Archive for the ‘grandmothers’ Category

The Matriarch of the Family

Monday, December 1st, 2008

Did anyone else catch the witty banter between Steve Croft and Barack Obama a few weeks back in the “60 Minutes” interview in which Croft asked Obama about his mother-in-law moving with the family to the White House?:

Kroft: There’s been a lot of talk about [that] you talked about your mother-in-law. Is she moving in with you?

Mr. Obama: Well, I don’t tell my mother-in-law what to do. But I’m not stupid. That’s why I got elected president, man.

Kroft: She can if she wants to.

Mr. Obama: But, she sure can if she wants. I think it’s fair to say that Marian Robinson is one of the unsung heroes of this campaign. We couldn’t have done it without her. ‘Cause she retired, looked after the girls, gave Michelle confidence that somebody was gonna be there when Michelle was on the road.

She’s just been an unbelievable support for all of us during this process. And you know, she likes her own space, you know. She doesn’t like a lot of fuss around her. And, like it or not, there’s some fuss in the White House. But we hope that she comes.

Kroft: So you have a new dog and your mother-in-law moving in.

Mr. Obama: Steve, I’m not gonna compare my mother-in-law to a new dog.

Kroft: You’re much more excited about your mother-in-law

Mr. Obama: How do you get in long with your mother-in-law man? You know, the way these questions are going I think I need to give you some tips.

Mother-in-law jokes are the consistent butt of male humor in patriarchal cultures. Say the words “mother-in-law” around men and what’s supposed to come to mind are things like  “interfering critic,” “meddling thorn in the side,” and “sexless battle-axe.”

There is a lot of talk about the fact that the Obamas are taking Marian Robinson, Michelle’s 71 year old mother, with them to the White House as part of the First Family. The First Grandmother is her new title. It makes you wonder why everyone seems to find this strange. Have grandparents become that obsolete or insignificant to family life that no one can imagine why a couple would take a grandparent along with them in a move to a new city and new job? For many working families, grandparents are an integral part of a family’s childcare support system.  In a study done back in 2000, childcare experts found an estimated 2.4 million grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren full-time, a 55 percent increase since 1990. I bet the Obamas were prepared to beg Mrs. Robinson to come along with them to the White House, if it came down to that.

I’ve been reading a book lately on comedy and social difference that’s titled, Because I Tell A Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. One of the writers explains why mothers-in-law  are such complicated figures in our society and make great fodder for male comedians:

The question that needs to be asked is why is the wife’s mother (and significantly not his mother) such a potent figure for comic caricature?There are a number of possible interpretations for this. The wife’s mother is often a lone surviving matriarch, having outlived her spouse to become, in a male defined cosmic universe, a frustrated old battle-axe. As an older woman whose domestic and sexual functions of childbearing and servicing male desire have long since ended, she has a lowly status in patriarchy. In search of a new role for herself as a lone, older woman, she is often coded as ‘interfering.” But domestic necessity often dictates her continued, if antagonistic, relationship to the husband.

In a society where a woman’s worth is tied to her body, its ability to arouse desire and to breed babies, women over, say, 50 are expected to step aside and recede into obscurity. Older women whether mothers or not traditionally are considered superfluous to the patriarchal household. Until they are needed to shore up the patriarchal agenda. As we witnessed in this past Election in which we saw John McCain trot out his 96 year old mother, Roberta McCain, to prove that longevity runs in his family and Obama bring up his  maternal grandmother “Toot” who in his now famous race speech is proof of Obama’s, shall we say, white, hardworking, bigoted, working-class roots.

As is the case with so many of my blog articles, I start off writing about one thing but half-way through find myself writing about  something else. The something else is the what’s really on my mind.  In this case, it’s our society’s insistence upon rendering older woman invisible, useless, and superfluous.

Perhaps you’ve noticed: after age 30 women start disappearing from television. Being a woman compounds the discrimination already heaped upon older people in electronic media. The few older women characters on TV tend to be peripheral (not a main character) and are characterized as past the most useful and important stages of life. They serve not as heroes and leaders; the women are primarily in comic relief and victim roles  One of the few exceptions to this on tv for a long time was the sitcom Golden Girls.  I recall the various photos of 60 year old Hillary Clinton that bloggers and others in the media used to lampoon and decry her candidacy.  Photographers were kinder to John McCain who in his 70s looks old as dirt.  Leave it to conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh to sum up the misogynist point of view. After observing that “aging makes men look more authoritative, accomplished and distinguished,” Limbaugh  registered his distaste about the prospect of having to watch Clinton shrivel up in the White House. “Will America want to watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?” he asked.   The fundamental point of democracy and the reason ours exists is about representation. But the fact is that we live in a society that penalizes older women for outliving their sexual use by men even though women over 50 represent a significantly large demographic block in this country,.

