Gratefully Disappointed is a walk through my life as a young girl growing up in East New York, Brooklyn navigating this thing called "life" learning who I am as a woman; appreciating my purpose as a human being despite a series of life altering disappointing events. I have learned that life's unpredictable events are the seeds that prepare us for Living!
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Learn Through Forgiveness
By Sabrina Umstead Smith
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2016 Sabrina Umstead Smith
All rights reserved.
Garry Wills in his book Certain Trumpets describes leadership as "... reciprocally engaging two wills, one leading (often in disguised ways) the other following (often while resisting)." There is always a struggle, often a feud; a tug of wills." I read this sentence a few times and traveled back to the following event from my teenage years. It was Christmas 1971: behold, underneath our magnificent white-branched artificial Christmas tree was a beautifully wrapped huge box with my name, Sabrina, on the gift tag. What could this be? I wondered. My excited, high-pitched giggling filled the room as I focused on that box, grabbing it and ripping the paper off. I saw the word royal boldly printed on the box. "Wow!" I screamed, my face stretching and contorting, with excitement, "My very own brand-new Royal Electric typewriter." This was exciting since I loved to type. Having my own typewriter meant I could practice typing on my own time, not only in school. Years earlier, my mother convinced me I needed to have exceptional typing skills to secure a good job, which is probably why I received the typewriter as a Christmas gift.
Not long after receiving that typewriter, on a warm summer evening, my mother came home from work and announced, "Sabrina, you're coming with me this evening to our block association meeting. Bring a pen and some paper because you're going to be the secretary." Remember, I was a young teenager, fourteen or fifteen, with plans of my own that involved hanging out with my friends, engaging in fun teenager activities. It was my belief and understanding that adults were responsible for attending meetings to get things done, such as organizing the community. Besides, what possible contributions could a teenager make, and what was I going to get out of it? Block association secretary was certainly not my idea of excitement, but I really did not have a vote in this decision. I don't recall how much in-my- head kicking and screaming I did, because at that age and at that time, I dare not respond with anything other than "Yes, Ma." I did what I was told, and it really was not all that bad. I certainly improved my typing skills and gained a plethora of knowledge about community involvement, activism, and connectedness.CHAPTER 2
Active participation in the community was a quality that was instilled in our family by my maternal grandparents. There was always enough to share with others or help others in need. My mother's family migrated to New York from North Carolina, believing more opportunities and a better life existed up North. They planted their roots in a Brooklyn neighborhood. The core values of the family were hard work, family unity and self-reliance, strong Christian principles, and education. Personal, private family matters were just that; personal, private family matters. Outside discussions of familial matters did not occur — after all, it was something that was private. The kinship we embraced was obvious in where and how we lived. My grandparents owned two adjacent walk-up apartment buildings; each building contained three apartments. Both buildings were primarily occupied by my grandparents' children (my uncles) and their families. There were plenty of children around; we made up our own Our Gang, or Little Rascals. My mother had twelve siblings. In these two apartment buildings alone, there were at least ten children on any given day — and that's just cousins. I'm told we were poor in finances and rich with love. We had one another, God at the helm, a roof over our heads, and we never went to bed hungry.
Our neighborhood was diverse. There were families of all skin tones and origins living together: black, Hispanic, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Asian. The elders, no matter what hue, would reprimand us; let our parents and grandparents know about it later and we'd be reprimanded again — the spank-your-butt kind. All the children played together, went to school together, and visited one another's apartments and homes. The various community programs and political activities that took place benefitted everyone who lived there, not just blacks. We were a close-knit family, attending the same neighborhood schools and participating in many of the same after-school activities. We walked to and from school together. And yes, we even got into mischief together.
I remember in high school, a group of us tiptoed out of school, after homeroom period, making our way to a nearby hooky party, where I had my first and last experience with ingesting an alcoholic beverage, which made me upchuck the contents of my stomach and had my head spinning at a trillion revolutions per millisecond. Thank God I got home before my mother, cleaned up, and climbed into bed for the remainder of the day. I attributed my bedridden condition to menstrual cramps. My cousins were sure to validate my condition, especially since we were all together. On another occasion, during my high school years, house parties were the norm, and what better time to have or attend a house party than when parents were not around. Wouldn't you know it, a neighborhood friend had such a party one Saturday night, and there was no way I was not going to be there (at least I thought). Well, I asked for permission to go, and my mother said no. How dare her, I thought. So I called an uncle and aunt who lived near the party location to see if I could spend the night at their apartment, and they said yes. I went to my uncle's apartment and went to the party anyway. We had a good time too, blowing our whistles and dancing to the music of the era. When I arrived home the next day, my mother gave me a scolding, a whipping, and a week of punishment, exactly what I deserved.
