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The Definition of “Beauty”

Life Story Club Contributor

September 7, 2020

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1930. So it was you know, it was real, real, real, real, racist. And I went to the worst schools, the worst foods, the worst houses, the worst everything. It was just a horrible way for a child to grow up and I grew up thinking I was a piece of shit, excuse the expression. I was worthless, I was useless, and I would never be any good. But I got to New York where they say if a black person got to New York … it’s up north, up north. But I got to New York totally unprepared for it and I ended up hungry, sleeping in Penn Station, stealing, and being sentenced to prison for…I was 17. I was 17 when I came to New York and I was 17 and a half when I was sentenced to 3 years in prison for stealing and stuff because I was sleeping in Penn Station.

So, when I came out – this was part three – I had nobody in the world who wanted me in Baltimore and New York … anywhere, so I ended up in the Salvation Army sleeping with older women. I was still … I was about 18 when I came to that house, sleeping with these old women and shoving sheets…you put them through the ringer then and you go home, you’re back, you can’t stand up because you’re there. But I lived like that, and I was still obedient because in Baltimore, the black people in New York was raising hell and fighting against white people verbally, but in Baltimore we accepted them. They were right, we were the scum of the Earth. We accepted them at that time when I was growing up. We accepted we were black, and worthless, and useless. So when I came to New York after the prison thing, I think I was about 18 years old then. Oh, I just want to say one thing about being in prison.

I was 17, I was the baby. And most of the women were in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and they were drug addicts, thieves, and stuff. And when found out that I didn’t curse, I didn’t know how to curse, I never had a drink in my life, I never been penetrated by sex, I’d been rubbed against. When they found out how innocent I was – because I was crying all the time – they loved me. They made me their baby. It was the first time in my life that I had been loved. I can still feel it and this is when I was 17, 18 years old, I can still feel the love that I got from these women. When I came out [when I was 17] I did my parole … I was still a good girl, but then I started with stealing and somehow, I don’t even know how I got into drugs and prostitution, stealing, but I ended up in prison. I guess it’s the only way I knew and that was available to you if you were walking around the street, that was available to you.

Somehow I got mixed up with people like that. And I think … I was in prison and I was kicking the habit, and I looked up at this man with this cross hanging around his neck. He was priest and he said, “Aren’t you tired yet?” I was sick, I was kicking that drug habit and I looked up – of course I said, “I’m tired but I’m not too tired to go to church. I’m not so tired, I want to go to church,” because I’d been in church, it didn’t work. And he laughed and he said, “You know, sometimes I don’t feel like going to church.” This is the Catholic priest. And when he said that, we both laughed and we became friends. And when I got finished with all my time, he met me and he took me to a place that he gets for people, for women like me. And so he was number three, Baltimore was number two, prison and drugs is number three. I got five categories.

He was number three. And then when I came out of jail he met me, of course. I met a woman, I met a woman named Elizabeth Stirs but Father Egan was the first person that saved my life. And then I went to Phoenix House, it was just treating drug addicts in New York, and I went to Phoenix House and I met a woman that come from the South, a Southern woman, and she came to the Bronx and she started a program for addicts. And she didn’t know what she was doing. And she met me because she been to the treatment program and she became my white mother. I don’t know how else to define this woman except to call her my white mother. She needed me and I needed her, and we just loved each other. She made me go to school, she encouraged me. When I got my MSW [Master of Social Work degree] she was sitting on the first row crying for me. She took me to Tavern on the Green to eat.

The beauty that I got out of that experience … I had worked in the field myself and I was just celebrated for working in the field for 50 years. So there’s five beautiful experiences, even in Baltimore becoming beaten down. They had to beat me down so I could grow up. So being a victim and then meeting these few people, then going through rehabilitation and spending 50 years helping other people. I cannot give the 50 years that I spent more power than I give Father Egan who met me when I was a drug addict. And I almost have to accept the cruelty that I had as a child because if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have the 50 years that I spent. I’m still alive, I’m still in New York City.

But the worst thing that happened to me caused the best thing that happened to me. So, what do I do with that? They’re all just as important. The worst thing that happened to me in Baltimore caused me to have the best thing to happen to me in New York City. So I don’t know what to do. I couldn’t pick out the best thing, the thing that I value the most or create the most, because the best and the worst is what I experienced. I don’t know how…any other way to say it. But I never looked at it that way, I never looked at it that way, and I’m grateful for the fact that I can look at it like a soldier goes off to war. The worst thing can happen and he saves us all, the best thing that can happen.

