The memory of a strong woman is a sanctuary. When the storm comes, you remember how her arms anchored your frame, her words soothed your soul and her eyes—deep and brown and bold—hushed the fear.
She reminds a girl to hope.
That’s what she always did with me anyway. It was as if hope rounded out every syllable of my grandmother’s sentences. She couldn’t help it; no matter how dark the sky, she’d never miss an opportunity to point me to the generations before us, those she called the “rudder on our ship.”They were the people who’d made our lives better now because of their struggle then, and so were “helping steer our course across the waters.”
I always thought it was a funny thing for her to say, considering my grandmother never once set foot on a boat. But I’d nod anyway. She was my MaeMa after all.
Born and raised in Cincinnati—where tough neighborhoods and the Ohio River separated her from Kentucky hills—Reyola Mae Wallace (or MaeMa to me) wanted better streets for her little girl and baby boy. She had bigger things to do while she waited for their daddy to come home from fighting in Vietnam.
He never did.
So she poured herself into the town of Claymont Falls, a thirty-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati, and raised my uncle and my mother through one troubled decade into the next. When I came along February 1, 1983, her small but solid house became my home too, mostly because my mom refused to move in with the “low-life crazy man” she called my father. That “crazy man” convinced Uncle Jimmy to move to Chicago when I was still in diapers and we didn’t hear much from either after that.
So it was just us—MaeMa, Mom, and me. We went everywhere together—to the store, the library, and just about every high school game or concert or art show there was.The town revolved around that school—Home of the “Lions”— maybe because there was not much else for folks to do, unless they wanted to drive to the city. And most, including us, did not. The older I got, the more folks simply referred to us as, The Wallace Women.
But there was no mistaking the matriarch. MaeMa was the first African- American teacher at the Claymont Falls elementary school, back when my mom started kindergarten in 1968. In between teaching fourth graders and serving on the missionary committee at church, MaeMa was one of those people who never thought doors would close if you wanted them open. Possibility to her was as natural as our family picnics and bedtime stories, and just as easy.
I’ll always remember how each night, she’d sit on the edge of my bed, read a few pages from whatever story we were exploring until my eyes would grow heavy and she’d close the book.Then she’d turn out the light and whisper words that became a familiar balm, “’Night, baby girl. Tomorrow needs your all good sleep now because you’ve got your best to give, not anyone else’s, just yours.” And near the fog of a dream, I’d hear her shuffle back to the living room and plop herself on the sofa to read until Mom came home from work and I’d be fast asleep.
If MaeMa gave me home and stories, my mother gave me my first shoes that mattered: cleats. The tiny rubber studs under my nine-year old feet felt as exciting to me as when I dressed up in her high heels. At little league soccer practice, I’d run faster than everyone else, I was sure, and kicked more goals because of those Pumas. It didn’t stop there. With each birthday, Mom somehow managed to buy me Nikes or Adidas, gloves, racquets or balls, and then find any sport possible for me to play in town. From tennis lessons and track teams, to softball, volleyball and soccer, she made sure my energy and abilities were put to good use while she worked at the school cafeteria during the day and Joe’s Diner at night.
And I loved every last one of those games. Each chance I had to lace up those shoes, tie back my hair and wear T-shirts and shorts, I’d feel just as at home as if I were in MaeMa’s kitchen. Each time I won a 50-yard dash, a team trophy or Most Valuable Player, MaeMa and Mom would pin those ribbons and awards on every wall and shelf in the living room until they spilled over into the hallway. Instead of paintings above the couch or photographs on the bookshelves, my medals, honors and trophies were displayed, rearranged and dusted.TheWallace Women liked to say they had a champion in their midst, and I’d never argue.
“You’re becoming your best for everybody,” MaeMa would proclaim as I walked off each field or court with her, holding her hand on one side and my mother’s on the other. “You’ll see, you’ll see,” my mom would echo.
What exactly “I’d see” was never entirely clear to me, no matter how many times they’d tell me, not even when I graduated from high school and played on a soccer scholarship at a university 600 miles away. I was too absorbed with my trophies and books and cleats.
Until, finally, I had to sit down, pay attention and remember. And that ‘had to’ journey began not long after I’d landed my first job: as a teacher and a coach in the same high school my mother and I both had attended, a career step that made her cry with pride, especially when she imagined out loud what the news would have meant to my grandmother.
