Mr. President, I was watching the news the other night. You were signing executive orders to re-open black sites and advocating for renewing the United States’ illegal torture program. You were giving presidential authorization for a “beautiful” fifteen billion dollar wall. You signed more orders aimed at giving the go ahead for the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access pipeline. You were threatening everyone: send in the “Feds” to Chicago! Withhold funding for “sanctuary cities!” It was a sadly transparent, pitiable, orgiastic attempt to project an image of power and domination.
Below the headline news I watched the crawl. Mary Tyler Moore had just died earlier in the day. I immediately thought of my mother. I remember how she used to watch the Mary Tyler Moore show. I was little, seven or eight, and I remember her attentiveness and her laughing. It seemed to be a weekly portal to another world just beyond her reach. We lived in Macon, Georgia, and Mary Richards lived in a big city, and was a professional woman, on her own, free, independent, taking on the world. My mother took care of my brother and me. She was a member of the Junior League. She taught art after school at the local Boys Club. She volunteered at my school. My father was the breadwinner. Financially, my mother was dependent on him.
When the Mary Tyler Moore theme played, it was easy to hear the uplift in the lyrics–the song and the show projected a hopeful, forward looking countenance, a snapshot of a changing world.
How will you make it on your own?This world is awfully big, girl this time you’re all aloneBut it’s time you started livingIt’s time you let someone else do some givingLove is all around, no need to waste itYou can never tell, why don’t you take itYou might just make it after allYou might just make it after all.
In hindsight, I know the show mattered significantly to my mother. It was an affirmation of the possibility that women did have a new kind of independence. The Modern Woman was real, embraced by popular culture, and she was alive in the living rooms of America. She could take on the world, she could make it with grit, hope, determination, and a beautiful smile. The show must have offered my mother a kind of temporary escape, a way of believing that one day she, or the next generation, could overturn an deeply entrenched patriarchal system.
I also remember one hot summer as she watched the Watergate hearings. Every night her eyes were affixed to the hulking gray Zenith. I faintly remember that her obsession revolved around the truth that justice was being served. The truth could come out. These men, they were not going to be in power forever. The system was vulnerable if pressure was brought to bear, and that was empowering.
As I think about my mother and Mary Tyler Moore, I remember her struggle to start her own business. This was in 1978, shortly after the Mary Tyler Moore show was off the air. But my brother and I were old enough that she could think about how to use her time and begin to work again. She was an art teacher, and a ceramicist, and she decided she wanted to convert our small, moldering greenhouse into an art studio where where she could teach clay to children in our midtown Atlanta neighborhood. It was going to be called Clay Play.
The story is encoded in my memory. To hear my mother tell it was to hear an epic tale of the struggle for liberation and justice. So I counsel you to listen closely: this is a story of the kind with which you may not be familiar. But if you will open yourself, there are lessons here that may serve you.
She decided she needed a bank loan.She dressed up so she might look more professional in order to approach the loan officer at the local Trust Company Bank, which was a half a block from our house. She wanted to borrow $1500 to set up a her studio. She was confident in her ability to get the loan: we lived in the shadow of the bank; the mortgage on the house was held by Trust Company, and the bank knew the neighborhood and the values of houses in it. She was also confident because she and my father had been using that bank since we’d moved to Atlanta. We went through the drive-thru often; they knew her by name; they smiled and gave my brother and I lollipops.
She also knew that $1500 dollars was not a whole lot of money in world of bank loans. My father could have written a check. But she wanted to do this by her self. “It was going to be my venture, my little business,” she said.
She was going to make it on her own.
On the appointed day she walked up the street and went into the manager’s office. She sat down in a chair across from the loan officer, who sat behind a large, expansive desk with nothing on it. She was nervous.”But daddy said it would be easy,” she remembered.
“Hello, my name is Ginger Birdsey, and I would like to borrow $1500,” she began. “I am going to teach clay classes to the neighborhood children, in my house. I live just down the street and I will need to buy a kiln.”
The loan officer tilted his head, not quite understanding.
“Yes. It is like a large oven and heats the clay to make it hard in order to use.”
“And you will charge the children and you want to borrow the money for this?”
“And where is your husband on this?”
“Oh, he thinks it is a great idea.”
“Well, I am afraid, Mrs. Birdsey, that we will need your husband to come in and co-sign for the loan.”
“No. I want to do this myself. This is my thing. I live jist five doors down from you. We have been your customers for years.”
“Is the house in your name ?”
“Well, no but—”
“You can’t borrow this money without your husband’s signature.”
“Well, I am going to borrow the money.” Her voice was shaking, and she began to feel smaller and smaller in her chair, and his desk began to grow larger and larger.
“I knew on some level I could do this,” she recalled, “but he wouldn’t give an inch and I think he felt powerful to be able to say no to me.”
She was shaking and tried to explain, but the loan officer held firm.
Finally she came to her edge. “No, Mr. Johnson, everything you are saying is wrong and full of shit. I will get this loan. I am getting this loan on my on and if I have my way we will not be customers here anymore.” Trembling, she walked out, crying all the way down the street to our home, where she called my father.
“You said it would be easy,” she cried. “That man said ‘no.’ I am so mad. I ‘m going to get this loan.”
Well,” my father offered. “There’s another bank up at Colony Square.” Colony Square was a group of large, corporate office buildings, story upon story of brokerages, ad agencies, law firms, and accountants.
My mother hung up and took off her fancy clothes. She put on her blue jeans and tennis shoes and walked up the street and entered the second bank. She approached a receptionist at the front desk
“I have come to borrow money. Who do I see?”
The receptionist pointed to a young man at a loan desk. My mother approached him.
“Hello,” my mother began, still standing. “I am not going to tell you my name or where I live. I want to do this by myself. I own nothing, but I have come to borrow money.”
“Well,” he said. “Sit down and tell me what you need.”
My mother got the loan, and with her own signature.
In her own way my mother was part of a revolution. She did a part. So long as people do their part, we move forward. She had a dream of what she wanted to do, and she went after it. It was an act of courage, and she did even though she was shaking. She went into it as herself, with her name only, in her torn jeans, and she came out bigger and stronger.
Whom did it change? Certainly it changed my brother and I. We saw that we, my mother, anyone, could fight for something and say, “I’m not going to take this.” Determination and self-determination. No doubt it changed my father. His wife was not going to stay at home or be reduced to dependence, though that would have been the easy choice.
I am thinking of my students, too. They are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old, but they are already seeing what they must do. I think of Henry W. who danced ballet until he was eleven. I am thinking of Merry, who wrestled, and has not forgotten her dreams of being the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees. These kids are not going to sit and be confined to preconceived limitations. I think of Marina, who stood up in class last year and told us she was gay. Of Una, who marched in the Women’s March on Washington. Or Henry Swan, back from New York city, sitting in our classroom the Monday morning after the inauguration, proudly wearing a big, floppy, pink knit hat. I am thinking about Catherine, who attended a march in Montpelier with 20,000 fellow Vermonters. She held a sign with lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Phenomenal Woman,” which her classmate Griffin had read to our class. I am thinking of Wyatt, a ninth grade boy who re-designed, on a scrap of cardboard, the female Venus symbol. He changed the circle to a heart, and thrusting up into the heart he drew a clenched fist of resistance.
Maya Angelou wrote: “Just like moons and like suns,/ With the certainty of tides,/ Just like hopes springing high,/ Still I’ll rise.” Such determined certainty lives in the heart of all of us. I have seen it before and I see it now. All you have to do is look—it’s all around.