Hard About Growing Up

Life Story Club Contributor

July 31, 2020

The worst part of growing up for me was growing up with my mother. I’m black and I’m 80 something, 88, 89. And so I grew up in the South. And the worst part of that was growing up with a single mother. My mother had been impregnated by a white man because when she came out, she was half white. She had long, straight hair like white folks had, and she had no family. And then she turned out to be my mother and she was hurt. She was angry. She signed her name with an x. She was bitter. And she had to kiss… I have to say then forgive me. Kiss those black women’s butts to get along with them because all the black men wanted to have sex with her because she was half-white, you know? And so she had to not combed her hair. She would have to laugh and act like a town clown so the women would not see her as somebody that would steal their husband. And so with this was a woman who was, you know, to the community, to the world she was begging them to like her and accept her and etc, etc. She had no self-esteem.

And where did she take that anger and resentment out? When she came home at night time, she took it out on me, all the anger and bitterness and stuff. She used to beat me, she used to tie me to the bed and beat me, she used to call me all kinds of names. All the abuse that she took she vomited on me, not my brother. She said he would grow up and take care of her. So the worst part of my life was growing up. And some part of me loved this woman and wanted this woman to love me. The worst part of my life was growing up with a mother that was very, very incapable of loving me. She was incapable of love, but she also had a belly and a brain and a mouth full of hostility and abuse. And the only person that she felt empowered to vomit this on was me. And so that was the first part of growing up in my life, growing up with this woman. And I loved her. I wanted her to love me.

The happiest day of my life: I thought I had an answer to that. But I think because of the way that I grew up, I did not bond and connect with the happiest part of my life because I had to have friends that wanted to love me and wanted to be kind. And I couldn’t take that. I just rejected that in a kind way. And a major thing happened to me about a month or so ago, a couple of months ago, I went through job addiction myself for maybe 20 years, but I spent 50 years working in the field and I was illiterate when I left Baltimore, but I ended up with a master’s degree in social work here in New York. And I worked in the field for 50 years. I’m still got my fingers in the field somewhat now, working with people who were addict and who came from the same kind of backgrounds I did. And I think maybe about a year ago, the agency that I worked for, that I helped to create wanted to name a building in honor…maybe they wanted to really, really, really honor me. And that should have been the best day of my life. And it wasn’t because I couldn’t, I just sorta cried. I just couldn’t accept the honor. I think a part of me felt like I really didn’t deserve it. So that would have been the best day of my life to have been honored after 50 years of working in the field. And I couldn’t accept the honor. A part of me said you don’t deserve this. You know, so that, I still include that as the best of my life.

It was fear I don’t belong here. What am I doing here? I don’t deserve this. That’s what it was. I had not worked through deeply, even though I’m a therapist myself. I had not worked through the feelings of, I don’t deserve, I’m not good enough. I had not worked through that myself. I don’t deserve it, I’m not good enough.

And have you now, that was about two years ago, have things changed?I think about it and I’ve worked with it. I’m more conscious of an emphasis that actually that incident happened. I’m more conscious of it. And I have a therapist myself, you know, so I didn’t know how little I appreciated myself and no, I’ve always been shy of praise, but that was big, I never realized how I didn’t appreciate and loved myself and value myself.

My Neighborhood

Life Story Club Contributor

July 24, 2020

I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. And I’m 80. I was born in 1930 in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m black, I’m a black American. And it was very racist there and it was not a great experience growing up there. All this stuff seems to have left my mind. I guess the most outstanding thing would be was that we were very poor.

My father was dead. He died when I was very young. So I grew up with a single mother. My mother had been abandoned at birth because her father was white, somebody she worked for, and so she didn’t know her mother or her father. So she was half white, half black and with no mother and father. So here I am with this single woman who was an illiterate herself. And I just remember being in Baltimore and being in a family that there was no love. My mother was just surviving. A single woman with no family of her own.

I remember going to school with welfare clothes on and not being among the popular girls, and then being in racist of Baltimore where we were all in the scum of the earth anyway. And being in a family that I was with, which was no family, it was just a very hurtful, angry mother and no other relatives. One of the things that I remember when I think about my youth in Baltimore, I remember I used to go after school…and this was in junior high, I would go to help my mother. She was a janitor in one of the white schools. And I remember going with my mother’s pails of water, something going down a hallway. And these white kids, they must have been, you know, 13, 14, something like that, they were playing in the hallway and they bumped into my mother and knocked my mother down on the floor in the hallway.

I’ll never forget this. I must have been maybe 13, 12, and my mother looked up at them and the boys looked down at her. And my mother said to him, “Please, excuse me.” And he laughed and went off. I must have been about there. This was like yesterday to me, but those are one of the examples. And my mother had never been loved. She didn’t have a mother or father. She was abandoned because she was half white. Some white man impregnated a woman in there was cotton fields down there. And so she had no love and so she couldn’t love me.

