One of my mothers was a black woman and I miss her more than words can convey.
I’ve tried countless times to write this essay, because I want to tell you about my relationship with Inez Fleming. I keep stopping, or have thrown away previous drafts because I’ve been so afraid to talk about this well-to-do, white man’s connection to a poor, black woman. If I’ve learned anything about race and class in America, it’s that it twists and corrupts our understanding of one another.
By telling you about my invisible, undeniable bond with Inez, now buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery, I’m opening up my pristine, loving memories of her to you. Please be careful with my memories. You may have your own ideas about what we were to one another, and maybe they are right. But I have my own memories and ideas, and I know those will always be true.
When my biological mother started her career, Inez was hired to take me during the days and nights. It was the 1970’s, and as progressive as my dad was, he was going to work too. I was just six weeks old when Inez entered my life.
She was my Inez. You may have a different, more common name for what she was, but I will never say it, because “second mother” seems like the only term that fits.
Two years later, my mother and father divorced, and Inez stepped in for more hours. I knew her better than my biological mother at times. It was not uncommon for me to call her “mom”, because that’s what she was.
My strongest memories of childhood are of Inez trundling me around in her green and white Impala. I moved with her in South Side Chicago’s world of black women caring for white children. Again, because it was the 1970’s, that often meant going to some of those caretaker’s houses, or to greasy chicken shacks for lunch. It seemed there were fewer rules those days, so I rode along into Inez’ world most days, listening to gossip about so-and-so, running errands for her friends. Nobody seemed to mind.
We were close. Everyone remarked on it. I’m not sure what I did to show it, but she hugged and held me tight. And when I was bad, she threatened to “get a switch”, but she never did.
Inez was from Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in 1964, although Inez had left long before that had happened. I’d asked her about life in Mississippi, but she always deflected, saying, “I don’t like to talk about bad things, Michael. That’s why I came here.”
Sweet, full of smiles, and devoted to Christ and Roman Catholicism, she was wiser than her lack of education should have allowed. She understood people, and could detect a false motive a mile away. “I only deal with good people, Michael. There are too many bad people in this world, and I can’t make time for them.”
Round and with a weakness for food of all kinds–especially Neji pop–Inez struggled with weight her entire life and eventually with bad knees and diabetes. Going on, and staying on diets were a constant topic with her, up until the end. My mother, who became close friends with Inez, would talk recipes and bring her loads of fresh fruit, hoping her habits would change. But South Side church dinners and chicken shacks don’t usually serve diet-friendly food, and so the diets always came to an end.
For complicated family reasons, my mother and step-father let Inez go when I was seven. Her services were quickly picked up by another family I knew, which made me jealous beyond belief.
I insisted on visiting her regularly to make sure she was still “my Inez” and to check in with her. I was a child, so I didn’t know exactly how to check in, but I did my childish best.
The visits were at first a few times a year, eventually winding down to twice, then once. By the time I went to college, we mostly talked on the phone and exchanged cards and letters. I still have them, in her flowey, perfect Palmer Method script.
Around when when I was thirty, my mother got very sick with cancer, I orchestrated a visit between her and Inez. The logistics were difficult, since Inez was also enfeebled now, using a walker and visiting dialysis twice a week. My mother was less feeble, although using a walker of her own, so we visited Inez’ second-floor walk up. It was terrible, and lovely.
The three of us present knew it was the last visit. Not a goodbye, just yet, so we made the best of it with a dinner cooked in the apartment and jokes and stories. My mother and Inez reminisced and told each other how much they loved one another, a conversation Inez repeated back to me verbatim, up until the last week of her life.
After that, they called each other every other day, just to check in. To complain about hospitals and nurses, things they’d both experienced in detail.
“She’s like my sister, your mother is,” Inez would say. And they both pledged their undying devotion to each other. Inez had pulled my mother through early motherhood, and then her divorce from my dad, and supported her early career. My mother and dad had steadied Inez, took her to a bank to open her first bank account, loved her and gave her security when her brutal husband left her after years of beatings and alcoholism.
But my mother’s illness frightened Inez. “Who will take care of me, now?” she asked me. She had no other family.
Then when my mother died, my father flew in for the funeral, prepared to pick up Inez for the service.
“I can’t do it, baby,” she told me on the phone. “I just can’t do it. My knees hurt too much. But you know how much I loved your mother, don’t you.”
It was an excuse, of course. But my father and I understood and visited her together the next day. It was the first time he’d seen her in fifteen years. “So gaunt,” my dad said. The once rotund, jolly woman was now ashen, with skin hanging off her bones. Dad was visibly shaken.
Quickly now, Inez began to decline. Exhausted and depressed by dialysis, my visits to her house or trips to dialysis barely perked her up. Once, I convinced a priest friend of mine, to visit her house and say a private mass. When the priest and I arrived, Inez had tidied her house, put on her wig and a bucket of rouge, and had set out snacks. Delightful, it still makes me smile to think of her excitement.
Eventually, her knees got so bad that she couldn’t walk up her own stairs. Her social worker begged her to enter a nursing home. We knew what that decision meant.
“I don’t want to go there, honey. That’s where people die,” Inez said. I remember it clearly.
But, if you don’t go, you’ll fall and probably die sooner, I told her. And so she went.
It was good at first. I visited twice a week for a long while. People in the nursing home seemed to perk up when the white man in a suit kept visiting this one old, black lady. Inez knew it too, and chuckled over the treatment she got from the nurses as a result. “They asked me, is that your lawyer? And I said, No! That’s my God son!”
And so I was.
Things went on like this for a while. But, as it goes, a sudden jolt changes things. For Inez, there was an accident on the shuttle she rode in to dialysis. The driver had forgotten to strap her wheelchair down, and when he came to a sudden stop, she violently rolled forward, and fell out of her chair, breaking her hip.
Now, the social worker asked, “Who is her next of kin? Because she needs a legal guardian.”
Then Inez pointed at me. “He is. He is my son. He’ll sign the papers.”
Even now, thinking of that moment, I’m brought to tears.
Of course, her health got worse. There were more hospital visits, doctors, social workers. We talked less, because she was weakening quickly. When she could, we talked about old days, and how she was ready to see The Lord.
The visits shook me. I’d cry on the Metra Electric as I headed north.
And then the call came: She’s crashed and is having another heart attack. Do we resuscitate?
I scraped together some life insurance receipts she had in the back a of a drawer, and visited the funeral home. Her insurance wasn’t nearly enough to pay for a funeral and burial, so my dad and I paid the rest. Some cousins came, a couple old friends. But Inez was old with few relations left. She was either 71 according to her expired driver’s license, or 88 according to her welfare records. Philadelphia, Mississippi didn’t have a birth certificate.
Inez Fleming taught me compassion and love. She taught me to be suspicious of overly generous people, and she taught me that it’s a good thing to care deeply and give of your self to others that you care about.
I miss her every day, and I wish that race and class didn’t mean anything. I wish I was allowed to use the lessons Inez gave me to connect with people the way she taught me.