I’ve only just recently, in the last few years, come to call myself a feminist. I’ve only just recently, in the past few years, come to understand what feminism actually means. Prior to that, I was very much anti-feminist, because of my limited understanding of the term. Turns out, if I’d had a better definition of what feminism meant and what it should mean to me, I would have realized that I’d been looking at the perfect example all along in my own mother. But I didn’t realize that until the day of her funeral.
My mother lived two lives. There was the one I only heard stories of. The one where she brushed elbows with celebrities, performed on stage, appeared regularly on television by bringing the local news, competed in and judged beauty pageants, and busted down that glass ceiling to command her own salary as vice-president of major companies. I was born a decade after my siblings, and a few years after my birth, we migrated to escape the political and economic struggles of our home country of Jamaica. Here, in Canada, is where I knew my mother. Where she worked as a receptionist, not a vice-president, because her qualifications some how didn’t translate here. Where she was told viewers weren’t ready for her accent when she applied for news anchor positions. Where she eventually made a career in daycare, partially so that she could stay home and take care of me. I knew that these two lives belonged to the same woman, but perhaps I believed that my siblings got to have my mom at her finest, while I had to share her with all the other children she helped raised and mentor and who would come to call her “mom” and “grandma” even when they were adults, long away from her care.
At her funeral, I got to see both sides together, as represented by all the people who had come to pay their respects. And I listened to my brother deliver his tribute where he told stories of my mother’s selflessness and respect for others, her class and character, her poise, and her confidence. He talked about how she would put on her heels and march up to and face down anyone who messed with her or with her children. “When it came to her girls, she was a tiger,” he said, and later added, “You see, Mom takes care of her boys, too,” as he described how she taught my brothers how to cook and clean, and above all else, to respect the women in their lives.
“She was a feminist before feminism was cool,” he joked, but it was at that moment that I realized how right he was, and how blind I’d been. In the phase of her life when I’d been raised, I didn’t get to see the power suits and the business meetings, but my mother was no less powerful during that time. She simply extended her strength in other directions and to many other people, but the lessons she taught me through her actions as much as her words were the same lessons she taught my siblings, which my other brother laid out in his eulogy:
Silence is for libraries
If you have a point to make, keep talking until they hear it. Don’t hold it in. If you have a song, sing it.
Know your value
In your professional and personal life, mom always said, “Know what you are worth.” If you don’t you will undersell yourself and you will let people undervalue you.
Don’t play small
Everyone has a light to shine. Everyone has a gift and a purpose. Mom encouraged every one she mentored, every one of her children, to dream big dreams, and to find their purpose. And she led by example.
Colour is not just for spring
Mom loved colour. It was an expression of her personality. But it was also a gift she gave to those around her. People looked forward to seeing what she would wear. And when they did, it brought a smile to their face. Brightened their day. What can you do to brighten the day of others in your circle?
Celebrate our differences
Her philosophy was that for a garden to be beautiful, you need flowers of all colours and shapes. She felt the same about people. Colour. Nationality. Ethnicity. All differences were welcome in her garden. All contributed to its beauty.
Stand up for the little guy
Mom always stood up against injustice in any form. Without exception. Regardless of the cost. There was never a reason to compromise your principles.
Standing still is not an option
Mom’s life and her words have taught us that if there is an obstacle in front of you, don’t give up. Look for the foothold to take you over it or the path to take you around it. Never give up. Keep moving forward. There is always a way.
Walk with Kings, nor lose the Common Touch
Mom entertained dignitaries and prime ministers, movie stars and other celebrities. Though she moved easily in lofty circles, she never grew vain. She was the same with a company president as she was with a blue collar worker. Never talking up to one or talking down to another. And she had great empathy and treated everyone with respect, regardless of station or status.
Dad was an important part of our upbringing too, of course, but when it comes to the passion you see in my sister and brothers and I, that’s all mom. When you see us fighting for what we believe in and for each other (and with each other), being proud of ourselves or those around us, or giving ourselves to help others—that’s Mom. Those are the things she taught us in word and in deed. And she also reminded us that, “Yuh must look aftuh one anodda,” which, in the Jamaican patois she used to slip into when she really wanted to get her point across, means, “You must look after one another.”
Words to live by.