I think she loved me. Although, I still wonder sometimes. She smiled at me occasionally and put her hand on my face, once.
All I know is she terrified me. She terrified all of us. Not one person in our family ever thought of her as an equal. No …she was superior to us. And we all knew it. We never spoke to her in anger and definitely never in a sarcastic tone. We listened intently to her. And we would’ve never thought of showing her any disrespect in any way. She was powerful and commanding and downright mean, sometimes. I would love to follow that sentence with, “but she was lovely and sweet and graceful and soft-hearted.” But that wouldn’t be a complete picture. She was kind and generous and loving …in her own way. And she believed in the transformative love of Jesus. But she was a rock-ribbed badass who took zero crap and who would simply NOT allow weakness in her presence. To this moment, I’ve never met any man, anywhere, tougher than her.
I’m referring to my great grandmother. We called her “Mammy.”
When Mammy was born, women still weren’t allowed to vote. She would occasionally recall seeing a car for the first time. She was a rural girl from the American south, caught in a time less kind and less forgiving. She ran away from home at age twelve and married a twenty-seven-year old moonshine runner (I know …gross. But hey …it’s how I got here). Three years later (at age fifteen) she gave birth to my grandmother. A year after that, her husband (my great grandfather) was shot in the ass by federal agents. He died of gangrene.
By seventeen, she was a widow and single mother. Then, she married a railroad man at age nineteen. They say he used to get drunk and beat her. But, as the story goes, she tied him to the bed one night (with bed sheets) and beat him senseless with a baseball bat. She beat him until he swore he would never touch her in anger again. And, apparently, once his broken bones healed …he never did.
That story was supposed to always remain a family secret. But pretty much all the people who would be affected by it …are now dead.
The repentant beater died a few years later and left her with two more daughters. One of them was crippled by polio and couldn’t walk. She was only twenty five. Then, she married yet again. And on her wedding day, her new (and third) husband introduced her to his SIX children, none of which she had any idea existed until that moment. Still, she took all of them in and raised them as her own. Soon, she bore another son. Then …that husband died.
By the time I met her, she was on husband number four. I remember him as a kind man who kept quiet and did pretty much whatever she told him to do. But several years after I came on the scene, he died as well.
Mammy raised ten children and buried four husbands. She travelled the world and started over forty churches in Tennessee alone. She could rough in plumbing all the way from the street, do electrical work, hang sheet rock, play the piano and preach a sermon. I never – in the sixteen years I knew her – ever saw her back up to let a man do something for her. I did two cross-country tours with her in tow. She carried her own bags and moved as quickly as any of us. She was the first one up and the last one down. She intimidated me every waking minute of every day. And my whole goal in life became to get as strong as her, physically, mentally and spiritually.
As of this posting …I still haven’t gotten close.
Sometimes I think we’re further down the road than we are. I often discount racism because I wasn’t really raised around it in my immediate family. And so it’s always dumbfounding to me that there are still racists out there. I look at this #metoo movement and often wonder why more women haven’t kicked more guys in the nuts …but I digress.
I hear actresses give speeches, telling young girls how they can be whatever they want to be and how they are JUST as powerful as men, and I think to myself, “don’t we already know this?!?! Haven’t we known this for decades?”
But then I remember …I guess not everyone had a “Mammy” in their life.
Mammy was the embodiment of what a truly powerful person (not just woman) is. I fear what would have happened to a Harvey Weinstein had he tried any funny business with her in the room. She wouldn’t have been “one of his victims.” I can promise you that.
Mammy was a primary school dropout. She was a bit unrefined and definitely rough around the edges. But she was constantly trying. After her death, I remember going to her house while they were moving out her belongings. I walked over to a book shelf and thumbed through several books she had dog eared. One was on the anatomy of hummingbirds. She’d written notes in the margins. One was on the mechanics of the internal combustion engine. She’d made notes in that one too. She was still learning; still empowering herself; still refusing to allow her circumstances to dictate what she could and couldn’t do.
Through her example, Mammy taught me a few things: if I have to give you power …you don’t really have any. If I have to lift you into leadership …you’re not really a leader. If you have to keep telling me to respect you …you’re not commanding it by how you conduct yourself.
I don’t endorse everything my great grandmother did in her young life. I think her older, ordained minister self would tell young women to not get married at twelve and refrain from assault with a baseball bat. But the thing is this: she was thrown into a violent world and yet she didn’t allow it to break her. She refused to be a victim of anything. She didn’t attend marches or burn bras and she would’ve laughed at the idea of hashtags and “a sisterhood.” It would’ve been foreign to her to trust other women just because they were women.
Mammy had her own power, her own strength, and her own wisdom. She didn’t need inspirational speeches to motivate her. She didn’t stand against “patriarchy” or make symbolic gestures and she wasn’t appalled by and aghast at lecherous men. She just put them in their place and moved on. She definitely didn’t talk about abstract concepts like “the gender gap” all the time or how the deck was stacked against her (even though when she walked the earth, it actually was). She didn’t constantly go on and on to men about how she could do whatever they could do. She. Just. Did. It.
Maybe instead of #metoo we need #mammy.
That would be a movement we could all get behind.