Conversations with My Mom Part One. Growing Up In Harlem


My Mom Respectfully referred to by those that know and work with her as “Ms. Rose” Photo: Jody Watley (c) 2013


My Mom has had such a fascinating life to me. Like most of us, full of trials tribulations and tales of woe – as well as overcoming those trials and tribulations (which includes overcoming decades of substance abuse and addiction) along with successes. Needless to say she has a life that preceded being married and giving birth. At this late stage in her life she is better than ever emotionally, although physically slowed by walking with the assistance of a cane after a near fatal car accident with a tour-sized bus several years ago. A miracle. She continued her work after recuperation with a facility in Los Angeles. Prior to the accident for the past decade with HealthRight360 (formerly Waldenhouse) working with those from the criminal justice system offering Re-entry Support (education, vocational services, employment resources, housing, family therapy) Behavioral Health Services, and more for those who have battled addiction and looking to turn their lives around – my Mom is a survivor and example that the overcoming can be done, no matter how long it takes. You just have to keep fighting. Though we certainly have had our moments, I look up to my Mom for all that she has gone through. I’ve empathized with her pain many times, even when I was angry or hurt with her, the empathy and desire to understand her journey; brought me back around to not alienate myself from her. I celebrate my mother not just today, but everyday because I understand that part of why I am me – is because of her.

RoseWatley_HealthRightRecently receiving an award for her service, made me want to do a blog about her recognition but later chose to go deeper. It’s my view her story can help other’s who have dealt with similar issues as well as the children of parents with similar issues – we are all impacted in different ways, but it doesn’t have to be a lifetime of negative outcomes. To my daughter and son, she’s always been “Grandmaaa” and now that they’re older simply “Grandma”  without pre-judgement. Her complete tumultuous past isn’t something that they’ve ever really known much about – that was by my choice. Of course, there have been some moments in the past where I had to find a way to explain certain behaviors and absence, however they’ve been able to know and love her  for who she is to them and who she has become – most of all.

Moms and Dads of course have lives that precede having children. More of us need to know our family history so that we can share it with our own children and generations to come in a family tree – if possible. My mother was given up by her own mother left with one lasting memory as a child and didn’t know her father ( these realties are still a sensitive spot though she’s now in her 70’s and were at the root of some the self destructive behavior and inner demons she faced feeling unloved ). My Mom was raised by her great aunt,  ‘Mama Mary’, in Harlem New York in the 40’s and 50’s.   I always enjoy hearing about her life and what society was like when she was younger. I decided to interview my Mom to share some of her story in her own words. This is Part 1 of a Q&A.

Question, (Jody Watley, Daughter): What were your early aspirations?

Answer, Mom (Rose Watley): I wanted to be a model, with a day job of being a secretary, office technician, which I did, didn’t make the professional model as I was too short, but shortly pursued photographer’s model. I  won a contest as 3rd place, was happy as a lark, just starting, gave me some sense of confidence.  However, little did I know marriage was in my Horizon…..

Question, (Jody Watley):  Tell me what you remember most about growing up in Harlem, New York at the time you did?

Answer, (Rose Watley, Mom):  Growing up in Harlem in the 40s to mid 50s was exciting, fascinating, hard to put it into words now to capture that time.  There was the Cushman’s a bakery on the corner of 125th & Lenox Ave., which is named after someone else now (if still there), ate many warm cinnamon freshly baked, and ½ apple pies for probably less than a quarter at the time. Father Divine had grocery stores where all his parishioners had natural hair and wore silk stockings, always said “Peace”.  He had a congregation in Harlem where he had a section called “Rosebud’s” all virgins.  He had large large gatherings when he came to Harlem as his Head Quarters were in Philly.  He also married a white woman, which was unheard of in those times.  He had restaurants where they cooked very soulful nourishing meals, all you could eat for 15 cent.

There was another fascinating minister called Daddy Grace, who had big parades every year, he sat on a Throne, my girlfriend Delores Coleman went up to his church on 125th & 8th Ave., and had the privilege of singing for him.  There is so much more to these great cultish type religious figures that is hard to try to capture their prominence. There was also Prophet Jones from Philadelphia who was flamboyant. He wore high heels like Prince would wear, mink stoles, jeweled beret hats. He would spin around at the high point in his sermons and hit the floor. Your Dad was influenced and took some of that although he was already charismatic and over the top as a preacher. People would be lined up around the block. There were ‘queens’ as flamboyant as those on Real Housewives of Atlanta in the early 50’s that wore wigs, high heels, lipstick and all that. Their ‘stroll was on 125th and 8th Avenue, it was something to see!

Also, the neighborhood ‘white’ grocery store owners would let families run up a grocery bill that would be paid off within the month.  It was running credit for groceries.  Try that now (smiles).

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