Still Can’t Believe I’m Somebody’s Mama: A Reflection, One Year Later

On the afternoon of September 17, 2020, I was in my obstetrician’s office for my 39 week appointment. My blood pressure was up. Again. It had been slowly creeping up for the previous three weeks.

“We want to prevent any problems for you and the baby, so I’d like to induce,” my doctor said.

“Ok. When would you like to induce?”

Her eyes got wide. Of course she was wearing I mask, so I couldn’t get the full facial expression. “NOW!”

This was not how I wanted to give birth. Inducement? Please! I was eagerly waiting for my water to break so I could call my husband and say, “It is time!” in my Rafiki from The Lion King voice.

This wasn’t how I imagined my birth story going, but it was on par with the rest of my pandemic pregnancy. When we went into lockdown in March of 2020, I was three months pregnant. I had just started telling people I was pregnant and I wasn’t yet showing.

The weekend before the lockdown I went into the Motherhood Maternity store to get some maternity work clothes. The store was going out of business and I was able to get several items for a good price; however, the need for me to wear those items at work became obsolete as my school district moved to remote learning for the remainder of the school year.

My son and I. He’s 5 months old in this picture.

I missed out on telling people to not touch my belly, something I was looking forward to. I missed out on having a traditional baby shower and settled for a baby shower drive thru instead. I missed out on having the waiting room full of our family waiting for my son to come into the world. There was so much I missed out on, but in a way being able to work from home during the majority of my pregnancy was a blessing. I was able to teach from home and rest, and most importantly snack whenever I wanted.

As soon as I left the doctor’s office, I still called my husband and said “It is time” in the Rafiki voice, and told him about the inducement. We went to the hospital, I received the inducement medicine, and went into labor in the early hours of Friday morning, September 18.

A little over 12 hours later, I gave birth to my healthy baby boy. Besides low iron levels and the high blood pressure at the end, I had a healthy pregnancy, though my age put me and my son in an at-risk status.

Now, 12 months later, I have a son who has remained healthy and is active (started crawling at 6 months and walking at 8 months), alert, talkative, and has a good appetite.

I didn’t think I would enjoy motherhood. I thought it would be dreadful and difficult. I’ve found that it is indeed difficult, but it brings me so much joy to see my baby’s face light up when he sees me or his father, to hear him reply after we say something to him, to watch him pick up a book without being prompted and open it and start “reading,” to notice how his legs are longer as he gets taller, to see him learning to do things he couldn’t do before.

I’ve always saw motherhood as a club. A club I didn’t belong to for over three decades. But now that I am in that club, I can say that most mothers are out here doing the best they can for their children and themselves. My best isn’t going to look like another mother’s best. I’m sorry for judging any mother at any point in the past. I’m thankful for the mothers who have stood beside me during this first year of my motherhood journey. I’m thankful for the child free women who have also been sources of support and comfort.

Here are some thoughts I have about this motherhood journey this far, in no particular order:

  • Do not take advice that doesn’t seem compatible or aligned with recent research or common sense.
  • Put my phone down more often and spend more time watching my boy and reading to him.
  • Breastfeeding has been rewarding, but difficult and time consuming. My time breastfeeding will not last forever.
  • Do not guilt myself about being a working mother.
  • Becoming a mother without my own mother being here has been hard.
  • Give tribute to the mothers who have stood and are standing in the gap.
  • Give thanks for my husband, who bathes our son at night, picks him up and drops him off at childcare, and puts him to sleep at night.
  • Give thanks to my tribe, my village, which has been so supportive despite the isolation of COVID. The prayers, cash offerings, the baby gifts, the food, the words of support in the form of phone calls, texts, other messages, and video calls have sustained me, has sustained us.

Time marches on to the toddler years, which are here already.

But for now, it is time to celebrate my baby’s first solar return. Time for us to celebrate his first year, time for us to look forward to many more years. Years that hopefully will be COVID free for us to have the biggest family gathering possible.

My mother would often say, “Enjoy them while they’re little because they grow up fast.” And seeing that in real time speeds it up even more somehow. So we will do just that: Enjoy him.

Happy Birthday, Loman!

Can I Keep a Tomato Plant Alive?

