U.S. presidents have proclaimed the month of March as Women’s History Month since 1988. Heroines of eras past are lauded and celebrated as icons of courage and strength in the face of adversity. The names are well-known and reverently spoken.
But millions more are loved and cherished by family and longtime friends. Some have overcome unbelievable odds and prevailed as extraordinary agents of love and wisdom.
Helen Mosley-Galloway is such a woman, with a story that is both arresting and inspiring. At 84, time and grief have failed to dim her ready smile and intriguing wit.
She still lives in a modest, comfortable home on East Trigg Avenue where the family moved in 1959. But her story — Ms. Helen’s saga — begins in her birthplace: Proctor, Ark.
Like most African-American children growing up in the rural South where cotton was king, Helen vividly recalls her childhood — picking cotton and dragging a sack behind her weighing as much as 30 or 40 pounds.
There were 12 children in all. By the time Helen turned 14, it was evident that she was growing into a great beauty. And by 16, she had a 24-year-old man pursuing her.
“I had two older sisters so I just always thought he came to see them,” she said. “He was from Charleston, Miss., and he had moved there.
“He had a car and came over and told me, ‘Come ride into town with me.’ And I wouldn’t go by myself, so my brother went with me. When we got to town, he gave my brother some money and bought him a beer. After a while, he bought him another beer and told him to get out the car.
“I said, ‘Why you make him get out the car?’ And he drove me up to the woods and tried to force himself on me. Well, we wrestled and wrestled, but he was a big man, and it ended up, he raped me. When it was over, I said, ‘I’m going to tell my mama.’
“He say, ‘Don’t tell your mama because your mama like me,’” she continued. “And I didn’t tell it, but I got pregnant. My mama say, ‘Well, you got to marry him.’
“And just like that, we got married, and I had my first son.”
From cotton field to high fashion
Not even 43 years of physical battery and verbal assault could break Ms. Helen’s spirit. A spiteful, jealous husband who accused her of cheating with every man within 10 feet of her, including complete strangers, made life precarious and unstable. But she gave her life to making sure her two boys were good. And then, there was always that sewing thing.
“I started sewing when I was 10. I told Mama, ‘Mama, let me have two pieces of material so I can make me a skirt.’ I would watch her sew, stand behind her and look over her shoulder, and she would run me back outside. But after a while, I’d sneak back in and be watching her sew. She used a pattern, but I could do that in my head.
“Mama said, ‘Girl, you can’t sew,’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ She gave me the material and said, ‘If you mess up my material, I’m gone whip you.’
“Well, I made myself a skirt, and that’s how it started. My husband was so controlling and he didn’t want me to work. Well, I had to make sure we had enough because all he cared about was gambling and women. He had to keep a pretty car. I had to make sure my boys were okay.”
Ms. Helen saved up her pennies and was finally able to buy a sewing machine. She put it on the dining room table because she couldn’t afford the cabinet, too.
She made her husband’s shirts and other men saw them. Ms. Helen made her own dresses, and the women came and her clientele grew. She dressed hundreds of church women who simply brought in a picture of the dress they wanted.
Her gift for visualizing the pattern of each garment in her mind and putting together the custom-designed outfit perfectly proportioned drew attention. Soon, men and women were seeking her out — men urged their wives to go buy more material so “Ms. Helen” could make a shirt that looked store-bought.
And “the Lord blessed” despite being in a loveless marriage with a man who treated her with disdain — openly dating other women and gambling away the money for household bills. Ms. Helen cocooned her boys in the warmth of a devoted mother’s love, in spite of her own suffering.
But in 1987, heartbreak came calling. Her older son was 36 and newly married when an accident at his job went horribly wrong. A door that rolled up to open came down on his head.
He seemed okay initially, but begin complaining about headaches and a backache. Two years later, Junior ended up in the Baptist emergency room with a swollen, blood-filled brain in his head. Doctors did all they could to save him, but he died on the operating table.
Her precious boy — gone. She worked, prayed and cried to get through it. Ms. Helen was left with only memories of her Junior.
And still, the marital abuse continued. It came to a head one day when her jealous husband attacked her, beating her almost to death. The three guns lying on the bed were used to slam and jab every inch of her body — cruel and relentless, he promised to kill her.
“God saved my life that day. I passed out and he thought I was already dead, so he stopped beating me and left. When I came to, I crawled out the back door to call the police and get some help.”
That was her breaking point. He had always promised to kill her. After 43 years, she finally believed him. The judge awarded Ms. Helen the house.
Her health has declined somewhat in latter years. A stroke and a bout with cancer has drained her physical strength, but not her unbroken, caring spirit by which she continues to live.
Cared for by a loving, devoted and doting son, “L.D.”, Ms. Helen finally knows the happiness of a man giving his life to her, helping her find in the twilight years the exuberant joy of real love that was so elusive in her youth.
Calmar Jr., her grandson, is attending college and pursuing his dreams because his loving grandmother now sews bonnets — colorful, creative bonnets — and sells them as “Ms. Helen’s Creations.”
“I can’t do very much with my hands after a stroke,” she said, “but I can still make bonnets and sell them to pay some of the cost of his schooling. That’s my older son’s boy, Calmar. He is so precious to me, such a comfort, such a blessing in my life.”
Her life story is one for the ages — now immortalized in the words of this publication. She is every bit as strong and awe-inspiring as any other woman.