We only had thirteen years together, but those precious years made me the woman that I am today. Your kindness, your humor, your pride, and your love are your lasting legacy. Thanks to you, I can declare to the world that I was “raised right.”
You adopted me when I was a baby, bringing me from North Carolina to your home in Pennsylvania. After years of being president of the Hallie Q. Brown Club and the Worthy Matron of the Eastern Stars, you were ready to be a mother. You brought me home on the train, a tiny five-pound baby who was “no bigger than a bread box,” as you liked to say. You brought me home to Lawrence, a small town where Daddy worked in the Montour 4 coal mine.
I always loved to hear your voice. Your studied, clipped speech was sometimes punctuated with a glimpse of that western North Carolina drawl that you tried to hide. You were very concerned with speech, always correcting Daddy and me when we said “ain’t” or mumbled. Proper English was very important to you.
And you loved to talk. You were always telling me stories about your life as a little girl in Lenoir. I wish that I could remember more of your stories, those tales that you told me each night at bedtime. Your grandparents, the Rev, Isaac Harper and his wife Amanda, raised you. Isaac had been a preacher during slavery and preached under a barrel to muffle the sound so that the masters never heard.
I learned that your mother, Rose, died during your birth. You never really knew your father, a Catholic mulatto, but you admired his Catholic faith. You grew up with your big sister Joyce and your beloved brother Frank and your youthful aunts and uncles But you were always the different one, the lighter one, the one who took Rose away from the family. Your stories of how you survived inspired me when I faced my own childhood ridicule.
I was laughed at for being funny looking, for being adopted, for being the only black Catholic in town. Other black kids said that I was trying to be white when I got good grades. White kids couldn’t understand why I didn’t do well in sports like the other black kids. There was nowhere that I could fit in. But once I was home, everything was fine. I knew that you would praise my grades, give me a big hug and kiss, and tell me that I was just fine the way that I was. You told me that I was special, that you knew when you adopted me as a baby that I would be special. Then you would tickle me until I couldn’t help but smile again.
Even though you only had a fourth grade education, you encouraged me to read and learn about the world. You convinced Daddy to let me subscribe to Highlights, My Weekly Reader, and the Happy Hollister Book Club. I collected books on geography, science and history, and I shared each page with you. You and Daddy attended every open house and school event, and sometimes you were the only black parents in attendance. Your smiling faces showed the world that you loved me.
You had a magic way with plants and flowers, and neighbors marveled at your talent for bringing them back to life. A walk through the woods or a visit to a friend’s house always ended with a new seedling or plant. Our house was filled with growing things, plants that flourished with your love and care. I knew that I was just like those plants, lucky to be nourished by your love and affection.
After your beloved brother died in 1968, you were never the same. A small stroke and dementia took away most of your memories, and sometimes you couldn’t even remember me. In 1969, you and Daddy celebrated fifty years of life together and we made our last family trip to North Carolina. Somewhere between Greensboro and Lenoir, I got my first period. Thankfully, you were lucid and we were able to share this final rite of passage together.
In July 1970, you went to the hospital and lapsed into a coma. On the morning of July 19, at the start of a bright, sunny summer day, Daddy and I came to the hospital to say goodbye. That morning was the first and last time that I ever saw Daddy cry. His body shook with great, heaving sobs that frightened me. I realized how much he had loved you.
You used to say, “When I die, I want to be covered in flowers.” Your coffin was covered in blossoms and your friends and family crowded the funeral home. No one had a bad word to say about Miss Bea.
I know that you are still with me, Momma. I have made many mistakes in my life, but I know that in spite of everything, I have your love in my heart. I know that you are watching over me, giving me the strength to go on.
The name “Beatrice” means “making happy.” You have made me happy all of my life. I’m glad that you picked me to be your daughter.