by jeff obafemi carr
“If your mouth is cut like mine, you can tell a lie just like my son.”
I once heard my mother say this to a teacher of mine in high school, and I was in complete awe—even though I probably shouldn’t have been by then. After all, from the time my dad left the basement door open and my 1-year old self came tumbling down an entire flight of raggedy stairs, to that time an elementary principal forced me to run away from school, Mama—along with Pops—was always a champion for her three kids. I just got more championing than my siblings for a reason known only to people I grew up with in South Nashville:
I was the “bad seed” of the bunch.
My elder brother was always the genius: he’d memorized all the US Presidents from their successive images that adorned a tin trash can my parents kept around the house—at 5 years old. There are stories of him reading the newspaper before he entered grade school, where he kept stellar grades.
My younger sister was the cutest “Little Bit” you could find in the neighborhood. With her always laid hair (courtesy of my mom), weekly piano lessons, and circle of friends, she was truly a Daddy’s girl who walked and talked like it.
Then there was me.
I wasn’t out there shooting people or anything, I just learned a whole lot of hard lessons being the notorious middle child. One day, I will find the courage to tell some of those horror stories, but on today, September 6th, 2022, I want to talk about my Mama, Catherine Carr, because today is her birthday.
She would have been 94 years old.
I recall the time my 4th grade teacher accused me of not doing my homework (the time I actually did do it), and my Mom and Dad took off from work and came to school and found the paper exactly where I said it was. There was another time in 5th grade when my homeroom teacher accused me of being “defiant” just for asking to use a pencil sharpener, resulting in me being hauled down to the office for a whipping from the principal. That is the time I physically ran away from school, because Mama had made her intention clear to the administration:
Nobody (else) was to whip her children.
In each instance, Mom and Pop would call into the dry cleaners and the VA hospital food service division where they were respectively employed, take a couple of hours off, and come to school to champion the rights of their middle child. This only occurred after a thorough investigation, which began with a long, piercing stare from my mother’s hypnotizing eyes, followed by the calmly phrased question:
“Now you tell me the truth, right now. What happened?”
I learned quickly that, if I was in the wrong, I best suck it up, keep it moving, and leave Mama alone. After all, she was busy sweating profusely all day during the week, ironing shirts in the dry cleaners on Hillsboro Road that now is an upscale Starbucks, and then—with my father—cleaning up White folks houses in Green Hills and Belle Meade on the weekends. The last thing she needed if she had to go into battle as a tiny minority in a sea of educational whiteness was a lying son with a bad attitude she could not defend.
So she handled things at home first.
And then, it was on like a pot of neck bones.
In reflection, I was probably drawn to The A-Team’s Mister T, simply because he echoed my feelings about my Mom’s energy when she rose up to defend her kids: “I pity the fool…”
My mother stayed defending me until she willed me through my unearned—and earned—troubled days. She was disappointed when I got expelled from High School, just weeks before I was scheduled to limp through graduation with a 1-point-something, for participating in a stupid Senior prank. I mean, she was really disappointed, which I couldn’t understand at the time. After all, she herself had only made it to 10th grade and my dad to 6th. Add to this the fact that my brother Greg had already shattered the first generation ceiling for the family with his graduation two years before and enrollment in college. I didn’t see what the big deal was, until I took the time to really look into her eyes. There was disappointment, yes, but there was also something else: Helplessness.
That broke something inside me.
Yes, I changed my life. Yes, I went back to high school. Yes, I believe I graduated (I have still not laid eyes on my high school diploma). Yes, I graduated from college, Cum Laude, as a Student Government President, and more. I had learned to make good choices, and one of those choices was to stay in Nashville, buy a house next to my parents, and put down community roots. Over the course of a few decades, I had a unique opportunity with Mama: I got to know her, not as a child, but asa grown man.
That thing hits different.
In the course of one of our porch conversations, after my Pop passed over 20 years ago, I decided to ask a question that, since then, I have encouraged all grown children to ask their parents and family elders:
Mama, what did you want to be when you were growing up?
She told me that her dream was to be a concert pianist. I was floored. All of her kids are artistically inclined. We came to play various instruments growing up, but now I understood why she religiously took my little sister Gussie to her piano lessons every single Saturday, and never missed a payment, recital, or performance.
When I asked her what happened to that dream, she told me that things were slim around their small farm at times; My grandfather gathered up his 6 children and taught them how to clear land, work a middle buster plow, and perform their chores. For his daughters, especially, he squared them up, looked them in their eyes, and told them that he and my grandmother worked hard so that they would never have to grow up and have to make a living as servants to White folks. He was teaching them to be confident, independent, proud.
By the time my tall, lanky future mother had reached the 10th grade, she had it all: looks, poise, and a bright spirit.
Then came a teacher whose name she never spoke to me. I couldn’t get the details, because whenever the conversation came up, I could tell the memory came with pain. This female teacher continually harassed my mother, working to break her spirit. In the 1930s and 40s, rare was the authority figure that came to the aid of a young, confident, Black girl. After a particularly tough day, Catherine Hayes walked home from school.
And she never walked back.
From that point, she began to make a way for herself, deciding that she had to live her own journey. People around her community saw her height and confidence, and many people—even strangers—began to repeat what she would never forget in practice—if not profession:
“You look like a teacher!”
While she never went back to formal education, she became known as a teacher to many over the years. She sang in groups, was a cosmetologist, and much more over the course of an amazing life we celebrated back in February.
As a grown up, I now understand why she showed up to every school I attended throughout my entire life if something was wrong. I know why she volunteered to be a room parent, serve in the PTA, and never missed an open house for any of us, even if she was physically exhausted from working.
She was, at all costs, determined to not allow anyone to break her children’s spirits.
Empathy. I live by it; I teach it; And I understand it even more when I think about my mother on today, her birthday. Her hypnotizing look was one of understanding, from lived experience. It’s why she never left a child behind who needed a ride home (even as she told us she wasn’t “taking care of anybody else’s children”); It’s why she always poured into people the notion that they could do anything but fail. It’s why she loved all of her children—biological and adoptive—through their difficult days.
It’s why, after Mama told that teacher that she was as capable of lying as I was, the teacher paused, looked into my mother’s eyes—as long as she could—then averted her eyes to the floor. She apologized for the “misunderstanding,” and subsequently, quit her job at the end of the semester.
For years, Mama told that story to people. I thought, when I was less mature, that it was a story of my being justified and exonerated. I was wrong. As a parent now, I see what she saw: that she was able to rescue one of her children from a fate that had befallen her; That all of the sweaty days in steamy laundry rooms and mansions not her own were worth it. Every victory counted.
Now I know why I would hear her voice screaming above thousands when I graduated from college; why I would see her in the front row of every appearance or performance I had all throughout my adult life; Why she was—literally—in the room when my children were born, in the corner, praying and singing open the gates of Heaven to ensure they traveled to this world safely and securely.
This was a mother who understood the assignment; who did everything she could to make sure that the next generation would be prayed, loved, and willed to success.
Mission accomplished Mama. Happy Birthday, Queen Mother Catherine Hayes Carr.
Thank you, from one accused “bad seed” to another, for saving us all.