By Joyce Burnett, Attorney At Law

“Many Perspectives”

My brother, Chris, called me this afternoon and asked me to write our mother’s biography because I am the oldest who remembers more and because Mommy is “deteriorating.”

Mommy was in Lake Arrowhead at the UCLA Conference Center

What follows is simply a recounting of Mommy as I knew her over the years as best as I can convey the highlights of our relationship.

In her younger years, my mother was a tall, tan, beautiful, middle class Black woman who carried herself accordingly. She was a real catch for Daddy who was a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks. Together, they were one of “THE” couples of Olathe, Kansas.

Together, they also worked the magic that helped to script my life.

I have lived my life by incorporating the best of my Mother in every way….including scrunching up my nose at less than impeccable housekeeping standards.

This “history” will omit the uglier chapters because since 1980, I decided to consciously give bad drama and its sometimes potentially deadly consequences, an historical place – then, guard myself against experiencing more of this extremely undesirable stuff in future.

After many early lessons, I learned to love my mother at a great distance, while at the same time, respecting how she was able to give me her best – under, what I believe were, very challenging circumstances; given the social climate, her temperament and her great abilities.


Joyce Burnett with Mom and Dad

Infant Years
One of my first memories of Mommy was when I took my first steps. She had taken me outside and sat me in the grass while she was hanging clothes out on the line.

The grass was tall and tickled the back of my legs. Even today, I am not really sure that I liked/like that sensation at all.

It was at least April and possibly May because I asked Mommy to pick a flower for me. It was yellow and I am sure that it was a dandelion. I liked the color and pointed to it saying something that I do not recall but Mommy understood.

Mommy told me to get up and get it myself.

So, I did.

Mommy stopped what she was doing, picked me up and was all aflutter.

I remember feeling quite bothered because I did what she told me to do, and now she would not let me experience the flower.

The next thing I recall is being held by Mommy with the sun in my face, and Mommy telling me that Daddy was coming. And, sure enough, there was Daddy.

Mommy put me down on the sidewalk.

She told Daddy to stop, and then, she let go of my hands.

I took off walking down the sidewalk because I saw something past Daddy that I wanted to explore. It was the driveway between the Pratt’s house and the Johnson’s house which had a white picket fence.

Daddy was the totally happy father!! He picked me up, hugged me, and Mommy stood there watching the whole thing.

I, on the other hand, did not want to be held but, I guess that I was put down for a nap later because I do not remember anything else that day.

For a while, Mommy used to tell me that I was much too young to remember this.

But, I do….just like the first time that I remember seeing snow, the first time I fed Chris his Gerber apple sauce, and the first time that I figured out that Santa Claus did not make the toys that I received on Christmas. I remember these things because Mommy made these experiences very stimulating for me so that I could not forget.

Was Mommy nurturing? Well, I am not sure how to answer that because, if you define nurturing as hugging and cuddling, I have no memory of Mommy doing that sort of thing much at all. She was also not a helicopter parent.

But, nobody messed with Vi Burnett’s children and Mommy demanded that we behave like honest citizens, too…. when I was at home, anyway.

TAKEAWAY LESSON: Be clear… the best person you can be all of the time; because there is no safety net in real life. Do as I say and not as I do; because I am not perfect!

Pre-School Years
We probably believe that the first artists in the family were Dean, Bonnie and Chris.

The truth is that while both Mommy and Daddy were musically inclined, Mommy was the first artist.

When I was 5 years old, I had begun to sketch and draw. One morning on a weekend, I was drawing and showing what I had created to both Mommy and Daddy.

Then I asked Mommy to draw something……no…..I BEGGED. Sure enough, Mommy drew a portrait of a person who was seated. I kept that drawing for a very long time.

Mommy never drew anything again. I begged a lot, to no avail.

Mommy allowed me to develop my creative side totally and completely — except, I was not allowed to draw on the walls.

Once when we lived in Denver, I orchestrated a photo shoot with all of the kids and asked Mommy to bring the camera to take the photo. She did. But, before snapping the shot, asked me whether I wanted to be part of it. I remember saying something like, “Oh yeah!!” Then, I joined in.

