My Mother: Helen Leassear
My mother’s birthday is tomorrow, January 3, and I wanted to thank her for consenting to being my mother when my angel tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to consider the proposition. Without hesitating she said , “Yes.” And, she was a great parent, still is. I remember trips to art stores to buy clay which I’d use to sculpt busts of my daddy’s head. He was my African king. I remember going to concerts with Mama to see James Brown, and movie nights at the drive-in at the Cow Palace where she and my brother would watch Bruce Lee films. They also liked vampire movies which I couldn’t handle. So I’d ask to stay home. I remember her paydays whenever I smell hot cashews and the smell of Almond Roca candy. We’d go to Woolworth’s and get fruit slices and sometimes we’d have milkshakes or banana splits. On Saturdays I’d get my allowance and go shopping for the latest Jackson 5 45-record. Doggy Diners was a spot we’d frequent too and this ice cream place that had smoothies. I think it was called Dairy Queen. This was pre-Shabazz Snackshops… the Nation of Islam.
I remember my mother taking me to work on Treasure Island where she was a keypunch operator. She was transferred there after working initially at the Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard. She’d bring cards home from work, which I’d use to make flashcards and also for paper dolls. I recall being impressed when she talked about taking the industrial size computer apart, fixing it and putting it back together. I’d have to get up early and wake my brother and we’d walk up the hill from 19 Brookdale to John MacLaren Elementary School where I was in kindergarten and my brother was in preschool. My mother got off work at 3 p.m. She worked swing shift. Before she left in the morning she’d comb my hair and leave breakfast and lunch money on the table. We were latchkey kids, but our neighbor Kathy, who was blind, kept the key which I’d get in the afternoon when I came home. I was a good kid. They don’t make them like me anymore— so when I ended up divorced when my kids were 7 and 3. I hired babysitters.
My mother was in her twenties when I was 5, a single mother at the time, who always put her family ahead of herself. I don’t know if that’s always a good thing, but it’s hard to do otherwise when the patriarchal framework is the norm. When one thinks about pleasing someone, for me, I want to please my parents, my mother especially who was and still is so generous with her life. I remember baskets for teachers and mentors filled with goodies she'd baked like banana and zucchini bread, pralines, fruitcake, and other yummy surprises. She and my stepfather, the late Snow Banks would drive up to Oakland for the weekend with bunk beds strapped to the car. When they arrived Snow assembled the beds. I recall checks she’d send to help me when funds ran low, especially when I was on disability. I remember when my father was dying and my parents made their peace with one another before he departed. Daddy apologized for mistakes he’d made I was told. She even baked dinner for my sister’s now deceased father after he had a heart attack, though they were divorced. Snow was cool, had to be, I guess, Mama loved like that. When I think of unconditional love I see her face.
Yes, if she sounds like a paragon, she is. Angels take lessons from her—orphaned before she was 12 and a mother at 15, my mother got her GED at John Adams, while cleaning white women’s homes as a domestic. On welfare in New Orleans, Mama said social services sent her a ticket for San Francisco, my daddy sent them. She wasn’t asked did she want to leave her home—the choice was economic and in 1962, my mother, baby brother and I were in route on Greyhound to San Francisco, where a man she called, “Oliver,” my dad, met her. My mother was a scholar, who was destined for great things. There is a newsclipping with her picture for winning an essay contest. She had dreams but deferred them for others. I guess after so long, this can be habit forming. She told me about nuns who hit her left hand until she picked up the pencil in her right. Her writing was so tiny, it was as if she wanted to disappear, but as long as I am here in the world, so is she.
She was just a kid, 21 at the time of our arrival in San Francisco. She didn’t know anyone, but she loved my daddy, so they worked it out, as she went from domestic work to clerical work. When they separated and then divorced when I was 15, she moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles where she remarried and had my little sister, Lavina, now 29, mother of two. Lavina purchased a condominium in Los Angles last month. My brother, husband and father of three, bought into a family coop on Fulton in 2007 also . TaSin and I have had a house since 2006. Now all my mother’s children are property owners and college graduates, my sister in African American Studies from California State University, Dominquez Hills, and my brother in General Education from City College of San Francisco. Fred wants to be a teacher, and he will once his youngest goes to school. My sister is studying speech and language pathology. As you know, my masters is in writing from the University of San Francisco, where my dad was employed. I want to celebrate my mother publicly this year because I appreciate her presence in my life. I have never second guessed my choice 49 years ago. Helen Isaac Leassear is the only mother I have ever wanted, the only mother I will ever need.