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16 October 2014

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My Other Mother

By Suzanne Greenslade
September 2002, Cardiff
A digital story from Capture Wales

Willy's journey

Suzanne has taken memories of her 'other mother' on a remarkable journey. Willy was Suzanne's family's maid.

"In January 1998 I made a trip back to Atlanta from Wales to see Willy, the most important person in my life. She had been in the hospital for several months and didn't seem to be improving, so I wanted to be at her bedside on her 80th birthday.

Willy May Way came to live with us when I was six years old and she was 40. Her family referred to her as a domestic worker; to us she was our live-in maid.

She stayed with us for 13 years only seeing her own family on Thursdays and Sundays.

Years later, her son Darryl told me of how he used to lay awake in bed on Wednesday nights and waited for the kiss that meant that his mother was safely home.

As a young child I took it for granted that Willy was always there and shared every problem with her... I couldn't wait for Saturday nights when my parents would go out and just the two of us would eat together, put on our nighties, watch TV, and go back to her room for long chats.

As I got older I began visiting Willy at her home... we could never get enough of each other's company.

Over the years our families stayed close and have grown up together. Now, Willy was anxious to leave the hospital and told everyone that I was coming over to get her out. Before leaving Wales I found the perfect birthday present for her... a silver pendant with the 24th Psalm.

I arrived in Atlanta and arranged to visit her the next morning. That night Willy passed away before I could see her one last time.

We visited her at the funeral parlour on her birthday... she was buried wearing the silver pendant.

At the cemetery, as I watched the gravediggers digging up the red Georgia clay I realised that my childhood had ended.

Our families still remain close."

Suzanne Greenslade

...So having a maid wasn't something you really questioned at the time?
Well my father was from Atlanta and my mother was from Philadelphia. In the South it was really just the custom to have a domestic worker at home - quite common I mean. In fact it wasn't until very recently that I started to think about it. I visited a friend in Valencia who teaches Afro-American studies and when I talked about my childhood she asked me if I'd speak to the students there. It was their fascination that made me realise what an interesting story this was.

How did the workshops help you develop the story?
I first made a tribute to Willy in a photographic quilt... We took her to the first black university in the South and she's even been to Spain where the pictures are going to be published in a book called 'Under the Magnolias: memories of a white childhood in the South. We were the first white people to speak at the university and people really warmed to Willy's story.There were students who remembered their own mothers like I remembered Willy.
But someone at the workshop suggested I tell Willy's story from the end, from her death - which was a revelation because the story became much more about my personal journey than Willy in a way.

You're still close to Willy's family, what happened to them?
Since my parents died I'm even closer to Willy's family than my own. Although her own children died, it's amazing how the grandchildren have prospered. Willy's grandaughter is a university graduate and has a very good job as an engineer in Texas. You could say they owe that to Willy, to what she sacrificed for them.

Your comments

"I thought the story was very moving and a fitting tribute to 'Willy' plus a fascinating insight into the writer's own life. I have always been a great believer in the rights of the disenfranchised. Whilst that might seem an incorrect word in the context of the story, I don't think it is. 'Willy' found her voice through the writer. She was obviously a much loved family member. Yet for each heartwarming story of that nature, there are probably scores of less heartening tales to be told. It brought to mind a very powerful poem I once read entitled 'Half-Caste' by John Agard." Elaine Patrick, Ruthin, Wales, Sept 2007.

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