Mommy’s birthday was actually Friday, September 18, 2015. Mildred Mae Finch was born September 18, 1930. She became Mrs. Mildred (W.L.) Penn on September 2, 1950 and she became Mommy on August 17, 1952 when she had David.
My sisters Cheryl, Courtney and I spent the day with her as we do every year. We met at her house, went to breakfast and then on to an outlet mall about an hour away. We walked around for way too many hours while she commented on the ridiculous pricing of consumer goods and regaled us with where she had seen the very same thing elsewhere and cheaper. We ate ice cream and waved at other people’s babies and bought cute outfits for Penn William Blevins, her youngest grandchild. She commented to me about how young people seem to be increasingly challenged by life and the need to prioritize. It’s not wanting too much, it’s wanting the wrong things or the right things in the wrong order. Then we drove back to Columbus for dinner at her favorite Chinese restaurant. We got back to her house about 8:30. She didn’t want to be out too late because her eldest great-grand child, David Washington Penn, V, was having his 5th birthday party Saturday afternoon and she still had some cooking to do for the weekly family dinner on Sunday after church. Yeah, at 85 Mommy can hang, without a cane or a walker, without any medications, without her hair permed or colored or dyed just her complete and authentic, holistically healthy self, a manifestation of the proverbial, strong black woman. We didn’t announce her birthday during Sunday church service because we have so many elderly black folks in our congregation that we only announce birthdays if you’re 90 or older. A few weeks ago we all stood and sang “our” Happy Birthday song to 102 year-old Sister Olive Grayson. She was the 3rd 100+ year old congregant to celebrate a birthday this year. To quote Mommy’s favorite hymn “It Pays to Serve Jesus.”
I’m Mommy’s eldest daughter and we shared the bumpy and sometimes tumultuous ride from theoretical concepts of respectability to feminism to womanism to self-care and finally functionality. Just as MaMa Hattie, her grandmother, was the most influential person in her life, Mommy has been the most influential person in mine. MaMa Hattie died in 1965 when I was 11, so I knew her in the way a young girl knows an elderly woman. But I also knew her daughter, Mommy’s mother, MaMa, and a ton of the sister-friends of those three generations of strong black women women, including Mommy’s only sibling, her sister Betty and her six children-5 daughters and 1 son. So I grew up as a 4th generation member of a (very) black, (very) ethnic, Apostolic Pentecostal church, a true bastion of putative patriarchy. But we had swimming lessons and tennis lessons and did lots of things outside “the ark of safety” and Mommy decided my sisters and I should go to a private girl’s school. My parents supported one another’s ideas and neither of them cared what anybody at church thought about it. I only knew Mommy as a strong, holistically healthy black woman, even at church.
Mommy, like all the women in my maternal family and many of the women I knew in church and in my neighborhood had a job outside the home. My Facebook pic is MaMa Hattie’s Bluefield State Teacher’s College, Class of 1898 photo. MaMa was the 1st black woman to work in the governor’s office in Ohio as a non-domestic. That’s how she got to meet FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe Louis-she retired after four administrations. Mommy worked for the federal government starting as a GS-2, Clerk Typist and retiring as a GS-13 Branch Chief, Procurement at the Defense Construction Supply Center in Columbus. Every time she felt she was treated illegally whether because of race, color or gender Mommy would discuss it once but if not corrected she would file a grievance or an EEO complaint with a quickness. She was and remains equally assertive at church. If she thinks the pastor or any church leader, evangelist, apostle, prophet, teacher or praise and worship leader is wrong or out of order she will not hesitate to provide a word of correction. Mommy’s just 4’11 but she is fierce and fearless. I doubt she’s ever gone 24 hours without reading her Bible-I know she read it aloud to us daily until we left home, 1 chapter each night from Genesis straight thru Revelation then back to Genesis! (Yeah, I hated it and complained vigorously and then did the same thing with my kids!;) I’ve never heard her utter a word of profanity, wear a straw hat or white shoes after Labor Day, miss Sunday School or church for any reason beside vacation, death or dire illness, arrive at church without white gloves, not set the table for each and every meal or forget where to place any element of cutlery… but don’t get it twisted, she will challenge anybody, any time and she will happily engage in mortal combat over a point of principle….no quarter given, none asked. I only knew Mommy as a strong, holistically healthy black woman, even at work.
