Today I celebrate the life of my maternal grandmother, Mattie Mae (Springer) Holt. She would have been 92 years old on May 17 had she lived. Although my family has had to do without her physical presence for 13 years now, her influence and spirit lives on in us all.
Mattie was born in 1921 in rural southwestern Tennessee, and she had 7 siblings who survived to adulthood. Her parents worked hard to provide a good life for their family. Her father sharecropped, worked on steamboats and eventually landed what would have been considered a good government job at the Oak Ridge, TN plant, site of the infamous Manhattan Project. Her mother, Effie, was a caring homemaker. My grandmother was the only one of my grandparents I was fortunate to have interviewed and she shared wonderful memories of her childhood. Those interviews, especially looking back today, were a real gift: you don’t think of your grandparents as having once been children themselves. She talked about her father telling the kids ghost stories at nighttime, about attending camp meeting at church, and how although her older siblings picked cotton, she never did. She was proud of that.;) She explained how families wouldn’t have meat for the winter unless they had a hog to kill, and hog-killing was a big celebration in Tennessee that brought the whole community together.
My grandmother finished about 2 years at Tennessee State University, which was quite an opportunity for her generation. She would go on to marry my grandfather, Luther Holt and move to Dayton, Ohio. True to the patterns of the Great Migration, three of her siblings and eventually her mother Effie were all brought to Dayton to live, many working in the Delco factories of the GM plant. Whatever its shortcomings, in Dayton my mother and aunt were able to grow up free of the legalized segregation that was the experience of most African-Americans during this era.
In Ohio, trailblazer that she was, Mattie earned her real estate license and excelled at this male dominated occupation that required charisma, intellect and tenaciousness. I remember thinking my grandmother was a glamorous celebrity because she had an endless array of fur coats, wigs, jewelry and fabulous clothes for me to play in. She fiercely protected and loved her daughters, and she and my grandfather were able to provide all of their girls with college educations. She had a gleaming black Cadillac (her sister had a silver one) and I would ride around with her to collect rent from various properties she owned–I felt so important! She was a businesswoman way back even then. I’ve heard that she enabled many blacks at that time to buy their first homes and also connected them with a Jewish friend of hers who owned a store and would let them to buy furniture and appliances on credit. That may seem like a small thing, but it was a necessary step on the march towards blacks living the American Dream.
We all called her “Mama”, grandchildren as well. She was smart and funny and loved to keep up with the news and issues of the day–I have this memory of her always listening to the Joe “The Black Eagle” Madison show, on the AM dial here in Maryland. She enjoyed politics. She had a confidence and independence that allowed her to live life on her own terms no matter what “society” thought about it–very ahead of where women were in those days. I’m pretty sure I inherited this trait. She wore the most outrageous wigs in every color and mini-skirts, bikinis–her clothing was entirely out of sync with typical more conservative older women from the South! Everyone you’d interview today will still remember Mattie Holt and her clothes. I think for her it really was an expression of her truest self.
She divorced after 20-some odd years of marriage, a rare thing for a woman of her era to do. And went happily about her life. She and my grandfather later in life became very good friends and she was buried beside him. That kind of bravery and courageousness left a powerful impact on my consciousness as I grew into a young woman. Today, of her three youngest grandchildren, one is in college and the other two will be graduating high school soon. My son Sebastian would have been her first great grandchild. She left a long trail of love in this family and we remember all the gifts she left us. I hope she is looking down with a smile.
Mama, I am missing you & thinking about you on your 92nd birthday~
Your granddaughter Robyn