I’m here because my mother, Elizabeth Bailey McDaniel, refused to die.
She didn’t die when she, like her other siblings, had to abandon a pursuit of formal education to help the family make ends meet.
She didn’t die when she was pulled out of church one morning at the age of 13 to marry a man more than two decades her senior.
She didn’t die while enduring years of physical abuse at the hands of her husband, my father.
She didn’t die when she had to prematurely leave the workforce because of the damage from those beatings.
She didn’t die. But she did more than survive.
Every year about this time, I contemplate whether or how to mark Black History Month.
Should I talk about Martin Luther King and his call for a livable wage for every American, something that seems particularly relevant today?
Maybe it would be good to note lesser-known figures, such as Sarah and Angelina Griemke, sisters who grew up as the daughters of a rich slave owner in South Carolina but became anti-slavery crusaders?
And considering that we are in the midst of observing the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the lead actor in “Lincoln” walked away with an Academy Award on Sunday night, it would seem appropriate to deal with those subjects as well.
They all matter.
But for me, my mother’s story matters more.
No, she didn’t make it through without pain or only by the sweat of her brow. Our family didn’t come through fracture-free.
She needed outside help from the federal government through the free lunch program, Social Security survivor benefits and food stamps. And she was assisted by a man, Harris McDaniel, who didn’t mind stepping in to help her take care of at least six kids that weren’t his own.
Some of those scars run deep in our family’s soul in the form of my oldest brother, who has spent the past 31 years in prison for murder, and my youngest soon to face trial for the same reason, and other ills.
But because my mother didn’t die, she also made way for a lot of good, beginning with her own ability to establish and operate numerous small businesses, despite her cursory formal education. She secured her GED at the age of 65 after spending a lifetime demanding that her kids value education.
She modeled the Christ edict, to help the least of these, by her willingness to clothe and feed and shelter those who suffered from mental illness and a variety of addictions.
She produced children and grandchildren who have succeeded and tried to make the world better.
There is the air-traffic controller who owns a fitness center.
There is a preacher, a photography entrepreneur and managers.
There is the son who learned how to take companies public and fathered two daughters who have captured lead roles in stage plays and movies alongside the likes of Dolly Parton, Tyler Perry, Beyonce, and who recently won the Radio Disney Next Big Thing.
There are a gaggle of names on honor rolls in multiple schools in South Carolina and on a newly-minted master’s degree in Georgia and other college diploma, all because my mother refused to die or give in.
She did all of that while teaching us to be strong, but never bitter, to be bold and steadfast when others wilt.
King did a lot to pave the way for me. McDaniel did more.