My momma was quite a woman

Published 9:29 am Friday, February 15, 2013

by Clarence Foster

Momma entered the nursing home in early January. A few of those things that aren’t what they used to be, grew dangerously decisive.

The ravages of winter rage on outside, and then inside. Still, not bad for 91 years of age — and getting older.

It was discovered through the nursing home’s preliminary enquiries that her Social Security age was different from other documents. As a final result, through birth certificate consultations, she is now a month older, with a birthday in January instead of February. (If my wife of 45 years were 30 days older, she would be older than I am. I hesitate to guess what that courtship revelation would have done, or undone.)

Momma was born to Jonah Benjamin Fulgham and Mary Louise Boykins, the ninth of 10 children on a Tucker Swamp farm across the Blackwater River from Zuni. She did all of the farm work expected of a girl of the times, and was finally dispatched to relatives in Norfolk to do housework for the well-to-do. She would send some money home, and would ultimately meet my father there.

I’ve always seen Momma, Jenny Hazel Fulgham Foster Hamlin, as a sort of a stage personality chafing in her role within an older (controlling?) cast of characters.

Within that cast of characters was a sister (Class of ’30), a brother (Class of ’39) and another sister (Class of ’52, at 32) who graduated from college. Another sister died in childbirth around 1930.

Momma has bittersweet memories of this affectionate sister, Dana. A grand wedding party featuring a small band of musicians, skilled in homemade instruments — and the end of her life, featuring great suffering.

She attended Franklin’s Hayden High School before the county provided school bus service for “the colored.” It is important to know that various black (or should I say “Negro?” There is comfort, however, in the self-descriptive “black,” now rescued from internecine “name calling,” now spoken in triumph, and in international fellowship and kinship, for more than 50 years. “Say it Loud!”) family groups purchased their own buses for the service.

But the cost of 50 cents per day (per week?) was still too costly for many families, especially those with several school-age children.

Momma, and sisters before her, exchanged housework and baby-sitting for room and board in Franklin, and would manage to get home for the weekends. For one year, she was sent to relatives in Isle of Wight.

Large families, long before the smaller families of today’s “family planning,” could be desperate and certainly hard pressed to cope.

When I came to know Momma, my brother Vince and I were here, living on the farm, and she was living in New York, since 45, the year after my birth. She had attempted an ill-fated rendezvous with my father, a sailor, stationed on a World War II ship, sitting off of Staten Island.

She remarried around 1950, and bore my sister, Saundra, and rode out another stormy relationship.

I knew Momma as this “New Yorker” with the “proper talk,” the good modulated voice, the relatively flashy clothes, the self-assertion, the occasional smoke (which would drive Uncle Jonah crazy), and the unfailing expressions of motherhood. She would come in and out of Zuni like some sort of starlet.

She began her career as a Brooklyn telephone operator in the late 1940s. A prestigious job for us in those days. She said she received her early instructions from Mickey Rooney’s sister, who she remembers as Mary.

There was some sort of sabbatical in the mid-‘50s, including a strange interlude as — head cook and bottlewasher — for a rich man somewhere around Churchland. I once had a picture of her on a yacht in Key West, Fla. Always the mystery, a wisp of smoke, a New York mystique.

Momma returned home for good in 1978. Following an ill-fated co-existence with an older sister, she managed to build a separate home for herself, a short distance away, on the same farm.

Almost entirely on her own she managed to convert three acres of snake-infested wilderness into a quite impressive yard and small house. A grubbing hoe, determination and thrift. It could be said, anywhere she went: adventuresome, assertive, resourceful, hardworking, on the move.

An evolution of twists and turns, a length of road: one fails, one learns. Yeah, 91 and counting, both literally and figuratively. Now, when you travel the humble hallways of the nursing home, that pastoral treadmill to the future, that march of time revolves around the traveler’s aides.

I’ve said that Momma was resourceful. Well, within that practical mindset has been the skills of sewing and cooking. The cooking has served her especially well; for even today (thin, and never particularly large) she can eat like a horse. I was greatly relieved, after a few days, to hear her say that the food was good.

“They’ve got some pretty good cooks.”

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County and a 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.