My mother and my grandmother are like the father and mother I never had – my mother being the father, my grandma the mom. I know that sounds strange, but when you grow up with a dominant mother and a doting gran, it’s easy to see how two women can get cast in opposing parenting roles when your father isn’t around. Both women are proud, beautiful and strong. Both have given a lot to me towards my development. And both have carried themselves with a dignity that could be interpreted as coldness if you did not understand what they had to go through to hold their heads so high.

It took some time for me to appreciate what they’ve survived. Can we really imagine the times our mothers and grandmothers lived through? They were part of a culture that believed deep down that because you were black and female, you did not have much to offer aside from sweeping floors. On top of that, if you were actually an exquisite creature of tremendous intelligence, the tension between who you were and what your society wanted from you must have been intolerable. You would have had to be very aggressive about demonstrating your worth to yourself and the world at large. You would have had to get a little uppity, while creating something to get uppity about.

For these women, my true parents, acquiring a high career status was the cure-all that soothed these socially inflicted wounds. Money was the only protection a black woman had from the racism of the outer world, and the sexism of the black community. My grandmother had a great job at New York Life for 27 years. My mother became a lawyer. No small feats for women nobody expected much of. Having these important roles was like proving to the world that they were wrong about you. A good job meant you were somebody. Working overtime to prove yourself to your white superiors meant less time at home for closeness, but this medal of approval was worth anything, including sacrificing family intimacy.

This sacrifice was a matter of practical consideration, but the costs were high — the crucifixion of romance, the hiding of sensitivity and the disparaging of the imagination. There was no time for such things when money had to be made, and children reared. I can’t say I know my mother or grandmother very well. I have spent years yearning to feel the worlds behind their executive exteriors. But I do know, based on all they have provided for me, how much they care. They were able to provide for me, because they poured all of themselves into making it in a material world that wanted them to have nothing. Their sacrifices on the emotional level are what enable me the luxury of contemplating the mysteries of personal connection today. I might not have been able to make the sacrifices they did, under much harsher circumstances. I’m glad they did.

The development of their professional personas made them fit in well with their peers. Within the family both women used these skills to forge their children into people who could fend for themselves, even if some of their methods bordered on the insane. What were some of their strange lessons?

My grandmother might have seemed like a poor, black woman from the south like so many others who migrated north. In reality she was a valiant queen who ruled her home like a high-ranking executive. She still has an obsessive orderliness, bordering on the pathological. It is as though not having a lot meant she had to manage what she had in the best way possible, a quality my mother absorbed. To this day, I am judged mercilessly by my mother and grandmother by how neatly I keep my home. As a black person, being sloppy gives the dominant society an easy excuse to look down on you. They drummed that into me, and this programming serves me well to this day — even if I now have borderline OCD.

You would look at my mother and never know where she came from. Part of the secret to her professional polish is her perfect diction. By developing elegant elocution, despite her working class background, she has been able to fit in with wealthy people throughout her career. It may sound superficial, but this made people stop and listen to her at a time when a black woman was the last person most were looking to for expertise. Now that I am older, I can see that times have changed, but not by that much. Speaking “the king’s English” will still take you far. I used to complain about being constantly corrected. Now I know that good speech is protection.

As an adult, I have nothing but gratitude for these and their other stern disciplines that have taught me to survive. Now that my grandmother has secured her financial future, and is enjoying the benefits of retirement, I see her mellowing, sharing, having time for all the sweet feelings that a woman should enjoy with her progeny. My mother, while still very much a father figure, is also relaxing as the years go by. Perhaps in time she will experience a similar release of emotion when retirement allows her to feel that she has really made it. Then I will enjoy the unconditional love of two mother-figures. Until then, I say to both of these women concerning me: Job well done!

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