My Big Mama Influences, Part II: Ola Mae Williamson Johnson

My great great aunt taught me two important lessons that I was able to pass on to my children. You can do the same.

The three Big Mamas of my life whom I introduced in Part I , were the matriarchs from both sides of my family. Just like Alma Jewell Harris, my great great aunt Ola Mae Williamson Johnson was a strong woman; another major influence in my life. 

Aunt Ola was born in 1903. She was married to my grandmother’s uncle, who died before I was born. Technically, Aunt Ola was not kin to me by blood, but she exceeded the expectation of an Aunt, and felt more like a grandmother to me.

The two major lessons she taught me were:

  1. Blood is not the only factor involved when it comes to family

  2. How to be a leader

Growing up in Louisville, I loved spending my weekends with Aunt Ola! Not only did she fix breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, but I had my own room and she would take me to church. I loved going to church at Brown Memorial CME. I enjoyed singing in the choir and attending Sunday School. Whenever anyone at church needed a youth volunteer for ANYTHING, they would make a simple announcement and Aunt Ola would immediately stand up and say “Cheryl will do it”. By the time I graduated from high school, I had quite the resume when it came time to apply for college scholarships.

Aunt Ola’s influence afforded me several leadership roles at church:

  • Christian Methodist District Youth President

  • Local Youth Vice President

  • Responsible for reading the weekly announcements every Sunday

  • Responsible for planning the Youth Day and introducing any Youth Day speaker

She never let me shrug off my responsibilities as a leader in our church community. I watched with pride as Aunt Ola adorned in her white attire to serve for monthly communion and the annual Mammoth Tea celebration. This special celebration was a once a year event to enhance the cultural life of the church and community through music and other art forms. It was a really big deal in the CME church and I loved seeing Aunt Ola front and center every year.

Aunt Ola was a leader in every facet of her life - church and home. During one of my many staycations with Aunt Ola, she allowed me to stay in her room because her sister came to visit for the week. Her sister cut her eyes at me and generally gave me a feeling of disapproval, the entire weekend.  I overheard her sister confront her and say “That girl ain’t none of your kin. Your husband has been dead for over 25 years and his family is still hanging around here taking advantage of you! I saw that girl going through the dresser drawers!”

Aunt Ola Mae and her second husband Mr. Johnson.


Aunt Ola stopped her immediately and said, in our Louisville tongue, “That bed you are sleeping in, that’s her bed. That dresser drawer she was going through, that’s her dresser! You just visiting, and you will be gone in a few days.  But she lives here and she will be back next week too! You cain’t tell me who is or ain’t my kin, so mind your business!” My heart was warmed knowing that Aunt Ola stood up for me.  It actually made me a little full of myself for the rest of the weekend.

The lesson of leadership and the broader definition of family has always stayed with me.

Early in our marriage, Andre and I had the opportunity to foster a teenager that was a member of our church. I wanted to make sure that the young lady, Kenithia, felt wanted and loved. We wanted to give her the opportunity to have a proper childhood.

Aunt Ola was thrilled with our decision and she gave me some of the best Big Mama advice you could ask for. When Aunt Ola met Kenithia she smiled at me and said, “She is 14 and you don’t have much time to teach her everything she will need to learn. So don’t just spoil her, but teach her.”

That week I started weekly Wednesday cooking lessons with Kenithia.  I also gave her chores - she was responsible for doing her own laundry.  These activities became a bonding time for the two of us, and helped to seal our mother/daughter relationship.

In a recent discussion with Kenithia, who just turned 40, I asked her what she thought about coming to live with us.  “I still find it hard to believe that you all took a chance with a teenager”, she said.  I am grateful that you chose to be my parents. I am blessed and honored to be a part of the family.  Living with you all was one the biggest blessings in my life.  The things that were instilled in me during that time helped mold me into the woman that I am today. I would like to thank Aunt Ola for passing down these lessons.”

Today, Kenithia is a well-adjusted Little Big Mama in her own right. She has been married for 8 years and  is very busy dealing with her blended family of 4 children.  She has a full-time career as a financial service professional, was the president of Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at her son’s high school, teaches Zumba class and deals with each and everything else that comes her way, day or night.  I feel a sense of pride as I watch her as a grown woman, preparing to carry the torch t in our family legacy.

Thank you Big Mama Aunt Ola for showing me what true leadership is all about, and for the life lesson that family is more than blood.

Big Mama’s Lessons:

  1. Children need to see you be a leader. They cannot be what they cannot see. I took my job as a mom seriously. I worked tirelessly to put the children on a schedule. I always volunteered for field trips, reading to the classes, and was an active parent in PTA and Girl Scouts.

  2. Give children responsibilities. Our children have been taught to be self-sufficient. Everyone has a chore.

    • At ages 7, 4, and 1, while going grocery shopping each child had a job. The oldest would read the list, the middle child would pick up the food and hand it to the baby, and the baby would put the food in the cart.

    • By age 3, the baby would set the table while I cooked dinner.

    • By 7th grade each child was responsible for doing their own laundry.

  3. All of my children can cook and make some dishes better than me.


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