Evidently  Barack Obama likes his mother-in-law and appreciates the strength and stability she brings to the family. election night familyHe talks in the “60 Minutes” interview about sitting next to her on the couch on election night and holding hands, wondering as the election returns were coming in what must have been going through her mind as a black woman of her generation who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. What was a black woman of Marian Robinson’s generation  thinking as she sat watching a black man elected President of the United State. Her son-in-law, no less! Obama’s comments about his mother-in-law showed a lot of insight and sensitivity on his part.  Marian Robinson, a  former secretary — widowed in 1991, retired last year — was the primary caregiver for Malia and Sasha when their parents were on the campaign trail and will help provide stability, intimacy, and sanity to the children and entire family as they transition to a new city, a hectic schedule, and the presidential spotlight.

Barack and Michelle Obama are lucky to have Michelle’s mom around and are lucky to be able to convince the matriarch of the family to give up her life in Chicago and move with them across country to start a new life filled with political intrigue and wild emotional swings. Where the Obama’s are going they’re gonna need the strength, stability, and groundedness of a matriarch to help steer them emotionally and spiritually. There are some things that only come with age. Experience is one of them. Wisdom is another. But getting a prayer through to God– now that’s something only matriarchs, old women in the family, can do best.

Baby, Grandma Understands

Monday, May 5th, 2008

Forgive me if I am guilty of romanticizing grandmothers on the blog today. I’m sure it’s because both my grandmothers died before I was born that I’ve been guilty on occasion of coveting other people’s grandmothers. I am a sucker for tributes to grandmothers. Even though I know better. I’ve had occasion over the years to meet a few grandmothers who thankfully weren’t my own. But even the few grandmothers-from-hell that I’ve met haven’t dissuaded me of the important role a grandmother, or grandmother figure, can play in a child’s life.

Is it me, or does anyone else think that having a grandmother who’s only thirty-five years old is a tad obscene, and becoming a grandmother at thirty-five years old is even more obscene? Not only is it a reality of many these days, but school teachers I know tell me that finding a thoughtful, responsible, sane, mature parent figure to consult with about a child’s development is becoming increasingly more difficult these days.

     Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, for the sake of the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus.
     To Timothy, my beloved child…
     Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.
(2 Timothy 1:5-6)

What’s driving these thoughts today here on a Monday morning? That this is the week leading up to Mother’s Day is only part of the reason.

Perhaps I have grandmothers on the mind because I spoke at a wonderful church yesterday where the median age of the those in the congregation couldn’t have been more than thirty years old. The pastor and I were among the oldest people in the congregation. Many of the young people in the congregation are new to church, I was told. Imagine a generation with no memory to testify of about mothers or grandmothers who dragged them to Sunday School and to church every Sunday.

I heard a lot of “Thank you mams” and “Yes mams” at church after I finished speaking on yesterday. I hobbled out of the sanctuary feeling like someone’s grandmother. I’m not complaining though. Given the way a few of the young women and men were dressed it was apparent that grandmothers were sorely absent from their lives. Neither was there a Mother Board around to stand in for the missing grandmothers. Mother Noble from the church of my childhood would have considered it her godly duty to take a couple of them aside and whisper a few elderly admonishments in their ears. Something I’ve taken to doing now do at my own church.

Wisdom. That’s what you’re supposed to bring to the life of a grandchild and to the parents of that grandchild. Insight. Experience. Patience. Rebuke. Unconditional Love. Memories. Faith. And a piece of candy. It’s not that simple. I know that. I’m a romantic. I know that too. I’m given to romanticizing grandmothers. Just like I’m given to romanticizing old women. Forgive me.

Face it, Renita: at fiftysomething years old you are the grandmother you’ve been waiting for.

Missing Old Black Women

Monday, February 11th, 2008

A grandmother’s love, I have been told, is one of life’s gifts. I wouldn’t know. Both of my grandmothers died before I was born. Which probably explains why for much of my life I have suffered from grandmother-hunger. I can not get enough of old black women. That is one of the things I cherish about the black church, despite its many warts. Where else but in the black church do you get to see old black women in significant numbers on a regular basis? Women are invisible after they reach a certain age.

What was unthinkable a century ago is commonplace today: a young woman can live out her 20s and 30s, those delicate decades, without any female kin over fifty years old in a 200 hundred mile radius of where she lives. No woman she’s bound to by blood who can get to her at a moment’s notice when she’s in trouble. No woman nearby to remind her what women in her family look like as they age. No woman nearby who has the right to correct her when she’s wrong.  No mother on hand to tell her the story of her beginnings. No grandmother to tell her what she thinks whether the younger woman wants to hear it or not. No aunt nearby to interpret her dreams. No old woman around to pat her hand and assure her, ”Baby, The Lord will make a way somehow.”

