How this sassy star passes on her mom's inspiration over Twitter
- Posted on Nov 26, 2010
I admit it: I’m a chronic tweeter.
I love Twitter, the social-networking site where people can post messages and say what’s on their minds in 140 characters or less. I love to talk, and where else can I talk to more than 20,000 friends all at the same time?
If you follow my Twitter feed—and it’s easy enough to sign up—you’ll find a lot of inspiring sayings in there with the chatter. My feeling is, if you’re going to have people following you, you should give them something worthwhile.
Life is tough. We need more people to lift us up and remind us, “Go for your dreams, you can do it.” I know how much positive words have meant to me through the years. My source for a lot of material, my mom, Francinia, is the most inspiring person I know. She’s said some unforgettable things.
In 2001, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wasn’t a good candidate for chemo. I took tamoxifen instead and gave my trouble to God—just as Dr. Peale suggested in his book, "Thought Conditioners". Since then I’ve remained cancer free. -Guideposts Magazine reader
If you’ve watched the NBC comedy Community, about a community-college study group of colorful misfits, then you’ve seen me play Shirley, the divorced mom. I’m grateful when people tell me they love Shirley because she’s a lot like my mom, a divorced single mother with rock-solid faith, determined to see her children succeed.
There are really two versions of my mom, mine and my brother’s. My brother, Paris, was a bit wilder than me growing up, so she was stern and strict with him while I got a lighter touch. I can hear her say in a no-nonsense voice, “Have you done your homework, Paris?” and then practically sing out, “Hello, pumpkin” to me.
My brother and I laugh at how different Mom was to each of us, but there was one constant: She absolutely without-a-doubt believed that with faith and hard work, good things would happen to us. And guess what? We believed it too! That’s something worth tweeting about.
My mom worked as a secretary for 35 years, mostly at G.E. Money was tight. We were never on public assistance, but there were times when we came home to our rented two-family house in East Cleveland to find the lights or the gas off.
One of the things I respect about Mom is that she didn’t hide the truth from us kids. When we wanted to get something like a cool new pair of tennis shoes, she would gather us around the kitchen table and say, “Okay, let’s take a look.” She’d lay out her pay stub and the bills for the month. The bills ate up practically every cent of what she earned. “Which one should we skip?” she asked. We gulped, “None of them.”
“Can we get the tennis shoes right now?” she asked.
“No, Mommy,” we said. It wasn’t a “No, Mommy” complaint but a “No, Mommy, we understand now.” We learned to do without because we were aware of the tough choices she had to make. She called us the three musketeers. She raised us to be responsible for each other and for ourselves.
Unlike other kids in the neighborhood, if we didn’t have a tree or any presents at Christmas it didn’t seem tragic because we knew what was important—love. I always knew Mom loved me and God loved me. I didn’t know for sure what my future held, but I knew deep inside that God had a plan for me beyond my circumstances. And it’s the same for everyone else. If I can remind folks of that with a tweet, it’s worth all 140 characters.
I got my first job when I was 15. I became a member of what they called the hospitality team at Randall Park Mall in Ohio. We wore blue skirts, white shirts and little ties. We opened doors for customers and asked, “What can I do to help you today?” We carried bags, gave directions or walked people to their destinations, like roving concierges. Bringing home my first paycheck was a moment of pride because I knew I was contributing to the three musketeers.
But I had bigger dreams. I wanted to become an entertainer. Mom was cool with that as long as I finished school. I sang all through high school and college. Her stand was, “You can do shows, talent shows, whatever you want—as long as you keep your grades up and keep your scholarship.”
When I was a freshman at the University of Akron, I saw one of my childhood heroes, Michael Bivins, on television. Michael was a member of the R & B groups New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe and was just starting to manage artists, such as Boyz II Men. I said to my roommate, “He’s going to manage me.” She was like, “Yeah, right.” But I always remembered Natalie Wood saying that she saw Robert Wagner in a movie and said, “I’m going to marry him” and she did. I just had a feeling.
A few months later, Michael Bivins came to town for a concert. I waited hours for him to return to his hotel and when he did, I persuaded him to listen to me sing, right there in the lobby. He liked my voice and agreed to manage me. It was my big break, but there were others too. Moving to L.A., getting my first acting gig, on Girlfriends, by sending in a postcard that happened to be seen by the “right” person at the “right” time (a postcard!), getting my recurring role in Nickelodeon’s Drake & Josh, all of it made possible by hard work, faith and a healthy dose of my mom’s wise words.
For all her honesty about our financial situation, Mom still shielded us from the emotional fallout of it. But there were some things she couldn’t hide from us. One day a sneeze snapped her head back and a jolt of pain shot through her. She had horrible headaches after that. We knew something was very wrong, but it took trips to a lot of different doctors before she was diagnosed with Arnold-Chiari malformation, a condition where the base of your brain extends out of your skull and puts pressure on the spinal cord. My mom had to have brain surgery.
All Mom’s beliefs, her trust in prayer and her optimism, she put into action. Scary as those days were, the picture that stays in my mind is of Mom smiling—weak but smiling—in the G.E. company newsletter a week after her surgery. The article was about the secretary who had had brain surgery and how her positive outlook inspired everyone around her. Believe it or not, she was back on the job in a month. A month!
Nowadays my brother is a personal trainer and works for a satellite-TV company. Mom is retired and living in Las Vegas. She’ll come out and stay with me a week at a time, visit the set, chat with everybody. She’s like our mascot at this point.
I told her to get her passport because my next dream is to take her to Europe for the first time. She’s so excited! Now there’s a dream I can hardly wait to make come true. I’ll tweet you all about it, ’cause I’m sure Mom will have something to say.
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