My siblings and I called both her and Daddy Klingons behind their backs, and like him, her expectations were clear with consequences clarified in advance. She was not to be toyed with…she explained that there were state-sponsored institutions for children who could not/would not follow parental instructions. Once she heard me speak rudely to Mrs. Effie Brown, the black woman who came to our house and looked after us while our parents worked. Mommy told me That is never okay AND you’re not cute enough to act like that. She told me all about sex before I went to Kindergarden because I don’t what you might hear in the street. I was horrified but by introducing the topic before I was curious or could be embarassed, she made it easy to talk about it later. By the time I was 12 and having my first whispered conversations at school and slumber parties she was a sure and steady source of facts and she encouraged me to ask her anything, assuring me I know more about sex than anybody else you know except your Daddy! If any of those questions were awkward, she never revealed it. I have only known her as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman in her dealings with me.
Mommy and Daddy encouraged us to speak our minds and express our feelings. Sometimes Mommy would call us into their bedroom after Daddy left for work and announce It’s Mental Health Day! (Daddy did NOT take Mental Health Days!) She would call her office and each of our schools and then we would all just hang out. She showed us how much fun it was to lay on the floor, stretch and scream at the top of our lungs. She was a master at shadow puppets, playing jacks, double-dutch or dodge ball and she and Daddy were fearless on sleds and loved taking us on family bike rides. I have only known her as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman in dealing with her family.
But by the time I went to Wellesley in 1972 I was ready to defy her, or at least try and help her. I began sending her books with certain passages highlighted, fight the patriarchy…religion is the opiate of the masses….classism and sexism help maintain systems of white supremacy…free your mind, the rest will follow! along with notes from fiery professors and speakers I heard at Wellesley and elsewhere. She read everything and sent synopsis of her thoughts back in notes sprinkled with her own made-up hieroglyphics tucked inside care packages of delicious snacks. But her notes were so repetitive I finally asked, are you actually reading what I’m sending?! And her reply was RU?! During Christmas break sophomore year she sat me down and explained that while she and Daddy were thrilled I was getting a superlative education at Wellesley, it was her sincere prayer that while getting all this expensive wisdom I would also get an understanding…that I would I recognize that not everything that is lawful is needful and that eventually I would be able to seperate the wheat from the tares. She went on to tell me why she was neither moved nor impressed by the theoretical ramblings of folks enscounced in academic institutions trying to impart knowledge about how to function in the broader and more physical world. She just didn’t see how folks whose greatest accomplishment was writing a book or two while balancing relationships with academic advisors and possibly a pet were qualified to offer instruction to her or her peers who were managing marriages, children, elderly parents, work (often low paid and rarely in comfy conditions), church, community service, housekeeping and cooking. I have only known her as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman in dealing with conceptual and factual issues.
Mommy never expected me to help carry her load under some theory of teaching me responsibility. She also never complained about her load. My chores were simple…make your bed, help set and clear the table, put your clothes away, and clean one of the bathrooms each week-for the sake of my humility. Mommy was clear …we provide for you now because you are our child and our responsibility. So I was not surprised when during my pregnancy with twins, her first granchildren, she told me I will not be your baby sitter so don’t ask. When I graduated from law school Mommy kept Charles and Damon overnight for the first time-they were 13 months old, it was my graduation present and she let us know we were expected to pick them up by noon the next day. And speaking of law school, once she called and asked how I was doing. Forgetting to whom I was speaking, I said I’m tired. There was a 5 second frosty pause and then she asked Tired of what? Living?! You’re blessed to pursue your dream of law school, with a husband who respects you and two healthy and beautiful children. You are doing exactly what you said you wanted to do; All you should say is ‘Thank you Jesus!‘ What was I thinking?! I have only known her as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman so of course that is what she expected of me.
