Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Pancakes Were My Favorite

When I was five years old, my mom had to check into a hospital for nearly a month of treatment.  My sister, who was six at the time, and I couldn't stay home alone so my father hired a woman to come take care of us while he was at work.  Her name was Olney and she came at six o'clock each morning during the week and didn't leave until my father came home at around seven at night.  

Olney was a wonderful person.  She was probably in her late forties or mid-fifties, but when you are five, accurately assessing old people's age is problematic, so I am not sure.  She was energetic, caring, loving and funny.  Her laugh was infectious. She made us laugh with her jokes and silly phrases. Sis and I loved teasing her until she chased us around the house with a broom, finally collapsing in a heap on the floor with sis and I all over her, laughing until our sides hurt.  She made us hearty breakfasts, tasty lunches and sumptuous dinners.  Dad and I particularly loved her southern fried chicken and cooked carrots.  But my favorite was breakfast because Olney made the thickest, fluffiest pancakes I had ever tasted, with thick real maple syrup and ground pork sausages.

Olney loved us.  She would hug us when she came in every morning and when she left every night.  This was not so easy for me, not only because I was small but because Olney was a huge woman, wider than she was tall.  During the day she would read to us, play games with us, go for walks around the neighborhood with us and, every once in a while, say, "Come here and give me some sugar."  By that she meant she wanted us to give her a kiss on the cheek and a big hug, which we gladly did.

One day I asked her why she looked like the woman on the box of pancake mix, as if I thought they might be related.  "Oh, that's Aunt Jemina".  She told us she was just a spokesperson for the pancake mix and didn't really exist.  She was wrong, of course.  A woman named Nancy Green was the early face of Aunt Jemima for the pancake mix company, Davis Milling Company from St. Joseph, Missouri.  Ms. Green was born into an enslaved existence in 1834 but was later, in her late teens or early twenties granted her freedom.  It was her pancake recipe that Davis Milling used to formulate their ready-mix. She was a symbol of quality and goodness that lasted for 130 years. 

Ms. Green was what they referred to at the time as a "mammy".  She was a women who took care of a white family's children and even grandchildren. She was kind of a combination teacher, nurse, caregiver, playmate, disciplinarian and personal attendant, like our dear Olney.  My dad called Olney our "nanny", not mammy.  Since my mom's name was Anne, I always thought that "nanny" was kind of a substitute name for my mom.  My dad always treated Olney with the utmost respect and expected sis and I to do the same. We wouldn't have dared to do otherwise and didn't want to.

I was happy my mom was coming home, but I cried when dad told us it was going to be Olney's last day.  Olney hugged me to her bosom and told me she loved me.  I told her I loved her too and would miss her pancakes.

For the rest of my life I thought of this loving black woman as a shining beacon of everything that was good about a caregiver and a friend.  I judged all future "babysitters" we had by Olney.  Few, if any, measured up.  So, as I grew up, every time I made pancakes or saw a box of Aunt Jemima mix on the grocery shelf, it brought back fond memories of the wonderful, loving woman of my youth.

So, I have to say, that I am saddened and a bit angry that so many people, well intentioned as they may think they are, calling for the image of Aunt Jemima to be stricken from pancake boxes and our memories.  Olney was not a slave, she was not an indentured servant, and neither was Nancy Green for most of her life. I will never forget the most amazing black woman who loved me as I loved her. I will never forget Olney.....my personal Aunt Jemima.



  1. That was the sweetest story ever!! You were blessed to know Olney and I am sure she loved you and your sister so much. It did bring a tear to my eye though as it reminded me of times gone bye. I guess that is why our memories are so very important.

  2. Thank you for your kind words about my story. It is so true that our memories are super important and many are worthy of being memorialized, not only for ourselves, but for future generations.