Mamma Dearest

I've known my mother for 39 years, and I never thought we'd both get this far. We are humorously fatalistic. Pry us away from the contextual frame of our mother-daughter relationship and we'd still

I've known my mother for 39 years, and I never thought we'd both get this far. We are humorously fatalistic. Pry us away from the contextual frame of our mother-daughter relationship and we'd still be, at the least, reliable and long-suffering friends.

We give one another money, food, clothing, shelter, transportation, guidance and good humor. We listen to and support one another; we buttress and banter. We make and take recommendations.

Gladine Rosetta Hill Wilson Parrish, on the eve of her 70th birthday, is better than I am at all of this. So much in my life has changed during the parallel trajectory of my professional and personal selves, and I've lost so many people along that way.

Petty and unresolved misunderstandings, jealousy, death, geography and even unrequited love have claimed a goodly amount of folks. But always my mamma remains.

She's changed toward others who populated her life. Mainly she changed because they forced it on her. They were disloyal or disingenuous, so she womaned up and kept moving. My mom takes a battering before she gives up on her lovers, leaving them to their own devices.

To her, living as Christ means relentlessly extending humanity.

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs," she'd read to Randy, Kenny and me from I Corinthians, one of her favorite scriptures. "And now these three remain," she'd say, her voice rising in mamma drama, "faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

That was always my favorite part, because I could see that's how she was living it. With love.

It did her in most times. Mere mortals neither understand nor trust a woman who loves like this, in direct response to God.

She got used by men and black Baptist churches, is sometimes cast off by family and now is racked with the late-life, anxiety-inducing self doubt born from second guessing her past choices — stay or go, fight him for the house or vacate, live in poverty or exchange dignity for rent, demand more money or risk being fired?

And, long before it became sloganeering, What would Jesus do?

My mom spent most of my life accommodating other people (sometimes especially me) and neglecting her future self. These days she barely gets by.

At book signings, I encourage people to buy my book so "I can buy my mamma a car." People generally laugh. I'm serious about providing for her during our lifetimes.

It's reparations to the inner sanctum of our bond, a downpayment on all the truths, all the pride and nurturing she's loaned me. There was a brief time when I thought my mother was a martyr and destined to be a bitter lonely woman. But she snapped to her senses.

She'd misconstrued Christianity with a welcome mat. She'd done decades of well-intended work in churches and communities for the wrong reasons. The she re-learned her life.

The whole time I've closely observed my mother, not looking for mistakes or flaws but for examples.

She set the greatest example at the intersection of her own musicianship in service to God. She's been playing the piano since she was 6 years old. As a young girl she traveled through the segregated mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, a journeyman wunderkind pounding out Country Gospel hymns.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons in Hamilton, we'd go through our diverse and deeply funky record collection. We'd listen to Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack and Dionne Warwick, Arthur Prysock and Billie Eckstine.

Eight tracks, vinyl and cassette tapes litter our whole lives through. My mother's records showed me how beautiful black is — from Diana Ross' permed flip to Nina Simone's Afro wrapped in cornrows to the gowns of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.

We also listened to Barbara Streisand belting show tunes, blaxploitation movie soundtracks and all types of Gospel. WDAO soundtracked riots, Watergate, assassinations, summers in the park and divorces. My parents danced on glass-glossy hardwood floors in their stocking feet to "Caldonia," to Little Richard and The Platters.

Mostly my mother's dual love of God and music landed her in church.

By accompanying the A & B selections of all that black Baptist pageantry, she taught me that gifted people hold specific responsibilities. We're supposed to return in abundance that which has been abundantly bestowed upon us.

In a few weeks, she retires once and for all from the piano at Israel Baptist Church in Hamilton after playing off and on there for more than 40 years. She's tired.

But she'll never rest. It's not what love does.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.

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