So, as Giggy the grandmother, I work purposefully to give my family the absolute best of me that I can. To that end, I want to share this recent experience I had with the mother, grandmother, great and great-great grandmother of all! She is my mother-in-law and I have learned so much from her over the years that has made me who I am today. You will enjoy this!
Ellena Mitchell Garcia was born in Ahoskie, a small town in Hertford County, NC. Even today it only has a little more than 5,000 residents. Ellena came into the world on New Years’ Eve, December 31st 1926 just before the Great Depression. Her family eventually moved to Harlem, NY where she experienced the Great Depression firsthand.
We recently celebrated Ellena’s 90th birthday at a ballroom in Richmond, VA where she now resides. There was a standing room only crowd that gathered for her party (Ellena said, “This is not a celebration; that’s for old people. This is a partay!”). Ellena, my elegant mother-in-law, was wheeled into the room, decked out in her red, black and white, even down to the red slippers. She was preceded by most of her more than 50 grand, great grand, and great-great grandchildren (I lost count), who marched in before her parading the same colors.
Ellena had planned everything for this party. And it went just as she had imagined, down to the song she cruised in on, “We’re Having A Party” by Sam Cooke, the impromptu worship choir, and the speech she had practiced for so long. The room was quiet as she began:
- First, she decided to disclose her lifelong secret that her real name is “Emma Maude”! She laughed at herself as she said it out loud. “Emma Maude Ellena Mitchell! No one knew but my sisters, brothers and children.” She said she dropped the Emma Maude as soon as she could.
- She then talked about her experiences during the Great Depression. According to her, Teddy Roosevelt was the greatest president of all. He helped our country through the rough times and provided them food and clothes. She had to stand in line for hours to get food to eat and clothes to wear. All girls received the same outfits - skirts and blouses - but she would make hers different by cutting her sleeves into designs and rolling them up. This was the beginning of her talent in fashion.
- Ellena then shared how she eventually got a warehouse job working in the basement at Bloomingdales as Blacks were not allowed to work upstairs in the store. During the early 60’s the law changed and mandated that Blacks be allowed to work in all departments. Someone who knew her from the basement recommended she be hired to work in the ladies clothing department. She said it was because she was ‘fair skinned’ and tall. (Side note: everyone agrees that Ellena was and still is gorgeous.)
- She started working in the Fashion Department for celebrities and, over time, became the sought after fashion expert by the likes of Lena Horne (“Lena would not let anyone wait on her but me”), Diana Ross and many others. Ellena retired from Bloomingdales after many years of faithful service.
Everyone in the room stood and applauded when she finished her speech. It ended abruptly when she said she couldn’t remember the rest! As I watched Ellena's soar graciously throughout the ballroom in her wheelchair, bringing smiles and laughter to everyone, I stood proud to be the ‘daughter’ of this woman. For years after she retired to Richmond, Virginia, she was head of a Clothing Ministry at her church. There were about 10 people at the party who served with her. They proudly talked about her dedication and commitment. They shared how she made them hang all the clothes hangers in the same direction; that the clothes had to be pressed and hung perfectly; and all items, including shoes, were color-coded. Even though these clothes were to be given away to the less fortunate, when they entered that room, it was as if they were shopping at Bloomingdales. She demanded and received respect for herself and the same for anyone who came into her presence.
Other guests lined up at the microphone to share how Ellena helped save their marriage, helped them through depression, financial and personal losses; met them on a bus, in a store, or on the street and invited them to her home and accepted and loved them unconditionally. People of all ethnic backgrounds were there from New York to North Carolina to enjoy once again being in her presence. What a legacy Ellena “Emma Maude” is leaving. She truly exemplifies the highest life. We should all live so generously.
** As I write this, Ellena is currently in the hospital. She is improving and regaining her strength. She welcomes your prayers and well wishes.
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