Maryetta Grace Prior Waldron, was ahead of her time. She was a first grade teacher before she began raising a family in the fifties. She did not consider herself a feminist but growing up, I watched her activism. Her sorority was always involved in some helping project and I remember sitting at the dining room table folding hundreds of bandages for veterans. She took me with her as she leafleted the neighborhood against tax cuts she thought would harm the public school. She told us about being invited to a friend’s house during college at Michigan State University where she met and ate dinner with opera singer Paul Robeson. Joe McCarthy later blackballed him for his civil rights work.
My mother’s commitment to civil rights began when she was a student teacher in Lansing. She made sure my three sisters and I had racially diverse dolls and taught us about the harm caused by racist language and attitudes. My own political activism was informed by watching my mother’s outrage over intolerance as the civil rights movement unfolded on the nightly news. She taught and lived the Golden Rule—to treat others the way you want to be treated. When we all left for college, she joined Literacy Volunteers and went into the inner city of Rochester, New York every week to teach reading to adult learners. Her peers thought she was putting herself in danger but that’s who my mother was. She believed education was at the heart of equal opportunity and that we all have a stake in helping each other. That even extended to picking up hitchhikers who looked harmless—though she forbade us from doing so. We were always mortified when she’d come home and tell us about some hunky boy from school she picked up and what they chatted about before she dropped him off at his destination.
My mom died at sixty-six of pancreatic cancer. She battled it for three and a-half years, much longer than any of her doctors expected. She’d say, “I’m too nosy to die. I want to see what my children and grandchildren are up to.” She loved to laugh and she loved children—all children. She wanted to die at home but she worried that her dying would scare my sister’s three young children. My sister had come to live with her and my dad to help with her care. One day she asked us to pick up hot fudge sundaes from her favorite restaurant and all pile in bed with her to watch her favorite children’s movie, “The Lady and The Tramp.” She wanted to leave her grandchildren with fun memories, not sad ones. My mother died the same way she lived—caring for others and sharing her love.
She always hoped I would decide to have children and I was finally expecting my first. Days before she died I asked if she had anything she wanted to say to my baby. She said, “I want your baby to know how lucky they are to have you for their mother.” Then she laughed and added, “Who knows, maybe I’ll come back and you can be my mother”–a high honor given how loving a mother she’d been. She was the heart and soul of our family and she lives with us still. We feel her presence in the beauty of a garden, the antics of a pet, the laughter of a child, and we heed her values these twenty-eight years later. We love you Mom!