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A Black Mother, Her Babies and America

As most of my readers know by now, my favorite haunt for a frugal breakfast and stimulating conversation is the local Wendy’s restaurant. Walk in most days and you’ll be greeted at the counter by a captivating black female with meticulously braided hair piled high above her Wendy’s visor, a velvety-soft and flawless complexion and a warm wide smile to die for. That would be shapely 25-year-old Athena, mother of two baby girls—”Thickness” and “Itty Bitty”—born little more than a year-and-a-half apart, the youngest now just over three months old.

Curious about my blogging, which occasionally has featured some older Wendy’s regulars and their idiosyncratic take on life and culture, Athena flattered me by buying a copy of my new book, The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom, a compilation of three years of blog posts. Well, that constituted a bonding of sorts, and so, following the tumultuous past year of political and social upheaval, I asked Athena if she’d like to be featured in a post detailing her perspective as an African-American mother on what world her girls will inherit. And she agreed.

At a mutually convenient time, we met at Wendy’s for a sit-down discussion and real get-acquainted conversation—a kind of “busman’s holiday” for her. The topics ranged over attitudes, insights and biographical details, many of which proved for me not only surprising but also unique. I never would have guessed, for example, Athena has been a champion boxer! Or that a prized dream of hers is to relocate to New Orleans someday.

Athena was born in Kansas City, Missouri, but moved with her mother and sister (three years younger) just after the tragedy of 9/11 to join her mother’s new husband in Chicago. That city required some adjusting to, she explained, bigger and frenetically more bustling, unbelievably colder in winter. It was there, following an altercation at school, she was “therapeutically” (and ironically) enrolled in a pugilistic activity program for “at-risk” youth. Although not actually fitting the category of a “troubled youth,” she adjusted to the circumstance and developed a love for the sport and continued on with it, attaining a high level of proficiency. Following the breakup of her mother’s marriage, she returned to the Kansas City area with her stepfather and his girlfriend, found a love interest of her own (a handsome Creole from New Orleans) and began bringing a new generation into the world.

I began the questioning segment of our talk by noting that none of the Wendy’s employees at our location had joined the fifteen-dollar-an-hour wage protest and rallies. What did she think of that? We have families to support and don’t have time for that, she said, but she did feel they needed and deserved a raise. We work hard for our money, she declared, but, nevertheless, fifteen dollars is asking too much. She explained she makes $8.50 per hour, and perhaps a raise of $1.50, making a wage of ten dollars, would be fair. Interesting. (She’d obviously studied economics along the way.)

Next, I put the hard question on the table—looking ahead, what did she think would be the greatest obstacle her girls will face growing toward maturity? Her response was firm and with an air of passion. “Racism,” she declared. She went on, however, to expand that answer in a way I didn’t anticipate. People want to put down people not like them, she said, and I don’t just mean whites toward blacks. I mean black against brown. Brown against Asian. Blacks toward whites. Everybody judging people they don’t know. But people are all just people, trying to live their lives. And she uttered a simple but most profound observation: “People need to stop being dumb.” Then she nailed it down with a real clincher: “Love knows no race.”

Athena went on to elaborate more fully on her background. My mother, she said, was okay financially. We always lived in a white, or at least mixed, neighborhood. I’m so thankful for that, although some blacks put me down saying I don’t really belong. Huh, belong to what? All the time, she continued, I get messages from old Chicago acquaintances on Facebook telling of friends and relatives being shot and killed. It’s heartbreaking. I’m so glad to be gone from there.

I then asked her what is the most important thing she’d wish her children to have. Again, her answer surprised me a little. I want my children to have a happy home life like we had, she replied. My sister and I were well provided for. Holidays were beautiful. Actually, we were spoiled. I want my children to feel happy and secure.

When I asked about her preference for schooling, she unequivocally declared a preference for choice and/or private systems. They just need to make it affordable, she said. Today public school districts are getting “lazy” in how they deal with students, she further opined. They were more personally involved with individual students during my school days. She added that she’d attended Johnson County Community College for two years before starting her family, having contemplated eventually majoring in early childhood education. So that was an area of special interest to her.

What about church, I queried, does your family attend one? She frowned. No, we don’t. Not now. When we were with my mother, we did. In providing a good moral grounding for the girls, I suggested, might that not be helpful? Yes, she agreed, nodding. I’ll have to give that some thought.

Finally, I brought up that other big sobering question: “What do you see as the greatest threat to your girls?” She had a ready answer: “I don’t want them to get pregnant young. I want them to reach adulthood as young women with options. I want them to have the opportunity for a full, happy life.”

We didn’t broach the topic of politics—that’s a worn-out subject at present from which we all need a respite. And seeing the values Athena embraces, it also seemed irrelevant. But I concluded by expressing my gratitude to her as well as the other Wendy’s servers who humor our little group of retiree regulars with such consideration, indulgence and respect. That’s why this restaurant has become so special to so many.

We parted with a hug. And walking away, I kept hearing in my ears her two words “dumb” and “love.” A long time ago a man we came to know as Jesus Christ issued the same advice about “love.” More recently a luminary named John Lennon said the same thing. And now a black mother serving me burgers over a fast-food counter offers the identical wisdom. Well, to my mind the only question remaining now is, why is the rest of humanity so slow catching on? Hmmmm. Just dumb!

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Mark Scheel

Mark Scheel grew up in east-Kansas farm country. He attended both Kansas State University and The University of Kansas, majoring in psychology and English. Prior to writing full time he served overseas with the American Red Cross in Vietnam, Thailand, West Germany and England, taught at Emporia State University and was an information specialist with the Johnson County Library in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. His stories, articles and poems have appeared in numerous magazines including The Little Balkans Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Cincinnati Poetry Review, The Kansas City Star, Heritage of Kansas, Samisdat, and Poet as well as many sites online such as Common Ground News. His literary activities have also involved membership in The Kansas Authors Club, a seat on the board of directors for Potpourri Publications Company and an editorial position with Kansas City Voices magazine. He co-authored the book Of Youth and the River: the Mississippi Adventure of Raymond Kurtz, Sr., and his collection of stories and poems, A Backward View, was awarded the 1998 J. Donald Coffin Memorial Book Award. His most recent book is titled The Pebble: Life, Love, Politics and Geezer Wisdom.


5 comments to A Black Mother, Her Babies and America

  • Don Frankel

    Mark, I guess if people think someone’s skin color means something then it means something to them. Reality is 99.9% of everybody’s DNA is identical and whether or not you need sunblock 28 is not a factor.

  • Don,

    Good point. I think, like sex, “race” is 90% psychological. 🙂

    Mark

  • Don Frankel

    Mark, maybe it’s like Yogi said. “70% of Baseball is mental. The rest of it is in your mind.”

  • mistermuse

    Good questions, and wise words in response, Mark….btw, I think that woman deserves $15 an hour — but if everyone got what they deserve (not just financially), we wouldn’t recognize the place (or should I say “the PLACE” writ large, as in this PLACE called Earth).

  • mistermuse,

    Getting what we deserve? I know what you mean. Well, the only way I can make sense of that is admit the possibility of karma! Ha. Thanks for your input.

    Mark

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