Cover image for Life lessons my mother taught me
Life lessons my mother taught me
Young, Andrea, 1955-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putman, 2000.
Physical Description:
xi, 255 pages : illustrations ; 19 cm
General Note:
Published simultaneously in Canada.
Format :


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Material Type
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E840.8.Y647 Y68 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The daughter of former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young discusses growing up in a middle-class Black Southern family and the role of her mother in shaping her life.

Author Notes

Andrea Young is an attorney, public policy analyst, and writer. She is a former speechwriter for Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and the former vice-president of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

A fierce loss burns in this tender and graceful tribute. The chapter headings tell all: "Wear Lipstick," "Resistance Is a Way of Life," "Play to Win," "Don't Feel Guilty," "Work Is Love Made Visible." There's something deeply old-fashioned about the restraint with which Andrea tells her mother's life.

Publisher's Weekly Review

The oldest daughter of Jean Young, former educator and social justice advocate, and Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor, Georgia congressman and U.N. ambassador, the author interweaves compelling anecdotes of her mother's activism, her parents' marriage and their rich family life with the wisdom her mother imparted before succumbing to cancer in 1994. Describing her mother as a woman who constantly resisted prescribed roles, Young details how, as a young girl, her mother "engaged in a personal guerrilla war against segregation" at the soda fountain in Marion, Ala. Later, instead of becoming distracted by debates in the women's movement over the symbolism of bras and makeup, Jean Young focused on women's equality in employment and wages. An avid and competitive tennis player, she imparted her enthusiasm for athletics to her daughters: when Young's younger sister expressed a desire to play football at her elementary school (before the Title IX ruling that mandated gender equity in sports), their mother was unwaveringly supportive. In addition to serving as models in social issues, Jean and Andrew Young created a marriage that remains a prototype for their children. Describing their partnership as "a binary star system, [with] each orbiting the other, moving together," Young relates her mother's philosophy that a marriage can't be sustained if the partners are keeping score and that a marriage that is always 50-50 won't work. Thoughtfully written, the book is a wonderful tribute to a woman who refused to be categorized. Agent, Lawrence Jordan. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

YA-Young, the daughter of former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, offers fond recollections of her mother, Jean, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the tumultuous political and social change of the 1970s. She recalls a childhood brightened by her mother's extraordinary lessons in heroism, dignity, and service. Additionally, the writer shares various techniques her mother used to instill the values of love, integrity, ethics, and faith in her family. All of the stories are told with wit and charm. The book is a how-to manual for young women, a celebration of motherhood, an account of the life and accomplishments of an African-American educator, and a memorable example of friendship. Photographs of the author and her mother are included. While these tales include adult concerns such as "Resistance Is a Way of Life," "Play to Win," "Don't Feel Guilty," "Tell the Truth," and "Do Your Best," teens will find much to emulate in the remarkable life of Jean Young. Moreover, after reading these short, humorous, and insightful narratives, many young adults will feel reconnected to their own aunts, mothers, and grandmothers.-ayo dayo, Chinn Park Regional Library, Prince William, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Wear Lipstick * * * During her sixty-two years of life, my mother evolved from fresh-faced country girl to demure preacher's wife to harried young mother and schoolteacher to her final metamorphosis as a mature, confident, stylish woman at ease with any class of people anywhere in the world. She was flexible in response to external demands and expectations, while remaining faithful to the person she was inside.     Her unchanging rule of personal adornment was that she always wore lipstick. It symbolized my mother's development of her own personal style, one that fit her needs at each stage of her life. She taught me that it is important to project an appropriate image and is possible to achieve a balance between social conformity and personal preference. A woman does not sacrifice her integrity by doing so. Balance takes practice and the consequences of seeking the correct balance mean change over time--blue jeans are all right for students but not teachers. And, ultimately, the true person is more important than the external package.     