I couldn’t pronounce Mama Lula as a two-year old so I shortened it to “Mula”. No one ever corrected me, so I continued to refer to her as “Mula”after I reached adolescence. Mula married when she was fifteen and had her first child at age sixteen. During her marriage Mula gave birth to twelve children. She buried three of them and one included my father.

My grandmother was a unique woman. We shared the same birth month and she once told me when we were walking home that she was ashamed to be seen by others when she was pregnant. I couldn’t understand this since she was married, but I surmised it was another generation and another time, and I let it go at that. I also didn’t understand what she meant when she stated, “I didn’t have my children in no sets.” I picked up the context clue when she said, “all my children were by my husband.” Grandmother was one generation removed from slavery and I used to wonder how she learned to write so well. I used to steal glimpses of her penmanship when she wrote out notes or recipes. She never talked to me about her mother or father or her education, but then I was a child so I suppose that accounted for most of that.

Mama Lula was one of the neatest people I have ever known. She lived in a four room house that was built by her husband and others who helped him. I can still envision that house and every room in it. Her bed was made of feathers and it was always impeccably made with the bedspread hanging straight on all sides. Once when I attempted to make it she said emphatically, “Baby that spread ain’t straight. Fix it so it’ll look right.” Every item in her dresser was always ironed and folded. She kept things in this state even though she washed all her laundry by hand on a scrub board for many years before obtaining an old-fashioned washing machine with a ringer. She took pride in how clean and neat she kept things. I believe cleanliness to her was a character trait. Even though her house was small and functional; it was scrubbed clean everyday. Even though the floor had boards that covered holes and cracks, she swept it everyday as if it was the floor of a marble covered palace.

I never knew Mula when her hair wasn’t gray. Long before I was born, she used to dye it; but as time wore on the gray hairs outnumbered the natural ones so she let nature win. She was rail thin and the only evidence of her multiple childbirths was a little pouch of a stomach that she covered well when girdled and dressed up for church. Mula had a collection of shoes that dated back to the 1940s. I once asked her why she never wore her pretty shoes; she said, “baby, they don’t fit me like they once did, and my feet would hurt if I tried to wear them.” She always wore an apron because she was always cooking or cleaning. Mula made all her cakes from “scratch” and she beat the mixture by hand with an enormous stainless steel spoon. I tried to pick the spoon up once and didn’t try it again until I was a teenager. There are two things Mula always cooked with and that was lemons and garlic. Her kitchen smelled of garlic every time I visited her. Her cooking not only tasted good, but it seemed to be sprinkled with a magic that gave the aroma of love which caused me to gorge myself each time I visited her.

Mula’s house had a front porch swing. When I came to her house the swing was the first thing I’d run to and I would swing and swing until I realized that I was hungry. Mula kept the Jack’s vanilla wafers in a cupboard and I’d always grab a handful after the swing. Mula’s house seemed to resonate of all the life that once was there. Even though most of her children had long since married and moved away, I could still feel the presence of all the children and families that had once lived there. Mula had one son, Curtis Quince, who was born mentally disabled. He stayed with her until Mula moved away to live with her daughter in California.

The time came for me to go away to college. I went to Mula’s house to tell her. She said, “learn as much as you can, baby.” As a seventeen year-old I didn’t understand why she kept saying this to me; but as an adult I realize that most of her generation was denied the opportunity to go to school to learn anything. Her phrase resonated the centuries of slavery when our people were forbidden to read and write with punishment up to and including death.

I was on a trip to Atlanta when I called Mula who was living in Augusta with one of her daughters at the time. Even after having a stroke, Mula recognized my voice immediately. I said, “Hello, Mama Lula, it’s Jo-Anne.” She said in that high pitched sweet voice, “Hey baby, are you married yet?” I said, “no Mama Lula, I’m still in school. I hope I can come see you soon.” She said, “I hope so too baby. You study hard and make us real proud.” I said, “I will Mula.” “I then said with many tears in my eyes, “I love you.” She said, ” I love you too baby.” She then handed the telephone back to her daughter. I said my good-byes to Aunt Imogene and then hung up. It was the last time I heard her voice. Mula passed away one year before I was married. I had so wanted to call her and tell her that I’d finally married: yet I carry her memory and that sweet, high pitched voice with me when life gets beyond what I feel I can bear. I know that there was someone who suffered much more than I ever could imagine and she kept her dignity through it all. This alone gives me strength, courage, and hope.


My grandmother gave birth to twelve children, and of those twelve she lived to bury three of them. Two died as children, and my father passed away as an adult. Of the remaining nine, all left home, married and settled in various areas of the country. She survived my grandfather by fifty years, which wasn’t uncommon for women in the South over seventy-five years ago. The one child who remained was my mentally challenged uncle, Curtis Quince.

As a child I would go to “Mama Lula’s” house with my brother, Patrick; we would sashay into her front door, sit down and talk for a few minutes, then get up and run outside to play. I loved escaping to her house because it was a breath of fresh air from the noise of my seven brothers and sisters. I’m sure the quietness and refuge that I cherished, she had come to hate. There were days I would come by and see her sitting on the porch with a forlorn look on her face: it wasn’t only a look of loneliness and despair, the look said, “no one is going to rescue me from this.” Even as a child, I sensed “Mama Lula’s” relief when Patrick and I would show up, I sensed her thankfulness, and I was equally grateful for the sense of history and peacefulness she had given to me.

It is true that we can spend all our lives as employees, parents, and productive citizens, and one day wake up to realize we are in the house alone. I realized my “nest” was empty after I dropped my youngest daughter off at college. My ex-husband had left a year earlier to build a new nest with a younger, new wife and two other children. I didn’t have time to be bitter; the time that I possessed was spent trying to find a career in post-mid-life and trying to keep two daughters in college.

I joined several meetup.com sites, became an avid hiker, a prolific dancer, and began to explore the singing skills that had lain dormant for a long time. I found the self who had been buried beneath the needs of children and the expectations of a neglectful spouse. I returned to school and acquired a certificate as a drug counselor. I got a job working at something that required skill and thought. It was a great accomplishment. My days were filled. The nights and the weekends became the gaps. I suddenly realized the children had filled the nights and the weekends until now: they had filled the gaps for ten years plus. Overwhelmingly, I began to crave sharing the most insignificant events. A sunset, a cup of coffee, a walk in the park, a walk anywhere; these things became monumental events set against a backdrop of emptiness.

The gaps are here and I refuse to fill them with minutia. I refuse to fill the gaps with things that I’m not passionate about. I spoke with a woman  I met and is in a similar situation with the children and the spouse gone;I said, “It’s amazing how much space another person takes up in your life, and when they are no longer there how much space is left.” So I must fill the gaps with Joan. I must fill the gaps with whom I choose to be with and what I choose to give my time to. Time is the most precious commodity of an “empty nester”; use it wisely, make it work for you and you will see the valuable return of your investment.