If she’d been alive to hear it.
Bailey Crawford couldn’t get the words out of his mouth quickly enough. And he certainly wasn’t about to take the chair Harry Hanks offered him; the athletic director’s office suddenly seemed too small anyway. So Bailey just stood there, fists and arms lodged across his chest. He shifted his weight to his left foot and studied the man behind the desk, sitting calmly, adjusting the cufflinks on his sleeves and glancing occasionally toward the window, like he, too, would rather be somewhere else—but for a completely different reason.
“You knew it could come to this, Crawford,” he said, his voice a rhythm of ego and impatience. “We had to put the best applicant we had with a girls’ team to show we’re in compliance with the new rules.You’re our best.”
“But I didn’t apply.” Bailey shifted again, this time to his right foot. He shook his head, lifted his baseball cap and ran his hand over his bushy black hair before returning the cap. He turned toward the table below the window, picked up a small but heavy trophy. It was a statue of a miniature quarterback with a football in his hand, frozen in a stance that suggested he was about to pass, with a small gold plate beneath that read: “Regional Tournament, 1st Place, Claymont Falls Lions, 1982.”
Last year’s trophy. Bailey tilted it sideways before replacing it as if he were considering its significance. He cleared his throat and turned toward his boss.
“I’m the best, huh? Who’s the ‘best’ to coach girls?” he said. “Does Lars know? He was thinking I’d be his replacement. I’ve been his assistant for the past eight years, you know.”
Hanks grinned. It was a wide grin that pushed thin lines across his face, making him appear older than he probably was. Too many days beneath the sun at baseball games and fighting the bitter Ohio cold at football practices had punished his face. As athletic director, he’d clocked in hundreds of hours at every game the school offered as well as overseeing the football program. Now a weary annoyance was beginning to form in his eyes as well. Maybe because, as Bailey thought, adding a girls’ team now meant he’d have to supervise it as well. He was running out of patience.
The athletic director withdrew the grin as quickly as he’d offered it, clenched his jaw and adjusted the stacks of paper on his desk as if he were tidying both his temper and his workload. He picked up a single sheet of paper, ignoring Bailey’s question about Lars.
“Here’s the contract.You’ll teach your usual class load and we’ll set up 10 or so games for this first season, you know, to see if they can handle that.” He held out a ballpoint pen to Bailey. “Yes or no?”
“You’re serious? Girls’ soccer?”
He shrugged and waited, still offering the pen. “It’s the law of the land, like it or not, a thing called Title IX. We don’t comply, we don’t get funding for other sports. Plain and simple.”
Bailey swallowed and considered. “Any equipment? Assistant coach?” “Hmm, I did order new jerseys and balls for the junior varsity boys’ team this year, so I guess the girls can have some of their old ones.”
Bailey laughed at the thought. True, his daughter and her friends loved borrowing their brothers’ oversized sweatshirts to roam the neighborhood or the malls. But it was one thing to wear a sibling’s old jacket for fun and another to wear worn out uniforms—which probably wouldn’t fit—for an altogether different purpose.
“Old boys’ jerseys for girls? So much for equality,” he muttered, looking his boss directly in the eyes. In a department already built on the emotional battlefield of competition, the comment was an easy button that now pushed Hanks into the irritation he’d been holding at bay.
“Come on, Crawford, I thought I was doing you a favor. You’ve got a kid who’s been chomping at the bit to play the game and I’m giving you your . . .”
“I’ve got two kids, Harry, remember? Twins. Seniors. And one is a whole lot more likely to get a scout to see his talent than the other.You know as well as I do scholarships don’t exist for girls.” He was breathing hard, a small sweat forming across his forehead. He stepped closer to the desk and confronted his superior:
“Besides, fathers coach their sons, not their daughters.”
The administrator now accepted the challenge, rose from his seat and leaned
over the desk, a full five inches from Bailey, planting his cuff-linked wrists on the desktop as if the gesture prevented him from taking a swing at the coach across from him.
“Take it or leave it,” he whispered, ire escaping the sides of his mouth. “Who will coach the boys then? I’m next in line.” He had to ask. . . .