Photos of my mother as a teenager in her small hometown of Marion, Alabama, reveal a lovely young woman in pigtails, a gingham shirt, and blue jeans. Although utilitarian in her own approach to clothing and ambivalent about her looks, from her earliest days Mother was exposed to women of genuine personal style. My great-grandmother had beautiful legs and wore high heels long after she might have retreated to more sensible shoes. My grandmother, Miss Idella Childs, was an accomplished seamstress and handmade nearly all of her family's clothing, including stylish, cinch-waisted suits for herself. As a result, Mother was accustomed to the comfort of perfectly fitted clothing and quality fabrics. Her sister Norma gained a tremendous appreciation for their mother's sewing talents and took advantage of Miss Idella's ability to make a fashion magazine outfit appear as if by magic on her daughter's back. As Norma grew to be nearly six feet tall and dreamed of becoming a model, Miss Idella continued to design and sew her clothing.     Unlike Norma, Mother preferred a cotton shirt and slacks. Her penchant for simple clothes was reinforced at Manchester College, a strict Church of the Brethren school, where she wore the same crisp white blouses, full skirts, and white anklets as her classmates. Manchester was 180 degrees different from the quintessential "party school." The students were sober and diligent, and many came from farm families in the Midwest for whom college was a tremendous sacrifice. Dancing was forbidden for religious reasons, so instead of attending parties, the students gathered around a bonfire, snuggling and singing hymns and camp songs. Strength of character was valued more than glamour, and my mother's fresh-faced beauty and inner goodness were prized. She was voted May Queen, and for the school's annual May Queen dinner, Miss Idella made her daughter a taffeta gown. Though the dress was strapless, my mother managed to look shy and demure, with her pink lipstick and long hair gathered at the back of her neck. There was a bittersweet quality for my mother in her selection as May Queen. While she was pleased by the honor, she knew that it came in part because her white classmates saw her as exceptional. As one told her, "You are too pretty to be a Negro."     My mother's tan complexion and straight hair were a source of discomfort for her. She was fiercely proud of being an American of African descent, and she was insulted by any suggestion that she was attractive because she was lighter in skin than most other African-Americans. My mother saw beauty in those she loved--from the blue eyes and red hair of her college roommate, Dorothy Gall, to the rich mahogany skin and deep textured hair of her high school buddies, Esther and Princess, and the many shades in between. Mother firmly believed that beautiful women came in all colors and that the most important feature came from within.     It was probably under the influence of her fashion devotee sister Norma that Mother began her lifelong habit of wearing lipstick. She never left the house without it, not to dash to the grocery, not to pick up kids from the YMCA, not to play tennis. Norma, Mother, and my father toured Europe together in 1953, the summer before my parents married. Ever practical, my mother had lopped off her long hair to make it easier to care for. She signed up to go on a work camp in Eastern Europe sponsored by the Church of the Brethren. They could not be sure what conditions and amenities they would find in the camps or on the freighter that would take them to Europe. Later in Berlin, Norma was appalled when she saw Mother's haircut. She took Mother to her own hairdresser for a repair. A little lipstick, and Mother was ready to take on Europe.     It's difficult for us to imagine what a novelty it was in 1953 for three young American Negroes (as they were then called) to explore Europe--riding the trains, sampling restaurants and nightlife. Whenever possible they slept on the train to save money, and Norma remembers how people would do a double take when they saw my parents seated in a train compartment, hunched forward as they intently studied the chessboard between them. Norma spoke passable German, but in Italy the trio had to resort to more creative ways to make themselves understood. In a restaurant near the train station in Rome, unable to read the menus, Norma led the way into the kitchen and they pointed to the dishes they desired. "It's all in the way you carry yourself," Norma assured her youngest sister. At a time when Mother was not allowed to use the restrooms at the bus station on her travels between home and college, it was a revelation to watch Norma lift her chin and walk easily into the great museums of Rome and Florence, negotiate rooms in affordable hostels, and introduce the three to band members in hip nightclubs.     