SHE PUT A STICK IN MY BACK AND MADE ME STRONG…
I was the third child and only girl of Zelma Dennis Mansfield. Her dad so much wanted a boy and promised his best friend Dennis that he would name his first-born child after him – assuming it was going to be a boy. So “Z” Dennis she became. My brother once said that I often forgot I was the only girl and thought instead, I was an only child. My photos graced the walls of my mother’s house like it was my own personal photo gallery. She had her children very late in life, my younger brother arriving when she was almost 46 years old. She hated cooking, could not braid my hair, stayed up all night sewing, puffing on cigarettes, and occasionally sipping on a hot toddy. She wasn’t a scout mom, rarely baked cookies (or much else for that matter), and never learned to drive a car. But in my eyes, she was the best mom there ever was. We were thick as thieves and loved the world we created for ourselves.
My mother often weaved funny stories to entertain me from the time I was a little girl. We had a fixed routine that I loved – rising each day to watch Dave Garroway and his crew on the TODAY show like they were an extension of our family. We would exercise, and then she would start her sewing, the one thing she really loved to do, non-stop. It was an incredibly happy life – not Father Knows Best – but in my eyes, it was better. It was a colorful life in so many respects. We didn’t have a lot of material things, but our home was comfortable. Best of all, it was a very welcoming place. Doors were never locked, windows were always open to the fresh breezes outside, and clothes blew melodically on the long clothesline that ran from one big oak to another. We were free to just be – the entire village.
My dad was a singer and was on the road all the time when we were growing up in a small country town in Maryland. My mother had to be strong – and that she was. As a young woman growing up with a grandmother who really spoiled her, you would think that she would be a self-centered adult. However, she was the opposite — the most selfless person I’ve ever known. She gave much more than she ever got and planted in each of her children an obligation to serve. She often brought home stray dogs, cats, and lots of stray people – not for short visits, but to live – for years! We shared our beds, our time, our food, and our prized mother with oh so many. And we shared all of that with homeless people, drunks, women of ill repute, and at least one resident with a noticeable mental disorder and a penchant for pornographic comics. But her philosophy was always the same, “Put a stick in your back and stand straight and strong!” I am so glad that I took her advice. I sure needed it later in life when I occasionally encountered people resembling those strays my mother used to bring home. I sometimes did not choose the best examples of the human spirit.
I have always referred to “Z” Dennis as “The Queen” because, in my mind, she was. She was such a lady – with her fancy hats, gloves, and refined manner. I, on the other hand, could care less about what I wore or how others perceived me. I liked hanging out in the woods as a kid, and did not then, and still do not now consider myself a girlie girl. My mother – “The Queen,” wore that crown oh so well by herself. She made sure that I was exposed to the arts, “good” music, great books, and other refined people, though. College was a MUST DO for all of us, and church was a given in my mother’s house. Even later in my teens, when I thought I was really grown and would keep REALLY late hours, partying with friends, I would have to be up EARRRLY on Sunday morning. That meant not just for church, but for Sunday school as well – no excuses!
“Z” Dennis kept her children fed, clothed, and happy – by any means necessary. She cleaned houses for white folks in neighborhoods close by. Sometimes I would go with her to help clean and grew to enjoy working with her, not necessarily the cleaning part. As hard as I worked as a teen, I always considered myself somewhat domestically challenged. In my later teens, I graduated to having my own white folks to clean for and did that until I graduated from high school. During that era, that was the primary means of employment for Black women in my village. No one seemed to think much of what they had to do to provide for their families. That was all we knew at that time. Thank God, women today have many more options and voices to make even more significant changes. At one time, my mother worked in a little store right down the road from our house and sold a limited number of household items that neighbors needed. They could just run to the corner to purchase them – a forerunner of the 7-11, we have today, I suppose. She was our town’s only Notary Public, and it was a big deal for me to see that official sign on the front of our house – still there to this day. I was determined to do the same, so when I retired, I too became a notary. But her primary bread and butter was sewing – fixing and mending other people’s clothes, day in and day out. Her life’s dream when she finished college, though, was to become a fashion designer. I became her guinea pig in her spare time. She would design all kinds of lovely outfits – mostly for me. I never bought a dress from a store until I graduated high school. When times were really tight, she would work through the night cleaning a local restaurant. Many summers she would spend months working up in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a housekeeper for other rich white folks. I hated it when she left to do that. I missed her sooo much.
