Mother wit

They had no letters behind their names. In fact, many of them had too little formal education to understand what BS, MA, or PhD meant. They had probably never met anyone who claimed those honors and had not read their scholarly works. Yet the adults of my neighborhood claimed special credentials for instructing children how to appreciate right from wrong and how to behave according to those standards, how to accept responsibility for our actions, and how to respect each other and ourselves. They drew from a reservoir titled “Mother wit,” that substitute for formal education born of experience and common sense, passed on from mother to child, sweetened by a special something that my neighbor, Miss Lou, understood to be “a gift from the Almighty to understand some things and to do what’s right.”

She, like so many Colored ladies of my youth, was a “wash woman,” whose sole employment was laundering the dirty clothes of White folks. Her heavy hips and knees were afflicted with arthritis, which ached with every move she made. Miss Lou occasionally served as caretaker for a blind young White man when his parents brought him and a bundle of clothes to fill the entire day of Miss Lou’s schedule. On one such day, as evening approached, I, at age five or six years, wandered across the field that separated our property and did what I had learned to do well — ask questions about other people’s business. Since night was approaching, my indoctrination of racial segregation led me to presume that if Colored folks couldn’t stay in White neighborhoods at night, then this White man should be leaving our neighborhood pretty soon. I wanted to know his schedule for departure:

JAMES EDWARD: Miss Lou, when is this man’s mama coming to get him?

MISS LOU: Soon I ‘speck (expect).

JAMES EDWARD: Miss Lou, what’s gonna happen if his mama don’t come before night?

MISS LOU: His being here seems to be troubling you. Listen, James Edward, if his mama don’t come tonight, he’ll spend the night in this house. He can’t see how to get home, and I can’t walk to lead him there. So, you see James Edward, sometimes, a thing is what it is.” She hesitated and then further instructed, “And if you don’t like what it is, then change it and get yourself a new is.”

On another day after Miss Lou’s lesson, I approached Mister B. His name was Burrel, but to my memory he was always referred to or addressed as Mister B. He was slightly taller than most men, and years of toil in the sawmill and other common labor had honed his arms into clubs where muscles and popping veins stroked each other and got our attention, which pleased him and reaffirmed his unmistakable manhood. He had a knack for making a simple stroll appear to be a strut.

Mister B gave me his full attention and answered my initial questions. Then I asked another single question. Mister B gave me another single answer. Either I didn’t understand his answer, or he didn’t understand my question, or possibly I had asked the wrong question. We tried to help each other. I wanted him to know what I really wanted to know, and he wanted me to know that he knew what I wanted to know, but that he was exhausting ways to tell me what he knew. I rephrased the question. He rephrased his answer. Finally, his fatigue forced him to utter one of the clearest and most remembered lessons of my life. In a soft voice he told me, “You know James Edward, sometimes, if you’ve put your best mind to something, and you still don’t understand it, then you ought to say to yourself, it just be’s that way. No need to have a hissy fit over something you don’t understand, or can’t do anything about it. Sometimes it just be’s that way'”

A thing is what it is, and if you change it, you get yourself a new is. It just be’s that way. 

My elders also taught me these lessons:

“If you always do what you always did, then you’ll always get what you always got.”

“Don’t speak ill of the dead, cause if they didn’t make it to the kingdom, the devil might be listening.”

“Sometimes you have to ignore an older person’s foolishness, “cause there ain’t no fool like an old fool.”

Advice to avoid bad people: “If you wallow with bad dogs, you’re gonna get fleas.”

“If you mistreat yo woman, ya better learn how to sleep with one eye open.”

“Do your best today, because tomorrow ain’t promised to ya.”

“Don’t leave home wearing dirty drawers. If you have an emergency your dirty drawers will be discussed more than your ailment or predicament. “

One day, before whipping my butt for something I did, again, my mother said, “The Lord knows this is gonna hurt me just as much as it’s gonna hurt you.”  I said to her, “You said that the last time, so since it’s equal hurt, you take this one. I took the last one.”

You don’t have to ask what happened.

Good memories are treasures that we horde for ourselves.

Sometimes they are the only currency that can buy peace of mind.

They give us safe passage to where we were once content.

Good memories are not exhausted by time.

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