Poet and author Ingrid Herndon Greene reflects on the lessons learned while growing up in a loving Black family that experienced death, tragedy and ultimately success.
By Ingrid Herndon Greene
New York, NY — Love never fails. I was very glad to know that. My family was full of love. Over the years it is what kept us together. My mother and father manifested their love for one another. It was just natural for them to hug and kiss especially after mom prepared a good meal. During the week mom and dad worked. It was great though when we all could sit at the dinner table together. We always had nourishing food on the table and we were glad about that.
Grandma lived with us too; she was mother’s mother. Grandma took care of us while mom and dad worked during the week. Mom loved grandma a whole lot too. Mom worked as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family and Horace Herndon my dad, was a taxi cab driver. He worked the night shift. Between the two of them all of our needs were met and all of the bills got paid quietly. They never argued over money. Over all we had a blessed family. Our family lived in the borough of Manhattan uptown in the village of Harlem. My older brother and I were born in Harlem Hospital in the nineteen fifties. Mom was a change of life mother. This was her second marriage and I was the youngest of her children.
Our family started out in a tenement building which had no elevator and lots of stairs to climb. We lived on the fifth floor. Mom wanted to move into the projects and eventually she moved us twelve blocks away into the Drew Hamilton projects. It was just opening in 1964. The buildings were brand new. Mom was excited because our building had elevators. When we moved there I was about eight years old. Mom was a very friendly neighbor and she soon became the sixth floor captain. She made herself helpful to the other tenants on our floor. We had plenty of heat and hot water and the lights stayed on. It was a sunny well lit apartment and mom was very contented there. She loved plants and she put them in all the windows. She made the house “homey” and welcoming. Dad, Grandma Freddie, Cliff, and I were all very happy with mom’s charming ways.
A year after we moved into the projects dad suffered a major heart attack. He was admitted into St. Clare’s Hospital and lived through open heart surgery. Then, after one month dad died. His death came as a shock to us all. Mom’s loving husband was gone.
My mother was a praying woman. After dad died she said that God would lead her and help her raise up us kids. She missed dad very much. The apartment felt empty without dad’s presence. We all looked up to him and gave him the utmost respect. He spoke with authority and we depended on him for many things. He was a kind hearted man and the “tar heel girl” never remarried because no man could take dad’s place. My mother just faithfully went to the Baptist church. She relied on the members of the church for friendship and from the pastor she received guidance. Getting over her grief was a slow process but she managed. She was lucky to have her job which kept her busy all week long. The weekends went by quickly also with doing chores and preparing for church. I recall how the phone was constantly ringing with the church sisters calling to talk to her. However mom never put us kids out of her mind.
Surprisingly mom showed great strength in his absence. She was a widow with two preteens to raise. Since she only had a high school diploma she determined quickly that it was her job to put her children through college. My mother was very patient with us kids while we were in high school. She took her sister’s advice and allowed me to date boys, but she insisted that I go to the Baptist church every Sunday and sing in the Young People’s Choir. I enjoyed going to church and had friends there. However, mom was very stern with my brother. In his teens he refused to go to church on Sunday. For a while mom really fought with him and she could be a bull in a china shop. Once she threatened to beat him with the broom handle and they got into quite an argument. He knew that she kept dad’s gun in the apartment. When he got her really angry he knew to run out the door and wait until she cooled down.
She was determined to raise us up to be respectful and intelligent young people. She made it her business to attend all of our school meetings and got all of the information required for both of us to apply to colleges of our choice. She encouraged us to study hard and she rewarded us with delicious home made desserts and stylish clothing to wear when we did well in school.
She got financial help from Grandma Liz who was dad’s mother. They gave us allowances since we were teenagers. My mother used wisdom and somehow even without dad we did not feel poor. We were far from rich but we got much love and great sacrifices were made on our behalf. For instance, we had our own set of encyclopedias with huge matching dictionaries to study from. We got the Sunday newspaper. Every Sunday the newspaper boy came to each floor in the building and yelled “Newspaper, Sunday newspaper.” Mom gave us the money to buy the paper. We had more than one television and we had a stereo with a radio in it. We had lots of records.
We had a rather lively household. Mom allowed us to go visiting; we could have friends over to our apartment as long as our grades at school were good. She trusted us to be honest with her and to tell her what was on our minds.
My mother worked hard as a maid so that she would have the money to give us what we really wanted. Otherwise, she encouraged us to get jobs when school was over so that we would have money of our own; we worked each summer. Mom taught us to use our heads. She would always tell us to “rest if you must but never quit.” When my mother told me that “nothing beat a failure but a try”, I tried to be the intelligent daughter that she said I could be. I loved to read and I went to the library and read many books. I learned to ice skate and went skating with my school friends. I learned to sew and bake cakes. Mom helped me with the sewing and the baking. She was great at baking and I tried hard. My mother taught me to aim as high as the stars and I think she had the right idea.
