By Phyllistine Poole
“I will survive” are words I have never spoken or thought because I didn’t need to affirm this belief. My survival has always been a given. Survival is in my DNA, passed down to me through my mother, who grew up in a poor farm family of twelve children. One thing about being poor, you learn how to survive.
Taking care of a family gives one a strong will to survive, as in Mama’s case. Mama was widowed at forty-one years old and left to raise four school- age children—of sixteen, fourteen, seven and six– by herself. Several months after my father was killed in an automobile accident, Mama was hospitalized with cancer of the thyroid gland. After surgery, she was in a coma for five days. While in a coma, she said, she saw angels in a circle and understood that they wanted her to get in the middle. After she refused, she said, “Looked like they got together and discussed what they were going to do next. Then they got in a circle again and tried to get me to get in it. I knew if I got in that circle, I wouldn’t be here no more.” She told them “I got to get back to my children,” and woke up from the coma.
My mother survived for her children and also because of grace, faith, survival skills, a good sense of humor and hard work. I believe in “You reap what you sow” and that Mama has divine favor, which has given her the strength, wisdom and means to survive. I believe she has favor because of her many acts of kindness, for which she was known, admired and loved in our neighborhood. She obeyed the commandment “Love thy neighbor.” Just a few examples: to give young mother’s a break, she babysat their children for free. Whenever our next-door neighbors traveled out of town to visit an elderly, sick relative, whom she had never met, Mama sent her home cooked food. When a church member was sick, Mama didn’t just call or send a card, she went to the woman’s house and gathered up her dirty clothes to wash and even starched the woman’s doilies and mended some split seams in her clothes. When a passing neighbor lamented that it was his wife’s birthday and he hadn’t gotten her a gift, Mama said “Here take her some of these flowers,” inviting him into her flower garden. She taught us children to be kind by example and precept, and being kind has served us well in life. I, too, have lived a good life (for the most part) and believe a higher power has helped me to survive because of it.
I believe that when you are on the Lord’s side, He is on yours. And Mama certainly was on the Lord’s side, and for this she was rewarded. Mama gave and gave and didn’t ask for much, but I noticed that when she expressed a desire for something big or small, she got it. For example, when she heard that the city was buying houses across town for redevelopment plans, she said, “I sure wish they would buy this house so I could get me a new one.” Her house needed repairs which she couldn’t afford. Lo and behold, not long after she expressed this wish, redevelopment came to her neighborhood and her house was one of the few bought on her street. With the money, she bought a better house. Others around her whose houses were bought also purchased better accommodations.
Mama’s faith is strong and it has also helped her to survive. She lives by the words in the songs “The Lord will make a way somehow” and “I believe I’ll run on and see what the end’s gonna be.” She also believes in the power of prayer. Before I underwent a tricky and dangerous surgery, Mama called on her church members to join her in prayer for me. The surgery and recovery went so well that I was released from the hospital earlier than planned. When I went to my doctor for a checkup weeks later, he was so amazed that he called in his assistant to see my incision. They both agreed they had never seen a patient heal so fast. Mama passed on her faith to her children through her religious instruction and involving us in church services. That faith has been my strength and assurance in a higher power that helps me have confidence that I will survive.
Mama’s practical survival skills leave me in awe. With not much money and no assistance, she housed, clothed and fed her children. I learned from her how to budget money, how to grocery shop to feed a family on a limited budget. My husband would go to the grocery store with me but wouldn’t shop by himself because, he said, I could get twice as much as he could with the same amount of money.
Mama grew a vegetable garden and canned vegetables and fruit to help make ends meet. She was so frugal that she saved buttons, zippers and even sometimes thread from worn out clothing before discarding them. She made most of our clothes and knew where to shop for the best bargains on fabric. Because of Mama’s example, I knew how to make do when my resources were limited. I joke that if a panel of women like my mother were put in charge of the federal budget our country wouldn’t have a deficit but a huge surplus.
Proverbs 17:22 KJV tells us “A merry heart doeth good like medicine.” My mother’s good spirits have helped keep her in good health and us children laughing and all of us going. She enjoyed a good joke and sharing laughter. Frequently she shared sayings,funny stories and amusing anecdotes with us children and others. April Fool’s Day was one of her favorite times and she loved to come up with ways to fool her children. She always had meaningful and often funny replies to questions. When one of her teenaged daughters asked her if she had any money, she let her know, “Yeah, I got money and sense with it.” Other times when she had to set us straight, she did so with good humor.When she asked one of us to do something and doubted we would follow through, she said “You say okay, but you mean Oh nay.” Today she has our children laughing. When a granddaughter asked her how to pick a guy, she broke out into the song “Money Honey.”
Mama was a hard worker and worked as a housekeeper, cafeteria worker, door-to door saleswoman and neighborhood seamstress. We children learned the value of hard work from our mother and that has helped us to survive. Through her example, she also showed us to take care of ourselves. She didn’t drink or smoke, enjoyed a healthy diet of mostly poultry, dried beans, vegetables and fruits, and walked and exercised regularly. Her life style has helped her to live a long life. She is ninety-nine years old. We children are all senior citizens now and have done well in life mainly due to our mother’s example and the survival skills she has passed on to us.
photo by Zen Chung