It is August 2005. My Mama has been gone for two days. I am not crying yet. There is no time to cry. I am the oldest of four siblings and my Mama had no spouse when she passed. I can’t cry; I must do. From the moment the RN tells me that my Mom is gone I’m a hurricane. I have a funeral and burial to plan; with the assistance of my aunt I get to it. I’m confronted with the similar obstacle my family faced when my Grandma passed away: no life insurance.
My mother purchased a life insurance policy after my Grandma passed but let the policy lapse. The director at the funeral home was very kind and sympathetic as he went over the costs with me. As my mother was a veteran the military would provide her burial plot and headstone, which greatly decreased our costs. All that was left to do was raise the balance needed for the funeral itself. As I called relative after relative seeking contributions I began to see red.
In the end it wouldn’t be individuals within my maternal family who stepped forward to save the day. The assistance that was desperately needed came from people who had never even met my mother: my in-laws in Tanzania and my husband’s network here in the States. The memory of the support that my African circle provided during that painful time has never left me, and I am still incredibly thankful for what my then-husband and in-laws did for me. I couldn’t help but contrast their actions with those of my Mama’s actual blood though. As with Grandma’s death, people did not come through. Though my Mama wasn’t old enough to be a matriarch when she passed, she had certainly played a key role in providing support for her family. When payday was far away and money was low, folks would call my Mom asking for help-though she herself was on a fixed income and struggling to raise three minors on her own. In the fall of 2005 my Mom received a windfall from the local transit authority. In order to make way for the light rail running through our neighborhood she had to move. The transit authority compensated her well for the inconvenience. I literally begged my Mom to keep news of her windfall a secret. She was generous to a fault, and I knew she would not be able to say no if asked for money. My fears came to pass. The news got out, and people who rarely even called her to say ‘hi’ came with their hands out, beseeching her for gifts and loans. Within six months of receiving her windfall she was back in the same dire straits, largely due to her ‘helping’ family. Yet when she died these same people who had their hands out couldn’t be bothered to do much in terms of burying her and assisting with the children she left behind.
Mama was never the actual matriarch of the family; she didn’t live long enough to take on that mantle from her mother. But just like Grandma she put the needs and well-being of others above her own, only to rarely receive the reciprocity she deserved. Witnessing the way they were both treated in death had a profound effect on me. When I was a little girl I looked at my Grandma in awe, and hoped that I lived long enough to become like her. But looking at her life honestly, and reviewing the way her huge heart and giving nature(along woth that of my Mama) was used and taken advantage of, changed my mind. I never want to be a ‘Big Mama’. I don’t want to be the lone strong person in the family that others exploit. I don’t want to the one who never thinks of her own needs and what is best for her. I don’t want to the be prototypical good/strong Black woman whose entire life is spent in the service of others(see every Tyler Perry film for classic examples of this ideal).
I don’t say this to shade Grandma and Mom in any way. I understand why they were so open; it is what they were both trained to do. It is what I was trained to do, and what I was well on my way to becoming. But the more I thought of my dear Grandma and Mom, and all that they had sacrificed for unappreciative people, the less pull the blueprint I was given had on me. I started saying no to people. I stopped changing my plans at the last minute to acquiesce to those who wouldn’t respect my time enough to give me advance notice. I stopped freely lending money whenever asked. Most of all I changed my outlook. Though my decision was a major departure from the culture I was raised in I do not regret it. Refusing to play the role of ‘Big Mama’ greatly improved my mental health. Letting go of the expectation that I be a mule for the needs of others, I instead assert my right to live a complete, joyful and healthy life of my own.