After my parents married and my father began to pastor a church in the small town of Thomasville, Georgia, Mother began to work out the balance between her personal preference for casual clothes and the social demands of her position as the pastor's wife. It was a trial-and-error process. She shocked the congregation of teachers and farmers by wearing sleeveless shirts and shorts in and around their tiny house. The Thomasville residents had never before seen a preacher's wife in shorts, and they found it a bit scandalous. But they approved of the simple shirtwaist dresses Mother wore on Sunday morning, and they forgave her missing hat. They also approved of her modest approach to makeup: a conservative application of lipstick.     When I was a young girl, Jacqueline Kennedy was the model of womanhood: the glamorous wife of our handsome young President and the devoted mother of their children. Not until Diana Spencer became Princess of Wales did another woman in public life combine those two ideals so successfully. In my child's eye, my mother was as glamorous as Jackie and Audrey Hepburn combined. She owned one precious cream-colored suit in the boxy style Jackie Kennedy made so popular, and she kept her hair short for many years after her European adventure. Her lipstick shade was a muted pink. Objectively, short hair was very practical for the mother of three active young children. She tended to wear pants, unless she was going to work or church, and even for church, she wore sensible heels and forwent hats and gloves.     I was a teenager when my mother began to adopt a more stylish and self-consciously fashionable approach to her appearance. It was fascinating to watch her calibration adjust to the new demands in her life. My father had decided to run for Congress, and my mother was faced with the challenge of presenting herself at community meetings, meet-the-candidate coffees, and wine-and-cheese receptions. One of the first major events they attended was a black-tie fund-raiser at the elegant Hotel Pierre on New York's Fifth Avenue. It was 1970 and flashy patterns and bold contrasting colors were all the rage, but Mother knew she could not afford a trendy dress in the newest fashion. She wore a simple princess-cut white dress with a train at the back, and she put up her hair and held up her head. She had no jewels to set off the dress. She put on a hot-pink lipstick and walked regally into a banquet hall with movie stars Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Alan King, and Lena Horne.     Organizing that dinner, my mother became close friends with her brother-in-law's new wife, Sonjia. Sonjia wore the latest styles and magnified her good looks with tremendous flair. She wanted to encourage Mother to do just a little more with her own beauty, but she didn't want to offend her sister-in-law. Finally, Mother asked Sonjia where she had her hair done. Enthusiastically, Sonjia made joint appointments for Mother and herself at the Scott Cole Salon in the prestigious Buckhead section of Atlanta. She and Scott encouraged Mother to cut her hair, which over the years had grown to a long braid that reached almost to her waist. Scott gave her a very modern cut, which set off the shape of her face. Thus encouraged, Sonjia began to introduce Mother to many possibilities inherent in shopping for clothes.     From that point, Mother's clothes and lipsticks became brighter and bolder. Mother's approach to clothing was naturally conservative, but if she was going to be under public scrutiny, she wanted to look good. The color videotape of television has a voracious appetite for visual images, and the fashionably bright colors of the seventies rendered the classic, understated look Mother had cultivated almost dowdy. Skirt lengths went up, electric blue supplanted navy, and burnt orange replaced taupe as major fashion colors. Mother maintained an amused detachment about clothes and makeup even as she changed to suit current styles. Clothes were not her issue. Her goal was to dress in a manner that was appropriate and get to her real work.     Looking through old family photo albums, the change in the fashion quotient in Mother's appearance is quite striking. After Daddy was elected to Congress, she became more stylish, even acquiring a regular hairdresser. Muted colors remained a feature of her wardrobe, but fashion colors were added--fuchsia was a particular favorite. By the time she went to New York during my father's service at the UN, she made a fashion column by buying boots at Bergdorf Goodman's tony Fifth Avenue store.     My mother was naturally attractive and she possessed an even greater beauty that radiated from within. She was a living example of "beauty is as beauty does." She wore lipstick and light makeup not as a mask, but as a nod to social custom. She was a grown woman and in the conservative South, grown women wore lipstick. She groomed herself to complement her social and political role and in her pragmatic way, she cheerfully acknowledged the need for conformity in those arenas.     