My mother was old fashioned. She did not allow us to smoke and drink in her house. Our friends had to be close to our ages. She definitely would not allow me to date more than one boy, and he had to be from a good family. She said that, “she was not raising a cow.” My friends all seemed to like my mother. She was a good judge of character. As long as my friends came from stable homes mom didn’t mind us partying a little. She said that young people had to have some fun.
I was very proud of my mother. She shouldered responsibility gracefully. Mom could save a dollar for a rainy day. It could be said that mom was very industrious. She had property in the south; she owned a house and rented it out. She always seemed to have money for what was important. Mom lived with self respect and she gave us no reason to not respect her. We learned the value of a dollar. Her hard work with a bit of imagination paid off for her year after year. As long as we were in school she never took one penny of our allowance to pay for food or to pay the rent with. She covered those areas on her own. She bought new furniture when we needed it, and mom covered the bare floors with carpet in every room. She put her loving touch all around us. All mom asked of us was that we provide our own personal needs out of our summer job earnings. She told me that a bank account was really useful to have and that I should have one of my own. She was proud to have her own bank account. For years she kept a Christmas club account. She would save money all year long so that she could buy gifts for everyone at Christmas time. She was just thrifty and could come through in a pinch; mom made sure that she covered all the bases like life insurance. She made certain that she had me covered until I finished with school. She was a good old girl.
I still missed dad but mom became both mother and father to us, and I appreciated her for that. She had a good listening ear, and she kept us supervised. When we used good judgment as young people she gave us hugs and kisses. She taught us to be neat and clean. She was a “strong head” to be under in every way.
She was altogether bitten by the travel bug. Mom was the recording secretary of the Pastor’s Aid club in church. Her club chartered buses occasionally. Three times they went to different parts of Canada. Once mom took me with her to Canada. It was a real blast. Mom allowed the young people to explore when we reached Canada. We were in Montreal. While she rested in our Queen Elizabeth Hotel room on Saturday night we went out dancing. We took a cab to a French/English speaking disco. The deejay was jamming and we had the best time. We took a cab back to the hotel. The next day mom said she was very proud of us because we handled ourselves well. As we grew older she didn’t mind us being a little independent.
Without dad around mom traveled a good amount. She went to Hawaii, the Bahamas, and Spain. She also went to Florida and California. She traveled with her sister sometimes, and other times she traveled with her oldest daughter or travel partners. She was quite adventurous. Mom taught us by example.
I had a very thoughtful mom. Caringly every year at Christmas mom mailed out a great many Christmas cards to friends and family. She made sure that all of our names were printed on the cards. She loved her family and her friends dearly. Mom was also faithful to give her offerings in church, and she encouraged me to do the same thing. She said that, “God would bless our family in return.” We believed that we were blessed.
Elizabeth Herndon was raised in North Carolina. She called herself “a tar hill girl.” Mom had one serious vice which was dipping snuff. Red Label was her brand. She put the snuff in her lower lip and sucked on it like a baseball player. It was a habit that she could not break. Many summers she and Grandma Freddie traveled back to the south to Kittrell, North Carolina to visit with Aunt Mary Helen mom’s sister. Grandma Freddie chewed her apple flavored tobacco and mom dipped her snuff.
While we were in high school, college was on the front of her mind. She was determined to get both my brother Cliff and me to further our education. It seemed like a dream to me, but mom knew it was possible to achieve this. It was her dream for us to have a better life than what she had. She attended many meetings at our schools to figure how to get financial aid because she only had a meager salary. Then she spoke to the pastor of her church for advice. She was relentless. She put her faith to the test and prayerfully trusted God to guide her the right way as she directed us down the proper pathway. She shared this idea with Grandma Freddie and her sister Harriet. They encouraged her altogether. She knew that there were funds available so she never gave up. She continued to ask around for help for her kid’s education.
In the midst of family obligations romance came into the picture with her. It had been some time since dad died. To everyone’s surprise mom had a male friend. He worked for the New York City Housing Authority as a repair man. During the day he was in his uniform working in our project building. After work hours he showered and changed clothes then he came to visit mom. His name was Mr. James McKnight. Mom just called him McKnight. He wasn’t anything like dad, but he was definitely attracted to our mother. He was good to her; she seemed very happy to spend some of her time with him. He took her out on dates occasionally. One summer she finally invited him to our apartment for Saturday dinner with the family. I noticed that he dressed well, and he was very neat and clean. Mr. McKnight was a dark skinned man about mom’s height. He was big boned, wore a shirt and slacks, and gold framed glasses. Mom prepared a special dinner for him. She baked snapper with matza stuffing. He was a good conversationalist, and he smiled at mom throughout dinner. Mr. McKnight must have been special to mom. He was the only man that she dated, and mom was very careful how she behaved in front of the family. Mr. McKnight had a nice red Cadillac. He would drive her anywhere she wanted to go. They got along quite well and were happy. Our family just accepted Mr. McKnight as mom’s friend; after all, mom was still an attractive woman. They both got dressed up for Sunday service, and they looked good together. He wore a full length dark grey coat, a double breasted suit, and a big brimmed black hat.
