Most of life’s truths are best learned at the hearth. In my case, two women with limited education provided a masters’ level home school in practicality, determination and tolerance.
Lu helped my Mom, Lily, with the housework. A black woman from Providence’s Lippitt Hill ghetto before gentrification, Lu would wait on a corner near the famed Celebrity Club to ride with Lily to our home in Mt. Pleasant. A day of serious housecleaning awaited.
Lily wore a housedress: Lu would be turned out in high heels, nylons, freshly-pressed suit, handbag and, sometimes, a hat. Lily often observed, “If we get stopped by a cop, you’ll look like the lady of the house and I’ll look like the cleaning lady!” At our house, Lu would change into her cleaning clothes, returning to her more fashionable duds later for the ride home.
Midway through vacuum cleaners humming and flipped mattresses we’d stop for lunch. Later, while Lily washed dishes at the pantry sink Lu routinely placed her plate and silverware in a separate pile on the counter. Exasperated, Lily would add them dramatically to the dishpan containing our dishes exclaiming, “Lu, they all get washed together!”
I was in elementary school, far from appreciating the lesson in this exchange between two women bound by a mutual affection and respect. Lily never marched in Selma, but she understood-- and taught by example-- everything a kid needed to know about acceptance and equality.
My Mom left school as an adolescent to work in Brier’s jewelry factory in Providence. Lu, still separate and unequal in those days, cleaned homes to care for and educate her only daughter. I was receiving valuable lessons from two teachers who didn’t even know they were teaching!
Every summer, Lu would take the bus from the Outlet downtown to our beach house. Lily would wait at the Grove Fire Station in Warwick’s Longmeadow, and they’d drive home together-- same housedress, same white summer suit and high heels, same dishes in the dishpan, same affection, respect and life lessons.
Lu told stories about growing up black in pre-war Providence, “the Mobile of the North.” She had dreamed of being a gloved elevator operator in Gladdings but never reached that highest level of achievement for too many women like her. Bitterness in check and determination at full throttle, she worked hard, loved people and invested in her daughter’s dreams instead. She learned to rise above ignorance and told me to do the same and, mostly, to “…do what you gotta do!”
Lily, meanwhile, became my idol (though, like most daughters, I only fully appreciated her greatness later.) She survived a mid-life widowhood by returning to the only job she knew-- jewelry press work. She, too, was investing in her daughter and her determination matched Lu’s. I did my evening homework while Lily studied in the next room with a tutor she’d hired—to replace the teachers she’d never had.
I have often thought that Mao’s little book of quotes could be outclassed by a “Book of Lily.” When Jewish friends complained about parents discouraging dates with gentiles, I curiously asked her view on interfaith marriage. “You can even marry a Turk…” she replied, “you’re the one who’ll live with him!” (Why she singled out Turks remains a mystery. I imagine it was because it would have been harder to find one in Providence in those days.) A query on the probability of “the one true religion” being marketed by my nuns at school prompted, “No one ever came back from the other side to say which church is the real one. Just be a good person!”
What amazingly clear perspective expressed in language no one could misunderstand!
Years later, Lu was in elder housing in Providence and would come shopping downtown in the facility’s van. Her degreed daughter was now supporting her. One day, returning to my office on Westminster Mall, I spotted Lu, ran to her and squeezed her as hard as she squeezed me. Tears flowed and she turned to her friend and said, “This is my little girl that you saw on the television. I brought her up!”
And in a very important way, she had.
I lost my Mom in 1978: I celebrate being her daughter every day. With Lily’s faithful nurturing and Lu’s loving pruning, I grew to survive and thrive in a male-dominated, sometimes-challenging world. Like the dishes in the dishpan—these two diverse influences kept me on one straight path, with clear markers that urged, “Stay strong!” “Be fair!” and “Just keep going!”
I’ve tried because I wanted to make them proud.
(This piece was originally published in the Providence Journal 9-8-2013)