I Will Survive
By Gloria Gaynor
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1997 Gloria Gaynor
All rights reserved.
I know almost nothing about my great-grandparents. The only thing I do know is that my great-grandmother on my mother's side was a full-blooded Blackfoot Indian, with hair down to the bend of her knee. My mother and her cousin used to fight over who was going to comb her hair. She didn't want anybody to comb her hair, because she was tender-headed — as I now am. That's all I know.
Her daughter, my grandmother Fanny Nobles, my mother's mother, was born in Dothan, Alabama, in 1899; and my mother, Queenie May, was born in 1914. My grandmother was very young, fourteen, and unmarried when my mother was born, and she didn't want any more people than was absolutely necessary to know that she had a baby out of wedlock, so my mother was brought up to call her "Sis Fanny."
My grandmother was very, very strict. She used to beat my mother for the slightest thing. Beat her very badly. Today she would probably have been accused of child abuse, perhaps even jailed, for the way she treated my mother. It was virtually child abuse. But I never heard my mother ever say a word of complaint against my grandmother.
My grandmother married a man called Frank Smart, and although they later divorced, she would call herself "Mrs. Smart" from then on, and need no longer be ashamed of her motherhood; for my grandmother was a very religious woman, and a great churchgoer. As a child, my mother had to go to church every Sunday and every Wednesday, and a couple of other nights a week. On Sunday it was all day long — from early in the morning until late in the evening, she would be in church. This turned my mother completely off. She vowed that when she grew up and had children of her own, she would never make them go to church, and once she left home, she did not go, and she did not make us ... and we did not go. Only at Christmas and Easter could my grandmother talk us into going with her. Her church had a wonderful young people's choir, and we all loved to hear them sing.
My grandmother, however mean she was, however cantankerous and unable to show love in a way that made us feel loved, was always there. She was always there for us, and there to help my mother. She beat us and we didn't like it, but she undoubtedly cared. Another good thing I do remember about her was she had a great, rather dry, sense of humor, which I think both my mother and I have inherited from her. She and I were walking along one day and a young guy was coming toward us; he must have been only about fifteen or sixteen, but he was very tall — six feet tall. My grandmother exclaimed, "My oh my — didn't he grow!" I said, "Oh — do you know him?" My grandmother said, "No — but I know he wasn't born that big."
She took my brother Ralph in to live with her when he had to have an operation on his eye. When he was about ten or eleven years old, he developed a weak muscle in one of his eyes and had to have surgery, and afterward he lived with my grandmother. She made him go to church with her every Sunday, and she would listen to Christian gospel-music programs all day long on the radio. Exposed to so much of it, Ralph developed a great love for gospel music, which was to influence all our lives later on.
She also took my younger brother, Arthur, and me in once, just for five or six days, when my mother had to go into the hospital to have my baby sister. My memories of that short time I spent with my grandmother are badly clouded by what impressed me as a child. She was so different from my mother. When you have a mother who only spanks you when even you know that you deserve it and then you stay with somebody who beats you at every turn — it's difficult to have fond memories. I don't suppose that she really was mean, just rather cantankerous, as part of her defense system. She was cantankerous because she cared, and was afraid for us. We lived in a very tough neighborhood, and I guess, thinking back on it, she probably felt that my mother was too lenient with us, and that while we were with her, she just was not going to tolerate the freedom that my mother gave us, that might get us into trouble.
She can't have been altogether mean, because when we got older and were able to walk the five or six blocks to her house, we used to visit her on our own. Nobody asked us to go, so it must have been pleasant to visit her. It's terrible how I only remember bad things about her. I'm sure we loved my grandmother — even though I can't remember why.
She was a handsome woman, with a strong face, and skin like black porcelain. When she passed away in 1970, aged seventy-one, she had no more wrinkles than I have now. My mother never had a really loving, affectionate relationship with my grandmother, but they shared a sense of responsibility, a sort of recognition of, as my pastor would call it, "right of ownership." They never moved far apart from each other, they were always there for each other, and in 1970 my mother and grandmother both died — just a month apart. My grandmother died in February, my mother died in March. My mother had been very ill for a long time, and I sometimes think she was just hanging on to get my grandmother safely into heaven before she finally let go of her own grip on life.
* * *
My mother knew who her father was, although we children never met him. Like my grandmother, he came from the South. I called him once, in 1970, just after she died. I don't remember now how I found that man. I'd never spoken to him, I'd never seen him, but I suppose I must have found out where he lived from my mother's papers. I telephoned him and I asked him if his name was Moore, and if he had ever had a daughter with Fanny Nobles. He spoke with a really slow southern drawl, and said her name: "Yeeah? Uh-huh, hm, hm, Queenie May ... Yeeah — that is my daughter."
