Who's That Lady?

Rolanda T. Pyle

© Copyright 2020 by Rolanda T. Pyle

Photo of Rolanda.

Looking out the window, I could see the snow blanketing the highway and the streets. The limousine was crawling on this trip to and from the cemetery - we had been in this car for seven hours. The burial service was about 15 minutes. Driving to the burial ground, we talked and had lots of fun. Now, driving back home, my brother and cousin were sleeping and my nieces and nephew were playing games on the phone. I started looking out the window reminiscing. We had just buried my mother after her funeral today - it was only three years ago that we had buried my father. So, now I guess, I am officially an orphan. Looking out the window, the memories were flooding in. Questions, thoughts, reflections all overtook me…

Why did she leave us as children? Did she ever regret it? What would my life have been if she had taken us with her? Would things be different if she had stayed? What if she had taken us to her mother or her aunts to raise us? One thing I was sure of was that the gap that I always felt and the yearning that had been there all those years might not have been. God only knows. What I do know is what did happen to me, and how I went from that place of when I was born until today, decades later. What a journey - what a life it has been.

Tears formed in my eyes as I thought about the hurt and the pain, but also the good times. The good, the bad, and the ugly - it was all there and was all I knew. I have to tell it because somewhere, somehow, it can help someone on their life’s journey. So where do I begin? At the beginning.

On June 3, 1955, I was born at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, NY. I was the first child born to my parents Clarence and Elnora Pyle, the first grandchild on my paternal side of the family (the Pyle side), and the first granddaughter on my maternal side of the family (the Harrises). I was named after my grandfather whose name was Roland. My first name is Rolanda and my middle name is Thelma, after my father’s sister who died as a teenager. So immediately I was given the gift of the importance of family through my name. My parents had another child 11 months later - my sister Diane, and then 10 months afterwards, my brother Kenneth. When I was born, my parents lived in Harlem in a five-story walk up apartment with my aunt and uncle. The year after my birth, they moved to a brownstone in Brooklyn to live with my father’s mother. His parents, who were originally from Barbados, had purchased a brownstone in Brooklyn. My grandfather then fell ill and passed away. After he died, my father came to live in the brownstone to help out his mother and his sister, my Aunt, who also lived there.

My father made a commitment to my grandmother that he would help her with the house, as in those days she had tenants. It was a three-family brownstone where my grandparents, my aunt Daphne and later my family occupied the bottom two floors. The two top floors, which were separate apartments, were rented out to two tenants. As I grew, I learned that earlier that the top two floors had been rooms and the house was kind of a boarding house, as were a lot of brownstones back in those days. When we arrived, there were two tenants - one on each floor. There were a pair of sisters on the third floor and a woman on the fourth floor.

So we moved in - my parents, my baby sister who was just born, and me at a year old. We had the basement apartment, but had to share the kitchen and full bathroom with my grandmother and aunt, who resided upstairs. My brother was born the next year. Apparently, my mother was very unhappy with the arrangement, with being a mother of three infants, and with her marriage. She wanted something or someone else. It was alleged that she got into a relationship with a guy living in the building next door to us. I recall one day, she took me with her and when I came back, I blurted out “I ride in Bobby’s car.” I heard that everyone just looked at each other, but no one said anything.

Soon afterward, my mother left, and it is believed that she left with Bobby. Legend has it that she waited until my grandmother went to the store, and it was almost time for my dad to come home from work. She left a note saying that she was gone and she then left. My grandmother came home and found us and told my dad immediately upon his coming home.

I heard that my dad was very upset. His first immediate thought was to dress us, go out, find her and take us to her, or to find her and bring her back home. My grandmother wisely talked him out of it. Years later, on a Father’s Day before his death, I thanked my father for all he had done. I told him how wonderful it was that he had taken up the torch and did all that he had done for us. His response? He said, “Your grandmother is the one you should really thank.” This surprised me and I asked him “What did you mean by that?” He said “I wasn’t going to do it...I was going to look for that woman and bring her back and let her take you all. Your grandmother is the one who said ‘no, I’ll help you raise them, because if she did it once and they are this age, she will do it again.’” I understood - especially being the kind of man that my dad was. He didn’t plan to marry and have a family, never mind raising three stair-step children on his own. In those days, you didn’t hear of men raising children on their own. It was unheard of. He continued, “ ...not only that, but she is the one who did everything - she cooked , she cleaned, she did your laundry, she bathed you and did your hair, she made sure you got up and went to bed on time while I worked. I couldn’t have done it without her.”

That set the tone for my upbringing. My grandmother was the nurturer and my father the provider and disciplinarian. And they did it. I didn’t see my mother again from the age of three until I was seven years old. Apparently she didn’t stay in contact with anyone, not even her own parents, siblings and her aunt in Manhattan with whom she had lived. That aunt, my Aunt Margaret, was very involved in our lives and I believe she was the catalyst for us to continue to have contact with my mother’s side of the family.

