Willie Dee

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When I interviewed for jobs after receiving my B.A., the first question was always “How fast can you type?”—a question never asked of the men I sat next to in my classes, who were often offered the management trainee positions I wanted. Needless to say, this was unacceptable to me.

I was the first in my family to graduate from college, with a degree in psychology and statistics from UCLA. As early as elementary school, I remember my teacher sending a note home to my parents saying that I was being rerouted into special honors classes. The assumption of college began right then: My mother and my father both made it clear that their expectations for me were high and nonnegotiable. I was excused from most chores to concentrate on bringing home more of “those As.” First would come As, then would come college.

I won a scholarship to UCLA and worked summers as an accountant/salesperson in a furniture store. My parents stretched themselves financially to support my education, my mother taking on as much overtime at Alameda Naval Air Station as she could get and my father doing small carpentry side jobs evenings and weekends in addition to his full days in construction.

Thanks to my parents, I graduated debt-free. But my mother hadn’t worked nonstop to help me pay for college to type someone else’s memos. I wouldn’t tolerate that. I went back to school for an advanced degree—this time for an MBA to prepare myself for the world of business—throwing down the gauntlet that I was both serious and ambitious about supporting myself.

Those two extra years paying for business school came as a surprise for all of us. Especially my mother, my unconditional champion. While I pedaled my bicycle madly back and forth between campus classes, the library, my upstairs rented room, and my part-time teller job at Bank of America, she worked yet more overtime at Alameda Naval Air Station, as we supplemented my assortment of scholarships and grants. She was proud of me in the way only a mother can be proud, and after I graduated again and got my first job with Xerox as a systems analyst, she visibly relaxed, confident I’d found my way at last.

“We did it,” she said quietly, when I showed her my acceptance letter. My success was her success. She might have been a supervisory clerk to the working world, but now, in her mind, she too was a systems analyst. She even declined an overtime request the following weekend and worked in her garden instead.

My mother didn’t take it well when I told her I was leaving Xerox 18 months later to move to New York for a job in brand management, more aligned with my passion for marketing. Didn’t we already have a good job as a systems analyst? Had we been fired? I assured her, gently, that I had not been fired, that I was going for a better job, paying more money, with more opportunity. She didn’t like it. She was a Depression baby, after all, and for her, a secure, stable job was the cornerstone of a good life. But she was, as always, supportive, and said no more about the move.

Each time I left one company for the next, bigger job, my mother was nervous. She understood promotions, but never understood leaving one company for another. If you managed to get a good job, you held on for dear life. But one thing was constant. When I became a product manager, my mother was a product manager. When I was a marketing manager, so was she.

Along the way, I’d moved back to California. Fast-forward almost two decades. With a lot of hard work, long days, airplane time, negotiations overseas, and a healthy dose of risk-taking, I had risen to the level of vice president and general manager in Silicon Valley, running small businesses with profit and loss responsibility within a Fortune 500 company. Sun Microsystems was hot, the pay was great, and there were bonuses and stock options to be had.

My mother and I never had direct conversations about the content of my job, but I sometimes overheard her on the phone talking to a friend or bragging to someone in her prayer circle when they came to visit her. “My daughter just brought me back a fancy kimono from Japan. Now what am I supposed to do with that? You know she’s a vice president now, right?”

But 20 years of climbing the corporate ladder took its toll, and I began to yearn for something else, something different and more personally fulfilling than launching new products and obsessing about someone else’s bottom line. When I announced to my mother I was going to leave my Sun job to “find myself,” she was beside herself. Her initial response was to advise me that I needed to find myself…a job. I had no intention of doing any such thing for at least a year, and maybe never again.

To add insult to her injury, I became completely consumed with discovering everything I could about our family tree and its roots in slavery in Louisiana. This was a double blow. No job, coupled with a reckless compulsion to put our family business in the street. “Why dig up any of that old mess?” she asked. From my mother’s perspective, she had done everything in her power to move our family away from the very notion of slavery, which was not a topic for discussion, let alone willful examination.

In my genealogy search, I found the bill of sale of my great-great-great-great grandmother, sold in 1850 for $800 in Louisiana, and began to write a novel about four generations of Colored Creole slave women, based on my mother’s ancestors. For my mother, this was a hurtful story, and she wanted no part of it. When she would call me on the phone, she’d ask what I was doing. If I said I was writing and couldn’t talk right then, she would sigh loudly, letting her disgust manifest in the ensuing silence. “All right then,” she’d finally say, and hang up. Other than an occasional remark about “that mess,” she didn’t usually verbalize her disapproval, but I always felt it. This went on for the years it took me to write my first novel, Cane River.

After three years of uncertainty, working on multiple drafts of a story I was unsure anyone wanted to read, and another harrowing 18 months being rejected time after time by a succession of 13 agents, I found an agent who believed in my novel, and then a publisher, Warner Books, which decided to make the title its lead book for spring 2001. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the subject matter, my mother continued her role as my biggest fan and supporter, even though she hadn’t (and didn’t want to) read the book. And finally launch day came.

My publisher flew me to New York, and my first national interview was with Bryant Gumbel on The Early Show. My brother Lee told me about my mother’s reaction to the broadcast back in California. My mother appeared puzzled, first that I was on TV, and then that Bryant Gumbel was asking questions about my book and seemed interested in the answers.

Not long after the interview ended, her phone rang. It was my mother’s pastor.

“Sister Willie Dee?” he said. “I just saw your daughter on TV. Do you think you can get her to come down and speak at the church?”

As my brother tells it, my mother grew big in her chair, shoulders back, chin lifted.

“That’s my child. She’ll do whatever I say.”

Once the book tour wound down, and I got to work writing my second book, I sometimes got telephone calls from my mother.

“What are you doing?” she’d ask.

“Sorry, I’m writing,” I’d say.

“Then we need to talk later. Better get back to it. I don’t want to hold you up.”

I’ve always been a little hurt, and a little baffled, that my mother never read my book, but that didn’t stand in the way of her deep, unwavering belief and pride in me and whatever path I chose. Without her certainty, I’m not sure I would have had the strength necessary to withstand the difficult times. My mother is gone now, but in addition to her motherhood role, I also give her credit as corporate executive and New York Times best-selling author. She certainly earned it.

“Willie Dee” by Lalita Tademy is excerpted from the book All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World—Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom. Reprinted with permission of Nothing But The Truth Publishing, LLC. Copyright 2018, edited by Deborah Santana.