A woman of the south, my mother moved “up north” to Glen Ellyn, a small village on the Aurora & Elgin railway line (the “Roarin’ Elgin”) 30 miles west of Chicago, with my father in 1945. In her mid-20s, she’d lived as a pilot’s wife for a couple of years at bases in Edmonton, Canada, as well as Seattle and Minneapolis. By the time she “hit big town”, she was ready to settle down and raise a small family. One of her first, almost reflexive decisions was to hire a part-time housekeeper. Imogen Coiley was a few years older and lived in the small African-American enclave out beyond the highway north of town. Her son, Emmett, became one of my childhood friends.
Mom was uniquely sympathetic with everyone, but especially with black women older than herself. Rural South Carolina was hit hard by the Depression and my lower middle class grandparents were devastated. However, while the local black community was just as affected, they’d seen worse. When they regained their footing, my grandparents were able to hire help and Serepta and Izora became my mother’s closest friends. Her stories of the times they shared made an indelible impression on my childhood. They taught her about self-respect (“Hold your head up high, Miss Vivian!”), a little bit about men and—most importantly for me—how to sing and dance in the black tradition. My mother passed these things along to me. Let’s just say that you can’t learn them as an adult.
Therefore, my mother was a big fan of the young Mahalia Jackson, Big Bill Broonzy and, especially, Miriam Makeba. She played the first couple RCA records over and over and over and only when the weather was nice—the sunshine reminded her of home. And no one conveyed sheer joy like Miriam Makeba. Her beautiful voice had an incredible ability to create happiness in a listener, especially the album called “The World of Miriam Makeba”. Her fantastic band (circa 1962) included African drummers and singers that transfixed us kids and we’d start wiggling around, dancing. Her rich music filled the entire house, shaking the rec room.
Thank you, Miriam Makeba, and rest in peace.