This photo is the one where I am standing in back of Bonnie, Chris and some neighbor kids. Chris and another kid are holding a box. The box belonged to Daddy — it was Daddy’s shoe shine kit or something.

Also, when we were living in France and I was ten years old, I asked whether I could rearrange the furniture in the living room. Mommy not only gave me permission, she also asked whether I needed her to help. Doing interior decorating was a great project and Mommy let me be in charge again. I sort of lost interest after one time when Daddy went out on Temporary Duty (TDY). When Daddy went on TDY, we never knew when he was going to return home. Mommy had helped me put the buffet in a new place and Daddy and returned home very late — he ran into the buffet which we had placed in the middle of the room. Later, in his calm manner, Daddy explained that he had bumped into it; and, that while it was fine that I was rearranging furniture, that I needed to let him know before doing so.

LESSON LEARNED: Stretch yourself into uncharted waters, adapt and evolve. Routine leads to tedium and boredom; and deadens the soul. Have the courage of your ancestors, upon whose shoulders you stand.

The West End of Town

Turbulent Teens
This was an awful time for Mommy; and, for me.

First, life as we all knew it ceased to exist when Daddy did not to re-enlist and we returned to civilian life to live in Kansas.

Next, Mommy’s hormones were raging pre-menopausal. My teen hormones were raging, too.

Also, after a couple of years, Mommy began working outside the home for the first time. She very much enjoyed the change. My mother finally had a chance to claim a profession!!

Aunt Sis used to say that Mama (Aunt Willa Pratt) would not have been satisfied until Mommy wound up in Washington, DC. But, Mommy did not want to go to college and have a career right out of high school. She wanted to get married, have a family and….thanks to Daddy, see the world. But having accomplished this, Mommy was ready for a career.

So, Mommy became someone else; and, so did I.

I became chief cook and bottle washer because, well, it was necessary….and, I resented every moment because this status made me responsible without any authority.

The national scene was crazy. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Vietnam topped the news as reported by Walter Cronkite.

Everybody was getting killed….President Kennedy, Kent State students, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bobby Kennedy, Medgar Evers, Malcom X, the Black Panthers.

Mommy and Daddy gathered us together along with other Black families that agreed to march silently from the Baptist Church in Paola to the town square and back. Mommy was beautiful, as usual, that day.

Woodstock was a place where people made time stand still…in the mud and the rain.

Haight Ashbury looked like a respite for even young kids like me. There were many runaways….and I tried running away from Paola.

But, because of how I was raised, I was able to negotiate a respite for myself in Chicago with Mommy’s sister’s family for a while. This side journey saved my life. At least, I could visit world class museums in a cosmopolitan environment. Eventually, I took the Santa Fe railroad back to Kansas. In two weeks, things were back to “abnormal.”

Mommy and Daddy were distracted by the disintegration of their marriage which began the moment we returned to Kansas.

Mommy’s strength as her own self-strong person was gaining. Paola was a stronghold for her family (Daddy’s family predominated in Olathe). She flaunted her power without reserve.

I tried to protect my siblings by making up for perceived deficiencies; but, knew that, as a child myself, my best efforts were insufficient.

LESSON LEARNED: There are serious, negative consequences for being a self-strong woman in this society rather than playing out the role society has created. The people in my family are intelligent, strong willed and resourceful…. There are no guarantees in life, so live the best life you can live. Mommy lived her best possible life and I should do the same because that is the only way our family can adapt to the future and survive it.

Joyce standing on her land.

You see, I do not believe that we are expected to be perfect.

We are human, which automatically negates perfection as an achievable goal.

Instead, what Mommy taught me was to be my best, to put my best foot forward, to never allow anyone to put a “for rent” sign in my head, to be responsible and, most of all, to be careful. The rest is up to me.

Mommy taught me that life is full of choices.

Choices are the essence of freedom.

My mother taught me how to be free.

It is a fitting legacy and a complicated, essential part of her biography.

I hope my family finds this valuable.

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