And I said, "Well, she passed away yesterday." I told him she'd been ill for a long time. He didn't say anything, so I gave him my number in case he wanted to get in touch with me later.
He just said, "Uh-huh. I see." And then he hung up. It was bewildering. I thought, well, obviously he hadn't had any contact with my mother since she was a baby, so perhaps there wasn't going to be any real grief, but surely it must touch you somewhere inside, to know that you've outlived your daughter. He called me back almost at once and said, "Did you just call me?"
"Yes I did."
"And you said that Queenie May done died?"
"Well, my, oh my. Well, Ah'm so sorry to hear that."
"Yeah, well — so were we. She was very much loved."
I told him where and when the funeral would be and all of that, and he said, "We-ell, thank you very much for calling to tell me."
"I'm your granddaughter."
"Oh, Ah see! And what is yo' name?"
"My name is Gloria."
"Oh, Gloria, uh-huh, well, thank you very much for callin' me, dahlin'."
He hung up — and I never heard from him again.
* * *
As soon as my mother, Queenie May, was old enough, she got married. She married at sixteen to get out of her mother's house. Probably because she had married just to get away, the marriage wasn't very happy and it didn't last very long. Her husband's name was James Proctor, but he was always called Sunny. They had three children, Ronald, Larry, and Ralph. Then she met and fell in love with my father, Daniel Fowles, and together they had three more children, my older brother, Robert, who became a Muslim when he was young and now calls himself Siddiq, myself, and Arthur, my younger brother, who is also now a Muslim. My father and mother had the sweetest, most childlike, or maybe I should say "teenagelike," love affair — holding hands, licking off the same ice-cream cone, going to parties and amusement parks together, strolling in the evening in the sunset. ... That's the way she described their relationship.
After Sunny Proctor left, my father, Daniel Fowles, moved in, although they never married because Sunny's church wouldn't allow him to divorce her (although that's something I've never really understood, because Sunny himself remarried in that church later). Soon thereafter, Siddiq was born. A few years later my parents were expecting their second child, me, when something strange happened. I'll tell you the story as my mother always told it to me. I know my mother believed it, and because she was my mother, I have always accepted it without question. It wasn't until I started writing this book that I have begun to question it. This is what she told me happened:
One day a woman came to my mother's door and tried to sell her a medallion. She told her that all the men in my father's social club, the Liars' Club, were going to leave their wives and girlfriends. She explained that a young girl had infiltrated the all-male club and had somehow beguiled and seduced all the men, and was using "roots" on them that would cause them to become repelled by and unable to live with their wives. Only the buying of this medallion, this woman said, would undo the power of the roots and prevent the men from leaving their women. (Roots are literally just botanical roots, plant and herb roots, but there are certain people who know how to prepare and use them to help and heal sick people. But some people use them for evil, to make people physically ill, or to poison their minds in some way.)
My mother wasn't at all superstitious and she figured that the woman trying to sell her the medallion was just a con artist. She asked her how much the medallion was, and when she said it would cost a few dollars, my mother laughed and said that my father wasn't worth it. She took the whole thing as a joke. They were happy, she was going to have a baby. How could this woman be telling the truth?
But sure enough, within a few months, all the men in the Liars' Club had left their wives, including my father. All the men except one ... the one man whose wife had bought a medallion. And according to my mother, my father came to her and told her that he still loved her, and would always love her, but for some reason unbeknownst to him, he was unable to stay with her. And he left.
There are lots of legends and superstitious stories about the magical power of roots, rather like old wives' tales, and like old wives' tales, there's sometimes a grain of truth in them. These stories and legends mainly grew up in the deep South, where both my maternal grandparents came from, and where their original use, healing, was sometimes perverted. Anyone who uses roots to harm another person is doing the Devil's work, but there is nothing spiritual as such about how the roots work. Just as a doctor can give you something to drain the water off your arm, so people can give you roots to make you hold water, and swell up. I know that cocaine can change your personality, make you arrogant, so it's not so difficult for me to believe that somebody could concoct something out of roots to make someone ill, or even to feel repelled by another person.
But to be honest, I now think it is more likely that my mother preferred to believe the roots story, rather than having to accept the pain of thinking that my father had simply deserted her. She always believed that my father loved her, and I never heard her say a word against him, in spite of what he did. My mother believed she had been betrayed by a kind of witchcraft, and received it into her spirit, and perhaps made herself unhappy and ill because of it.
