Mom: A Profile in Courage
I was about eight years old when my mom gathered her six girls on the living-room sofa in our Arkansas home to tell us some “very important news.” My oldest sister and I listened intently while my four little sisters were squirming and uninterested.
Mom sounded excited. “We’re moving North! We’ll live there from now on,” she told us. “Your father isn’t coming with us. But you have grandparents there, and lots of uncles and aunties and cousins. We can take some of our clothes with us now and everything else will go in storage until we find a house in Detroit.”
She sounded a lot less excited as she explained how different the North would be. We’d have to always lock the doors and not talk to people we didn’t know, even if they were neighbors. Most difficult for me was that we couldn’t go outside without shoes on or wander around by ourselves.
I’m sure there was more, but these are the things that stood out in my eight-year-old mind. I wondered why we were moving to such a bad place. I would find out years later that it was lifesaving.
I’d miss the wandering until dusk and the feeling of my bare feet in the grass. Even a few bee stings hadn’t convinced me to wear shoes. I’d miss the giant tree in the field at the end of our block (the kid in the Kindle logo, reading under a big tree, is me). There were people we knew, or knew of, as far as I could wander before making my way back home.
The time between that conversation and loading up in our cousin’s Cadillac—which accommodated all eight of us comfortably—seemed short. The next night, we arrived in Detroit.
My grandfather greeted us at the door. “Hey gals! Come on in, we have everything ready for you.” It was my first time hearing his voice and seeing his face, but he was no stranger. His voice was warm and reminded me of Louie Armstrong, and I could feel the same love I felt from Momma Henrietta and Uncle Bush, the only other grandparents we had known.
My grandfather’s wife reminded me so much of Momma Henrietta, and we share the same birthdate. Her transition from our grandfather’s wife to our grandmother was instant and enduring.
The longer we lived in Detroit, the more Mom revealed about why we left Arkansas in such haste. Mom said that our father was an intelligent man who excelled in school, an artist and a writer. And that he was a good provider. They had met in high school and married when she was 16 and he was 19. I came along the year of my mother’s 18th birthday, the second of six girls (including one set of twins). I think my mom wanted a big family because she was raised as an only child.
My mom also revealed that my father was suicidal and abusive. My mother made it clear that she would fight him back and got the better of him on some occasions. His frequent travel as a truck driver kept him away for long periods of time. Maybe that, along with Mom’s self-defense skills, determined the frequency.
I don’t have any memory of their actual fights, and he never hit us kids. But I do remember one of his suicide attempts. I just hadn’t realized what it was at the time. We had come home one day to blood on the porch and up the walkway. Mom had sent us to the neighbor’s house before going inside to see what happened.
Mom’s tipping point came one morning when my father told her about a dream he’d had the night before. “I dreamed I killed you and the kids in your sleep.” She calmly asked him how he did it and what he did with our bodies… and he told her all the gory details. I still ask myself what would have happened if he hadn’t revealed his dream, and if Mom hadn’t had the wherewithal to ask him the details and the wisdom to know what it meant. She was only in her twenties.
While my mom had the courage to defend herself against episodes of abuse, she knew she couldn’t defend any of us against that kind of threat. We moved across town to another part of Arkansas. I later found out that our father would harass her to come back to him by threatening to take her to court to sue for custody. Moving to Detroit put enough distance between us and him and surrounded us with family like a wall of protection.
Courage is not easy, but my mother made it look that way. It’s in hindsight, as an adult with a family of my own, that I glimpse how much courage it must have taken to make the decisions and take the actions that she was ill-advised by some not to take. She was and is the epitome of courage.
Acts of courage always seem to be more obvious in hindsight. We all lead in some capacity, and we’ve all performed acts of courage. I dare say that none of us paused and said: “I am now about to perform an act of courage!” or “I am now about to lead courageously! Take note!” The inner dialogue is more along the lines of: You can do this! You can do this? Can you do this?
I see courage in some of the women who come to COTS to get their children out of harm’s way and to start over. It’s not one big act of courage, but many seemingly small decisions that serve as a sort of fulcrum to what emerges as courageous acts.
At some point, we learn which decisions and actions contribute to building the muscle of courage and which weaken it and feed the muscle of fear. We realize that acts of empathy, compassion, love, and gratitude are builders. And that without them, there is no courage. We learn that the decision to take a courageous leap or to map out a courageous plan both have the same ingredients.
As leaders, we can never know the full impact of our own courageous leadership. But we do know that modeling and bearing witness to courage is a gift, an opportunity to build our own courage muscle. Seeing it in others creates a space for it in ourselves.
For me, my mother modeled it, my spiritual leaders draw it out and help to cultivate it, and my current leader at COTS gives me the guidance and opportunity to put it into practice every day.