What do you say to a four-year-old child when she asks, “Gina, whose gonna be our Mommy now?” I didn’t expect the question, so I was not ready with an answer. But, as I looked into those big, soulful brown eyes, wet with tears after hearing that her mother wouldn’t be coming back home, I knew that “I don’t know” was not an option. So, without asking my husband of two years what were his thoughts on the matter or considering how the decision would change our lives, I said, “I am.” I had just turned 21 the month before and had no children of my own.
Sometimes in life you have to make split-second decisions that may seem to others to be the absolute wrong thing to do, but you have to trust your gut. On December 19, 1972, that is just what I did. On that day, my only sibling and best friend in all the world, the one constant person in my life since I was born, and the person who fought all my battles in childhood, died unexpectedly at age 23, and she left four children, ages 2-4 (the youngest turned 2 years old two days after we buried his mother).
She was more mother to me than sister, even though she was only two years older. She was the one who watched over me, slept wrapped around me so the rats would not bite me at night, and when children wanted to beat me up, she would send me home, and she would meet them and do the beating up. It got so that other kids would say,”Don’t mess with Regina. She got a crazy sister who will kill you.” So, she was my strength and my protector all the days she was alive. And now, she was gone. How was I to face the world without her?
It is too often true that we don’t learn to appreciate that life is fragile and that what is written in James 4:14-15 is true, “How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” We think that every day belongs to us and our loved ones, but they do not. I try to not take anyone in my life today for granted, for I don’t know their last day or mine.
As I stood stunned and lost in the hospital corridor, Mama came to me, and she said that she needed me to go to Joann’s house and tell her children that she had died. I couldn’t understand why Mama couldn’t tell them, after all she was their grandmother. But, my mother was nearly incoherent. You see, my sister was born at home in 1949, and my mother remembered seeing her take her first breath. Then, twenty-three years later, sitting by her daughter’s bedside, she watched her take her last breath.
All she could say was, “I watched her take her first breath and I watched her take her last breath.” So, she was incapable of doing anything. There were other people, older and more qualified as mothers, who could have relayed the information, but I believe my becoming their mother was part of God’s plan for my life, so He spoke into Mama’s spirit and said, “Let Regina do it.”
So, I went to my sister’s apartment, and I found the children running around and playing with some of the Christmas toys that they had been allowed to open, as a means of detracting them or, more likely, the adults that were keeping them. I entered and the four of them came running and joyously calling my name, “Gina,” “Gina,” as they always did when they saw me. It seemed to deepen my sorrow to have to destroy their joy, at the time of the year when children should be the happiest. But, everyone else thought they needed to know that night, so they wouldn’t associate Christmas with death, if they learned later in the week.
What do you say? I mean, how do you tell children so young about death? I called them to sit with me, put the youngest on my lap, and I looked at their little waiting faces, and decided to say that their mother was gone to heaven to be with God. They wanted to know if she was coming back to see them, and I nearly lost it, but I knew I had to stay strong for them. I responded that she loved them but she would not be coming back.
All four started to cry, and I held them all in my arms, and just rocked them back and forth as much as I could. The boys, ages 2 and 3, did not know what was going on, but when they saw their two sisters, ages 4 and 6, crying hysterically, they sensed that something bad had happened and they cried, too. I just held them close, realizing that they were the only parts of my sister left in the world.
It was while all of this was happening that Wanda, who would be five on her birthday 9 days later, asked the question that changed my life for the better. After I had assured the children that I was their new mommy, they got down off my lap and started to play again. I realized that they simply had no way to understand the gravity of the situation and why all the adults were still crying. And, you know, in hindsight, that was a good thing.
I stayed with them from that night on, sleeping in my sister’s bed with all four of the children in bed with me. During the night, when I thought they were asleep, I started to mourn my sister, and the tears started coming. The oldest woke up and when she saw me cry, she started crying, and then all of them woke up and started crying. So, I learned that I had to delay mourning my sister to help her children get through the ordeal. I did not cry when talking about her to them for the next thirty years, when one of them finally said to me, “You can cry now, Gina!”