Elizabeth Herndon was called Betty by friends and family. She was a little taller than average height and stood up as straight as possible. Betty bought herself a mink coat and a mink hat so that she could go to church in style. Her hair was fashioned after the Queen Elizabeth style. It was with the crown away from her forehead and curls all around that framed her face. Her eyes were large and medium brown. She had an adequate bosom and full sized hips. Many of her dress clothes she made herself. She even made her own hats to match her outfits. Betty wore hanging gold earrings and she always wore a watch to keep up with the time.
My mother was 43 years old when I was born. Betty was an older working mother. Even though her strength didn’t allow her to do all the things that the younger mothers did with their children she was active enough. For instance she gave me a sweet sixteen party. It was a smashing success. Mom baked homemade cakes and there was ice cream and punch. The music was great and lots of young people showed up. The party was held in the Soundview Community Center in the Bronx. The dancing went on for hours and everybody ate and had a wonderful time. Countless hours she spent in the kitchen. Betty baked her hips off. She made German chocolate cake, coconut layered cake, apple pie, sweet potato pie, and even lemon meringue pie. The younger mothers could not compete with Betty in the kitchen.
The dining room where she honed her cooking skills and spent an enormous amount of time was neatly furnished with colonial furniture. There was a breakfront in there and a large wooden kitchen table with four wooden low backed chairs. She covered the table with linen and place mats. Cushions were placed on all the chairs. I think the kitchen was her favorite place to be in the apartment.
Betty was a housekeeper from the gates of heaven. Since she worked as a maid she knew every trick to keeping a clean apartment of her own. She taught us that to be good students we had to live in a clean orderly environment. She cleaned thoroughly until we could see ourselves on anything that we put our hands on.
I was put in the college-bound program when I started high school. I am convinced that it was Betty’s aptitude for house cleaning that kept my head straight. I could focus on any subject. My brother Cliff was as sharp in the head as I was. Betty’s work paid off and Cliff was accepted into Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was a victory for mom! She was extremely proud to have a son going to college. She burned the phone lines up telling all the family and all her friends about her smart son Clifford. Cliff was sent off to college.
I was still at home with mom and Grandma Freddie. While Cliff was gone Betty cooked fish a good amount of the time. She called fish brain food. She said next it was my turn to make it into college. I had three more years of high school to work hard. I had two counselors in the college-bound program that worked getting information about as many colleges as possible. This information was given to the parents of the students. For three years I studied doggedly and finally I took the S.A.T. test. Joyfully, my test scores were high enough to be able to apply to a few colleges. Betty Herndon read through one college catalogue after the other. My counselors encouraged me to go away to school. Betty prayed and shouted in the church services, and finally an acceptance letter was sent to me from the State University of New York in Oneonta, New York. Mom was overjoyed. Her dream was now a reality. She had struggled hard working as a maid to put the funds together to see her children in college. She claimed the victory in the name of the Lord. Betty didn’t know much about college, but she had the idea that when she washed off the cover of her bible and kept it clean she could hear God speak to her like he had done many times in the past. It was her way of keeping on top of things. She just trusted God to give her children wisdom.
With both of us away at college, mom went to the church services regularly. She left us in God’s hands. At the same time her boss, Samuel Sandhaus, who was very compassionate, kept a four star health insurance plan paid for. Fortunately, the insurance covered me. Cliff did not have any health problems. I however had scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. When I told mom that I was experiencing spasms in my spinal column she got the name of an orthopedic specialist for us to go to. In my senior year of college I took a medical leave-of-absence from school. We consulted with Doctor Richard Ulin about my spine. He took x-rays and examined me, and then he suggested corrective surgery. Mom agreed with the doctor. To make a long story short the surgery was successful. After a month in Mt. Sinai hospital, I was transferred back home with a home attendant to care for me. I was in good spirits. Mom went to work every day knowing that I was in good hands.
Soon I was up and about wearing a body-cast for eight months. Elizabeth still went to church and praised God every Sunday. Finally, I was taken back to the hospital to get the body-cast removed. The burden was lifted off of me and I was able to stand up straight.
Betty was not to be out done. She spoke immediately to the Dean at Oneonta State University about me returning to College for my last semester. Everything worked out. I returned to school. Mom hoped that I would graduate. Clifford had already graduated from Johnson C. Smith University and Betty was walking on air. Surprisingly I managed to complete my course load. Happily the family drove to Oneonta, New York to attend my graduation. Old fashioned Betty Herndon, “the tar heel girl” had become a modern day miracle worker.
To learn more about Ms. Ingrid Herndon Greene’s work, contact her at IHGSTUDIOS@yahoo.com or call (347) 702-3633.