Sunday, April 10, 2011

Evelyn on My Mind

This coming Passover/Easter will mark sixteen years since my mother-in-law, Evelyn Reed, passed into spirit. It’s hard to believe that it has been so long. Even as recently as October, when I was in Chicago, I half-expected to see her. She was a single mother who raised four children under dangerous and stressful conditions in the ghetto in Chicago. Despite living in circumstances not supportive of family life, my husband and his siblings grew up in a large and loving family that provided a lot of laughs and nurturing. Mama was one of the most generous people I have ever known. She manifested Do Unto Others. Although Mama worked hard to support her family (for many years she was a mail carrier for the postal service), she lived in poverty her entire life. It’s easy to be generous when you have money, but it’s another story when you have next to nothing. Whatever Mama had, she shared. Anyone who turned up at her door hungry was fed, no matter how bare her pantry was.

During the years that I knew her, she lived in a duplex that she owned on the South Side of Chicago. My sister-in-law lived upstairs with her family and my brother-in-law shared the downstairs with Mama. When I first met her, Mama had her mother living with her as well. When I was seven months pregnant with my first child, Ron and I went to visit Mama for Christmas. We arrived to discover that Mama’s younger sister and her five children were living with Mama. Her sister had left her husband (who had been abusing her) and she had nowhere to go, so Mama took her in. Mama probably saved her life. The children slept on the couch and chairs in the living room every night. While we were visiting, we slept in my brother-in-law’s room. I have no idea where he slept during our visit. The ten of us shared one bathroom. The kitchen was tiny, but it served well enough for us to cook up a delicious Christmas dinner. There were few gifts exchanged, but much time spent together as a family . The greatest gift of all. It was a memorable visit and a terrific Christmas.

Her sister was not the first nor the last to find respite in that house. I could not begin to count all the people who lived there at one time or another. Mama felt fortunate to have a house, making it possible for her to lighten the burden for others with nowhere to go. It was one of the ways in which she served God. When we called Mama, we never knew who would answer the phone because she was constantly taking people in to stay with her. I remember calling once and talking to an elderly woman whose locks had frozen on her house in the bitter Chicago winter. She couldn’t afford to fix the problem, so she left the house locked up until the spring thaw and moved in with Mama in the interim. Despite Mama’s poverty, she regularly gave a tithe to her church to support church activities that provided services for people in need. In the later part of her life, when she had become an elder in the church, many people relied on her to give them guidance, spiritual and emotional support, and encouragement. She never judged others. She was compassionate and a good listener. She enlisted the healing power of laughter as one of her chief assistants and she needed that sense of humor to cope with the huge whacky family and the ridiculous (and at times incredibly absurd) situations she and her relatives found themselves in because of their lack of money and resources.

In the spring of 1995, Mama had a heart attack and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks. The doctors readjusted her medications and sent her home. To this day, I believe that she was killed by racism and poverty and that if she had been a middle class white man, the doctors would have recommended bypass surgery and would have been more aggressive about saving her life. On Easter Sunday we were at my parents’ house with our children for Passover and we called Mama. Everyone spoke to her. Me. Ron. The children. My mother. Ron talked to her for a long time and they laughed a lot. When he thinks of her voice, he can still hear that laughter from the last time they spoke. Two days later she had another heart attack. She was 62. Because no ambulance service would go into Mama’s dangerous neighborhood, she could not call 911. Dear friends were driving her to the emergency room when she died in the back seat of their car, lying in the arms of one of them. The last thing she said was, “I love you.”

So many people came to her funeral that they couldn’t all fit into the church. Many of those who couldn’t get inside stood outside in the street for hours. The police came and officially closed the street because it was filled with people. So many people went up to the pulpit to speak about her or to sing that the service went for more than six hours (past midnight). Every year, I light a yahrzeit candle (Jewish memorial candle) for Mama on the Tuesday after Easter Sunday. I suppose there is a poetic irony in the fact that a Jewish woman lights a yahrzeit candle every year for an Apostolic Christian Black woman from the South Side of Chicago. There is a directive in the New Testament that says “Bloom where you are planted.” Mama, you were the most exquisite flower. Still missing you.

Me and my mom with Evelyn during an outing (photo by Ron).

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