There are a small and mighty group of remarkable women who have contributed to my development and are no longer here. Today for reasons I can’t fully explain, I thought about them and their legacy. It’s my hope that this post will motivate you to reach out to someone who matters, and thank him or her for their contribution to your life while they are still here and you still can.
I want to begin with my mom’s friend Natalie. For as long as I knew Natalie she was old and she was not thin, but let me tell you something, Natalie had it GOING ON! Natalie was as well put together as any woman I’ve ever met. Her grey hair was always done at a beauty shop and she wore jewelry and the most kick ass kaftans you can imagine. She didn’t dress for other people; she dressed for herself. Natalie was the first example of a woman who inhabited her body and her life with as much pride as a hundred pound, twenty something blonde. Because of Natalie I don’t worry about the size of my ass, I am more concerned with the size of my heart. When I feel the impulse to criticize a video or photo I see of myself, I think of Natalie who would have chosen to see something different; and I try hard to see myself as she saw herself, absent of judgment and full of pride.
It was Natalie who marched over to our apartment weeks after my sister died and told me she needed to talk to me. I was nine and my sister had just died in a motorcycle accident sending my entire family into a devastating downward spiral. Natalie took me to her apartment and sat me down on her overstuffed sofa and placed my small hands into her warm bejeweled hands. “Young lady, I know that everyone is hurt and so sad about losing your sister. But do you know who I’m worried about? I’m worried about you.” I had become invisible, but Natalie could still see me. Natalie was a tough woman, some would call her hard, and many would call her a bitch. I looked into Natalie’s blue eyes. She looked at me and nodded and with that gave me permission to cry hard and loud and long, which is precisely what I did. Natalie also taught me that tough did not mean harsh and strong did not mean hard.
My sister Earlene died at twenty-three. She was a tomboy, and a tough girl, and I worshipped her. She was thirteen years older and taught me that my size could not determine my strength. When I was eight years old I walked to the store alone. A group of girls, about five in all, ranging in ages from eleven to fourteen caught me and because they could they terrorized me. They trapped me on the side of the store, roughed me up, but more importantly said things that made me more afraid than I had ever been in my life. After they finally released me I ran back to our apartment as fast as my legs would take me and barely able to breathe or speak I told my sister what happened. I wanted her to comfort me and tell me it was okay, but that isn’t what she did. She said, “Let’s go fix this.” Earlene told me to go and wash my face while she put on her shoes. We tracked down the girls like two cops in an episode of some crime show and found the girls behind a grocery store. I begged my sister to forget about it, but she insisted that we confront the girls. Every cell in my body was full of fear. I could hardly stand. Earlene rounded the girls up and told them that they had made a very bad choice. She told them that if they wanted to try and hurt me or fight me they should do it fairly. She asked them who was brave enough to actually fight me alone while I stood there shaking and trying really hard not to wet my pants or cry, because there wasn’t one of them who couldn’t have kicked my ass. The tough girls started looking at their feet and then they started crying. My sister said, “Yea, you’re not tough. You’re scared and you should be, because that little girl over there can kick your ass. But if you ever decide to gang up on her, I will find you, just like I found you today.” The girls apologized and begged for forgiveness. My sister never raised her voice once.
That moment in my life is sharper and clearer than even more recent memories. I learned that the strength of my voice could make up for the weakness of my body and that you have to teach people how to treat you and bullies are really just scared, fragile people.
Another dear friend of my mother’s was Delores Martin – Aunty Dee who I knew my entire life until she died. At different times growing up Dee and her children lived with us and at other times we lived with them depending on who was struggling more. Dee was tall, powerful and totally fearless. Dee lived the toughest life of anyone I know. Life never gave that woman a break, but Dee would never let you know that about her. Dee taught me to be resilient and that there was nothing, absolutely nothing you could not survive. In the last days of Aunty Dee’s life I called her. I had seen her several months before, but now we both knew that this would be the last time we spoke. I told her how much I loved her and how sorry I was that this was happening to her. I had given her a letter months before expressing how much she meant to me. She told me to stop crying. She said, “Baby I’m so glad this is almost over. I’m tired. It’s all right, it’s all right. Don’t cry about this. We’re all gonna die, I knew it all along. You take care of your mama. I love you. You’re a good girl.” She looked at life and death in the same way, with clarity and honesty.
Dee’s self-reliance, resilience and belief that nothing could take her down created her reality and nothing really did ever triumph over her. Not even death made her weak. Dee taught me that life is not fair and so what. She taught me how to live and die with integrity. She taught me that I get to choose.
And finally, I leave you with Maile. It’s a long story, but Maile was not my biological grandmother. She was however the biological grandmother of my sisters and brother – we don’t use quantifiers like “half” in my family. Maile was a retired nurse who enjoyed playing poker, traveling and Miller Light. Her beer choice aside, she was the sort of woman you noticed when she walked into a room; not because she was beautiful, although she was, but because she expected a certain amount of attention and well – reverence. When I think of how many brilliant women struggle for their worth, I can’t help but to think of my grandmother Maile who knew her worth, demanded her worth and would not lower her standards in a time when women didn’t feel that they had a right to expect much. I don’t remember Maile ever telling me that I was cute or beautiful, but she told me that I was smart and that I knew how to talk. She taught me to have high expectations and to think BIG. Maile acted as if I could choose between being President of the United States or working at Safeway so I might as well choose the presidency. There was no barrier to entry for me to do anything as far as she could tell. When I spoke she listened and always made me feel as if what I said was important, as if I was important.
Maile died just months after my college graduation. She came and sat in the stands having just had her hair colored for the occasion. The whole day she smiled at me and would occasionally grab my face and make this sound of complete joy. “You are the Houghtailing to do it. You listened to me.” I was the only child or grandchild to graduate college and Maile in true form took a lot of credit for the accomplishment. I didn’t mind. That was Maile. She saw herself as powerful, and in truth, she was.
There have been some teachers that I’ve chosen and some that were simply there all along helping guide me. Because of Natalie, Earlene, Aunty Dee and grandma Maile, I have high expectations of myself and those I allow into my life, because of them I ask, “what now?” Instead of, “why me?” Because of them I have a voice and I know that it is my job to use it to teach, defend, uplift and transform. Because of these women I know that this is the only life I get, so I will not make myself small or wait, but I will live big and fully until there is no more of me.
Please take this day to tell someone how much you value them.