By 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.