Watching this video of Maya Angelou who, the Lord willing, turns 80 years old this spring, I understand what the Bible means when it says, “The glory of the young is their strength, but gray hair is the splendor of the old” (Proverbs 16:31).

Only the godless disrepects his or her elders.

Every society has some hallowed image of the old wise woman, the crone, the female sage of the village. In the world’s mythologies,  wisdom is feminine. Wisdom is usually an attribute of a goddess or woman in whom wisdom has become a conscious part of her psyche. Wisdom is a woman, a crone, a goddess, a feminine archetype. In Greek mythology, she is Athena, goddess of wisdom and military victory, the patron goddess of the city Athens. In the Bible, she is Sophia, Lady Wisdom crying out in the streets. She is the Divine Mother, the Sacred Feminine, Mother of God, Mother Earth. Her name is Mary, Aphrodite, Venus, Kwan Yin, Tara, Gaia, Maat, Isis, Saraswati, the Shekinah, to name a few. To experience her is to catch a whiff of the Divine.

Sadly, the image of the female sage has been in recent years reduced in our community to a commodity to poke fun at. She is the loud, boisterous, overweight, sexless, middle-aged woman played by a male actor in drag. No woman wants to admit to being old in our youth crazed culture. Fifty-five is the new thirty-five.

Until we hear Maya Angelou speak. Or see Cecily Tyson on screen. Or catch Dorothy Height in one of her hats. Or eavesdrop on Ruby Dee reminiscing about her career in theatre. Or listen to Marian Wright Edelman talk about children. Or experience Nikki Giovanni read a poem. Or watch Mother Hambrick step into my church on Sunday morning and take her favorite seat.  They serve as role models for us of a possible aged self. Unbought. Unbossed. Wise. Old. Settled in the skin you’re in.

She captivates us and embarrasses us, this old wise woman does. As much as we sit on edge when she comes in the room, wondering what in God’s name will come out her toothless mouth this time, she continues to be the object of our secret longing.  Watching her sit there–old, but regal, doddering but undefeated, withered, but wise–she reminds us of all the un-mothered/ under-mothered places within. Places within each of us that still long for a (grand)mother’s touch, a (grand)mother’s voice, a (grand)mother’s guidance, a (grand)mother’s protection, a (grand)mother’s breast, a (grand)mother’s wisdom.

I’m Wearing Red Today

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

I’m wearing red today like I promised because I wanted to show my solidarity with women and men everywhere who are committed to standing up to violence against women and speaking out to what’s beginning to feel like open season against women of color.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because I am outraged at hearing that just within this summer alone a mentally challenged woman was tortured and raped in West Virginia, a mother was forced to perform a sex act on her son at Dunbar Village in West Palm Beach, Fla, a young woman in Chicago named Nailah was murdered and her murderer has not been found, a song like “Superman that Hoe” is playing in the ears of our children, a young actress named Keke Palmer (of Akeelah and the Bee) was refused a record deal because her mom Sharon refused the record label’s efforts to turn her daughter into a porn star.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because “every 3 minutes a woman is beaten every five minutes a woman is raped/every ten minutes a lil girl is molested.”

I’m wearing red today like I promised in memory of my maternal and paternal grandmothers, Marie Brown Weems and Lou Willie Clark Baker, who, died as a result of violence. The official cause of death for my paternal grandmother, Marie Brown Weems, was tuberculosis. The unofficial cause was from a body and spirit weakened by the slaps and beatings my grandfather gave her when he came home drunk and broke. My mother’s mother, Lou Willie Clark Baker, died from a gunshot wound intended for one of her sons.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because while my heart goes out to Evangelist Juanita Bynum for all the hurt and heartbreak she’s endured as a result of her husband beating her in that Atlanta parking lot, she is not the new face of domestic violence. That spot is already taken. There’s a woman who’s lover just smacked her for the first time sometime while I was typing this post.

I’m wearing red today like I promised to support the work of My Sister’s Keeper up in Boston who this week have brought women from various tribal regions in Sudan together there in Boston to discuss ways they can put aside tribal differences and come together to help find a solution to the civil war in their country and to put an end to women being rape as an act of war.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because I remember the red shoes my father bought me from K-Mart when I was four years old which I loved vociferously even though they were too small and hurt my feet. Red shoes have been a weakness of mine ever since.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because when I walk into church tonight to teach the bible study class on “Bynum and the Bible” I want the women to know that I mean business.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because red is the color of power and boldness.

I’m wearing red today like I promised because I’ve never seen a woman who didn’t look good in red!