Remembering Mom

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My mother, the late Juanita Bernelle Costin Freeman

Mother’s Day is always difficult for me because I lost my mother in 1999. At times I get angry because she died so young (around age 61). On other days I find myself sad when I think about how I can’t talk to her or hug her anymore. I am approaching 50, but I still miss my Mommy.

We didn’t always have heat, hot water, food or electricity when I was coming up. But since my mother was a teacher, she made sure that we always had books and other educational books and materials. It was almost as if she said we may be poor, but that is no reason for us to be ignorant. To my recollection we were just about only family in the neighborhood to have the complete 22 volume set of Encyclopedia Britannica on our bookshelf. Within those books I found information about everything from coral snakes to the life and times of Tutankhamun. And it wasn’t just the books that were important; my mother had a killa vocabulary. She used words like acclimated, lethargic, and moxie. Whenever I asked her what one of those words meant she gave me the same standard response – “look it up.” Fortunately, there was always a dictionary within arm’s reach.

A brilliant teacher, poet, and author, my mother was all about education. In fact, she spent 35 years working as special education teacher in Trenton, NJ. There were times when my siblings and I couldn’t understand why she came home so angry, but when I secured a job in the same district where she worked I suddenly understood what she was going through. Being a teacher in an inner-city school is one of the toughest jobs on the planet. They rate it right up there with being an air traffic controller! Considering all she was up against I think she handled things quite well.

Around 1995 or so, I informed my mother that I had found small apartment and was about to move out. I learned from my grandmother that mommy was overjoyed. I was the youngest of her three children, and it was very clear that she couldn’t wait for me to vacate the premises. There would be no empty nest empty nest syndrome for her. My departure meant one thing – freedom. Shortly after I moved out she figuratively hit the streets. When my siblings and I called we couldn’t reach her, and when we stopped she wasn’t home. She spent her days at church, attending social functions and gallivanting (hum, gallivanting that’s another word she taught me) across the country with her sorority sisters. It was great to see her so happy. All of her kids were grown, employed and out of the house, and she began to enjoy life like never before.

Even though I moved I still relied on my mother for advice and support. One time I told her about some challenges I was facing and she responded with two words – try God. I will remember those words for as long as there is breath in my body.   It was her way of saying that all things are possible for those that believe (Mark 9:23). A truer statement has never been said. Yet, more than anything it was her nonverbal communication that has stayed with me.  Throughout my life she somehow managed to instill a sense of hope in me, the idea that I could make it no matter what. Somehow she found a way to get me to believe in myself regardless of what other people said, thought or did. I am eternally thankful for that.

Sadly, my mother died in 1999 after a lengthy battle with cancer. She remained vigilant till the end. After she died in 1999, I went through her belongings and found a treasure trove of books, poems and other materials. In addition to other things I found Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Maya Angelou’s Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Jawanza Kunjufu’s Countering the Conspiracy to Kill Black Boys.

In a previous blog entry, I described how I was not very aware of my culture when I was coming up. I can’t, however, blame that on my mother. We had plenty of books that spoke to the black experience. I should have examined those texts more closely. Because of mom I now have many of those books in my possession.   Hopefully, I have time to read one or two of them over the summer.

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