Recently our pastor asked us on Facebook to name Black women we admire who are still alive. Responses poured in and she mentioned them in her sermon. The names included media moguls like Oprah Winfrey, political activists and authors like Angela Davis, Tony Morrison and Michelle Obama, and quiet influencers like Dorothy and Paulette and Mom.
Sadly my quiet influencer died a few years ago, but the impact she had on me lives. Virginia came to our home every Wednesday when I was growing up. Her purpose was to offer my mother a brief respite from her five children. She also ironed a little and cleaned. I didn’t pay much attention to her work chores. I paid attention to how she paid attention to me.
Virginia, a raspy-voiced smoker, was tiny, a detail I didn’t notice until I saw her when I was an adult. As a smoker, Virginia visited our front porch a few times a day with her cigarette and silver flip-top butane lighter in tow. I was usually in tow as well because I was too young for grade-school and I had dropped out of kindergarten.
When I was with her on the porch, she offered me the privilege of blowing out her cigarette lighter, a thrill beyond belief for a girl from a Southern Baptist family that publicly shunned smoking and drinking. In my imagination, Virginia and I played cards and gambled during the day, more forbidden vices. (But we didn’t, Mom.)
I can still hear Virginia’s raspy cackle. She was cheerful and laughed often: in the mornings when she greeted us or when we cracked a goofy joke or when it took us three tries to blow out her lighter. I loved Virginia, if for no other reason than she paid attention to me, a luxury for the fourth of five children. This was the 1960s and Virginia’s gift to me was opening me up to love beyond racial borders.
I’ll never know whether Virginia loved me back. But that doesn’t matter. At the time, it seemed like she did.
As we celebrate Black History Month in February and look forward to Women’s History Month in March, will you name some women who made or still make a difference in your life?
Terri Lackey is director for communication for Women of the ELCA. She formerly served as managing editor for Gather.
Photo is used with permission from Creative Commons: Vintage Chrome Streamliter by the Drum Co., Bristol, Pa., by Joe Haupt