I grew up in the presence of women—mother, three sisters, aunts, cousins, neighbors, and friends. My grandmothers’ presence was felt in their admonitions and advice sent in letters from rural Arkansas or when we visited during the summers. While the women talked, their hands were productive: shelling peas fresh from the garden, cooking nourishing meals, soothing crying babies, swatting naughty children, cleaning house, or piecing together quilts from gently worn scraps. From this group of loving, talkative women, I learned some of their hopes, dreams, missteps, hard work, successes, and regrets from their mouths and even more from watching how they continued to press forward.
Replanted together in Rockford, Illinois, as a result of their migration from Arkansas, these dynamic women provided shelter and comfort to each other, raised their children together. Some of them worked outside of the home while others stayed at home with the children. They instilled a set of values and morals in us that was consistent and unyielding. They desired a better life for us with greater economic security, less racial hatred, and chances to see more of the world than they’d been able to see.
Our cousins were our best friends. We played together under the watchful eyes of our mothers. When we were allowed to spend the night at the homes of family members, it felt like home. You could be disciplined just like at home. They didn’t allow fighting and squabbling. Disputes had to be settled quickly because we were family. We had to be able to depend on each other, to be each other’s cheering squad, and have each other’s back at school or in the community.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how their lived experiences were emulating the song Just like a tree that’s planted by the water, I shall not be moved. Though the winds are blowing all around me, I shall not be moved*. Their roots intertwining in ways that allowed them to support each other during their most difficult trials. Abandonment. Divorce. Death. Embracing the young widow left with four young children. Supporting the big sister whose younger sister, the single mother of six died of breast cancer. Being each other’s backbone during the hurricanes of life—alcoholism, abuse, cancer, violence, young men sentenced to prison terms, the drug world, illness, and untimely deaths of children. Those same strong roots were in abundance when they cheered for the collective successes of the other young people whether in military service, college, careers, marriages, and childbirth.
Loving God and their Christian fellowship with their time, talent, and treasure enabled them to sing in the choir, usher, teach Sunday school, and serve as leaders in various ministries. The women pooled their money to buy chicken and fish, cook and sell dinners on numerous Fridays and Saturdays to pay their Women’s Day assessment, contribute to the pastor’s anniversary, and their organization’s annual day. All the money collected was given to the church. No one considered taking out what they spent on the supplies. Their recognition was often a simple “thank you”.
The majority of these women have gained their eternal rest. What remains are the memories and footage from family reunions, picnics, celebrations when they shared the stories of their youth—how they loved to dance, play cards, smoke, and drink a little. These glimpses of their younger selves humanized them, made them multi-dimensional, beyond caretakers and mothers. We learned their secret passions, yearnings for careers, travel, and how much they sacrificed their dreams for us.
Their triumph was watching us overcome difficulties in our lives, supporting one another, and carrying on the family’s tradition of deep roots planted by the water. Their lives were a ministry, leaving the rural South…the ability to own property, educate their children, and be able to financially support the ones left behind. They continually sought ways to bless others as God blessed them.
The sons and daughters nurtured by these women are the elders now. Although separated by distance, we connect through phone calls, emails, and texts because our mothers taught us to communicate. Call and check on somebody. Mobilize quickly when there’s a crisis. Come immediately when someone is ill or dying. Don’t wait until it’s too late. When we gather, we love up on each other and spend some time celebrating the good old days.
To each the women who touched my life, I say “Thank you for standing like those trees planted by the water, for the deep roots that nourish and enrich my life.”
* Lyrics taken from <a href=”https://www.elyrics.net/read/g/gmwa-mass-choir-lyrics/like-a-tree-lyrics.html”>this page</a>
-Joyce A. Brown
Joyce Brown is a motivational speaker and author who uses her creative energy to give voice and meaning to the challenges women face in all walks of life. She grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a household of strong women. She graduated from Bradley University with a B.S. and M.A. Her professional career expanded her reach into Peoria, Illinois; and Battle Creek, Michigan. Joyce obtained a PhD from Western Michigan University.
She is a proud member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and has served as a direct services worker, executive director, program director for a major foundation, and an entrepreneur. Joyce has experienced many uplifting moments as a professional and as a dedicated parent and strives to bring those events and lessons to life through her characters in the contemporary fiction novels she pens.