Remembering Mama Lena By: Jady Montgomery
I’m thinking of Mama Lena in that house on Blackwelder Street for almost five decades. But let’s call it The House OF Blackwelder, instead — like one of the family said to me the other day, maybe a slip of the tongue, remembering that haven-space that had been home, and home away from home, a welcome port to so many for so long. Yes, The House OF Blackwelder is more fitting. Because the house, with Mama Lena inside, was not what it appeared to be from the outside — a modest house on an unknown street, maybe named for a welder who was black and who came even before The Great Migration, when her father came and bought the house during a time still ripe with injustice but also ripe with opportunity. The House OF Blackwelder, a house as grand as any grand manor named for a family, a history, a tradition. The house where people came to bask in what she offered there, more rare than marble stairs, chandeliers and soaring ceilings. She too was proud.
And she was black. And she was beautiful. Though she was much more than that to herself, and to so many from all walks, stripes and tribes. She was Mama Lena, always, she said. Even before anyone one of us remembering her now, knew her — even when she was living “the life” on “the street” — everyone called her Mama. Because she always was.
We’ll call it The House of Blackwelder to honor all the stories of all the people who came and went and came back, making a history and making traditions. Let us honor the coming together into the ether of acceptance and love, and the straight talk too, and the quiet time, talking time, laughing and crying time, just being time, interspersed with someone’s latest crisis to be dealt with, or healed, time. The eating and feasting times, around the table, on the couch watching the tube time, watching the garden grow time, some reckoning times too, no doubt. Her tribe, her “kids,” her friends, near, far and wide. So many stories that unfolded in that house, and some of her stories none of us will ever know. Maybe never spoken. She would honor ours. Let us honor hers.
There she sat, Lena Lindsey Beckam Stern, Mama Lena, in her house there on Blackwelder, where she talked and talked and talked on the phone. And then later texted and Facebooked and What’sApp’d like she was a digital native, “Touching bases,” is how she’d say it. “Luv You!” then a chuckle fading as you hung up. The house where she puttered and strutted, listened and loved, had spats and read her books, her Wild West adventures she loved, and more, and where she got gussied up to go dancing (in the years when so many stop dancing).
Mama Lena kept dancing as people came through her safe haven, like a stop on her own underground railroad of love. People coming to hear her call them “baby,” and “sweetheart,” and to hear the cadence of her saying “Right …. Right … right,” as she talked — her own call and response to the train of her thoughts rolling along with yours. People coming through to feel her arms around and see her big wide smile and the sparkly chains on her glasses dangling alongside her face, and to get some straight talk too (‘cuz we all need a little straight talk now and then, whether we know it or not.)
Once we had a heart to heart in the midst of a visit. She was acknowledging, at ninety-two, that maybe she’d snapped at me a bit too hard. Surprise! Lobster! She was acknowledging, like we both learned to do so long ago in that place where we both landed — by luck, flung from chaos. Acknowledging after examining herself like we also both learned to do “first and always,” so long ago in that place. Then she said, smiling and a bit sheepish, “You know, you had Betty and you have me — the sound of two hands clapping.” We laughed so hard. My Auntie Lena. Maybe she liked to snap at me in our later years to make up for our earlier ones when I was still a whipper-snapper, with a big mouth and a hat too big for my head. We both knew imitation was suicide. She understood. And opened her arms to me when our paths crossed twenty years later. She never told me. I understood. And when we were there on her bed, she was still demonstrating that we’re never too old to go through a motion, keep learning, keep growing.
She lived several lives and lived out her life, in that House of Blackwelder — worked and worked and worked some more, and played her role, and hung out with her gal pals, and her guy pals, and a lover now and then. Always there for all her “kids” — at home, across the continent, across globe, and at work across town, and for anyone ever a friend, she was there.
She grew old gracefully, dressed herself up elegantly — in her fashion statements and her flowing and bold caftans, those big ole’ earrings, sturdy feet, dancing feet, and those hands, those frame-worthy hands. I saw her hands before I met her, way back when, a photo of them framed on the wall of my dad’s office. One hand resting on the other, the umber skin, the white frosted polish. My dad. Her dad too. Our brilliant, patently human, sometimes mad dad. She took what she learned and left him when she had to — relying on herself like he’d taught her, strong enough to be grateful yet go. She took the lessons to The House of Blackwelder. The prayer framed on the wall, “examine myself… be honest and true, and responsible too, understand and love and give and give.” And she did. And I want to say, Amen! God Speed our Mama Lena!