To say that my father had a green thumb would be an understatement. We had all of the vegetables in what was then a vast garden. In a good summer we had corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peas, peanuts. Growing food in your own little patch of dirt was a time honored tradition in Bluefield then. Nearly all of our neighbors kept vegetable gardens. And some kept chickens and pigs as well.

I have a picture I think my mother took where my brother Mikey is standing in the middle of Da’s garden, and right next to Da’s garden is Mrs. Maude and Mr. Junior’s vegetable garden so that it looks like nothing but a huge garden. You can’t see where Da’s garden ends and theirs begins.

My brother Mikey as a child standing in our father’s garden. In the background is Mrs. Maude & Mr. Junior ‘s garden

Da wasn’t the only one with green thumbs. Ma kept up the gardening and landscaping side of things. She planted lantanas, four o’clock, amaryllis, elephant ears, roses. Our little patch of a quarter of an acre was always filled with beautiful things to look at and beautiful things to eat.

I give you this history to say this: I’ve only recently been able to keep a house plant alive. The legacy of the green thumb had skipped me. Or so I thought.

Late Spring/Early Summer

Sunflower growth progress.

This summer I decided to be intentional about growing something. I still had my two house plants, but I wanted more. I wanted something I could grow and eat. It all started with my brother Jermaine giving me one of the amaryllis bulbs from in front of the porch in Bluefield.

Our mother had planted those amaryllises. And when she died, my father kept them up, then me, and finally my brothers. Maine brought me the amaryllis in a big black pot. “When it starts to dry out, make sure you water it,” he said. He told me to get some fertilizer spikes to feed it once a month. A few days later he called me and told me to bring the amaryllis in from our small back deck because frost was expected. Once the frost passed, I put it back out in the sun. Eventually I got it a beautiful pot of its own and the flowers appeared in a blaze of red glory. I started feeling confident.

Amaryllis growth progress and current state.

While I was at the grocery store one day, I decided to buy a tomato plant. I asked Maine if I needed to buy a stick to prop up the tomatoes. He said I should be fine just leaning them on the deck. Where I live now, I don’t have a patch of dirt of my own, so I had to settle with transferring the tomato plant to a bigger pot.

My brother told me that with the summer being so hot, I would need to water the plant three times a day. And if I couldn’t do the midday watering to get a self-watering bulb (in picture below) to help.

As the tomatoes were growing, I was also growing some sunflowers. I received several sunflower seeds from my cousin’s bridal shower, which had sunflowers as the theme. Those, however, I had to put in the ground since they would grow bigger than any pot I could buy. So once I had the seeds started in the pot, I transferred them to the a spot I cleared off for them to grow.

Everything was going well. The tomato plant’s yellow flowers grew into tomatoes. I kept it watered and fed it plant food. I was so proud. Until two months later…I moved the plant from its spot near the deck. Two of the stems split spectacularly, laden with tomatoes as they were. I was mad. I called my brother, frantic. He didn’t pick up. I looked something up on YouTube, and attempted to save the plants by putting the broken stems into a bucket of water. They survived a few days, then I attempted to re-plant them with disastrous results. That’s when I decided to cut my losses and pick the tomatos that were still green, but big enough to maybe survive.

Tomato growth progress and split stem.

One thing I learned from watching my father all of those years was that you could take a tomato that wasn’t all the way ripe, put it in the windowsill, and watch it redden over the coming days. I figured that would work with my little satchel of tomatoes, and it did.

When I first started growing the tomatoes, I daydreamed about what I would do with the abundance: Give some to the neighbors, family, and friends (as my father did often), can some of them, and of course eat them. Eat them with grits or make a tomato sandwich or two. Or do a Bartell family classic of simply slicing the tomato, sprinkling it with salt and pepper, and leave it in the fridge to chill so that by the time dinner was ready, we would have the sliced tomatoes as a additional veggie to compliment our meal.

In reality, the only one I was able to do was the Bartell family classic, which I ended up eating with some grits for breakfast one morning.

Late Summer Lessons

My small crop of tomatoes, Bartell family classic, and tomatoes and grits.

I felt so defeated that I had to abandon my tomato plant so early. As a Bartell, I should have done better. But then I realized a few things: I could start over and buy a new tomato plant and apply the lessons I learned from the failed tomato experience. I decided against doing that, but next summer, I will grow tomatoes again. This time I will be smarter. I will get the stick. I will buy a bigger pot for them to grow in.