I was told that I would sit in the corner with my doll and just rock her, while the others played. My grandmother would say, “What’s wrong, ‘Landa?” I would say nothing. She would ask, “What are you thinking about?” I would respond, “I’m thinking about my mother.” My grandmother would call my Aunt Margaret and I would stay at my aunt’s house over for the weekend. My father went to Manhattan every weekend, took me and and would pick me up on Sunday.

Although I liked school, I was introverted, shy and very self-conscious. I was always a little terrified when my grandmother would walk me to school and leave me there. However, I loved learning and I absolutely loved to read. Reading, for me, took me to places that I could not go on my own - I would travel to other lands.

There was a class bully in my first years of school. She was bigger than most of the class and she obviously had problems that she would take out on everyone. She would pick on me about my nose, because it was big in relation to my skinny face and body. She would also pick on me saying “Why does your grandmother bring you to school? I know why - because your mother doesn’t like you because your nose is so big and you are so ugly and skinny!” In my emotional state in those days, that was the most hurtful thing I ever heard. I would go into the bathroom and cry, and wish I had a different life.

One weekend, my dad had dropped me off at my aunt's house. Aunt Margaret was a hairdresser, who did hair in her home and I loved it. I would pretend to be reading or playing games, but I would sit there and listen to every conversation between her and the customers. I learned so much about my family from my eavesdropping. On this particular Saturday, Aunt Margaret got a call - she whispered and was talking low. She then hung up, and sent my uncle (her husband) to get my father. My father, who was down the street, came, and Aunt Margaret was whispering to him, and then he left. Later that evening, the bell rang, and a woman came in. Aunt Margaret hugged her and brought her in. The woman started talking to Aunt Margaret when she saw me. She ran over to me and started hugging and kissing me. I looked up at Aunt Margaret and asked, “Who’s that lady?” Yes, at seven years old, my mother had come back and I saw her and I didn’t have a clue who she was!

Part 2

Today, my favorite scripture is “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord, to those who have been called according to His purpose.”  ~ Romans 8:28 (NKJV)

This scripture has significant value to me because I learned through my life that even when we can’t see it, even when we can’t feel it, God is working it out.  I’ve learned to put things I can’t understand into my “all things” basket.

I remember crying many days, wondering why I couldn’t have a mother in the home like all of my friends. I remember many times being embarrassed when my grandmother walked me to public school and my classmates asked, “Where is your mother? Why does your grandmother bring you to school?” It wasn’t until years after my grandmother passed that I really appreciated her sacrifice. I am grateful to her and to my father for all they did for me as a child.

Growing up, I somehow thought being cared for by my grandmother was one of the worst things that could have happened. It was not natural. It was not the way it was supposed to be. Little did I know that many years down the road, what I thought was the worst thing in my life would turn out to be the best thing for my life.

After graduating from high school, I went to college, knowing that the profession I wanted to be in was to be able to help people. My career took me on many paths - from working in foster care to preventive services, where I would help families at risk of losing their children to the system. I assumed the responsibility of recruiting and training senior citizens to become role models for at-risk families. I loved this job because I got to work with both seniors and children. Years later, one of my friends who knew of my work with seniors, offered me a job at his place of employment -- an agency that had just received funds to start a program for grandparents raising their grandchildren.

The program grew, and eventually, I was asked by the city to head their Grandparent Resource Center at the Department for the Aging. For ten years, I helped grandparent caregivers across New York City. The program grew to become a national model. I received many awards and was asked to speak at conferences across the country.

How did I know about grandparents raising their grandchildren? Where did I get this passion to help and assist these families? How did I know what they feel and what they need? Why has this become my mission in life? Because, simply, I lived it.

Years ago, when I thought it was the worst thing in my life, I did not know that the Lord was working “all things” out for my good. I had no clue that there was a plan being worked out for my life. I never dreamed that I would stand before Commissioners, Mayors and other prominent folks to let them know the needs and services of grandparents. I never thought that I would be interviewed on radio or television, or have newspaper articles written about me. It was not a desire of my heart nor was it anything I imagined.

What I thought was the worst thing, turned out to be a good thing because, “all things work together for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.”

My friends, what a blessing!

And that is why, ever since I asked, “Who’s that Lady?”, I have learned to put everything into the “all things” basket.

Rolanda is a licensed social worker and consultant.   She is the author of the books Grandma's Hands - a children's story bookand Finally - a collection of inspirational poems; and the compiler of and  contributor to Beneath His Everlasting Wings, a collection of devotionals.  She has contributed to many journals and anthologies.  Her website is www.rorosrainbowcommunications.com.

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