The Foundation of Life
I can remember, when I was just a kid in Louisville, Kentucky, my mother would wake my brother and me early every Sunday morning. She would come into our room, kiss us on the forehead, and say in a gentle whisper, "Wake up, tinky baby, wake up, Rudy, we're going to thank the Lord!"
My mother would sometimes call me "GG," too, because those were the first syllables I had spoken. After I won the Gold Gloves, I told her that from the very beginning I was trying to say "Golden Gloves." I thought my mother had a tiny little bird nose. I don't know why I thought that, because birds don't have noses, but from the moment I said it we all started calling her Mama Bird. After waking me and Rudy, Bird would cook us a nice breakfast. While we ate, she would iron our best clothes and lay them out on the bed. Then she would call us for a bath. After getting dressed, Rudy and I would go outside to sit on the front porch and shoot marbles before we headed off for Sunday school.
I can remember trying hard not to get dirty. I knew I looked handsome in my freshly ironed shirt and bow tie. When Bird walked out beside my father, Cassius Clay, or Cash, I remember looking up at them with pride, thinking how pretty she looked and how handsome he was with his thick black mustache. Cash would often say to me, "Most men envy me because they can't grow a mustache as long and thick as mine."
What he said has always stuck with me. I think that to him, his mustache was a source of pride. To this day, every so often, I let my own grow.
I had a strong foundation growing up; my parents were loving, affectionate people. Ever since I can remember, my father was always hugging and kissing us. He would say "give me those jaws" (his term for kissing our cheeks). Then he kissed us until our cheeks turned red. Cash always made me feel important. Although, at times my father had a quick temper, and my parents had disagreements, I had a happy home life and I knew that I was loved. My parents made me feel special. When it wasn't my father's affection, it was my mother's stories. Mama Bird was always telling me about the time I was born. She said that I was such a pretty baby, everyone thought I was a girl, and that from the moment they brought me home, Cash was "biting my jaws." My parents weren't perfect, but they each had a loving nature. My father was a painter. He made his living painting murals and signs. Almost every Baptist church around Louisville has his work in them. My father was very talented; I have one of his paintings hanging on my office wall, right above my desk. Cash used to tell people that he wasn't just a painter; he was an artist. Sometimes he would take me and Rudy to work with him. Cash would teach us how to mix the paint and lay out a sign. I could draw a little, but nothing special. It was Rudy that took after Cash. He is an artist, too. Cash used to say that if it weren't for the way things were then, a lot more people would have known what he could do. My father raised us well. He made sure we were surrounded by good people, taught us to always confront the things we feared, and to try to be the best at whatever we did. After delivering his advice, Cash would say, "These are the things my father said to me, and you don't learn them by accident, they have to be taught."
Cash was one of a kind; he was full of life and energy. He loved hugging, kissing, talking, and debating. He was my father and my friend. He was at my side when he could be and we had a lot more good times together than bad.
Sometimes, after school, when we finished our homework, Rudy and I would play outside with some of the other kids in the neighborhood. I used to ask Rudy to throw rocks at me to see if he could hit me. He thought that I was crazy, but no matter how many he threw, he could never hit me. I was too fast. I was running left, and right, ducking, dodging, and jumping out of the way. My brother and I had a lot of fun together, we never really got into fights. My mother used to tell me that when I was about four, whenever she would try to discipline Rudy, I would step in and say, "Don't you spank my baby." Rudy and I have always been close. He's my younger brother and I love him.
I wasn't much trouble as a child, but when I did cut up, Mama Bird just sat me in a corner and put an old bear head rug in the middle of the floor. I was so scared of it, I didn't move an inch. I thought the rug might jump up and bite me. My mother was a gentle lady. She always spoke in a tender voice and I never heard her say a bad thing about anyone. She didn't gossip or meddle in other people's business. She taught us that prejudice was wrong, and to always treat people with love and respect. My mother loved to cook, eat, make clothes, and be with her family. I loved her very much; there's never been anyone better to me in my whole life.
I learned a lot from my parents while I was growing up. I noticed how they remained dignified in the face of injustice. I saw how they responded to the people around them; I witnessed how my mother would forgive, not hate. And how Cash always held his head high and he worked hard. Growing up, we were poor in terms of money, but we were rich to have had so much love and pride in our household. We were raised with strong values and learned the importance of integrity and compassion. More important than the words, I learned by their example.
My mother was a Baptist and my father was a Methodist, but we always went to my mother's church. She taught us everything she believed was true about God. Cash used to say that he let Mama Bird raise us her way, because she was a good Baptist, and that a woman is better than a man, so we should follow our mother.
When I was in junior high school I applied for a job cleaning the blackboards and desks and doing odd jobs at Spalding College in Louisville. Sister James Ella gave me the job. I made a few dollars a week, working under the direction of Sister Ann. Sister James Ella was a sweet lady. She showed me how to clean shelves and sweep the floor. She passed away a few years ago, but I will always remember her. I had a good childhood. There were obstacles, and hardships, but I remained on the straight path. I kept my values in mind, and my faith remained strong. Although my religion would change later in my life, God was always in my heart.
My mother once told me that my confidence in myself made her believe in me. I thought that was funny, because it was her confidence in me that strengthened my belief in myself. I didn't realize it then, but from the very beginning, my parents were helping me build the foundation for my life.
Copyright © 2004 by Muhammad Ali Family Trust