During this process, I thought much about fixed mindset vs. growth mindset (Check out Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindset). Much of my life I had had a fixed mindset about gardening. I thought having a green thumb was something you were born with. This past summer, I adopted a growth mindset with gardening and decided to give it a try. I enlisted my brother as a mentor, I asked questions about his experiences with it, I consulted the internet, I developed a plan for watering and feeding the plants and stuck with it. I failed ultimately, but I know that failure is essential to the learning process. I’ll be better next time because of the failure.

I failed to protect the sunflower. Some bug feasted on it and it died earlier than it was supposed to. However, the amaryllis, who I have named Ms. Lucille, is still sticking around. Her flower is gone of course, but her green leaves remain. Soon those leaves will wither with the fall and fall off, it will be too cold to keep her outdoors and I will bring her in for the winter. Then next spring she will come back again with her blaze of glory.

And that’s the ultimate gift of the green thumb. The re-generation of the return. I think of how my father’s father kept a garden. I imagine that my grandfather’s father also kept a garden, and his father before him as well in a circle that goes back through slavery and to our ancestors in Africa, who I see keeping their own gardens as well. None of them were born with green thumbs, but they learned how to keep vegetable gardens, largely as a source of nourishment for survival. I am honored to follow in their sacred footsteps.

Cooking from Memory: Ma’s Recipe Book & Holiday Food Traditions

I love holiday cooking. Love it. What I love even more is holiday eating.

This year is so different with the necessity of social distancing during COVID-19. Not being able to go visit family and folks, break cornbread together, laugh, and cry, and enjoy each other is one of the hardest parts of this pandemic. Plus, I’m back to eating all matters of meat for the first holiday season after being a pescatarian for three years. I have lots of eating to do!

This makes me reflect on when I first learned how to cook and our family Christmas traditions, past, present, and future.

The Recipe Book

My brother Jermaine calls me sometimes and asks me about the recipes in the recipe book. Ma’s Recipe Book is what he calls it. It’s a collection of recipes I started collecting from her during the holidays of 2004 when I was 21 years old. I wanted to learn how to cook. And who else to teach me but the best cook of all time. (At that age, I could cook scrambled eggs, grits, and other basic items, but not a full meal.)

So much of what she knew as a cook was in her head. So much of what she knew as a cook she knew by heart. But I wanted to get those recipes nonetheless, to learn to cook for myself, to learn to cook for a future family perhaps.

The first items I learned to cook were for Christmas dinner, which at our home was always similar to Thanksgiving dinner. The very first entry in the book is how to roast a turkey, including the brine, which I’ve included below. As she would say, “Cooking a turkey in a bag is for people who can’t cook.”

Ingredients

Gallon of water

1 cup of kosher salt

1/4 cup of brown sugar

A pinch of cinnamon

(Honey optional)

Instructions

Let brine come to a boil. Wait ‘til it cools to put the turkey in or put ice in the brine to cool it down. Let set overnight.

Take the turkey out of the brine. Pat dry. Put a stock of celery, onion, and bay leaf into the cavity. Another combination to include in the cavity is oranges, lemons, and bay leaf.

Put foil cover over breast for an impression. Remove impression and rub ‘em down with (canola) Wesson oil.

Set oven to 500 degrees. Put turkey in for 15 minutes or less or until golden brown (keep checking)

Put the foil on ‘em and turn down to between 325 to 300 degrees.

Cook 3-4 hours. If the leg of the turkey moves easily, it’s done.


That day I also got the receipts for cornbread stuffing, macaroni and cheese, giblet broth and giblet gravy, candied yams, sweet potato pie, and of course turkey salad to make with the turkey leftovers.

So many of those recipes have “eyeball it” or “to taste” or “play it by ear” next to ingredients and recipe instructions. For me this solidifies cooking as an art form, something you do instinctively without the need for specificity. It makes the space for improvisation.

It was the Christmas Break of my senior year of college when she told me she had colon cancer, so the recipe book took on a different purpose. It was no longer just to get the recipes from Ma so I can learn how to cook. It became a rescue mission to get the recipes from her before she died.

