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An elegy remembering pee wee

In these excerpts from the elegy Mama Almeta Whitis wrote for her mother, memories of "Pee Wee"--a "small, brown-skinned girl with a warm smile and long, curly hair" extend as far back as the Great Depression and the Great Migration. Ms. Whitis gives us the privilege of hearing Pee Wee's stories and lessons in her own words with profound love and gratitude. 

"Mama"Almeta Whitis has been gracing western New York with her inspiring message for several decades. Her talents include being a storyteller, author, performance artist, lecturer, educator, singer, 'story doula,' and teaching artist, whose life work involves exploring, presenting, and honoring cultural connections between people. Combining diverse stories and traditions, alongside history, she encourages students to explore movement, dance, film, and the visual arts; and helps them gain knowledge of academic subjects and the world at large. Her experience as an educator, university professor, and Master Teaching Artist has resulted in many awards, among them, Phi Delta Kappa’s 1995 Lay Teacher of the Year, National Endowment for the Arts’ Most Skilled and Experienced Community Artist, and Governor Mario Cuomo’s 1993 Decade of the Child Award. She is featured in Rochester Museum and Science Center’s “CHANGEMAKERS: 200 Rochester Women Who Have Changed The World” exhibition.

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Story text follows below.

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An Elegy Remembering Pee Wee

"Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord. . .”

January 31, 2012: My mother lay dying in a Phoenix, Arizona hospice while I lay bed-bound in Rochester, NY. Twenty-five hundred miles away and I cannot be with her to hold her hand and listen to one of her stories. So, I write. . .

Emmer Mae Coles-Whitis, nicknamed “Pee Wee“, was a skinny little, brown-skinned girl, with a warm smile and long curly hair. Her parents raised her in a shotgun-style wood frame house in a rural, mountain-top coal mining town near Triadelphia, West Virginia.

“I loved summertime when we swam in the creek.”

A child-like voice emerged as Mom became “Pee Wee” again - her childhood nickname...

“Being the smallest and unable to swim, the other kids made me the lookout for water snakes. While they splashed in that cool water, I sat on a great big rock overhang to watch out for ‘em. Whenever I would spot one wriggling in the water, Almeta, I would call out,

Snake!  Snake!

And, everybody scrambled out of that water!” she laughed.


Sixty years later, as Mom again began calling out in a high-pitched girlish voice, as a satisfied smile flooded her face again. Even as a child, she took pride in a job well done--and--she NEVER missed seeing a snake!

November 1934: “There was no food in the house. My stepfather was on strike with the other coal miners. We had not eaten for days. I was so hungry, Almeta. One morning, I was lying on the bed looking out the window at a certain tree growing in our front yard. I cannot remember ever feeling that hungry before. Uhm, Uhm, Uhm. Then, I heard a voice say, ‘Break off some twigs from that tree and make a tea and you will not be hungry anymore.'  So, I did what the voice told me. I went outside and climbed that tree, broke off some twigs, boiled them in some water and drank that tea. It tasted so good! Um, umm! It was the best tasting tea I've ever drank. And - I was not hungry! A woman had to make a meal out of thin air during the Great Depression, Almeta . . . I sure wish I could remember what kind of tree that was…” Another nostalgic smile as I could sense the slaking of her long ago thirst.

Fashioned from rural West Virginia’s mountains of coal and clay, Pee Wee, now a young woman was forged in the urban crucible of Buffalo, New York in 1946, the year before I was born when she married John Whitis Jr. a WWII Navy man from Mississippi. There she met Mildred Miller, an older woman who had danced at NYC’s Cotton Club before marrying Joe Miller, a former boxing champion. 

“‘Come here, little country girl. You a country girl! I’m gonna teach you the ways of the big city.’

“Millie took my arm, Almeta and steered me away from what she could clearly see spelled trouble for a “young country bumpkin” like me.”

From that meeting, Mrs. Mildred Miller became Mom’s oldest and closest friend in Buffalo, NY. We four kids called our fun-loving, beloved Godmother, "Maldy”. She was a small business-owner and we'd spend hours in her sewing shop while Mommy and Daddy worked. I guess by her not having children; she loved the four of us as if we were her own.

Fall 1951: “We don't deserve to be treated this way. I don't care how much money they are giving us. We don't have to take this disrespect!” Mom began sharing another of her stories: “The steelworkers union strike fund was all gone! The men still refused to work without a contract and the union told us to apply for welfare until the strike was settled. During the interview, a social service worker scoffed at your father and me. That white woman didn’t believe us… didn't want to give the colored families any help! Paid no mind to the papers the Steelworkers Union man gave him to prove your father was a union man on strike against Bethlehem Steel.

I’ll never forget how she looked down her nose at us. Talked to us like we was dirt, Almeta, like we were slaves! No respect! She had no respect! Treated us different from the white strikers! I told your father. ‘Get up, John! We don't have to take this kind of treatment. I don‘t care how much money they are giving out!’ And, we left, even though we were entitled to that strike money. Your father paid his taxes every pay period just like the white workers did. So we chose to feed, clothe and house you kids on my restaurant cook wages until that strike finally ended.

No matter what they throw at you, you can make a way out of no way, Almeta. Don’t you ever forget that! You hear me, girl?” 

“Yes, Mommy. I won’t forget.” Nor have I forgotten her resilience, steely courage and determination, which humbled every one of her life challenges.

Despite life’s cruel ravages and tremendous challenges, Mom firmly believed in important values like fairness respect, courage, hard-work and faith.  She embraced compassion, beauty, creativity, education, the arts and culture. Her ethos was “help somebody and help yourself”.

Our threadbare homes held makeshift bookshelves and copies of high art pieces, such as, her beloved Maxfield Parrish prints, a pewter pitcher, Tiffany-styled lamp and two exquisite Art Deco brass statues purchased from the Goodwill. Whenever she had a few extra dollars, Mom bought affordable treasures from there and “Ben’s’” - a neighborhood pawnshop

December 1959: It was our first Christmas with no food in a frigid hovel of a house. Our utilities were shut off after Mom’s accident. However, the love we shared that Christmas is a treasured life memory. Our family moved from Buffalo to Rochester, NY.

January 30, 2012: My sister, Johnette shared our mother’s final minutes. Mom lay there quiet, still. George, my sister Johnette’s white husband, patted Mom’s hand and whispered, “It is okay, Emma. You can let go now.”


Mom sat straight up and cried out, “NO! I’m not ready, yet!”… she lay back down and was gone.

My Mom, Mrs. Emma Mae Coles-Whitis - aka - Pee Wee was born on November 14, 1929, two weeks after Black Friday. What a way to enter life at the start of the Great Depression! Yet, despite living in the lowliest of circumstances for most of her stay on this earth, Mom continuously cast her eyes skyward - focusing upon the best gifts that life has to offer: love, family, dignity, education, living right, pride in yourself, and pride in our race.

She emphasized studying to get a good education, honesty, integrity, creativity, developing your God-given potential, remaining steadfast in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, and putting forth a valiant work effort -- all are her gifts to me. Substantial gifts - that have taken me years to learn and accept, to recognize and treasure. Valuable and meaningful gifts, that I cannot thank her for today, in person. So, this is how I will tell her, through this elegy of what I know about her life and our love.   

Perhaps Mom will feel my story of her life as a sojourner winging her way home. . . .


Farewell, Pee Wee… Farewell Mom and - Thank You with love.


Almeta Whitis (c) 2018

Excerpted from original written February 05, 2012 | Rochester, NY

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