They continued to call me Gina, never Mama, because I did not want them to forget their mother and how much she had adored them. But from the beginning when they called me “Gina,” I heard “Mama.” I went to court on February 14, 1973 and became their legal guardian. My husband and I had moved into the three-bedroom public housing unit with them, because we only had one bedroom.
My husband and my friends did not understand why I took on such a huge job at such a young age, when I could have been carefree with no responsibilities. But, I felt that I owed my sister for all of her love and the blood she shed keeping me safe, and I did not want to take the chance on the children being split up and losing each other. But, also my life was not headed anywhere. Growing up in poverty, I had no real dreams that I thought would ever come true.
I spent my days playing cards and drinking beer. I read books and knew that people lived better lives than we did, but no one in my family had even finished high school but me, so I did not believe that I would ever amount to anything in life. But, when I became a mother to my children, I realized that I had to start to dream bigger, if I were to give them the kind of life that I had prayed for as a child. I had to break the cycle of poverty, so my children would not suffer the shame and embarrassment that accompanies poverty.
Becoming their mother motivated me into action, as I was determined that, because I had agreed to raise them, I had an obligation to get them out of poverty. I started to look for jobs, and when I could not find jobs in my hometown that paid enough to give them a good life, I went to Atlanta, leaving the children with my mother.
Staying with a friend, I went out every day looking for a job. Then, one day, I found myself at the telephone company. I took the test for employment and passed it, and just the week before, the federal government advised the company to hire black women in traditionally male jobs, and I was one of the first two hired. Affirmative action had worked for me!
My starting salary was $129, which does not sound like a lot, but I was receiving only $99 a month in welfare for the children. Not one of their fathers offered any support, so it was all on me, especially after my marriage ended. When I received my first check, I thought that I had won the lottery! I sent my mother money home to provide everything the children needed, and I saved the rest, after paying my bills.
Still, it took me three years of saving to bring my children to Atlanta to live with me, and one more year of saving to buy us a house in Atlanta. I worked for the telephone company for 23 years, leaving when my job was outsourced to another company. I gave my children a solid middle-class life. Today, they have their own homes and are all self-sufficient, and two of them have their own businesses.
When none of my children went to college, I decided to attend and raise the bar of education in my family for my grandchildren. I loved learning so much, I stayed in school until I had earned a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, and a PhD at age 54. My dream from when I was in the fourth grade was to be a college professor, and for the last 18 years, I had that second career and loved it. All of the goodness in my life started the night I made that split-second decision that changed all of our lives.
I thank God for the privilege of being a mother. It is the hardest job in the world, but it is also the most wonderful job in the world. I gave birth to a son three years after adopting my children, so I raised five amazing human beings. Was it easy? No way! Would I do it again? You bet! I might change some of the decisions I made, but overall, what a ride! And, as I await the birth of my sixth great-grandchild, this matriarch has no regrets about parenting. I just hope my sister would have approved of the job I’ve done.
It has been 45 years this past December, and when I sent a text to tell my oldest four children my gratitude for allowing me to be their mother, they all sent back texts stating that they were the men and women they are now because of me. You can’t ask for anything more! Yes, I made mistakes, but I tried to always do my best as a parent, with my children’s best interests as incentive for my decisions.
I believe with my whole heart, that raising them was God’s plan for my life, and in accepting the call to be a mother, God opened doors so that I could be successful in the endeavor. Jeremiah 29:11 states, For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” The future and hope that God supplied has allowed me to touch so many lives, as a mother, a teacher, a preacher, a wife to my lovely husband, Douglas, and, maybe, as a blogger!
Listen to your heart, and don’t be afraid to trust your instincts, even when people call your choices crazy. I found that what I call my instincts usually turns out to be God speaking to me. Pray and be still and listen to the Lord as He whispers into your spirit what you need to do. Don’t be afraid! Atlanta was not an accident. God laid on my heart to go there, and I am glad that I listened. Life can change quickly, and sometimes those split-second decisions will change your life for the better. Don’t believe it! That’s me living big in Hawaii in the picture above, a place I would never have seen if I had not made the choice I did. Aloha!