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Mercedes Maxine Del Vallie was born almost 100 years ago in Miami, Florida, to Clara Clark and Solomon Gonzalez Del Vallie. Clara was born in the Keyes off the Florida coastline while Solomon was born in Panama. While Clara came from a rather large family based in the Bahamas, Solomon’s origins in Panama are not known.
Clara and Solomon moved to the small town of Peekskill, New York, after he was hired as a cook for the Peekskill Academy, a military school founded in 1833. Our mother grew up in the town of Peekskill with her younger sister Margareta, her mother, and her grandmother Ella who helped to raise the girls. Solomon was often absent, working away from home and sending money back as was possible.
Mercedes was the older sibling and reports that she and Margareta, nicknamed Reka, fought often but also looked out for and took care of one another. In The Depression, people worked hard and suffered much, stories that our mom would share. She would recall to us living in an apartment with the only heat being an iron stove that they would settle around to remain warm during the New York winters that were so cold that the Hudson River would commonly freeze over. As Peekskill was close to the mighty Hudson, she got to see ice skaters enjoying the winter wonderland, though she did not remember the winter as much of a wonderland. The family helped one another, her mother taking in laundry and our mom and her sister helping to fold it and put it in baskets that they would carry up the hill to their customers. She recalls never liking doing this because it showed how poor they were. She recalled that their rent was only $10/month and though that seems crazy today, it was a lot of money back then as people worked in denominations of pennies, nickels and dimes.
The family was so poor that it was not discovered until she was about 8 years old that she was severely nearsighted, the importance of having school nurses. The school nurse arranged for our mom to get a pair of eyeglasses and she was amazed at all of the detail in life that she had been missing. I remember her telling us how she noticed that the leaves of trees had veins and structures that were all a blur to her all those years. Since then, our mother was never without her eyeglasses – glasses that got progressively more modern and fashionable as the years went by.
Our mother was not a strong student, in part probably because of the time lost to education not being able to see very well, but she became an incredible artist and by the time she was graduating from high school was well known in the area as an excellent artist. She entered a national contest to come up with a way to sell US Savings Bonds for the war effort that included a common expression. My mother chose the expression, “Kill two birds with one stone” and painted a picture of an eagle and a US Savings Bond being hit with a stone, suggesting that by buying US Savings Bonds, you are spending money to help yourself eventually and helping the country in the present. She won that national competition in 1943 and got a scholarship to attend Pratt Institute in Brooklyn New York! But when the school discovered that Mercedes was African American, they attempted to retract the scholarship and send her to Parsons, a school of lesser reputation. Somehow the NAACP found out about this attempt to disenfranchise her and made Pratt honor their commitment to the scholarship. While between my sisters we have some disagreement about the sequence of these events, Mercedes ended up attending and graduating from Pratt as one of the first African American students with a technical art degree. Mercedes, ever the practical one having lived through The Depression, decided to work in textiles rather than take a chance at fine art and perhaps end up living in poverty.
She joined the ranks of commuters, running down the hill to catch the train and commute to Brooklyn daily. She did this for about a year, becoming a real fashion icon, and then was able to board a room in Brooklyn as independent young women of the time did. It was there that she was introduced to a young earnest handsome man that was years later to become our father, Gordon Ralph Long. They stayed in touch for some years as they went their separate ways – my mother to start working in the burgeoning textile industry in lower Manhattan, and my father to attend seminary school at DePaul University in Illinois, as he was interested in the priesthood.
After some years of pursuing their separate lives and our father coming to realize that the priesthood was not the right choice for him, they reconnected and Mercedes would say that he would write the most wonderful letters and swept her off her feet. They got back together and married at age 29 and 30, respectively, a year later giving birth to myself and the next year giving birth to Gail, in Chicago.
It was at this point that our ever practical mother implored our more intellectual father to move back to New York City because she could see that making a living in Chicago was going to be very difficult. By moving to NYC she could use her art degree to help the family to survive by adding an income to the household. By moving to the Bronx, now pregnant with her third daughter Debra, she was able to help out by getting free-lance design and colorist work, connecting to old friends from Pratt, friends that she kept her entire life.
I remember many days while we played at her feet, she would be at her art board into the night, creating color design pieces to submit to local textile factories to be run on clothing of the day. Though my father did not really understand her work, when she started to bring home extra money, he would occasionally ask her to make some of “those little pictures,” and came to value her dedication and her help to the household.
Our mom was a true child of The Depression. She saved things, she made sure we all got equal parts of any food, she was the original recycler before it was fashionable – reduce, reuse, recycle – don’t waste anything. Our mother was frugal and saved money. She clipped coupons. She made our food from scratch even when we begged her for packaged food. I remember once she relented and allowed us to get a can of Spaghetti-o’s. Remember those? I remember realizing – Wow – this is awful! Though she was not a fancy cook, her food was tasty and healthy, a woman who took her home economics classes seriously.
She was also an amazing seamstress. She often made our clothes, matching outfits, and she even made our Easter coats. I remember her working into the night and before we left for Easter church, she was still basting a hem in the coat as we were walking out of the door! Last minute mom!
As we got older and textile work dried up and moved overseas, our mother spent more time caring for our father and the home. She also took up going to the opera with her best friend from Pratt, Shirley MacLeod. She eventually got season tickets to the Met and the two would meet in mink coats and go to the opera regularly and be enthralled by the marvelous sounds and the extraordinary costumes.
As she got older, she took up ceramics in the local art room and made some lovely pieces that we still use today. With mom, everything had to be useful. She started reading her favored biographies again, taking the long walks to the library. While never one to do a sit up, our mom was always surprisingly fit and very strong.
While not the most affectionate mother, our mom made sure that we understood her love by doing. For mom, love was a verb – not empty sloganeering. She helped, she supported, she gave helpful advice, she protected. She helped us to understand our worth in a society that did not value women and people of color. She made sure we understood to always have a job and a way to take care of ourselves, to be independent. She was ahead of her time and got to see a world that changed quite a lot. She never sat around pining for the olden days. The olden days for her weren’t always golden. She believed in making her fortune and she did. She always had an open mind and kept up with current events and had an awesome sense of humor. She did not try to control our every step or decision as some folks do with their children.
Our mom will be missed by all of us here and all who knew her. She got to live a much longer time than others in our family, something that was always surprising to her. But she did her best to maintain herself the entire time. Even in the nursing home, she tried to take care of herself as much as possible and showed an independent streak that people would comment on. She will be sorely missed.