CMadison often called me Little Mildred and I considered it a compliment of the highest magnitude. Friday as I watched her walking all over the mall and eating everything with her head full of always natual, thick white hair, I thought about all the times she told me and my sisters I may not have gone to Wellesley, but I know this ______(fill in the blank)! And I thought about how often she was right. I looked at her and thought about all the folks publically professing commitments to dismantling systems of white supremacy and patriarchy and seeking/demanding work life balance and respect while steadily discounting the significance and the remarkable work of strong black women- the very strength, resilience and work that sustained us as a people. I looked at her and thought about the irony of younger black women both in the academy and in the church demanding respect from others while withholding much more than baseline recognition from older black women under some contrived notion of resisting respectability. I looked at her and thought about the paradox of folks up in arms about respectability politics while disrespecting other folks’ belief systems. I looked at her and thought about her sister/friends in the Sunday School class she teaches, the one she joined when she was 13 and I thought about the rich legacy of MaMa Hattie and MaMa and Aunt Betty and the literally hundreds of strong, holistically healthy black women sister/friends I’ve had the priviledge to know through her, the ones I’ve studied and attempted to emulate and I wondered…. if we dispose of the so-called trope of the strong, black woman, what exactly will we use to replace it?
Sunday I watched her in church and then at home over dinner, with not just her adult children and their spouses, but her grandchildren and their spouses and her great-grandchildren and I thought this is a strong, holistically healthy black woman who successfully navigated the world through vigorous prayer, who remained married for 64 years, crafted a successful career, birthed and mothered four children, influenced 9 grandchildren and held 3 great-grands. As validation of the “Little Mildred” moniker, let me throw in a couple of Bible verses, For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes. Luke 6:44. and one of my favs… She perceiveth that her merchandise is good: her candle goeth not out by night. She layeth her hands to the spindle, and her hands hold the distaff. She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of the snow for her household: for all her household are clothed with scarlet. She maketh herself coverings of tapestry; her clothing is silk and purple. Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land. She maketh fine linen, and selleth it; and delivereth girdles unto the merchant. Strength and honour are her clothing; and she shall rejoice in time to come. She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness. She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness. Her children arise up , and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praiseth her. Proverbs 31:18-28.
Mommy is known for her fruit and she’s always known her merchandise was good so she had a singular response to all micro aggressions, namely swift and sure words of correction. She applied that standard at home ’cause bless his heart, Daddy had gender issues. She applied that standard at work where she managed large teams while negotiating multi-million dollar contracts for the federal government. Many of the people she managed, many of the people who managed her and many of the defense contractors had gender issues, racial issues and color issues. She used that standard at church because well, patriarchy is encouraged in the church. And she used that standard with us Don’t think you can act crazy because your Daddy’s not here! What she never administered was self-doubt. She never used that all too common woman’s inquiry Is it me? Mommy never thought it was her! This was often (deeply) annoying to me but upon reflection it is probably one of the reasons she’s 85 and living a happy, active and full life without any phamaceutical dependencies. She seems to love living as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman. All her friends were/are strong black women. She never emulated men or white people and while she never actually said it, I think she always felt black women were a little bit superior, specifically stronger-by necessity, than other folks. But what she did state clearly and unequivocally included excellent advice about how to love God, how to have fun, how to be a good person, a good daughter, a good sibling, a good woman, a good wife and a good mother-in that order. She gave me excellent advice about how to manage a career, how to contribute to community and how to look for opportunities to serve- all of which I thankfully had the good sense to at least try and follow. I’m a process person, inclined toward strategic planning and while I enjoy theoretical constructs I look for long-term, sustainable results. I’ve only known Mommy as a strong, holistically healthy, black woman and the results of her labor are nothing less than stunning for which I am eternally grateful. By way of thanks, I plan to stick with that troupe.