to live in fear, that women were going to teach their daughters and all the girls in their life to believe in themselves.”

Isn’t that what former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton did when she ran for president? She’s a real inspiration. We’ve got her and other women and don’t need a fake symbol.

More Art in Public Places

When my flight from Atlanta to Miami was delayed for four hours, I roamed the terminals at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to entertain myself. I dined on low-country delicacies, shopped at tony boutiques, read newspapers and magazines, ate a slice of decadent chocolate cake and went to the lower level for a fitness walk after all that eating.

I stumbled across an interesting permanent exhibit on Zimbabwe stone sculpture between Concourses T and A. The sculptures were flanked by pictures of life in Zimbabwe on the walls. It felt like I had walked into an art museum between moving sidewalks.

The exhibit features 20 works of contemporary stone sculpture – some more than five feet tall – from Zimbabwe’s first and second generation sculptors. One piece depicts children playing leap frog. My favorite was three women – each with a different facial expression – engaged in conversation.

Airportart is a program of the City of Atlanta Depatment of Aviation. In many airports around the country, you’ll find an art exhibit or photo display. Look for one the next time you’re stuck at the airport. It’s great way to kill time.

Undercover Activist Spreads the Word

Undercover Activist Spreads the Word

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

During a retail therapy session, a woman with shoulder-length auburn hair and blue-green eyes approached me and asked whether I thought her straw hat was suitable for an indoor event.

As you know, I don’t tell a stranger how clothes look on her but pose a series of questions so that the shopper can make her own decision.

So, I asked what type of indoor event. An “activist” event, she replied with a smile. I would soon learn that the woman was speaking in code, feeling me out to see if I would be receptive to her spiel on women’s organizing efforts in South Florida.

I started to tell her that I was an early convert but decided to let her talk because she was so enthusiastic. I was also surprised that she (a white woman) stepped out of her comfort zone and struck up a conversation with me (a black woman.) The relationship between black women and white women has been a strained one during past waves of the women’s movement.

For the next 30 minutes, the woman, whose name was Karen, told me about newly formed women’s groups and what websites to look up for meeting times and dates. She even told me how to get information about black Democratic clubs.

She shared contact information about our U.S. representatives and senators. Karen was upset that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had been dodging constituents, but she was determined to get a meeting with him.

Karen, who is in her late 30s, described herself as a budding activist motivated by the shocking results of the 2016 presidential election. Because of her job and Donald J. Trump supporters who work there, she has to be careful about who she approaches with information about women’s activities.

As we parted, Karen encouraged me to attend some of the meetings because we can’t afford to let our country retreat on women’s rights. I told her to keep spreading the word. Then, she disappeared in the accessories department, and I went to look for new shoes.

A Mom Strike Gets Results

A Mom Strike Gets Results

on-strikeBy Cheryl Mattox Berry

The Day Without a Woman protest reminded me of what I did when feeling unappreciated and ignored by my family. I staged a Mom Strike.

I printed large “On Strike” signs in bold letters and posted them on every surface in the kitchen and laundry room, and on my bedroom door.

Infractions that led to a strike:

  1. Dirty dishes in the sink
  2. Failure to do chores
  3. Messy bedrooms and bathrooms

The kids thought it was funny the first time I went on strike. My daughter was 9 and my son, 13. When they asked why, I explained that I had enough to do and didn’t want to pick up after their lazy butts.

Although we had outside help, I wanted to teach them a sense of responsibility and how to keep a room neat and clean. Also, I didn’t want their college roommates to complain about them.

The strike lasted one day, usually a Saturday. I didn’t have to do it often – maybe twice a year. I knew that it was time for a strike when I found myself constantly reminding everyone to do something.

My husband (dirty dishes in sink) took my work stoppage seriously because I didn’t cook, wash clothes or chauffeur the children to their activities, and that meant he had to take up the slack.

For me, being on strike was like a vacation day. I lounged in my bedroom, read magazines, went to a foreign movie and hit the malls – by myself. The fact that I didn’t want their company made everyone feel really bad about their behavior.

Things ran smoothly after my strike. The kids would remind each other and their dad when they were violating the rules.

Mothers work hard – inside and outside the home. They should be cherished for the little things and big things they do to make every day run smoothly. If you’re not getting the respect you deserve from your family, take a day off. Trust me, they’ll appreciate you more after the strike is over.

Celebrate Women in Congress This Month

Celebrate Women in Congress This Month

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

Sen. Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris

While the 2016 presidential election will go down in history for who was elected president, it will also be known as the year women roared – from the first woman to run for the highest office in the nation to many firsts in the U.S. Senate.