We had huge family get-togethers, particularly on Mother's Day and Memorial Day. On Mother's Day, the women in the family, including my mother, would prepare a feast that included fried chicken, roast beef, collard greens, string beans, sweet potatoes, homemade yeast rolls, rice, and gravy. My mother baked desserts — like her famous chocolate layer cake, freshly grated coconut cake, and sweet potato pies — that were all lip-smackin', off-the-hook delicious. My uncles would have eating contests, and the winner would attempt to maintain their crown the following year. On Memorial Day, everyone in the family would wake up early in the morning, load up into several cars, and drive some fifty-plus miles to the national cemetery where our grandfather and other family members were buried. After the trip to the cemetery, there was a family barbecue in the backyard. Most of our aunts and uncles attended these momentous family gatherings, and the children would gather around and listen to stories our aunts and uncles shared about their youth and the many challenges they faced being black outside of the confines of our domain and in the South. I still think of it as a wonderful time to grow up. I truly value my youth and consider the love and closeness a nurturing environment.
With the vast number of people living in those two apartment buildings, it was not uncommon for someone else to be living with us. My grandmother referred to them as strays. There could have been any number of reasons why the strays needed a place to stay. Our family was obliged to help with a place you could rest your head and have a satisfying meal until you got back on your feet. The strays even received financial help if needed. Our family was a stronghold in the community — a refuge, known to lend a helping hand and treat others with the respect and dignity they deserved. So when I read Riso and Hudson's book Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self- Discovery, the helper personality type fit me and shed light on my own leadership style. Riso and Hudson describe the helper as one who thinks of love in terms of "having positive feelings for others, of taking care of others, and of self-sacrifice." "Helpers need to be needed, often times, wearing self out for everyone else." This helping, nurturing quality was learned, inherited, and passed on to generations, providing safety and security in the family system, and continues today in the existing generations. Riso and Hudson also mention the paradoxical impact for the helper, and that is, "The more revered they are, the more humble they become." I suppose helping others is somewhat instinctive for me; whenever I can help, it is a humbling experience, and helping is a path to leadership.
I did become the official block association secretary, with my name and title imprinted on the official stationary. In retrospect it was an incredible experience and opportunity to have at such an early age. That age of middle adolescence, where my thinking was, my mother knows absolutely nothing about anything, and my emotional self was just that emoting and feeling as though everyone was against me. Thank God my mother, full of wisdom and experience, tapped into my skills and strengths. Even though this particular venue of community participation was not my idea of excitement, she knew my typing skills would improve. She knew that by writing the minutes for those block association meetings and then typing them to reinforce what I'd heard, it would cultivate the importance of building community through active participation, helping others and making a difference. A win-win! She led and I followed.
The block association was instrumental in the development of community-based programs and services for youth and adults in the neighborhood. Programs like Model Cities, part of President Johnson's answer to inner-city unemployment, provided a plethora of summer activities, employment opportunities, after-school tutorial programs, and recreational programs for youth. The adults benefited knowing their children were in safe environments, learning and becoming valuable educated citizens for the global community. Youth profited with community inclusion, helping others, learning about our rich African history, and the many contributions from the diversity of cultures and ethnicities that surrounded us. My aunts and other elder community women designed an after-school program where we learned about the many contributions of our African ancestors, information that was not available in the public and Catholic schools we attended. We learned about slavery, many types of art, music, African music, African art, literature, African dance, and the theatre. I recall the first theatrical performance I experienced: the Negro Ensemble Company's production of A Raisin in the Sun. I was awestruck and star struck, watching people live on stage who looked like me perform such intense roles as characters from a book. We visited museums and aquariums, examined maps of Africa, and improved our reading scores. We even integrated area schools. My first cousin was the first African American admitted to the area's zoned Catholic grade school, located in a primarily Italian neighborhood. He paved the way for his siblings and cousins to attend this coveted Catholic school.
