The Remarkable Journey of an Extraordinary Woman
My mother, born Margaret Annie McRae on August 13, 1939 in Marlboro County, South Carolina, was the sixth of seven children, second of three daughters born to Anna Mae McRae. She and her family were sharecroppers on a cotton plantation, where she was expected to pick 100 pounds of cotton each day. She attended the segregated Marlboro County Schools through 10thgrade, when her mother made her leave school to care for a relative’s child they had taken in. Her sisters remained in school through graduation from high school. My mother dreamed of returning to school.
In January 1958, at the age of 18, she married Charles Edward DeBerry, from Marlboro County. My father, also from a sharecropping family, disdained working in the fields so much that he apprenticed himself to the white owner of a local eatery and learned to cook. The young couple welcomed their first child, Charles Edward, Jr. (Chuck), in September 1958. He was delivered by my grandmother, in her home, when the midwife didn’t arrive in time.
In 1959, expecting their second child, my parents headed north in search of work. Finding none in Philadelphia, they continued north to Hartford, Connecticut, where, with a sixth-grade education and basic cooking skills, my father was hired as a cook at Ollie’s Steak House the day they arrived. Hartford would be their home for the next forty years.
In October 1959 they welcomed me, Gloria Jean (Jean). Two years later, in October 1961, they were devastated by the stillbirth of a daughter, an event recorded in the family Bible simply – “Death: Baby Girl DeBerry, October 21, 1961.” In October 1962 they welcomed another daughter, Diana Maria (Diane), and in February 1964 another son, Jeremiah Anthony (Jerry). My mother’s fervent prayer was that she live to see her children grown and on their own.
My parents settled in Hartford’s North End, first on Charlotte Street, then in Stowe Village, a low-income housing project, where we lived at 68 Kensington Street before moving to a larger apartment at 123 Kensington. Although the images and stories on TV and in the local papers told us our neighborhood was poverty-stricken and crime-infested, we never viewed it as such. It was just home.
My father advanced from cook at Ollie’s Steak House to executive chef at Connecticut General (now CIGNA), to CEO and head chef of his own restaurant/catering business, Charlie D’s Rent-A-Chef, in nearby Bloomfield, garnering along the way local and national acclaim for his culinary expertise.
My mother, determined to provide a better life for her children, was convinced that education was the key to that better life. While my father worked to provide for the family, she remained at home, instilling in us a life-long love for learning, often going without basic necessities to ensure that we had access to every opportunity, educational and otherwise. Short on funds, but never on ingenuity, she enrolled us in free summer enrichment programs at the local library and various community organizations. She bought sets of books “on time,” which we read until the covers fell off. She was a regular fixture at our school, Fred D. Wish, most notably during the 1970 teachers’ strike, when she drove us to school each day, even though our apartment was right across the street. She’d drive across the picket line, window rolled down, berating the picketing teachers for not being in the classroom where they belonged, teaching her children. In 1971, with the four of us in school all day, she accepted a paraprofessional position in a kindergarten classroom at Wish, a position she held until her retirement in 1994. She excelled at the job. So much so, that she was often deployed as a substitute for absent teachers. In a career spanning two decades, she received numerous recognitions, including being selected as Hartford Public Schools Paraprofessional of the Year.
Although my mother made multiple attempts to realize her dream of finishing high school while we were growing up, the realization of that dream remained elusive. She would enroll in night school, only to be derailed by one crisis or another. The dream, however, never died.
As we grew older, my mother decided that our educational needs would be best served in a private school. She enrolled Chuck at the all-boys Kingswood in West Hartford for seventh grade. The rest of us remained in Hartford Public Schools, at Wish, and the Eleanor B. Kennelly School via Project Concern, an educational enrichment program, through eighth grade, then followed Chuck to Kingswood, which by then had merged with the all-girls Oxford School to become Kingswood Oxford (KO). Although she was not as present at KO as she had been at our elementary school, we knew she had our backs, nonetheless. During a parent teacher conference with Chuck and his advisor at KO to discuss Chuck’s progress, the advisor made the mistake of saying, in front of Chuck, that Chuck would never be an “A” student. My mother had Chuck excuse himself from the room, then laid the advisor out for daring not only to set lower expectations for Chuck, but also for having the temerity to articulate those lower expectations in front of him. It never happened again.
1976 was eventful for my parents. They purchased their first home, on Keney Terrace in Hartford, moving our family from the Stowe Village apartment that had been our home for more than a decade. They saw their firstborn, Chuck, graduate from KO and head to the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Also, in 1976, my mother made what she considers her most important life decision, to put on Christ in baptism at the Northside Church of Christ in Hartford, a decision she has never regretted. She has been a faithful Christian ever since and never tires of sharing her faith with anyone willing to listen. My father made the same decision in 1979, overcoming serious alcohol and nicotine addictions, eventually becoming a minister, serving Northside on an interim basis, and later the Bennettsville Church of Christ in Bennettsville, South Carolina.
In 1977, I graduated from KO and enrolled at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Following their graduations from KO in 1980 and 1982 respectively, Diane headed to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and Jerry to Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Between 1980 and 1986, my parents saw all four of their children graduate from college and were on hand in 1991 to see Jerry graduate from the University of Virginia Law School.
My parents lived to see all their children not only graduate from college, but also set out to make our way in the world, marry, and start families of our own. Together they welcomed two sons-in-law, two daughters-in-law, and seven grandchildren into the family. Their home became the hub for family gatherings, particularly Thanksgiving, which they hosted every year, opening their doors and arms to welcome not only those related by blood, but also their extended church family.
In 1998, the nest empty, my parents decided to return “home” to Bennettsville, where they purchased a second home. My father went first, joined the following year by my mother, who stayed behind to pack up the house on Keney Terrace, and 40 years of memories. She rented out the Hartford house and headed for Bennettsville.
After resettling in Bennettsville, my mother turned her attention to her oft-deferred dream. In May of 2000, at the age of 60, after completing two years of coursework in one year, she graduated from Marlboro County High School in a ceremony at the Marlboro Civic Center, an event attended by my father, my siblings and me.
In July 2000, my father was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Despite the grim prognosis, my parents made trips to Connecticut and New York and attended Jerry’s wedding in New York in October of that year. In February 2001, they traveled to my home in Massachusetts for what would be my father’s last gathering with the family. On May 15, 2001, my mother lost her husband of 43 years when he closed his eyes in death after battling cancer for nearly a year. He was 63. For the first time in her life, my mother found herself alone, and lonely.
Over the eighteen years since my father’s death, my mother has had to draw on the core of strength we all know has been there from the beginning, buoyed by her conviction that all things work together for good to those that love the Lord. She has welcomed three more grandchildren into the family since my father’s passing, bringing the total to ten. She has seen five of them graduate from college, with the younger five not far behind. Now 80 years old, she considers herself blessed beyond measure, prayers answered, dreams fulfilled, surrounded by the love of family and friends in celebration of an incredible journey, 80 years in the making.
Gloria DeBerry Gallington is a lover of the written word and its power to impact lives. She is a wife, mother of 3 adult children, Christian, writer, storyteller and avid gardener. She lives in Boston with her husband of thirty-seven years in a house that is too big since their children moved out.