Updated: May 12
“Her children rise up and call her blessed…” Proverbs 31: 28
Charlene. Vondell. Josie. Narvell. Martha. These are the women who raised me. They are my mother, grandmothers, and great-grandmothers; all of whom I was blessed to know. They poured richly into my life, and by doing so they continue to inspire me, as I strive to become the best version of myself.
As a teacher, poet, writer, and community leader, I can sense their imprint on my life. From my love of hats to my zeal for travel, I can truly say it is in my DNA.
My mothers' deep love of family gave me a connection to three generations of women in our family. When my mother went to work each day, my sister Roslyn and I stayed with my Grandma Vondell.
After school, we looked forward to my grandmother's creamy rice pudding and mac-and-cheese. I marveled at her ability to care for us while she ran her business. My grandma Vondell was a milliner and she sold dress hats to women in our community.
As a young girl, I remember going with my grandmother to local markets to sell her hats. It was in these spaces that I learned my first lessons of entrepreneurship. Early in my youth, I realized that it was possible to earn a living from your talents and skills.
My grandma Vondell had many talents. She was not only a highly skilled milliner but a master gardener and a writer.
When I began my writing career, my great-aunts and uncles began telling me about her poetry writing. At this point in time, my grandmother had passed away. So, it was through their stories that I learned about her younger life.
At age 16, my grandma Vondell was accepted into a summer journalism program at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan. This discovery inspired and encouraged me to continue to write.
It is remarkable what my grandmother accomplished. Like her mother, my great-grandma Narvell Vesey, she was intelligent and resilient. My grandma Vondell favored her mother. They shared the same long sandy-brown hair and high cheekbones.
Some of my fondest memories of my grandma Vesey was how she made hair grease in her kitchen to grow our hair. It had the scent of peppermint.
She was also a gifted crafter. She crocheted blankets for her great-grandchildren using earth tone colored yarn. I still have my baby blanket that she made, and I plan to pass it onto my children someday.
My great-grandmother lived in Inkster, Michigan, but she liked going up North. When my great-grandfather retired, he purchased a house and land for her in Hillsdale, MI. It was a rural community and she loved farm life.
As a child, I remember driving for three hours in the backseat of my mother's car with her and my grandma Vondell to visit my Grandma Vesey's farm.
My great-grandmother placed colorful peacock feathers in a bag for my grandma Vondell that she used in her hat designs.
My great-grandfather passed away before my birth. Therefore, in my mind, my great-grandmother ruled the farm---it was hers.
When she was 16, she married my great-grandfather Burl Henry Vesey, Sr. and together they had 13 children.
While they were both born in Texas, she called him a "city boy" because he knew very little about the country life that she was so accustomed to.
As teenagers, they met in Boley, Oklahoma, and she taught him how to manage a farm. When they later moved their family to Detroit, MI, my great-grandmother helped build the house that my grandma Vondell and her siblings grew up in.
Before they moved their family to Inkster, MI, they lived in a section of Detroit that was known as Black Bottom. It was a vibrant community but it did not have a playground. So, children often played in the streets.
My great-grandmother was less than pleased with the lack of play space for children in the community. So, she petitioned the city council to establish a play space for children in the neighborhood. After much pressing, they honored her petition.
I think that my fierceness and determination comes from her. When I recognize an inequity, I seek ways to change and positively impact my community.
In 1997, my paternal grandmother Josie was tragically killed in a car accident on her way to church. To honor her memory, at age 23, I founded the Josie Odum Morris Literacy Project, Inc., a family literacy nonprofit, with the mission of eradicating illiteracy in my hometown of Inkster.
My late grandmother was a retired Detroit Public Schools teacher, who consistently gave Roslyn and I new books. She believed in education and she planted the seed for my love of reading. Like her, I would graduate with my first bachelor's degree later in life.
Granny Josie attended Eastern Normal School (Eastern Michigan University), where she met and married my granddad Johnny Morris.
She postponed her education to raise my father and his five siblings. Still, earning her degree was important to her. Therefore, after raising her children, she returned to school and earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Guidance and Counseling and Master of Arts degree in Early Elementary Education from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI.
She was resilient and she had a deep faith in Christ. She loved family and she strived to be at peace with others. There was a gracefulness about her.
For me, one of the best ways to honor the legacy of those who have gone before me, is to serve. My mother instilled in me a sense of responsibility to serve others.
My mother, Charlene Alisa Morris, works for our local electrical company and they host various community outreach programs. When I was younger, my mother took Roslyn and I along with her to work on service projects.
One year, my great-grandma Bailey's house was selected by the Paint the Town program to receive an external makeover.
At the time, I was ten years old and Roslyn was seven. Yet, we had our own paint brushes and we were assigned specific areas to paint.
We were the only children working alongside the adults that day. I had a special sense of pride because I knew that it was my great-grandmother’s house.
In some ways, it was my mother's childhood home, too. Like my other grandparents, my grandma Vondell and granddad Richard Bailey married young. So, they lived with my granddad's parents until they could afford their own house.
My mother and her brothers spent their earlier years living on the second floor of my great-grandma Bailey's and Grampy L.B.'s house.
Later, my Grandma Vondell and Granddad Richard moved their family across the street into a Ranch style house, where they remained.
As a child, my grandma Vondell would walk my sister and I to the edge of Springhill and my great-grandma Bailey waited on the other side of the street to watch us cross. We often visited her to play in the field next to her house, where we caught grasshoppers in jars during the summertime.
Once inside, Roslyn and I played upstairs and looked through things that had been left behind from my mothers' childhood. Our famous finds were things like a small wooden sailboat or a faux fur shawl.
My mother often grew weary every time we brought trinkets home because she regarded them as unnecessary clutter. In our eyes, it was treasure---fodder for our youthful imaginations.
Back then, I never imagined that my great-grandmother's house would change. Yet, over time, it did. As the years passed, so did my grampy L.B. and my great-grandma Bailey.
From across the street, behind my grandparent’s fence, I watched a middle-aged couple move into my great-grandparent’s house.
Eventually, the beautiful white paint that we had carefully laid became a tented beige with shades of brown on the window trimmings. Now, all that remains of my family's presence in the two story wooden house are my memories.
It is the same with my grandmothers. I remain connected to them through my memories. All of the women in my life are and were women of distinction, and their influence continues to reverberate in my life.
While my grandmothers have passed away, I am thankful to still have my mother in my life. She has taught me how to love and how to be a giver. From her example, I have learned how to be a woman of compassion and strong character.