Eulogy for my mother
Mom with my grandson Xavier, when he was a newborn.
Eulogy for Mary Ellen Shortt
(To an individual believer, March 27, 1938)
"'Evolution in the life of the individual starts with the formation of the human embryo and passes through various stages, and even continues after death in another form. The human spirit is capable of infinite development
"'Man's identity or rather his individuality is never lost. His reality as a person remains intact throughout the various states of his development. He does not pre-exist in any form before coming into this world.'
(Compilations, Lights of Guidance by Shoghi Effendi, p. 536)
How do you capture a lifetime of diverse moments in a few paragraphs? Mom used to tell all us kids that we could do anything if we really wanted to do it. But as life would reveal to me over the years, there are some things that are simply out of my control, if not downright impossible. Capturing a lifetime of experiences on paper is one of those things. But the attempt is well worth the effort, especially since the subject is the life of one indomitable, absolutely incomparable woman, my mother, Mary Ellen Shortt.
To tell her story, of course, it is necessary to start at the beginning, which is with God, the Source of all being in this universe. One of her favorite verses of the Old Testament was Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” That said it all. God, for her, was the Alpha and the Omega. “Fear God, not any man, woman or child”, she told us. And we listened. We also feared and loved her because she was one of those “powerful forces of nature” that spared no quarter, especially when it came to protecting us from the cruelty of the world.
She was the youngest child of four born to James and Amy Graham in the racially (and unfortunately, legally) segregated Leesburg, Florida. The country was in the midst of the Great Depression at the time, although that economic fact made little difference to the Graham family. Like everyone else living in the deep South during Jim Crow, poverty was the way of life before the stock market crash of 1929, and that did not change during Mary’s childhood and adolescence. Her father, James, “followed the seasons” picking fruit and vegetables all of the South and the East Coast, while her mother fished in the nearby lake and grew vegetables in their tiny garden. Mom was drawing water from the well in the backyard, cooking cornbread and rice on an old fashioned wood-burning stove, and washing dishes by the time she was four years. In fact, she was so small that she fell into the tub of dishwater and nearly drowned.
But she learned to complete her chores quickly and efficiently, lest she suffer the wrath of fiery-tempered part-Seminole Indian mother, whose startlingly powerful accuracy with her fists and various projectiles was legendary in Leesburg. My grandmother’s penchant for inflicting physical agony extended to not only her children, but anyone who came in close contact with her. In spite of this, Mom learned the practical value of hard work, determination to overcome obstacles, and taking pride in yourself and your surroundings, even if you don’t have more than one change of clothes and one pair of shoes.
For most of her childhood and adolescence, Mom only had one change of clothes and a pair of shoes. But she made do with what she had, and as she explained to me, my sister Tam and my brother Ricky, her clothes were always clean, starched and ironed neatly, and her shoes were always polished until they glistened. The message we learned was never let ANYTHING take you out of the game of life. You might get down on your luck sometimes, but you never, ever, stay down. Defeat is unacceptable.
It was this stubborn determination that led her to take a long walk from her family’s shack in the outlying Black Bottom to Leesburg proper with a stack of rhythm and blues records in her arms. She was fourteen years old, and she was tired of hearing her friends at the Lake County Technical School complaining about how the local radio station played nothing but “old-timey” records that were popular back in the 20s, 30s and 40s. That music was unacceptable to the black kids who loved to dance and sing to Ruth Brown, Etta James, the Platters, the Drifters, and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Mom gathered up some of her most cherished 33 and 1/3 vinyl albums (along with some belonging to her closest friends and brother Hardy), and walked all the way to radio station WBLE in Leesburg to ask the manager if he would play her albums instead of the “old-timey” records during the daily “rhythm and blues” hour.
The year was 1951, Jim Crow was in full effect, and my mother was justifiably nervous about being in the “white folks” side of town. Twenty five years earlier, the entire black population (save for seven children and three adults) of Rosewood, Florida was massacred and their homes burned to the ground by an incensed white mob. Mom grew up hearing stories about that horrific night, and she had witnessed numerous incidents of racial cruelty, including a hit and run mauling of a childhood friend by diesel truck, whose driver sneered and laughed as her friend’s body sailed up into the air and landed with an appalling splat on the pavement. In spite of this history, Mom summoned up that infamous determination, walked up to the radio station and knocked on the door.