All should be celebrated as we observe Women’s History Month in March.

Let’s start with the 115th Congress, where a record 21 women (21%) serve in the Senate and 83 women (19.1%) in the House of Representatives. In addition, five women delegates represent U.S. territories and the District of Columbia.

Both senators are women in three states – Washington, California and New Hampshire.

This session of Congress is being described as the most diverse in history. There are 38 minority women in the House and Senate. Of that number, 35 are Democrats.

The Senate’s freshman class includes many firsts for women. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) is the first Hispanic senator. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is the first Indian-African-American senator. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) is the first Thai-American senator. They join Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii,) a Japanese-American senator.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth

Sen. Tammy Duckworth

We can expect more female lawmakers in the future. Fueled by the shock of Donald J. Trump’s victory last November, women are laying the groundwork to run for local, state and federal offices.

There’s too much at stake (healthcare, reproductive rights, equal pay, etc.) to be left in the hands of men, many of whom are making decisions under the influence of a delusional president. As former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

I’ve been inspired by the grassroots movement that has sprung up since the election. Moving forward, I hope that there is a larger participation of women of color (from millennials to baby boomers) in the planning and execution of events. The issues on the women’s agenda affect all of us.

We’ve come a long way, but we aren’t even close to the finish line. Trump serves as a bitter reminder that hard fought gains can be easily overturned by whoever sits in the Oval Office and Congress. We’ve got the power to put our supporters in office. Let’s use it!

Sights Sounds and Thoughts

Sights Sounds and Thoughts

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

You never know what kind of day it will be, who you’ll run into or what you might stumble upon. Everyone has a story or opinion to share if given an opportunity. Here are my latest encounters.

Training Ground

Six long-legged brown girls, who looked to be in middle school, were running in the sand on Hollywood Beach. At first, I thought they were playing a game until they zipped past me the third time. I stood, looked down the beach and saw a man – their coach – giving them hand signals. They lined up again, pushed off, digging deep, knees high. Future Olympians?

The Internet’s Far-Reaching Effect 

Conversations at cookouts are free-wheeling and interesting. At a weekend BBQ, the host mentioned that she had developed an Internet friendship/mentoring relationship with a 20-year-old Syrian refugee. She spoke proudly of how he has grown over the last three years after fleeing his homeland and settling in another country. She encourages him to be kind and look for like-minded people.

History Repeating Itself?

While pumping gas, I struck up a conversation with another customer about the power outage in our neighborhood. The conversation soon turned to Donald J. Trump. The man, who was Jewish, complained about anti-Semitic remarks from the new administration. When people in power turn on Jews, it spells doom for everyone, he warned.

Jam-Packed Month

I have a love/hate relationship with February, aka Black History Month. I look forward to learning about pioneering  people and important places in my community. However, too much is stuffed into 28 days. Some weeks, there were two and three events that I wanted to attend held on the same night. Why not spread these activities throughout the year? Around here, it’s dead in April, June, July and August, and everyone is looking for something to do. I welcome the day when organizations realize black history can be celebrated any time of the year.

Time to Update the Role Model List

Time to Update the Role Model List

By Cheryl Mattox Berry

Once upon a time, professional athletes were considered role models. Then, we found out that some of them battered their girlfriends and wives, consumed drugs and did all sorts of illegal stuff. Thud! They were kicked off the pedestal.

Now, we need to do the same for this president of the United States. In the past, we’ve told our children to respect and strive to be like POTUS. However, we don’t want them to idolize Donald J. Trump. That point was driven home recently by a group of women who met to figure out how to combat Trump’s policies.

“We have to empower our kids at home,” said Janice, mother of a 14-year-old. “We have to tell them what he’s doing is not right.”

Added Toni, a mother of three children: “I’ll say, ‘Yes, he’s your president, but he’s not your role model.'”

Pick any one of Trump’s character flaws (racist, misogynist, liar, ignorant, narcissistic) to start a conversation about why you don’t want your child to emulate him.

You can also look at Trump’s track record to show how his policies are adversely affecting people. For example, discuss the immigration executive order, why federal judges have temporarily halted it and the ban’s impact on individuals and families.

If any family members came from another country, now is the time to share that information. Explain why they came, how they got here and ways they’ve contributed to society. You can also research the role immigrants played in the history of the USA.

Allow your child to share his/her views on the issue before discussing your own. The idea is to get your child used to researching a topic before forming an opinion or accepting someone else’s viewpoint.

It’s difficult to know what children are being told at school about Trump, so parents must have these conversations to set the record straight if necessary.