Nevertheless, my mother did not allow herself to be defined by her clothes, makeup, and hairstyles. She was First Lady of Atlanta when Ron Lee, a talented but unknown black photographer, asked for her help in developing a series of photographs. A supporter of the arts, she enthusiastically agreed. Lee's concept was to photograph mature women, the character and complexity of their faces undiluted by makeup and other adornments. The series was titled, "Women with Wet Hair" and the exhibit was immediately controversial. A reviewer for the Atlanta Constitution all but demanded to know why the women in the pictures had agreed to be photographed in what she insisted were unflattering circumstances. She avowed that one of the women looked "deranged." A photograph of my mother accompanied the article. The reviewer conceded that Mother didn't look "too bad," but asked rhetorically whether she would want her grandchildren to see this picture.     The furor this exhibit aroused genuinely surprised Mother. She responded that she would be proud to have her grandchildren see the photograph, and indeed, when the exhibit was taken down she placed the photograph on a wall in her home. Today, I have it in mine. In the picture, Mother wears a kind of Mona Lisa smile. It is a reminder that behind the cultivated image, there is a flesh-and-blood woman with spirit and character.     Mother always assured me that I was beautiful without makeup and shouldn't trouble myself about it. Though I experimented with cosmetics briefly as a preteen, makeup went out when my new feminist consciousness came in. This was the seventies and I was enamored of radical feminism and being authentically black. I wanted to be appreciated for my mind and my personality, and not my looks. To be black and a feminist in the seventies was to experience notions of beauty and appearance as a minefield. Chemically straightened hair was socially acceptable, but would it indicate self-hatred? I wore a large, Angela Davis-sized Afro--which, ironically, was only possible because I did not have purely African tight curly hair. In college, I wore dark-hued dashikis, black leotards, and jeans, and no makeup to speak of. At Swarthmore College, freedom of personal expression was accepted, even encouraged. Everyone was experimenting with the politics of identity. As women's studies and black studies were emerging as academic disciplines, we boycotted lettuce and fasted for world hunger.     It was probably my senior year in college when my mother looked at me with an appraising eye as I was headed for the door and pronounced, "Put on some lipstick." I hesitated, and she said firmly, "You need to wear lipstick." My intellectual exploration of sexual politics led me to view lipstick as roughly equivalent to a man's tie in the subconscious sexual language of the human species. But lipstick on a woman also suggested a certain level of maturity. My mother was simply letting me know that I was a grown woman, and as a minor concession to the realities of American culture it was time to wear lipstick. It did not improve my appearance so much as a little lipstick and some powder across a shiny nose "finished" it. Along with neat and clean, a little finish was appropriate. Mother in no way saw this as a major political statement.     When it was her turn, my sister Lisa received the same instruction: "Your lips look pale, put on some lipstick." Lisa protested that she wore Vaseline on her lips for a natural look. My mother commented in her dry way that the Vaseline made her mouth look like she'd been eating fried chicken. She needed some color.     My mother found my angst over these matters amusing. In her view, symbols of dress and makeup had no more power than we allowed them to have. From her vantage point, I was obsessing over symbols rather than the underlying reality. Her ingrained pragmatism meant that Mother focused on areas of central concern, not on peripheral issues. She thought the feminist focus on bras and makeup was distracting. For her, the real issues for women's equality had to do with money--with equal access to good jobs and equal pay for equal work.     Mother believed a woman had to develop her own personal style, but she could not ignore the basic language of adornment that was prevalent in her own culture. She knew that who we are is stronger than how we wear our clothes, makeup, and hair--that was the message in her Ron Lee photograph. But it is also true that clothes and makeup send messages in our culture and a wise person picks her battles. Unless one is choosing to fight for justice on the battlefield of adornment, personal style should be developed within a range of appropriate cultural cues.     