MAXWELL: Nearly 80, mama still tries to mold her boy
5/7/2003 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Sunday, May 11, is Mother’s Day. My siblings and I are fortunate. Our mother, approaching the age of 80, still orders us around, and she still tries to “fix me up” with some of her sisters in the church.
Just a few weeks ago, she telephoned and told me about a “nice lady who likes books like you.” To get her off that subject, at least temporarily, I said: “Yes, ma’am. I’ll be down there real soon.” This exchange went something like this:
“You saving your money?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Put something back each check.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Put something back.”
“I said I do.”
“Young people like to spend everything and run around.”
“I’m 57 years old, mama.”
“You still a child, boy.”
I was trying to get off the telephone to avoid an accounting of “all them wasteful” trips I took last year _ New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Chapel Hill, New Orleans, Nashville, Fort Worth, Newark.
“Child, you better settle down and get married again. You just as wild as you used to be when you were little. You going to church?”
“Once in a while.”
“You need to be in that church house, in the front row, every time that door opens. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“You young folks done turned your back on the Lord.”
“I haven’t turned my back _.”
“_ Don’t make me come up there, boy.”
That is my mother _ still dispensing her view of right and wrong. Yes, I am lucky to still have her here with me, to scold me, to try to fix me up. I have nothing but fond memories of my mother, Jeanette Louise. After my father abandoned us (I was 9 and the oldest of three children at the time), she did not feel sorry for herself. This was before the age of welfare. At first, she worked weekdays as a farm worker in Broward County’s bean fields and on weekends as a maid for a beachfront hotel. Later, her hotel boss hired her full time.
She never brought home more than $60 a week. But she knew how to stretch a dollar. The five of us lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Fort Lauderdale. We mostly ate neckbones and rice, oxtails, okra and stewed tomatoes, collard greens, sweet potatoes, big lima beans, baked and fried cornbread.
Jeanette Louise loved to “go to the club” and dance to what she called “low-down, dirty blues.” Her favorite drink was Cutty Sark and milk. She never went out before stocking the shelves and icebox with food. And she was generous with the few dollars she had. Since I was the oldest, she gave me “a little pocket change” each weekend. The younger kids always got their favorite treats _ Charlie, a bag of jaw breakers and a chocolate soda; Helen, a honey bun and a Nehi strawberry soda; Larry, a Black Cow candy bar and a Dad’s root beer.
Not doing homework portended a nasty whipping. “I don’t want you all to wind up like me and your daddy _ cleaning toilets for white people and breaking your back in the fields. Do your school work and make something out of yourself.”
Jeanette Louise was not a saint by a long shot. She was stubborn, mother-henish and hot-tempered. But she kept us, especially the boys, out of serious trouble with the police, and she guided the eventual seven of us through high school graduation and beyond.
She telephoned the other day and began prying into my business. Following is an approximation of that conversation:
“You buy another house yet?”
“No, ma’am.”
“What you waiting for?”
“I just want to rent. I can pick up and leave whenever I want to.”
“You going somewhere again?”
Ignoring the latter, I said: “I have this little garage apartment.”
“You living in a garage?”
“Garage apartment.”
“I got this deaconess you need to meet.”
“Mama, I don’t want to meet another deaconess.”
“She’s got a real nice house in Lauderhill.”
“I have a column to write.”
“You always got to write when I call.”
“I’ll see you Mother’s Day.”
She went to great lengths to describe the deaconess and her house. I had no choice but to hear her out.
“I’ll see you Mother’s Day,” I said, finally.
“You eating right? You still drinking that wine?”
“Yes, ma’am.”