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‘Mama was too much’: Mother’s wisdom inspires Buffalo woman’s memoir

In the days after her first baby girl was born, Ylonda Gault’s visiting mother exasperated her.

The woman who raised her with steely sass in the 1970s had opinions about how Gault held, swaddled and fed her new daughter, Chloe.

Instead of a slipping into the sweetly moving newborn experience, she was all business.

“I guess common sense isn’t common at all,” Essie Gault said back then.

There was a baby to raise. Expert advice be damned.

“Mama was too much,” Gault remembers thinking that summer 17 years ago.

That line is now at the bottom of page 17 of her memoir “Child, Please: How Mama’s Old-School Lessons Helped Me Check Myself Before I Wrecked Myself.”

Her story about the clash between old-school and new-school parenting and her Buffalo childhood without coddling debuted a year ago and deepened the relationship between Gault, 52 and living in New Jersey, and her mother, Essie Gault, 81 and living in Buffalo.

The trip that followed included making Chicago Tribune’s best book of 2015 list and a potential TV show the 20th Century Fox film studio is now writing a script for.

“It’s bananas,” Gault said in a phone interview from her home. “No one is more shocked than me.”

As she had two more children and developed her career as parenting writer and editor at magazines like Redbook and Essence, the disconnect sharpened between modern child-rearing ideas and her mother’s.

Gault felt like a fraud. Parenting hype deadened people’s natural instincts. Aisles of baby wipes and other unnecessary gear complemented stories about needless worries like how spirited is your child.

“I basically realized this was all kind of bunk,” Gault said of the preponderance of contradictory “expert” advice. “My mother’s voice was in my ear all the time.”

About five years ago, Gault’s life was in flux as she started to thread together memories in journal writings that would become the beginning of the book about the good and bad of her own upbringing.

“I think there’s something about a life change that makes you reflective,” she said.

Her marriage was ending, but she didn’t know it yet. She wanted to tell mothers how to get their mojo back and trust their inner voice. She sold a book proposal about how the “mommy industry had hijacked our organic, God-given nurture instincts.”

Then she shifted to memoir at her agent’s suggestion. There were books about Asian Tiger moms and French moms, but not black moms.

Women, like Gault, had mothers like hers: She raised three children simply, on the salary from her job making Trico windshield wipers.

“We had a nice life because in Buffalo you can,” said Gault.

She remembers feeling like she belonged everywhere in Buffalo – from Kleinhans Music Hall, where a black women’s group hosted an annual Ebony fashion show, to the bygone John’s Flaming Hearth restaurant known for its steaks.

“When I was growing up, I didn’t have a sense of class. Everyone seemed to work. I think that people in Buffalo, even people who have wealth, don’t wear it the way people in other cities do,” she said. “Us Buffalo people, we’re just like, ‘Where’s the work? I’m going to get to it.’ You don’t realize what a blessing that is.”

While her parents were divorced, her father lived near, and she and her older brother and sister had a carefree childhood growing up on the East Side with their exacting mother.

“I thought she was crazy mean. She would make us scrub the garage floor. What would be the point of that?” Gault said. “She was also very biting, just in the way she saw life.”

Her mother would say things like, “Just because someone’s nice to you doesn’t mean they’re your friend.”

In one classic episode from her girlhood, she and her mother were out shopping for a new outfit at a department store.

“How can I help you girls?” a sales clerk asked.

“I only see one girl here, and she doesn’t have a pocketbook,” her mother replied frostily. “I’m taking mine elsewhere.”

As Gault wrote, she called her mother to get more detail. She heard more about how her mother grew up in Alabama with a mean stepmother after her mother died. She was alone when she left the Jim Crow South for Buffalo. She was determined, not bitter.

Her attitude was, “It’s tough. You gotta be tougher.”

Gault graduated from the now-defunct Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy and studied journalism at Northwestern University because she loved to write. She spent a summer as an intern in The Buffalo News Features Department.

“There are no small stories, just small reporters,” one editor told her.

After graduation, she headed downstate to the big city to write about cutlery for a trade magazine.

“Serrated knives,” she said. “I worked it. It was great to me.”

She covered fashion and retail for a business magazine.

After her daughter was born, a parenting freelance article led to a job as an Essence editor and a specialty. She wrote stories about blended families, temperament, home schooling. All things that were at odds with the way she was brought up.

Modern mothers seemed to make their lives about their kids. Gault’s mother made time for herself, dressing up with lipstick and earrings when she went out.

“When my mother left the house, she made sure she looked good and felt good ... She had kids and she loved them, but it wasn’t her life,” she said. “My mother’s parenting, so-called ‘expertise,’ was pretty much five words, ‘Don’t make me hurt you.’ ”

That sensibility came through in last spring’s essay, “What Black Moms Know” in the Sunday New York Times. It was her response to a flap about a Baltimore mother filmed slapping her teen son when she found him wearing a mask at a protest riot.

White mothers, she wrote, were more easily caught up in the pop-culture parental fretting machine:

“They worry about pesticides; this year’s best birthday-party theme; enrichment summer camps; preparing Johnnie for college admissions in 2025 (it’s never too early); and, of course, the biggie – keeping their kids happy.”

“Thankfully, I am a black mom,” wrote Gault. “Like many of my fellow sisters, I don’t have time for all that foolishness. Our charge is to raise – notice I did not say ‘parent’ – our children in a way that prepares them for a world that, at best, may well overlook their awesomeness and, at worst, may seek to destroy it … One thing that makes it easier for us is that, unlike many white women, most black women in America come from a long line of mothers who worked outside the home, and have long been accustomed to navigating work and family.”

A few days later, within a week or so of her book coming out, she had an email from the president of 20th Century Fox: “Hello. I’m Jonnie Davis ...”

She thought it was a prank.

“I did nothing for a whole 24 hours. I thought, ‘This is stupid. This is a joke. Somebody really wants to play with me.’ ”

Her idea of black motherhood was universal, Davis said. So was the humor in her mother’s style. This was her retort when Gault balked at the idea soothing her teething daughter with some whiskey on the gums, “You’re all right aren’t you?”

This, Davis wrote, could be the makings of a great TV show.

By last fall, she sold the story rights.

Gault, who has a Mother’s Day essay in the current issue of Ebony and does public relations for a church near her Montclair, N.J., home, may be a consultant if the program starts taping.

Her mother, who can’t believe people are so interested, is over-the-moon proud.

As Mother’s Day approached, Gault said the occasion still seems like a day for her mother, not her. This year she mailed off a care package of homecooked pot pies, bean soup and chicken wings, as always.

The best part of her tradition is that their relationship is so tight it doesn’t matter what she does.

“Whether I send her a dozen roses or call her and talk to her for two hours,” Gault said, “she’s the same amount of happy.”

email: mkearns@buffnews.com