Mama’s Life Lessons

Mama used to talk much about the slavery days. She’d paint us mental pictures of life working in the field and the horrors of cruel masters. The latter was written in scars on her back, the former in her hands. Yet through all the sorrow of those difficult days, mama had a tender nature. She was warm and loving. And it’s no exaggeration to say everyone loved her.

Mama was twenty when the emancipation proclamation happened. She married papa after becoming free, and they began a family. I was the first-born, then came three boys.

She loved all her children, of course. But she doted on me in a different way; I was her first-born and only girl. And along with a loving nature, mama also had a teacher’s devotion. We’d walk along the country roads and through the forests surrounding our home, where mama would share life lessons with me, often stressing the importance of being caring and independent.

I’d nod, pretending to understand while mama continued the lesson. “Independent means be you. Step into the world as you are, not as you’re told to be. And yet while you do so, be thoughtful of others, be present and care for them. Love deeply and understand the choices care requires. You may not understand now, but that won’t always be easy to balance.”

The words made little sense then. Too many other worries plagued my teenage mind. But the words were now a part of me. Which is what mama had in mind, knowing words of wisdom need their time to simmer and experiences to match before becoming life lessons.

Mama also insisted I work hard. “Life isn’t easy,” she’d say. “And you have to be well read, adept with your words, and a woman of your own means.” From sunrise to dawn, mama made sure I was studying or doing chores, though there was also time for fun, too.

I think mama had a vision of me always living nearby. But life changed. I remember mama’s tears the day she sent me away. It was at the end of summer in 1877. President Hayes announced a few months prior that federal troops would be removed from Louisiana, the last southern state where they were still present. Mama’s intuition of what would come next didn’t match the life she wanted for me. “We need the troops here,” I could hear her saying to papa as they talked late into the nights.

But the troops left. And not long after, mama said to me,” You’re going to go live with Uncle Walter in Ohio.” At that moment, her voice was still strong and courageous for me. But I could see her eyes watering. “This isn’t the place for you,” she said. “Life here is going to get worse.”

Uncle Walter lived in a small home in a charming town called Oberlin, where he worked as an attorney. Mama and Uncle Walter shared a similar toughness and courage. And just like mama, he believed in the importance of hard work.

My daily routine continued almost as though no life change had taken place. But for mama and papa and my brothers, life did change without the federal troops. Mama never talked about the changes much, though. I read that reconstruction was over now. All the progress was reverting.

Mama and papa and the boys eventually moved to Oberlin as well. We were a family again, and mama continued to push me. But it was all for good as I write this today, on my first day as a student at Oberlin College, preparing myself for a career teaching. And I say, “thank you, mama. For I couldn’t be here without your guidance and your wisdom and all of your love.”


“Mama’s Life Lessons” is a work of historical fiction. While based on real events, the story, characters, and incidents are fictitious.

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