Food is Love

Where I’m from, food is the highest expression of love.

One of my favorite pictures of my mother is when she was in the fellowship hall of Chavis AME Church serving up a meal. She is smiling, head thrown back, eyes closed, apron on, doing something we can’t see on a counter. On the stove in the background are several large pots of food. My guess is that pileau is in one of the pots, but it could have easily been a pot of string beans that were seasoned with bacon or maybe fatback.

I have kept the photo of my mom on the desk in my classroom for years.

She loved cooking. She loved watching people eat her cooking.

“If they have a healthy appetite, that means they are doing good,” was what she would say about babies and young children. Seconds and thirds were welcomed. “You had enough? Do you want some more?”

Where I’m from, when someone dies there’s a period of time called the setting up. It is customary to bring the family food. Some people bring the food already cooked, food they cooked in their home or the bucket of chicken they picked up from down the road. Others bring the raw ingredients and cook it right there on your stove, or on your grill, or on their own propane stoves they brought with them. I really didn’t like catfish stew until I had my cousin Barry’s stew at Da’s setting up.

They bring food and libations as a balm, to remind you that although your loved one is dead, you are still in the land of the living, and you have to get on with the business of living, so eat some of this good food.

In her last days Ma stopped eating all together. The tomatoes, fresh out of Da’s garden, and grits I made for her was the last meal I tried to feed her. She took one bite, just to please me, but did not eat much more. Her body was no longer in need of such an earthly things as eating or drinking.

After three years of being pescatarian, I went back to eating all meat this year, partly because I craved chicken while I was pregnant. It’s been interesting to go back and revisit the recipe book and read the meaty recipes. To look at her recipe for beef stew and meatloaf, company chicken and roasted hen. I had already made her recipe for salmon cakes several times before. My husband is especially appreciative of the dish, and is always extremely thankful to the mother-in-law he has never met.

He looks forward to when I make sweet tea. The number one thing about sweet tea is that brand of tea makes the tea. Luizanne is the only sweet tea that matters. And there’s a special way to steep the tea that I won’t share here (Hint: Don’t follow the directions on the box). It’s not overly sweet, and strong enough.

It’s how Ma taught me how to make tea. It’s not in the recipe book, but it’s something she showed me real quick and was immediately committed to memory.

Christmas Magic

I saw something on someone’s wall on social media once that said as you get older, Christmas isn’t so much about what’s under the tree, but about who is around the tree, and by default who is not around the tree.

Growing up Christmas Eve was always our time to be together as a family. Ma would make some sausage balls for us to snack on throughout the night. We would be outside with Da popping fireworks for most of the night before we turned in for bed. Ma never let me put cookies out for Santa. “He knows to look for them in the oven,” she would say. And I trusted that as a kid. It’s hilarious as an adult. Those nights were pure and simple and magic. All five of us would be together on that night, and that was all that really mattered.

Now with a family of my own, I have my own traditions to work out. This will be my son’s first Christmas. And he won’t remember any of this. His only meal will be the liquid gold I provide to him, but my new role as a mother has me thinking about the new traditions we will eventually develop as a family. One thing I know for sure is that I want the sausage balls to be there. And fireworks. Add in some hot chocolate, maybe a fire with some toasted marshmallows…

Maybe one day my husband, son, and I will huddle in the backyard on a Christmas Eve, standing close together and looking up into the night sky at fireworks exploding around us. Maybe then we will feel that same magic I felt when I was a kid. Maybe the feeling will be even stronger because this new magic will be ours.

What are some of your holiday traditions or foods? Let me know in the comments!

#DaughterOf Barbara McCray Bartell

My name is Jennifer Bartell Boykin. I am the daughter of Barbara McCray Bartell, granddaughter of Irene Harvin McCray.

Memorial Day this year falls on what would have been my mother’s 72nd birthday. She was a veteran.

One of the first women to enlist in the military in our family, and quite possibly in Williamsburg County. She enlisted into the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) right after high school. She did her basic at Ft. McClellan in Anniston, Alabama.

