Mattie was born in Prince George’s County, Virginia, on Jan. 1, 1884. She was an only child; her mother died giving birth to her. She was raised by an African-American Mammy on a tobacco farm there. She contracted tuberculosis when she was young; Naomi believes she was exposed to it by her Mammy, who in turn was exposed to it in the unsanitary servants’ quarters. Mattie’s family sent her to a sanatorium in New York, where she was treated with a concoction made of raw eggs known as “egg nog” (a supposedly medicinal drink not related to the holiday beverage) and forced to sleep on a cold porch, which was supposed to benefit TB patients. Because of (or more likely despite) these treatments, Mattie survived, although lingering effects plagued her for the rest of her life. A problem with her hips, which Naomi believes was related to the TB, caused her to limp. Mattie called her condition “sciatica” and said that every step hurt. One of her legs was shorter than the other. Even so, she went on to become a nurse and met her future husband at the hospital where she worked; he was working as a landscaper there.
Naomi seems quite ambivalent about her mother. In some stories, Mattie appears as a strong and resourceful woman, but in others, she seems fanatical and almost abusive. This is what I’ve gleaned about her:
Mattie married John Augustus Kimball, the then-landscaper, and had six children with him. The first two were John Augustus and Marian Lolita. The couple seemed to be doing well when the first two children were young, and Naomi has a picture of then-two-year-old Marian, looking well-dressed and comfortable, posing for a formal portrait with a stuffed sheep. After living in Philadelphia, where Naomi and her twin sister Ruth were born, John, Sr. got a job as a railroad foreman in Sewarren, New Jersey. The Kimballs moved into a railroad-owned house there. Their life was likely peaceable enough until John, Sr. impregnated his Italian secretary. Faced with the wrath of her father and the embarrassment of the railroad company, he moved away. Mattie refused to follow him, and she remained in Sewarren with her younger four children. (John, Jr. and Marian had already grown up and moved away.) They lived in a house owned by the railroad; it was located at the end of a dead-end street. Mattie had no steady income of her own, but small acts of kindness helped her survive and raise her children. The railroad never charged her rent, and a representative from the water company who had come to shut the water off didn’t completely shut the valve. Because of his deliberate oversight, the family could place a pail beneath the water pipe and leave it to fill. Mattie would send the children down to the cellar to bring up the full bucket and replace it with an empty one. Since the cellar was dark and full of cobwebs, Naomi recalls this as one of her most dreaded chores. It was necessary, though, since the dripping pipe was the family’s only indoor water source.
John, Sr. made occasional visits home, often to impregnate his wife. Mattie could barely feed the children she had, so Naomi remembers her going away to have illegal abortions and often becoming violently ill afterwards.
Mattie never worked outside the home, but she had dreams (never realized) of becoming a traveling preacher, and she knew the Bible well. She used her intense religious feelings to discipline her children; when Naomi and her younger brother Jimmy were misbehaving, she would pray loudly and fervently, telling them that they were wearing “black capes” and would go to hell. Her praying frightened the children more than any whipping would, and they would beg her to stop. (Even so, they would usually return to their misbehavior once she was gone.)
Despite her religious fervor, Mattie and her children never attended church when Naomi was growing up. Naomi thinks she did attend earlier in her life, when her husband was still with her and her lifestyle was still relatively prosperous. The death of her daughter Ruth might have been a major factor in her lack of churchgoing. When Ruth (Naomi’s twin) came down with diphtheria, Mattie employed all her training as a nurse to try to heal the child. She had to keep the other children away from Ruth lest they get infected too, so she put Ruth on a mattress in the living room and ordered the others to stay upstairs. She was too destitute to bring in a doctor, so she sat by Ruth’s side and prayed. She believed her prayers could bring the child back from the brink of death, but one night, when she got up to get a cup of coffee, she returned to Ruth and found her dead. Mattie blamed herself for leaving Ruth and never got over her death. Later, when Naomi and Jimmy were misbehaving, she would threaten to go to Ruth’s grave and kill herself there because of their bad behavior. Since she would also sometimes threaten to drown herself in the creek by her house, Naomi recalls stopping her fights with Jimmy to have an anxious debate about where to seek their mother to try to keep her from committing suicide.
Mattie inflicted some significant trauma on her youngest children with her prayers and threats, but she also sacrificed much for them. Losing Ruth made her determined to save Naomi, who came down with diphtheria shortly after Ruth’s death. Naomi recalls being so exhausted that she just wanted to lie down and give up, but Mattie propped her up and forced her to keep walking so that she wouldn’t suffocate. Mattie’s dogged efforts to keep Naomi moving probably saved her life.
During the height of the Depression, Mattie would drag a wagon about two miles in order to get a ration of flour and coal to feed and warm her children—this despite the pain in her legs that caused every step to be a torment. When Naomi was working on a major project for her high school English class and was forced to borrow an acquaintance’s typewriter, Mattie somehow came up with $50 to buy Naomi her own Royal typewriter; to this day, Naomi has no idea how Mattie got the money, but she still has the typewriter. Mattie also somehow came up with money to buy Naomi a beautiful belt for her then-beltless coat and walked a long way to buy it, even though she was sick at the time.
Naomi recalls being disturbed by Mattie’s prejudices, especially against Catholics and immigrants. Mattie believed that Catholics would give control of the U.S. to the Pope if they were elected to political office. She would also sometimes mimic the accents of neighboring immigrant factory workers. Since Naomi attended school with their children, she was uncomfortable with her mother’s mockery.
Despite her prejudices, Mattie was also resourceful and generous. She would use what little she had to provide for her children; she fed them vegetable stew, baked beans, and oatmeal as much as possible. In summer, she would make elderberry jelly from the berries growing wild near the house. Since the windows in the house had no screens, she would cut strips of newspaper and hang them over the windows to try to keep out some of the voracious mosquitoes that plagued the children at night. She put a pair of man’s boots at the foot of the stairs and called to her (not-actually-there) husband to get the (nonexistent) gun when she heard hoboes wandering into the ground floor at night. (The house was so dilapidated that many wanderers assumed it was deserted and tried to spend the night in it.) Even so, she never sent a tramp away unfed when he came to her door and asked for a meal. Mattie generally didn’t have enough to feed her own family, but she couldn’t let strangers go hungry. She even felt guilty when she realized she’d given one tramp spoiled milk.
Mattie died in 1939 of complications related to her tuberculosis and from being worn down in general. Her three youngest children remained in the house for about a year before selling it and going their separate ways.
I learn more details about Mattie almost every time I talk to my grandmother, and the tidbits she mentions always present a complicated portrait. As menacing and fanatical as Mattie could sometimes be, she overcame her ill health and raised four children as a single mother during the height of the Depression. In Naomi’s words, for Mattie, “every step hurt, but she never stopped walking.”