A Tribute to Ruth "Truth" Kelley
My mom, Ruth Kelley, affectionately known as “Truth,” raised three boys in South Central Los Angeles, where I was born. My father voluntarily vanished months before I was born, so my mom was both my mother and father. She raised my two older brothers and me on an abundance of love, discipline, food stamps, Section 8, and huge blocks of oily Welfare Cheese, which tasted amazing on grilled cheese sandwiches.
Although my mom worked several jobs simultaneously when I was growing up, we were, nonetheless, poor by many standards. We didn’t have a car for most of my childhood, and public transportation in the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles was completely inadequate. As a child, I’m not sure which I despised more, riding with her to and carrying those heavy bags from the grocery store on the public bus, or the embarrassment I felt whenever she pulled out those clunky and indiscreet food stamp books (actual food stamp coupon books that predate the current WIC cards) to pay for the groceries. Of course, all the humiliation disappeared whenever I filled my stomach with food.
My mom experienced much heartache with my older brothers, much of which came from them attending neighborhood schools, such as Horace Mann Junior High School and Crenshaw High School. Things just didn’t work out well for them at those schools, due in large part to the high presence of gangs and the low presence of resources, funding, motivation, expectations, and curriculum development. Since I am nine years younger than my brothers are, my mom decided to try something different when my time came to attend school; she decided to bus me, against my naïve will--all the way to the Valley!
I resented waking at predawn to ride a school bus for at least an hour each way to attend a school where I didn’t feel welcomed or understood. I resented my cousins and neighborhood friends giving me hell for “talking like a white boy.” I resented arriving home in the late evenings, exhausted and starved from the long bus rides to and from school.
I grew angry when my poverty became instantly more apparent after seeing the houses and privilege of the kids in the neighborhoods where I attended school. I grew angry with my mom because I thought she allowed my father to leave (that was my perception as a child). How could I grasp the pain, loneliness, and sacrifices my mom made as a single parent or understand the cowardly decision my father made to discard me before I was even born? She did her damnedest to raise three boys herself rather than allowing the gangs to raise them for her, as so many others have done.
I have several vivid, indelible images of my mom, some wonderful, some especially challenging. Some of the most wonderful images of my mom include the following:
1. The look of pride on her face when I earned my bachelor’s, and subsequently, my master’s degrees;
2. The looks of joy on her face when she met my two sons, her grandsons, for the first time shortly after each of their births; and
3. The look of delight on her face when she walked into my brand new house (homeownership was something she never accomplished).
The more challenging images of my mom include the following:
1. The look of sadness and concern on her face when I left home at age 17 to travel across the country to attend Howard University in Washington, DC;
2. The look of despair and surrender on her face when the years of pain, poverty, and powerlessness caused her to experience, right before my young eyes, a very traumatic nervous breakdown (she was carried off in a straightjacket after shattering numerous large store-front windows on businesses along Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles);
3. The look of complete confusion on her face whenever I visited her at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in Camarillo, California (she was so sedated that she barely recognized ME, her Baby!); and
4. The look of finality on her face when she took her last breath, while I stroked her face, in the hospital where she spent the last two weeks of her life.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom! Thank you for your courage in singlehandedly raising three boys and for forcing me (I am forever grateful!!) to step out of my comfort zone and attend elementary, middle, and high school far from the neighborhood in which you reared me. Thank you for believing in me enough to step outside of your fears and concerns to allow me to leave home at 17 to attend college completely across the country, knowing that I didn’t have family nor a support system in Washington, DC.
Thank you for loving me unconditionally, even when I admitted to you that I was gay. That was the time you flew to Washington, DC to attend my master’s degree program graduation. When I uttered that “gay” word to describe myself, you didn’t even flinch. In your eyes, I could do no wrong, and I was still your Baby! At that moment, you taught me something no degree in the world could—You taught me to lift my head high and not allow how, or who I love, to define me!
To this day, Mom, nobody’s voice lights up like yours did every time I called you on the phone or came home to visit. To this day, nobody’s sadness is more apparent than yours was every time I left to return to the east coast. Your “Dune Buggy” misses you so much. At age 52, I still feel like an orphan, but rest assured, Mom, you taught me well!