From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

It Runs in the Family

How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in life you will have been all these.

George Washington Carver

My childhood had its ups and downs but included my momma, Karen, who was so supportive that I was destined to succeed in life.

She never missed any of my school events, poetry contests, honor roll assemblies, student government elections or the countless football and basketball games spanning six years of cheer leading. When I graduated from college, I was selected to give the commencement address. Just like old times, my mother sat in a chair in my dorm room and listened to my speech over and over again.

That reminded me of a time when I used to be embarrassed by my mother. She always laughed just a little too loud. She never dressed the way I wanted her to dress. She had very few outfits that weren’t gold or red, and you’d be hard pressed to find something in her closet without a sequin sewn on it. I respected my mother for her talents, but I just wanted her to be a little more like other mothers and a lot less crazy.

When I entered a statewide speech contest, I prayed for my mother to magically transform into the normal mother everyone else seemed to have. The whole time I gave my speech she moved her lips as if she was coaching me. Instead of feeling grateful for her involvement, I worried other people would think she was talking to herself.

It felt impossible to pass for normal when our craziness was as obvious as the frilly Easter-looking dress I had to wear. By the time I made it to the finals, I had given my mother strict conditions. First, even though we couldn’t afford it, I demanded a blue suit, like the other girls. I instructed her not to mouth the words to my speech. Finally, I warned, under no circumstances should she jump up and down and make whooping noises if I won. This wasn’t a Dunbar High School pep rally; it was the suburban Optimist Club speech contest, and we had to look the part.

When I took to the stage, one of ten finalists remaining of the thousands of girls in the competition, I looked around the room. There was only one other brown face that looked like mine. Momma’s. The opinion of the other contestants, the crowd and the judges became increasingly less important to me.

As I delivered my presentation, possibly one of the most flawless performances of my fourteen years on Earth, I realized my mother was sitting in her seat with her face turned toward the door rather than the stage—obeying my strict directives. I had thought that if she didn’t look at me, she wouldn’t be tempted to do any of those crazy things that distracted me.

I realized now that the only way she knew all the words to my speech was because she had obviously memorized it, too—just to show her support for me. I knew then that I had no desire to win without my mother seeing it and celebrating in whatever way she chose to.

Near the end of my speech, I stepped from behind the podium, walked down the stage and onto the main floor. I wanted Momma’s attention. My mother sat still in her contorted position gripping the side of the white linen tablecloth, desperately trying to do what I had asked her to do: Be someone else. She never moved. I finished with a dramatic close, but she never looked up. While the rest of the crowd rose to their feet in a standing ovation, Momma was still. When they handed me the plaque and the scholarship money, Momma allowed herself to simply smile.

Without our traditional ‘cutting up’ and ‘act a fool’ celebration, my victory felt empty. In that moment, with my future looking bright, I realized you can’t enjoy where you are going if you deny where you are from.

I let her know from that moment on she could whoop and holler and be herself. I wouldn’t want her any other way. After all, she was my momma, and if she was crazy, then call me crazy, too.

Jarralynne Agee

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