(by June P. Middleton)
My mother, Geraldine Bernice Abbott Middleton, was born in 1918, five months before World War I ended and five decades before Black women could vote. She attended the historic Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., the first public high school in the United States for Black children, which developed generations of high-achievers, including W. E. B. Du Bois, the first African-American to earn a doctorate (from Harvard) and a founder of the NAACP; superstar entertainer Jennifer Hudson; and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. Although my mom looked like a beautiful, fragile doll, she played basketball on the all-girls team there.
Shortly after graduating from high school, Gerry, as she preferred to be called, decided that she wanted to be a fashion designer and asked her father’s permission to pursue this dream in Paris. A young woman, unmarried and unescorted, going to Paris, in the 1930s? My grandfather gave her a resounding No. Her response was to cut off her long, wavy hair and then hide it under a stocking cap for several days, fearful of her father’s reaction.
Dreams dashed, she remained home, like most proper young women, until she met and married my father. This ill-fated union (by both of their accounts) resulted in three children (two boys and me, the middle child) and a divorce when I was six years old. Perhaps the daughter of an ordained minister and the son of a Prohibition bootlegger were never meant to be.
As a single mother of three working full-time for the federal government, Mom didn’t have a lot of time to cook during the week. We had whatever was quick and easy to fix, mostly frozen TV dinners and chicken pot pies. She often fixed her friends’ hair on Saturdays as a side hustle, so her time to shine in the kitchen was mainly on Sunday evenings, when she always created a home-cooked meal for our family—usually a pot roast, meatloaf, or (my favorite) chicken and dumplings.
On the rare and special occasions when we had family over for dinner, she would cook something totally out of the ordinary like pigs’ feet—no doubt a vestige of her Carolina family roots. But she didn’t talk about family ties to the deep South, about racism or segregation or sharecropping. If she talked about the South at all, it wasn't flattering, so making pigs’ feet was a big deal—it seemed so out of character for her. Politics, religion, menstrual cycles, and sex were all scorned topics in our home. When I saw blood stains on my panties at 12 years old, I thought I was dying. Ashamed, scared, and confused, I hid them in the dirty laundry. When Mom came across them, it was then that she provided an explanation.
During the lean times, to help make ends meet, Mom took in boarders, renting out the entire top half of our house to strangers. We shared the same bed in what would later become our dining room until I was 14 years old. I had some slight embarrassment over this arrangement, as I knew all of my close friends at least had their own bed, if not their own bedroom. I didn’t appreciate until much later in life the cleverness and ingenuity of my mother. She produced three income streams so we would be well cared for and would not have to go on welfare.
There was very little eating out at restaurants in the ‘60s and ‘70s for families on tight budgets like ours. In fact, I was in middle school before I experienced dining out for the first time—despite the fact (or maybe because of it) that my father was a diner cook, and a very good one at that. He ran the diner in People’s Drug Store on U street and was the head chef at Westbrook’s Restaurant, then opened his own seafood and rib joint in Wildwood, N.J., two blocks from the beach. (Please don’t tell my mom, but he was the better cook.)
Segregated schools were still the norm in my childhood. My elementary school was almost all Black, except for one blond, willowy white girl named Krystyna. Her father was a Polish diplomat, and the family took an apartment right across the street from the school. We became best friends, and her family welcomed me into their home with open arms, as we welcomed Krystyna into ours.
Our family was lower middle class by most standards, and Mom couldn't afford to send us to college. She scraped together enough money for my first semester at Howard University, another historic Black school, but could afford no more. I was on the verge of dropping out, but got a student loan, and busted my chops so I could be on academic scholarship and would not have a huge student debt on graduating. I would study until the library closed at midnight on many occasions, and my mom always had a plate of food, waiting for me on the back burner of the stove. I graduated with honors.
Somehow, despite what I now understand were extraordinary pressures and demands on her time, Mom came through for me in important ways. When I was failing fifth grade math, she sat down with me, discovered that I did not know simple multiplication tables, and drilled me until I knew them cold. There were rules and chores for my brothers and me that taught us discipline—my assignments included cleaning the bathroom and ironing sheets. The dinner silverware was always polished (another one of my jobs) for holiday dinners. We weren't allowed to leave anything in the living room—no shoes, jackets or anything) and sat on plastic furniture protectors for years.
(A prom dress made by Mom)
I wore short skirts or pants at the risk of Mom calling me bad names, for a proper young lady didn’t expose too much skin, to her thinking. But she made beautiful outfits for me up through high school, including dresses for the two proms I attended, one of them a beautiful pink satin. I loved going with her to pick out pretty fabric and felt like a princess wearing a satin gown to a ball. She taught me some sewing basics, and bought me a typewriter so I could practice my typing. But for reasons still unknown to me, I was barely allowed in the kitchen except to do minor food prep, like chopping up or peeling vegetables (most of the cooking tips and techniques that were useful later in life came from my dad).
Mom made delicious pound cake, banana pudding, and other exceptional desserts, and for our birthdays, even into our 20s and 30s, she always made our favorite three-layer cakes; for me it was coconut. Not being the overly affectionate type, it was her way of showing us her love. One day I made the mistake of telling her that she didn’t have to keep on baking those cakes, and she stopped.
My mom died in 2020 at the age of 101. Nearing my seventh decade, I still miss those coconut cakes, but not nearly as much as I miss her.
Cold Oven Pound Cake
3/4 c. cake flour
1 t. baking powder
1/8 t. salt
1/2 lb. butter, at room temperature
1/2 c. Wesson oil
3 c. sugar
1 c. milk
1 1/2 t. each of vanilla, lemon, and almond extract
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.
Cream butter, oil, and sugar by hand.
Add dry ingredients to butter mixture alternately with the milk, beating about 20 seconds after each addition.
In a separate bowl, beat together eggs and extracts.
Add to batter and beat about 1 minute.
Pour into a well-greased and floured 10-in. tube pan.
Put into a cold oven, turn heat to 350 F., and bake 1 1/2 hours.
(You can replace the vanilla, lemon, and almond extracts with 4 1/2 t. rum flavoring or 1/2 c. dark Bacardi rum, or use frozen lemon juice instead of the lemon extract.)