Tabernacle Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. honored my mother, Mrs. Martha L. Brownleee, last Sunday as "Mother of the Year" as part of its annual Women's Day celebration. Church members have learned what my three sisters – Charlotte Purvis, Chris Polk, and Susan Gandy – and I have known all of our lives: Mama is Mother of the Year every year.
This is Women's History Month and many young females are studying historical figures in search of role models. As a former history major, I can appreciate the need to know our history. It is equally important to realize that sometimes the role models we are searching for are within our own households. That's true of my mother and is true of many other mothers.
Although Mama did domestic work most of her life, when I think of her occupation, I think of her as a teacher. In that respect, all four of her children were home schooled. We went to school, only to return home for additional schooling. At home, Mama taught us by example.
My mother has always been an extremely hard worker. During most of my youth, she worked two jobs, never complaining about the low wages, the long hours or, during the days of rigid segregation, having to ride in the back seat of the car when one of her employer's drove her home from work. That sight is forever etched in my mind. More than a half-century later, it remains a vivid memory, a memory that caused me to hunger for a better life for me and my three younger sisters.
One lesson Mama taught us was that even though we lived under an unfair system, we were still obligated to work for what we wanted. Sure, Mama would provide the necessities in life, but there was merit in hard work. Consequently, I held a series of jobs, beginning with my trimming my elementary school principal's hedges. When I wasn't playing football in high school, I was cutting yards with a lawn mower loaned to me by the head of my housing development or washing dishes after school in a dorm at the University of Alabama. I remember peering out of the window of the kitchen of Mary Burke Hall at Vivian Malone, the first African-American woman to graduate from the University of Alabama. I was so proud of her and knew that I had a brighter future than washing dishes in my hometown.
Because I was earning my own money, I could buy Chuck Taylor gym shoes and slip my Big Mama some money from time to time. As the first grandson, Big Mama and I had a special relationship, a relationship that included giving each other money and my eating dinner twice on Sundays – one at home and one at Big Mama's house.
Amid her two jobs, ascertaining we did our homework and making regular visits to school to make sure we were getting our lesson, as we called it, and being well-behaved, Mama always made time to visit the sick, take them home-cooked food and to run errands for them.
There was one lady who stayed sick so often that they called her "Miss Sick Mary." I presume "sick" was added to distinguish her from the healthy Miss Marys in our neighborhood. "Miss" is what we called everyone, even though many were married. Not a week passed without Mama visiting Miss Sick Mary and we had to drop by to check on her as well.
Another mainstay was Ma Sis, the mother of one of Mama's closest friends, Mrs. Betty Gandy, who now lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Miss Betty's son, Iverson, married Sue, my youngest sister, but our families have always been extremely close. Miss Betty always claimed me as her own – a point I often make to my brother-in-law and Miss Betty makes with Mama. When she worked as a cashier at Druid High School, I got all the extra milk for free. Sometimes it was difficult to know if Ma Sis was Miss Betty's mother or Mama's. We checked on Ma Sis or took her meals every day. She was always grateful and had a big smile and hug waiting for us every time we stepped foot in her house.
Of course, we did the same thing for Big Mama – but that was to be expected. But, Mama treated all of the old ladies, sick and well, in McKenzie Court as if they were our Big Mama.
Anyone who meets Mama will know within five minutes that she has four children and nothing makes her happier than when we all pile into her house and regale her with stories about our childhood. We usually end up laughing to the point of tears and have a propensity for embellishment. For years, I was the acknowledged family jokester. But, as we've grown older, I've been replaced by my sisters who contend, without confirmation from me, that I bribed them with nickels to wash dishes and not tell Mama I had slipped off to the basketball court after she had ordered us not to leave the house.
Throughout our lives, all of us have known without a doubt that Mama loves us and receives her greatest joy in not only our individual success but our staying together as a family. And, we can never tell her too many times that we appreciate the many sacrifices that she made for us and so many others. I can't begin to imagine where I'd be without the unconditional love and rock-solid support that I always received from Mama. She has been a blessing all of our lives.