It is not easy for women to do this. I am reminded of the magazine and newspaper articles over Vice-Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's short-sleeved dresses and Hillary Clinton's hairbands. One of my mother's accomplishments as a woman in public life was that her clothes were unremarkable--neither stylish nor dowdy enough to merit comment. She managed to dress appropriately, even fashionably, and her style of dress never distracted from her purpose or message. Her clothes very intentionally did not make a statement, rather her words and actions made the statement. She believed, in effect, put on a skirted suit, a nice pair of Italian pumps, and a swipe of lipstick--then go out and change the world.     I spent several years rebelling against the culture of beauty, what Naomi Wolf termed "the Beauty Myth" in her book of the same name. My father joked that I could attend a formal dinner in jeans and a T-shirt when the invitation required black tie or national dress--jeans and a T-shirt being my national dress. When I was still in school I could indulge myself, because I had the luxury of not having to earn a living.     But when I finished law school, I had to change my approach to clothes, just as I had seen my mother do years earlier. My first job as a freshly minted attorney was representing poor people who had received the death penalty for their crimes. My focus was to represent my client and prevent his execution. My work took me into rural Southern courthouses where the marriage records were maintained in separate books for blacks and whites and the vestiges of segregated bathrooms and water fountains were still visible. As a woman and an African-American in a courthouse ruled by conservative Southerners, it would have been self-destructive to show up to represent my clients in jeans or a dashiki. I bought a blue-and-white-striped seersucker skirted suit from Brooks Brothers to wear as my summer uniform and a navy suit for winter.     Initially, I felt fairly ridiculous in a store like Brooks Brothers--going to the clothes closet of the establishment to dress for my very anti-establishment work. But I remembered my mother's example--the clothes were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The goal was to dress appropriately and in a manner that did not attract any particular attention or distract from what I had come to do. It was important to my work to send the right signals.     As I have matured, I have come to deeply appreciate my mother's very practical approach to appearance and personal style. I continually experiment with the correct balance for my life and work. Like my mother, I married a minister and I had no aspiration of becoming the best-dressed woman in the congregation. A suit or dress and a string of pearls are my staples for Sunday best.     My experience has taught me that the transactions of daily life go more smoothly when I am well-dressed and well-groomed. When I am casually attired, I am rendered virtually invisible. It's difficult to get a taxi or the attention of a sales clerk. In contrast, when I am well-dressed, wearing a suit and heels and red lipstick, I find the world a much more responsive place.     My mother came to believe that it was fine to make the best of your looks, as long as you didn't allow it to become a preoccupation or a measure of your self-worth. It was worthwhile to dress in an appropriate manner, and in some settings a little glamour was called for. Mother learned to enjoy clothes, although she would always prefer slacks and a morning in her garden to a formal evening in a designer gown. If her responsibilities demanded that she attend such an event, her view was that she might as well look fabulous. And if she was just running to the mall, taking a brief moment to remove the shine from her nose and put on a little lipstick was, for her, more a symbol of self-regard than an attempt to impress others.     Today, the middle-aged equivalent of a T-shirt and jeans--khakis and a polo shirt--are still my favorite form of dress. Remembering my mother's admonition, I make it a point to wear lipstick if I'm leaving the house. When my daughter watches me refresh my lipstick just before leaving the house or getting out of the car, it's hard to explain the meaning of the ritual. She always tells me I don't need it. But it's not a mask and it's not that I don't think I am attractive without it. I can acknowledge that others judge appearance without measuring my own self-worth by how I look. True beauty comes from within, but a dash of lipstick complements it quite nicely. Copyright © 2000 Andrea Young. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
Introductionp. 1
Wear Lipstickp. 9
A 50:50 Marriage Will Not Workp. 25
Resistance Is a Way of Lifep. 41
Play to Winp. 55
Go to Churchp. 71
Live Your Own Lifep. 85
Children Firstp. 99
Servep. 115
Every Child Can Learnp. 131
A Kiss Will Make It Betterp. 149
Be a Homemaker, Not a Housewifep. 161
Don't Feel Guiltyp. 173
Tell the Truthp. 183
Do Your Bestp. 193
A Girl's Best Friend Is Her Motherp. 205
Know Your Historyp. 217
Work Is Love Made Visiblep. 229
Die with Grace and Couragep. 241
Acknowledgmentsp. 254
About the Photographsp. 253