She later served at Walter Reed and Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. She was a simple country girl. Skinny as a piece of sour grass in the dead of summer. She said her and her sisters all were skinny then because they were poor, there wasn’t enough food to eat at any given time. But in the military, she put on pounds. She was a dental hygienist. She would sometimes say, “I wish I had stayed in and gone to nursing school.” But instead, after a few years, she came back home.

Came back to Hemingway, eventually married my father and had my brothers and me. She worked as a cashier at Fast Fare, sewed panties and such at Hemingway Apparel, and her last job was as a housekeeper cleaning hotel rooms in Myrtle Beach. Well, that was her last job with a paycheck attached to it.

She didn’t speak often of her days as a WAC. She didn’t register as a veteran, and she didn’t take any veteran benefits while she was living.

She was well-loved by all who knew her. She was affectionally called Nanny, a nickname she gave herself. When she came home from the military, she told her nieces and nephews, who had lost their own mother: “I’m your Nanny. I’m going take care of you.” And that was what she did…she took care of people. She risked bouncing checks to help a neighbor in need. She treated nieces and nephews like they were her own children. She adopted some of her nieces’ children as her own grandchildren. She cooked food and baked Mississippi Mud Pie for family and those who paid her to do it. That was what she did best: Take care of people. And she loved it.

When colon cancer came to claim her body, she didn’t go gently into that good night. She fought the best she could. She was optimistic. She lost her hair, but gained weight as a chemo patient. She considered quitting chemo a time or two, but kept going. She held on for a few more months so that she could spend some time with her first grandchild. And when the doctors said her next round of chemo would leave blisters all over her body, she decided it was time to quit chemo for good. She was aware enough to not want to die at the house, and asked to go to the Hospice House to take her last breaths.

She taught me how to be strong even when you are weak. She taught me how to do my own eyebrows. She taught me how to put God first. She taught me that you receive by giving. She taught me how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey. She taught me so much. She is teaching me so much. She is teaching me how to be a good mother, even as her spirit guides and teaches the child I now carry.

I am a proud daughter who will be a proud mother in a few months. I can’t wait to tell my son about her.

10-11-11

On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn. The day started like any other day. He likely made his cup of Sanka coffee and maybe he ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He got in his 1987 dark blue, king cab, Ford Ranger, and went about his day.

Some how during the morning Neta, a neighbor, needed her sink fixed. And my father, the handy man that he was, went about the business of fixing it.

On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn to get some tools to fix Neta’s sink. He did not walk back out.

In many ways his death was a double whammy: I lost my father and my last surviving parent. The two people most responsible for me being on earth had left.

That was 8 years ago today.

The month of October doesn’t hit me like a flood like August does. (Go read Dear August for more on that.) It’s more of a slow trickle. Maybe it was the suddenness of the heart attack.

I was a student at the University of South Carolina, in my first year of an MFA in Creative Writing. I was taking notes that morning in my American Romanticism class. I always dated my notes: 10-11-11. I loved how that date looked, how the ones lined up.

After the funeral, I took care of his affairs and returned to USC. I could hear him say, “Don’t use me as an excuse to quit!” and used that as my motivation to return. The alternative was to drop out, and become an expert pity party planner, and that did not seem useful or practical.

It was hard. I was angry. I was depressed. I ate a lot of donuts. I didn’t want to be around people. I hated burying my father at twenty-eight years old, which reminded me of burying my mother at twenty-three years old. It felt so unfair that they wouldn’t see me reach thirty. Or that my father would never walk me down the aisle.

I went to grief counseling, and that helped me heal. I started going back to church, and that helped me heal. The anger subsided. The depression began melting away.

And I began writing about my father more, about how the collard greens he planted kept growing. My father’s father kept a garden, too. So when I honor my father, I am honoring the grandfather I never met. And when my brother keeps a garden, he is honoring them both.

On this October 11, 2019, I am full of hope, joy, and love. I am proud to be L.J. Bartell’s daughter. I remember the lessons he gave me through his quiet strength and endurance. I laugh when I think of his trickster ways. And though I miss him everyday, I know he isn’t really that far away since love has no known address for death and doesn’t know how to fail.

This morning I will walk into my classroom. I will drink a cup of coffee. I will go about the business of teaching. I will cry when I need to, and I will laugh when I need to. I will tote with me the love and memories my daddy left.

CHAPTER 1. Loomings

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.