Whatever the reason, when my father abandoned her, my mother was five months pregnant ... with me. His betrayal so hurt her that she was unable to eat, refused to eat, for several weeks. And that — I believe — deeply affected me. So much of what I have done has been motivated by a lifelong insecurity. When my father left my mother, I suffered trauma because when she refused to eat, I virtually starved in the womb. In later years I found myself with a great fear of hunger, a great fear of loneliness, and a great anxiety about being fatherless. I've been constantly searching for a father, feeling as though there were an aching void inside of me, and seeing my mother's loneliness, having a great fear of loneliness myself.
And yet — he always said he loved her and they did have another child. Although they had separated, my father still came back to see Siddiq and me, and three years later, because they still loved each other, my parents tried to reconcile their relationship and my mother became pregnant, so my brother Arthur was born. By then, though, there just must have been too much water under the bridge, because they didn't stay together for long after that.
There was always music in our house.
We all loved music and constantly had the radio going. I would come in for a glass of water and turn the radio on. If I just walked through the room, I would turn the radio on. I had to have music playing all the time. I remember once my mother took a pencil and wrote on the wall: "Gloria has just come into the house and left again without turning on the radio." She said, "This has to be put down for posterity."
Sunny, my mother's first husband, played some kind of an instrument. My father played the ukulele and the guitar, and sang. My brothers all had fine voices and used to sing gospel music — which was one of the effects of my grandmother's influence. My brother Ralph had a beautiful voice, and when he finally came home, after living with my grandmother for several months after his eye operation, where he'd listened to gospel music on the radio day and night, he introduced the sound to my other brothers, who all then developed a taste for gospel music. Ralph, Larry, and Bobby formed a quartet with a friend of Bobby's called Bakote, and they began to sing — not professionally, just for fun and the sheer love of singing. Much later Ralph did try to make a career singing, but he always tried to sound just like Sam Cooke, and although we told him he wouldn't go anywhere with it, because nobody wanted an imitation, he was stubborn and went on with it, and so he never had the success he might have had. When they were young, all my brothers would get together and sing gospel music for hours.
Arthur, the youngest, was considered too young to sing with them, although he probably had the best voice of them all. Of course, I wasn't ever allowed to sing with them. I was not only too young, I was a girl, and therefore I could not possibly be a part of any male quartet. At that time I don't think anybody in the family even knew that I had a voice.
* * *
At first we all lived on Fifteenth Avenue, Newark, New Jersey, where I was born; but the childhood home I really remember was on Howard Street, Newark, where we lived for exactly ten years, from April 1, 1950, until April 1, 1960.
Our house sat behind a three-family house, 150 Howard Street, where our aunt Queenie lived, so our address really was 150 and a half Howard Street. It was a rough, raggedy sort of a place. We had to walk through number 150, across their front porch, in through the door, through the hallway to the back of the house, out the back door, and across the yard to reach it. We lived on the first floor. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor lived next door, and they had two sons, Richard and Wesley, who became like cousins. I even taught Wesley to write his name when he started going to school. Just last year I saw Wesley again, and he told me that he'd never forgotten me teaching him to write his name, and how much confidence it had given him when he arrived at the school and had this thing he knew how to do.
Living with them were their cousins Ila Mae and Minnie, who later married my brother Ralph. Another part of the Taylor family moved into the apartment above us, Richard and Wesley's aunt and her children, Mary, who became my best pal for a while, and Junior, her little brother. Above them, in the attic, lived an old man whom we kids always called Willy. We thought he was really old, because he had white hair and walked bent over. He'd smile warmly at us, but never spoke, so we never learned his real name.
Our apartment was intended for a family of two. There were eight of us. It had three rooms, which should have been a living room, a bedroom, a kitchen, and a toilet — not even a bathroom, it was just a toilet, with just enough space in it for one of our dressers. There was no heat in there, and sometimes it could be absolutely freezing. When my mother got up early one morning she couldn't think what the strange smell was that she noticed in the kitchen, or where it was coming from. She couldn't believe her eyes when she realized the oven was on in the kitchen, and when she opened the door, it turned out Larry, aged about thirteen, had decided to put the seat of the toilet in the oven, to warm it up before he used it. Unfortunately, while he was waiting, he fell asleep and left it there all night. Larry wasn't allowed to live that down for many a long day. To have a bath, we would put a large tin tub in the center of the kitchen floor and fill it with water heated in pots on the stove. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor. Copyright © 1997 Gloria Gaynor. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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