My mother and father walked everywhere; neither one of them drove a car. My family has its share of dancers, actors and athletes whose bodies are the tools of their trades. Yet on the downside, that same family has been ravaged by the devastating consequences of hypertension and heart disease. At the risk of sounding morbid, we’re all going to die of something. But too many of my relatives’ lives were cut short too early by strokes and heart attacks. So I am literally running with the clock. As I say in this video, I think I’ve found what works for me.
From the moment she was born, my daughter, Zuri Adele, talked with her eyes. They took in everything, registered centuries of wisdom, expressed a range of emotion she could not logically understand.
I remember watching her at a birthday party with a group of kids she didn’t know well. They were taking turns acting out a nursery rhyme “Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed.” Zuri, who was about 3 years old, sat quietly, observing. I wasn’t sure she was going to participate. Then, after everyone else had taken a turn, she stood on the bed without fanfare and acted out the pantomime flawlessly, complete with dramatic hand gestures. A star was born.
Not really. Stars, or I should say great performers, no matter how much natural talent they may have, work hard, study, push themselves through disappointments and go back at it.
This summer was a busy and exciting one for her. She performed in Georgia Shakespeare’s Mighty Myths and Legends, had a guest appearance on the CBS hit Under the Dome (the episode airs Monday, Sept. 16 at 10 p.m.); and starred in a short film Plenty. The screenplay was her inspiration. Having her cousin Lamman Rucker join the cast was icing on the cake.
As we speak, Zuri is packing the car to head west to hone her acting chops in the MFA acting program at UCLA. Imagine how fierce she will be after three years of immersion.
I spent most of Friday, Dec. 28, which would have been my mother, Mary Ray’s 93rd birthday, reading letters like this one.
I missed her too. Even those times when I would be called upon to help her find her misplaced dentures.
Most of my mother’s notes were chronicles of her life as an empty nester, her reviews of cultural events, her updates on neighbors, friends and relatives and her travels.
“Wish you could’ve been at Uncle James’ on Sunday past. It was beautiful,” she wrote in a card dated Aug. 23, 1977. Then she listed the relatives whom I’d missed during her trip from Pittsburgh to New Jersey.
“Cousin Mollie said she had a magnificent time. Diane and her daughter were there; John, Jr. and Larry and family. Peanut [my cousin Robert] has a son named Lyle – looks just like him.” [It’s actually Kyle; we’re now Facebook friends.]
“All of Aunt Evie’s sisters and some of their families were there.” She referred to my cousin David as “The Lover,” and mentioned my cousin Michelle, whose eldest son was just a “fat baby boy of 10 months,” back then.
She loved her grandchildren: “You wouldn’t believe that my little Xmas tree is still up,” she wrote on Jan. 24, 1978. “Waiting for a visit from Chano and Lamman. They didn’t get over for the holidays, but boy did they enjoy the toys everyone sent them.”
“Today is M’Balia’s birthday, so they’re all here,” she wrote on Aug. 30, 1976.
In each letter she shared her worries. “Ellen will need some rest!!!” she scribbled along the side of a note dated Sept. 18, 1976. (I believe she was referring to the fact that my sister Ellen-Marie had just returned from a trip to Tanzania.)
“They’re trying to work out their difficulties. I’ve suggested a professional counselor,” she wrote about another relative and her husband.
Then there was my mother’s love life: “Uncle Fred has his house almost completely painted outside and wants me to select new furnishings, drapes and carpeting,” she wrote in one letter. In another: “He went on a Northwest trek with the AAAs from Western Pa. “Timing was bad for me, so was the cost, and he couldn’t afford it for us both.”
She never ended a note without dispensing some advice: “Glad the job is shaping up,” she wrote shortly after I’d taken my first job in Boston. “Don’t make any hasty moves until you thoroughly investigate any situation. Some sorority sisters might help.” [I assume she was referring to my search for housing.]
On her troubles with high blood pressure, she wrote: “It’s something that runs in the family. We seem to be victims of stress. Please watch it!”
She also was generous with her praise:
“Your March article in Essence is excellent. Keep up the good work.”
“So very happy for you, (Always) but particularly now as you join the Boston Globe staff.
But to her, being a good friend was as important as any professional accomplishment.
