*One Friday evening in 1971 after an exhausting day of class-cutting at Douglass High, I went with classmate Marvin Steele to his house. Marv’s father, the small business owner of a janitorial company, was downtown cleaning Oklahoma City office buildings, which allowed us to take over the den.
Marv had just handed me a tall pastel green Tupperware tumbler of Hawaiian Punch with ice and armed the den’s Magnavox floor entertainment system with a stack of 45s when we overheard his mom, Mrs. Steele, just off the den in the kitchen with a woman visiting from next door.
Perched at the tiny kitchen bar with zebra cushion stools, the neighbor nursed a short glass of something brown and alcoholic on the rocks and chatted while Marv’s mom prepared tacos.
In a corner of the adjoining dining room, sunk in her La-Z-Boy chair and in her usual attire of pajamas under a powder blue terrycloth robe with daisy print all over it, pink house slippers, and on her head, a scarf, this one gray with black polka dots, sat the home’s fourth tenant, Marv’s mom’s mother, Mama T.
Over the high fidelity soul of the Rufus Thomas hit “(Do The) Push And Pull (Part 1),” I heard the neighbor say that despite Valentine’s Day being a week away, none of her suitors had reached out. I’d never heard grown women discuss men, so I was all ears.
“I don’t know which one I want to go out with,” she said.
“Well, it sounds like you won’t have to make that decision,” said Mrs. Steele.
“Just because I haven’t heard from anyone yet doesn’t mean I won’t….”
“Girl, you don’t wanna go out with a man who waits too long to call….”
The neighbor said she was attracted to one guy because he kept her laughing. Another was a great dresser and took her places beyond the city’s Black Eastside.
She mentioned her affection for a third gentleman (“He’s really smart”) but lamented his negatives (“He’s really short.”).
“Johnson likes him, though,” she noted.
“Johnson is her German Shepherd,” Marv informed me under his breath.
“I wear flats when I go out with him,” the neighbor continued. “But for Valentine’s, I wanna wear heels….”
She went on like that for a couple of minutes more, vacillating about her possibilities for Valentine’s Day, when suddenly another voice sliced the prattle: “Just be your own damn Valentine!”
The kitchen went silent.
I’d visited Marv’s place every now and then, and I can count on one hand the times I heard Mama T. speak. As far as I knew, she communicated using two facial expressions, indifference and disdain. Annoyed with this woman whining about her questionable dating prospects, Mama T. issued her salty decree.
Marv and I struggled to suppress our laughter. After several quiet, awkward seconds, when Mrs. Steele and her friend spoke again, there was no mention of men, Valentine’s Day, height, heels, flowers, chocolates or seafood dinners. Mama T. shut it all down.
Days later, Marv and I were still having fun with Mama T.’s declaration. “Be your own damn girlfriend!” one of us would tease the other when we spoke dreamily of a girl who didn’t know we existed. “Let your feet be your damn Chuck Taylors!” Marv joked when I wished aloud that I had a pair of Converse sneakers as opposed to my Keds.
To those who heard Marv and I use it, Mama T.’s line was simply an empty, silly refrain, made more amusing to us by its unlikely origin.
After decades of living in Los Angeles, during a holiday visit to Oklahoma City, I queried folk who used to live in the old neighborhood about whatever happened to my old classmate and his family. I was informed Marv’s mom and dad had passed away years ago, while Marv made a career in the Navy before marrying and settling somewhere in Germany. Berlin, maybe.
And who exactly was Mama T.?
According to those who grew up on the East Side, the “T” was for Theresa. “Mama” was a moniker bestowed by those in the community out of affection and respect.
Back in her day, Mama T., a school teacher, and Lionel, her husband, a postal worker, carved out a life that was a success by any measure, but especially during an era when people of color had to fight for the most fundamental civil rights.
Mama T. and Lionel were local activists and fervent participants in Oklahoma City politics where Blacks were regarded. Property owners, Lionel and Theresa held the deed not only to the four-bedroom abode that Marv’s family called home—turns out they were living with Mama T., not the other way around—as well as the homes on either side of them.
After heart disease took her beloved husband, Ms. Theresa dated a bit–she was escorted to morning service at St. John Baptist church by more than one dapper gentleman—but confided to her only child, Marv’s mom, that no man could match her dearly departed Lionel, so why bother? Until an unsparing case of rheumatoid arthritis slowed her down, Mama T., busied herself with service to her family, community, church, and friends. Her passing got a mention on the local evening news.
Mama T. didn’t suffer fools gladly. She was said to be progressive-minded, embracing the power of positive thinking and personal independence.
“She was a trip,” snickered Marti Washington, whose grandmother was a friend of Theresa. “Imagine a Black woman in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in this town, talking about meditation and the power of the mind. You know they were lookin’ at her sideways.”
What I learned about Mama T. better explained to me the significance of that flippant utterance she made long ago. “Be your own damn valentine” was almost certainly Mama T.’s way of telling the neighbor that not being asked out by a guy on a day commemorating romance shouldn’t diminish her love for herself. She’d likely have advised the anxious woman to take care of herself as she would for someone else she truly loved.
And I bet Mama T. would have insisted that that self-love extends beyond just one day in February to those 364 other days of the year, too, damn it.
Steven Ivory, journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via STEVRIVORY@AOL.COM