In fact, she took out her feeling of resentment at me, by being abusive to me. I was the only person she could abuse or take her resentment out. And so I grew up and I started working when I was like 14 years old. I would go around to the stores and asked them if they wanted somebody to scrub their floors, etc., etc. And sometimes I would get work. I would scrub wooden floors with…we used Brown subs in those days. It was full of lime, and hot water, and Brown’s life soap and my fingers would be wrinkled up from that and my knees skinned from being on wooden floors. This was before a lot of the Mahogany stuff. I’m talking about the ’30s.

I had one dream that the black guys when they were sitting around on weekends drinking moonshine and stuff and getting drunk and talking, they would say that if a black person ever made it up North to New York, they could get them a good job, they’d get a good pay, they’d get nice clothes. Maybe they even buy themselves a car, you know, and they could come back to Baltimore and show how rich and important they were.

But they were all drinking moonshine and talking that crap on Friday nights or something like that, but that was the dream that I had. That if I ever, ever made it up North, I could get off my knees and start scrubbing floors for white people. And I would have nice clothes and maybe somebody would love me or care about me. My mother was incapable of loving and my father was long dead. So that was my dream.

And I went to school and I wore the clothes of the black people because we had welfare clothes and my mother who had no kindness, I don’t think my mother ever really hugged me, she would make me wear these welfare clothes. I was ashamed of that because even among the black people, I was lower status person.

And I just remember that city and how painful it was and how it was hard just to get out of there. I remember one time I did some writing as an adult here and I wrote about Baltimore. And one of the experiences that I wrote about in Baltimore was I went into a shoe store with my mother and she was buying something one time, you know, like $2 a week and then you save up to enough money to buy a pair of shoes.

And my mother walked in there with me and I’m from New York now, I’m an adult. And my mother walked in there. No, I was a child and this happened, and this white man said to me, she’s putting $2 down to buy some shoes on the payment plan. And he looked at her and said…you know, she gave him a little extra money. I think she gave him $3 instead of $2. And he looked up at her and said, this is the white man sitting behind his desk said, “Margaret, you sure is rich today. You got extra money. You rich tody, ain’t you? You rich.” And my mother, a grown woman maybe 40, smiled down at this white man and just laughed like she was a 2-year-old child. “No, no, Mr. Charles, I ain’t rich. I ain’t got no extra money. I just got that. I work hard.” And he laughed at her.

And years later, when I walked back and passed that store, I thought about my mother and I almost cried because she didn’t even realize that she had been abused and laughed at and ridiculed by this white man. She thought that he was patting her on the shoulder calling her a big shot. And that was one of the most painful. I still remember this and I’m 60 now. No way am I 60, I’m gonna be 80. I was born in 1930 and I still remember that like it was yesterday.

They said that if I ever got to New York. In those days they didn’t have people from the South moving up, you know, from Puerto Rico and places because I guess people didn’t have enough money to get up North. Anyway, they had employment agencies in the South and they would hire black people to go up North and work for white people out on Long Island and stuff like that, and that was my dream as a kid.

I wanted to an academic high school, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She said, “You’re going to have to work, know how to work with your hands because ain’t no white man going to give you no job sitting behind those desks.” So she made me go to vocational school and learn beauty college cosmetology. Even to this day, I hardly comb my hair and I don’t wear makeup. I hated it because I wanted to be a teacher but my mother signed her name with an X. So she had no concept of education and being good. You just learn how to scrub. She was working in white people’s kitchens.

So I studied that. And then when I got a job… She made me finish school, this vocational school because the people in the community would say, “Oh, Margaret makes her children go to school,” because a lot of black kids were dropping out. “And she’s really a good mother and her kids go to school every day.” Yeah, she made us go to school. That was her only reputation being a good person. They didn’t know that she beat us. They didn’t know that she beat all the anger that she had, the resentment and hate. She took it out on me. She used to beat me. She used to tie me to the bed and beat me. She used to slap me and knock me down. All her resentment.

She thought my brother was gonna grow up and take care of her, and so she was kind of decent to him, but all the pain, and anger, and frustration. And I lived for, like the drunk man said, get up North, get up North where a black person could get them a good job and get them some money in their pocket. And I had no friends because my mother had no friends, so I was isolated. So it’s not just like I had a lot of girlfriends and stuff in Baltimore. And I started working as soon I was like 13 scrubbing floors, so I had no social life, anything like that.

But as soon as I got 17 or something, 17, I went to one of those agencies where they got black people and sent them up north to New York. And I remember getting a job going to Roslyn Long Island. I was 17 years old. And I remember that Roslyn Long Island and I was going to New York. I remember the train. I remember a guy I met on the train. He was going to join the army. He was a black guy. And I remember that I was 17 years old and I’m 90 now. I remember that. I remember getting off the stage at Penn station and these white folks met me and took me out to Roslyn Roslyn Long Island, the American Long island. I remember that. I remember that. I almost feel like crying.

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