“I’m so proud of you, particularly as a very caring person. Pam and others are lucky to have you as a friend!” she wrote in May of 1988. “Continue to care about others and to render assistance in some small way when you can. Sharing our knowledge and comfort with our fellow man is truly our purpose for living on this universe or any other. You will be blessed manifold!”
It was as if she was talking to me from the grave, setting the stage for my New Year’s resolutions.
“I’d like for you and Ellen to keep the family home for a while. Daddy worked hard to acquire it. It took all his savings for a down payment. You may find it worth your while one day,” she wrote. She ended that same note with, “P.S. Don’t mourn for me. I enjoyed life and living and loved my family dearly! Mom!”
That note was not dated, but based on its other contents, it was written in the 1970s. She definitely got a lot more living and loving in before she died in 2002.
Well, ok, then Mom. I hope you are resting well, dispensing your wisdom and comfort from whatever “universe” you happen to be on.
Happy New Year to all, and here’s to “manifold” blessings in 2013.
Angela Bassett, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Eric Benet, Kim Coles, Al Sharpton and many other celebrities, including Ebenezer’s grandson Lamman Rucker bring an important message. Rucker, the first to speak, says “Your vote is your voice.”
He also did a nice video for Amtrak’s Black History month series “My Black Journey.”
*Editors note. Lamman mentions in the video that Ebenezer worked for the New York Amsterdam News. He actually spent most of his years in Harlem at the New York Age, the rival Harlem paper at the time. Of course, since this is a continuing journey and we don’t know the whole story, I can’t say definitively that he never worked for the Amesterdam.
Today is my sister Malaya’s birthday. She is my parents’ second born, a dancer, storyteller, stage mother, earth mother – an artist in every sense of the word. It was preordained. Before she was Nana Malaya Rucker-Oparabea, the name she uses now, she was Marian, named for Marian Anderson.
I always knew my mother revered the renowned contralto. My mother admired Anderson’s quiet dignity in the face of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), who refused let Anderson sing before an integrated audience in Washington’s Constitution Hall. To my mother, Anderson’s victorious concert on Easter Sunday 1939, before a crowd of 75,000 at the Lincoln Memorial was a milestone in black history.
But for my father the connection may have been more personal. Marian Anderson was his contemporary. They were both born at the end of the 19th century. I believe he was smitten.
“With scores of her elated and admiring auditors standing at the footlights literally drinking the melodious strains which flowed from the fountain of her golden voice, Marian Anderson, internationally acclaimed contralto, sang a farewell number on Sunday evening last, he wrote in a review that appeared on the front page of the New York Age on May 14, 1938. “This was Miss Anderson’s final appearance in America this season and was given at the Carnegie Hall.”
After that concert, my father wrote, well wishers “of both races then repaired to her dressing room to shake hands with her and tender their congratulations. She was presented with a beautiful bouquet of tea roses.” I suppose he witnessed this firsthand. (Did he offer the roses?)
In a Nov. 13, 1943 review of a Pittsburgh concert, also written for the New York Age, Ebenezer called Anderson the “world’s greatest contralto.”
“Miss Anderson was in excellent voice and charmingly gowned,” he wrote. His only complaint was that the “motley” Pittsburgh audience was too subdued. Yes, there were plenty of compliments from the audience as they left Pittsburgh’s Syria Mosque, where the performance was held.
“To this erstwhile New Yorker, however, two things were missing from this recital. There were no shouts of ‘Bravo’ from the ‘peanut gallery,’ which was only two tiers up, and there were no American Beauty roses, nor orchids. In brief, Miss Anderson received no flowers. But this is Pittsburgh!”
Ebenezer would come to love, or at least accept, Pittsburgh. He would fall in love with my mother and out of that love would come three daughters, the second of whom was born on this date.
Malaya is very different from her namesake. She leans more toward classical African and Caribbean beats than Scarlatti or Schubert. Of course, these two women came of age in different times. I can only imagine what Malaya would have told the DAR. She might have even taken over the stage.
I’ve often wondered why the only one of the three of us who was named after a historical figure would change her name. The answer is simple. Malaya always has been, and will forever be, her own person.
Happy Birthday, Malaya!