This first week of July has seen an embarrassment of riches to write about; I almost couldn’t decide where to start. But my mother’s birthday seems like an appropriate place to begin. My mother turns 80 this year.
Like my father, Mom was born into a poor family; however, unlike Dad, hers was an urban, not rural, poverty. She was born in Kansas City, Missouri to William Edward Gines (1898-1955) and Annie Florida Corrine Long (1902-1986). She was the sixth child of Eddie and Flo.
Eddie Gines had been born in Shreveport, but left there in 1920, headed for Kansas City. He left his baby daughter Grace (1916-2002) with his mother Sylvia LeJay Gines (1863-1940) and he took with him his younger brother Henry and a woman named Sarah Green. In Kansas City, Eddie and Sarah got married. It’s unclear what happened in their relationship, but by 1925, Eddie had fallen for Kansas City Follies dancer Flo Long.
My mother’s maternal grandparents were the Rev. James William Long (1866-1945) and Mary Elizabeth Johnson (1870-1946). Reverend Long was the pastor of Sunrise Baptist Church, then located on Kansas City’s west side. Indeed, it was so far west that it was claimed that the state line ran through the middle of the building; the pulpit being in Missouri and the congregation in Kansas. Mary Elizabeth Johnson is believed to have been a direct descendant of a Revolution War patriot and a collateral descendant of a signer of the Constitution. (More about this in a later post). None of this was known, or if known, not often discussed, when my mother was a child a child.
Mom went to Crispus Attucks School in Kansas City, where she skipped two grades (fourth and eighth). The story about her skipping fourth grade is rather interesting. She had same teacher for fourth grade as she’d had for third grade. Soon after the beginning of the school year in 1941, the teacher decided to hold a reading competition between the boys and the girls, promising an ice cream party to the winning side. My mother thought this was unfair because she knew that the girls had some weak readers. And then the teacher allowed the boys’ side to read for most of the hour, leaving the girls team just a few minutes to read. And when it was the girls’ turn, the teacher picked the weakest reader among them, and exceptionally poor girl who had struggled through third grade. The bell rang signifying the end of the day just as the teacher announced the boys had won. Mom said under her breath, “She cheated.” The teacher looked up and said “What was that?” Everyone was silent for a moment, then a boy said, “Lillian said you cheated.” The class was dismissed all except for Mom. The teacher said, “Lillian, you and your mother will meet me at 9 AM on Monday in the principal’s office.”
Mom and her mother appeared at the appointed time and place. The teacher and the principal informed Mom and her mother that Mom would be going to fifth grade effective immediately. The rationale was something like this: “if you think you’re so smart, girlie, we will see.”
Mom spent her first 10 days as a fifth grader in sheer distress. For one thing she wasn’t sure she could do fifth grade work; and she was behind already. But as the days went on she composed herself and excelled in the fifth grade.
From then on, my mother was an academic success. She graduated first in her class at Kansas City’s Lincoln High School in 1949 and four years later, was number one in her class and Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. My parents were married about two months after my mother graduated from Lincoln.
My dad was an Army officer for twenty years as I was growing up. My mother did the things that women of her generation and station did. When the kids were off to school and the housework done, she busied herself with projects for the Officer Wives Club, the PTA, and the Catholic Ladies Sodality (she had converted as a teenager). She was a “Little League” mom; she was a Cub Scout den mother; she volunteered at the school library, and did a bit of substitute teaching. But on paper, this gives an inaccurate picture of my mother. My mother was then and is now a distinctly independent individual. She taught us the we could be absolutely anything we wanted to be. She infused us with self-confidence and self-esteem. And she was no patsy in the face of perceived injustice. She taught us the principle of “trust but verify” long before Ronald Reagan introduced the phrase into the political lexicon. She taught us to “stand our ground” (metaphorically, of course) when we right and to admit our deficits when we were wrong. She taught us to respect the institutions, values, and icons in society, but to recognize that these could go wrong and that we had a duty to call them out when they did.
My mother had a keen interest in constitutional law, though she had no formal training in it beyond high school social studies. This is perhaps not surprising for an educated black woman whose father was born the year the Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson and whose first child was born the year the Court reversed Plessy by way of Board of Education v. Brown.
I was in second grade when the Supreme Court decided the case of Engel v. Vitale 370 U.S. 421 (1962). This was the first of the significant school prayer cases of the 1960s. The Court held unconstitutional the then-widespread practice in public schools of reciting a prayer at the beginning of the day. My mother explained what she thought it meant and which issues it left unanswered. When I got to law school nearly twenty years later, I found that she had been very accurate her description of the case. And it was not the only time such a thing happened.
In 1965, my father received orders to Korea. At the time, family members could not go to Korea with military members. My mother took over all the family and household functions that Dad used to do. Although it must have been hard for her, she made it look seamless.
She made sure that we wrote to Dad every week, even though there were times when he couldn’t answer for awhile. Dad came back from Korea after a year and things had been altered, though not in a way easily discernible by the children.
As it turned out, Korea had been just a dress rehearsal for my dad’s 1968-69 tour in Vietnam. This was a bit more daunting as there was actual shooting going on in Vietnam. But again, Mom stepped up to the challenge, kept the family functioning, and kept us calm about the horrific violence all around our father.
She is well-read and a quick learner. Every summer when school was out, she enrolled us in the local library’s summer reading program. For fun she reads Ellery Queen mysteries and Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. When she could, she watched “her stories” (The Edge of Night, The Secret Storm, As the World Turns, and sometimes, Days of Our Lives).
Mom has a witty way of expressing her views on certain topics. For example, when we got a cat as a pet, I used one of the every day forks to scoop food into the cat’s bowl. I then rinsed the fork and put in the dishwasher with the other dishes to be washed. Mom said, “No you don’t. I am a strict segregationist when comes to people and animals. Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” [You had to have lived through the 1960s to get this!]
Another one of Mom’s favorite television shows was Queen for a Day. Our wish for her 80th birthday is that she know that she’s our Queen for Life!
July 7, 2012 Saturday at 5:17 pm