Concurrently, we all benefited from the events of the civil rights era and learned so much more about the importance of active participation in the political process on a local level even at such a young age. The importance of voting was infused in our psyche at an early age. As youngsters, we witnessed the march on Washington via black-and-white television, and we listened to the personal accounts of the events that took place during that march from aunts, uncles, and community elders who sacrificed to participate. My many cousins in company with me and my siblings assisted at local election polling sites alongside aunts, uncles, and other community elders and leaders. We youngsters were responsible for the distribution of candidate literature and assisting senior citizens to and from polling sites. We even regularly attended an annual political dinner dance hosted by the local political machine. It was not unusual for any of us to attend local community board planning meetings with the adults, where we were instructed to listen and learn. It was at those meetings where major decisions were being made about the future of the community at large. Decisions like the funding and building of schools, businesses, and infrastructure (or not) were being made. From one perspective, I could say that this much activity was a way to keep us occupied, off the streets, and away from trouble. However, I've come to realize and appreciate that this was an inherently important phase to shaping our ideas and belief systems and our education and development. It was a way to mold us and reinforce our understanding of the importance of an exceptionally well-rounded education, of assisting and being active participants in those decisions that affected our future and the future of our own children one day — the leaders of tomorrow.
Aiding and assisting others was the belief system I remember most from that block association experience. It continued during high school and throughout my intermittent undergraduate school years. I enrolled in Brooklyn College as a full-time early childhood education major. This was the trajectory I chose to become a child psychologist. But my educational route veered in a different direction one semester. Let me explain: As an early childhood education major, I was required to complete a series of student teaching assignments. My first assignment was at an inner-city public school, not unlike any school I had attended. The class of first graders was energizing. We enjoyed games, story time, arts and crafts, etc. One early fall day, my student teaching colleague and I were reviewing our lesson plans and noticed one of the children separated from the class, off by himself, appearing despondent and a bit disheveled. Some children were teasing him about his appearance and body odor. My colleague and I discussed his situation with the full-time teacher and learned several attempts had been made to provide support and assistance to the child's family, but those attempts were unsuccessful. We worked with him as best we could for the length of our student teaching assignment. For me, that was a disturbing and disappointing experience. Here was a human being, a child, that needed help, and I was unable to help him. I was born and raised to help. My family helped others, and it always appeared that those my family aided were in fact helped. This was a rude awakening for me: Sabrina, you can only help those that want to be helped. Unclear about what my next course of action was, I did nothing ... literally. My school attendance declined, and soon I was informed that due to my lack of attendance, I was suspended. My college education was placed on hiatus. While trying to figure out what my next educational and/or career move was going to be, I was able to secure a job as a switchboard operator and clerk at a company that manufactured and supplied naval apparel to the military. In a nutshell, they supplied bell- bottom pants (that's what they were called at that time), shirts, and hats. This was my first hands-on encounter with profit- focused corporate America.
Work at the naval apparel supplier company was fun. I was a girl Friday (wow, I'm dating myself!) performing various clerical tasks: typing, filing, and working the company switchboard. I still lived at home with my mother, my brother, and my sister. On payday, my wages were divided four ways: I had to give mother a portion, deposit some into a savings account, and the balance was used for transportation to and from work, with a little bit for personal luxuries: clothing and recreation. I prepared and packed my lunch at home, a bologna or spiced ham sandwich. The job lasted several months before my services were no longer needed. This is where I learned that company profits were not increasing; hence, the last hired were the first fired. I was unemployed: a black female, with only a high school diploma. I knew I had to find some means of gainful employment because my mother would not tolerate my being at home while she worked hard every day to feed us and keep a roof over our heads. My options were school or work: self-reliance. Thank God it was just a few weeks before the summer, and I was still eligible to participate in a summer employment program administered by the city — the Summer Work Training Program (SWTP).
Excerpted from Gratefully Disappointed by Sabrina Umstead Smith. Copyright © 2016 Sabrina Umstead Smith. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1 — The Typewriter, 1,
Chapter 2 — Giving Back, 3,
Chapter 3 — Big Business: Corporate Union, 13,
Chapter 4 — Life Is Good, 17,
Chapter 5 — Love, Baby, Marriage, 19,
Chapter 6 — Fire Extinguishes, 21,
Chapter 7 — Birth and Relocation, 25,
Chapter 8 — Juggle, Juggle, Juggle, Shuffle, Shuffle, Shuffle, 27,
Chapter 9 — Death Revisited, 34,
Chapter 10 — Love, Remarriage, and Self-Hate, 37,
Chapter 11 — Death Again, 43,
Chapter 12 — Breakdown, 45,
Chapter 13 — Hidden Hurts Exposed, 48,
Chapter 14 — Forgiveness, 55,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Excellent emotional read a journey through loss of life understanding that we are not in control. Needing to forgive through gratitude are very powerful for the healing processes.