“Excuse me, sir,” she said to the man who opened the door. “But the music you play on the rhythm and blues hour is that old-fashioned stuff, and my friends at school…I mean all of us…don’t like it. We like to dance, and that music ain’t good to dance to. Can you play these records instead?”
Mom never described the white man she was talking to, except to say that he looked and sounded like he had plugs of chewing tobacco in both cheeks. He studied her for a moment before speaking, and Mom was sure he was going to spit on her and tell her to get the hell out of his doorway. To her surprise, he didn’t.
“I’ll tell you what, Missy,” he told her. “You come on down here tomorrow afternoon, and I’ll show you how to play your records for your friends. You just gather up some sponsors to pay for the time, and you can have your own radio show.”
Soon after, “The Mopsy Show” debuted on WBLE. Mom was the producer, advertising manager, announcer and disc jockey. She approached every beauty and barber shop, grocery store, funeral parlor, used car lot and restaurant in Leesburg, Wildwood, Black Bottom and Eustis to get them to buy air time on her show. Since she didn’t drive or own any form of transportation, she had to either walk or hitchhike to pick up ad money and get to the radio station. She didn’t know how she would get out to the station each week; it was located twenty miles from her home out in Black Bottom. But somehow, she found a way, and “The Mopsy Show” (“Mopsy” was her nickname) stayed on the air for two years.
Her show became a hit, and even though she didn’t make a dime of profit from the enterprise, she managed to maintain enough air time income to expand her show from one hour to four hours weekly. Everyone loved Mopsy, and she loved doing the show. She was never nervous, or at a loss for words when she was on the mike. Mom cued up the records and played them, took requests and read all the commercials herself. She was a one-woman frenzy of radio production, but never felt stressed out over any aspect of show except arranging transportation each day. Broadcasting felt natural, as if she was meant to have a career in radio. She didn’t know how she was going to do it, but she decided to she would devote her energy to radio. There was only one problem—she didn’t know how to market her WBLE experience into a full time career. Even worse, there was no one in Black Bottom, Leesburg, Wildwood or Eustis who could show her how to take the next step. All she knew was that the most popular radio programs were broadcast from New York City, so she made the Big Apple her post-high school destination.
Mom made it to New York, but she never found a way into broadcasting. Instead, she took a receptionist job and a room in an apartment owned by an elderly lady who had once lived in Leesburg. When she figured out that being a receptionist was not going to get her anywhere, she enlisted in the United States Air Force. When she was stationed in Montgomery, Alabama after basic training, she was introduced to a young non-commissioned officer in the Air Force who was home on leave visiting his mother. His name was Richard Sydney Shortt, and he eventually became her husband and the father of her three children.
The rest, as the cliché’ goes, was history. Mom was disappointed that she was unable to materialize her dream career, but instead of lamenting her situation, she turned that iron-clad and hard work ethic into managing a family. It was not an easy task, especially since our family (which included Dad, me, my sister Tam and my brother Ricky) was ordered by Uncle Sam to pull up stakes and move to a different Air Force base every two and a half years. When she decided to go to college, she dedicated herself to the task, even though she had two daughters who were navigating that difficult maturation stage known as adolescence. She used that steam engine approach with her job as a probation officer—she put forth her best effort at all times. She really didn’t know how to do life any other way. As far as she was concerned, no task was worth doing unless it was done right.
“Don’t do anything half-assed,” she used to tell us. “Half-assed will get you no where.”
That saying, along with hundreds more “Mommyisms”, are like the rudder on a glass-bottomed boat slicing through the Florida Everglades—they help all of us steer clear of life’s “tangled web”. In spite of my tomboy tendencies, I still hear Mom telling me that “a young lady should always look her very best before walking out the door”. Then I look in the mirror and wonder if I should iron my blouse or put on makeup. Or, in typical Mary fashion, I will doggedly take on what seems to be an impossible task, regardless of the obstacles. A child of Mary Shortt never backs down from a challenge.
“You can do whatever you set your mind to do,” the woman formerly known as “Mopsy” told her children.
We love you, Mom