She was always so much fun and had a wonderfully contagious laugh. We could talk for hours about so many different things, but what she loved most was telling me our family history – the story of the Middletons of Orangeburg, SC. She was such a great storyteller. She just loved her family and the days growing up in Orangeburg. It was the most special time in her life, I believe. She finished high school and college at Claflin there in Orangeburg, then married her first husband there. But her life took a turn when she ended up living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. That’s where she met and married my dad, Emanuel Mansfield.
It was always amazing to me that my mother lived to be 95 years old because she had been sickly off and on her entire life. As a child, she had Rheumatic Fever and smallpox. In her later years, she was a diabetic, had colon cancer, and pneumonia more than once. She just put a stick in her back and stood strong!
My mother was diagnosed with colon cancer shortly after my dad died in 1978, had six months of radiation following surgery, and was still extremely ill. Nothing seemed to work, and her physician finally told her there was nothing else that could be done. We moved her to Atlanta, hoping she would have a few good months to be with my brother, her grandchildren, and me. I was bracing myself for goodbye, but goodbye didn’t come for seventeen more years! And boy, were those some wonderful years for “The Queen” and especially for us. It was as if she was reborn. She took Atlanta by storm and became extremely active in the senior community. She started quilting, painting, learned to use the computer, got a personal trainer, and started exercising after she had bilateral knee surgery at age seventy-nine. After the knee surgery, we really couldn’t stop her. She walked every day and traveled everywhere, as often as she could, with her “Road Dog” Flossie Mack. The two of them were just a hoot! They would often travel by Greyhound but would arrive at the Atlanta inner-city bus station in Mink hats, gloves, and full-length fur coats. It was just too funny!! In between, Zelma was a senior advocate, fighting battles for those who had not been taught to put a stick in their backs and stand strong. She always was the ear that listened, and the one who seemed to understand the emotional needs of others, unlike anyone I’ve known.
Since God had seen fit to give my mother a second life, it seemed, I just thought she was going to be the next Methuselah and live forever. So, when she ended up in the hospital with what did not seem like any severe illness, my assumption was that she was just suffering old folks’ frailties and would be home soon. But that didn’t happen. One day at the hospital, she said to me, “Pauline, my grandmother came and sat on my shoulder last night.” Oh God, I knew what that meant! I knew when she told me that she was about to purchase her ticket to go “Home” with her grandmother, whom she adored. But how could she leave ME!? She was my best bud – always there with that stick to prop me up and make me strong. With that same stick of strength in her back, she basically said her goodbyes – no fear, no hesitation, no drama. She knew where she was going! And I felt she was looking forward to the journey. Just after Christmas 2001, she transitioned in a whisper – quietly, sweetly – just as if she was strolling out of the room, just like a Queen.
At her homegoing, (because I am sure that’s where she went – ‘Home’), we took all of her hats – every color, style, and season and had every female who wished to wear one in her honor, they could do so. There were dozens of boxes of these hats – she loved them! I think she wore one every day!! As we walked into the church for her funeral, we looked like high fashion hat models on a runway. I know “Queen Z Dennis” was looking downing chuckling as we marched in – an unforgettable promenade. Her earthly vessel was dressed in her favorite suit, her mink fur hat, and of course, gloves – a girlie girl to the very end! What a wonderful celebration of life that was! We still chuckle when we reminisce about it.
I was so very blessed to have this Queen as my mother. She taught me so much. I learned to stay strong, to love and honor God, and to always be a servant to others. Still no gloves, and I don’t do church hats, but I do have an eternal stick in my back and trust that my days will be long and as joyful as those of my mother. She is hovering close by me every day of my life, I know that for sure. What a tremendous gift of a mother I had, and I treasure every lesson I learned from her. The unconditional love and humor with which she smothered me leave so many warm memories that will never, ever die.
As we approach another Mother’s Day 2020, I write this to celebrate Queen “Z” as I do every day. Her legacy is unending.