I followed her as she journeyed to the family room where she always escapes her stress filled days and also to watch Lifetime, a show for women. We left the kitchen through the breakfast room where the walls were covered with black memorabilia she had been collecting since she was twelve years old. In the corner, there was a red cabinet filled with little antique figurines, plates with art work on them and old advertisements that were all meant to demean African Americans. These racist works of art were sold all over America and in parts of Europe less than fifty years ago. The advertisements presented products ranging from American Aunt Jemima Pancakes to Banania products sold in France.
The African Americans in these pictures were all portrayed with big pink lips and huge smiles across their black faces. The dialogue next to their mouths was always chopped up English, implying their ignorance or illiteracy. One of them was of a black child smiling holding a watermelon in her hand, saying, "Dis sho am good!" Growing up, seeing these things every time I entered the kitchen made me aware of a reality that I would have otherwise never been exposed to so blatantly. I know that racism still exist in the minds of many, yet I appreciate and am proud that those before me were strong enough to make a change in society during the Civil Rights Movement. This was my mom's way of holding on to her roots, never ignoring it or pretending as if it never happened. This serves as a constant reminder of how far African Americans have come as a people.
I grew up in a house of eclectic design, which as I got older came to realize was a reflection of my mom, Denise "The Diva Red" Roberts. The hallway's walls outside of the breakfast room were red, and as you look to your right there is a framed picture of my mom dressed in red sitting on her red Mercedes with the license plate reading "OTRAGUS." From the hallway, passing the front door and the living room whose thematic decor was accented with Chinese art, we entered a den in which the furniture was cover in animal skin. From the den we entered the family room and it overflowed with color and lots of big windows.
The floor was bleached satillo tile in which a bar was built into. We sat on the chenille couch trimmed in leather with the fire blazing to the side of us. My mom's feet were perched on the blacked wood coffee table in front of us. She looked at me with assuring eyes. As if to tell me that she was ready to answer any and every question I had for her.
Denise Gayle Roberts was born on March 28, 1952 to George and Edris Brown. She was delivered at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson Arizona. Responding to the question of what she thought of living in Tucson, she yelled, "It was hot!" Then proceed to say," It was a small town with warm people. And regardless of the heat, I always felt so free there, I felt like I could do anything." Denise left Tucson at the age of seven with her family when they moved to Los Angeles, California, but every summer Denise, her parents and her three sisters would return to Tucson to visit family. I asked her what she remembered most about Tucson. She paused for a moment and smiled as she said, "My grandmother, Ora Lee Hamilton…She was mom's mom and we called her Mother. Mother always had something for us to eat. She lived on 228 2nd Avenue, in what I thought, at a young age, was the biggest house in the world. There were three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Everyone lived with my grandmother; two of my aunts, sometimes another aunt of mine, all of their children, and my great-grandmother, Mamma Scott, who was full blooded Hopi Indian. When my father went to war for WWII, she told us to come and live with her also."
Denise had this sparkle in her eyes as the memories came to her mind. She seemed to smile with each word spoken. There was silence for a few seconds before she began telling me more about her grandmother. "Mother had a way of making everything funny, even the things that I would normally cry over. Once she combed my hair, and she racked the comb through my hair, hard, not stopping for any knots or tangles. She just rushed through them jerking my head back. It hurt so bad, but as soon as a tear was about to run down my cheek, she told me she had to hurry up and get a bug out of my hair and that was why it hurt so bad. Just then I wasn't sad, instead I was happy the bug was out of my hair." She laughed to herself about this for a while.
The next memory brought with it new laughter. Denise could barely get her words out as she described her grandmother's hair. "Her hair was bluish gray from the dye she used, and each of her curls were plastered to a specific spot on her head. She used to laugh at her own jokes and she gave me the name "the devil" because I was an Aries like her, which was one of the fire signs in astrology. Every time she put her clothes on she put an apron over them. She always had an apron on and in the pocket of the apron she kept a gun, but that was only after Grandpa Willie died of lung cancer. She did this because there were no men in the house with my dad away at war." The laughter came to an abrupt stop as Denise remembered that just like her grandpa Willie, Mother died because of cancer, except instead of her lungs, it attacked her breast.
When asked what Tucson means to her, she took a sip of her mocha while she thought, and then replied, "It is my birth place. I will always feel a sense of security there because I still have family living there and their doors are always open. I love Tucson. I am able to sleep at night knowing that my daughter is safe and happy, as I would be, at the University of Arizona. As a child my mom would take us by the college and we'd be in awe at how big it was. Then there was the rodeo that I dressed up for every year."
According to Denise, if there were three adjectives to describe who she is, they would be free-spirited, determined and fun. When I asked her why, she playfully pulled the blanket over her head saying, "Let me think. I am free- spirited because I have been challenged so much in life, health wise. My spirit won't allow me to hold on to fear. As a baby of eighteen months old, I had very severe boldness in my legs and had to have surgery to correct them. I wore a cast on them for a year. At the age of thirteen, I had scoliosis and for two years I had to wear a full body cast with a steal metal plate on the side to straighten my spine.
Then there was breast cancer... "She pause briefly and then said, "I am determined because I will never give up on life. I do everything I think I might like to do as long as it doesn't endanger my life or hurt anyone else. I am fun-loving because I love living. I love to laugh. A good laughter goes a long way for me." She shook her head and said, "If I didn't have a good sense of humor, I wouldn't be here." She took another sip and proceeded as if she never stopped. "There has always been someone teasing or talking about me behind my back about my ailments, and you just have to laugh it off. That is why I go by the motto, 'Skippy as a dog.'" She smirked. "Life is not that serious. It is too short and there is nothing that important for you or me to stress over." She took me in her arms and kissed my head, and then she told me, "Don't ever say you can't do something, because once you say that, you are apologizing for living."
If there is one thing that my mom has taught me, it is that I can do anything I want if I stay focused, and she is living proof as the founder of a foundation that is geared towards the fight against a disease that has ran through several generations in my family, cancer.
By: Heaven Roberts
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