Discuss as:

What Mom taught me...

Read the special Mother's Day blog written by Dateline NBC correspondent Josh Mankiewicz:

My mom came into this world eighty-five years ago, born on the kitchen table in San Bernardino, California. It was almost certainly the last time she made a mess in the kitchen that she didn't immediately clean up herself.

Her name back then was --no kidding-- Holly Jolley. That alone might explain her marriage to someone named Mankiewicz, but the truth is that Mom has lived up to her maiden name every day of her life. Holly is jolly in every sense, waking up happy, always ready to laugh or sing, and with a huge heart-- eager to pitch in whenever she imagines anyone might need help. She can't bear to hear or say a bad word about anyone. In case you can't tell, almost none of that has been passed down to her oldest son.

One more thing that wasn't passed down- over the years, those of us who know and love Mom associate her as much with that high-fructose outlook on life as with her by now legendary cleaning and scouring skills. With her Dustbuster held at port-arms, Mom is the Audie Murphy of the War On Dirt. Even now, it's only when she comes to visit that I get educated about just how grimy my home really is.

But what made me want to write about my mom on Mother's Day concerns a story that Mom rarely tells, probably because she doesn't like to boast. In fact, she was ambivalent about allowing me to tell it here. I persuaded her by saying it would reduce the amount of space I gave to the whole issue of cleaning.

The year was 1957 or '58, and Mom was working for the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP. It was a time when L.A. was far more segregated than it is today. Open housing laws didn't yet exist, and real estate agents simply would not show black families homes for sale in certain parts of town. If you were black and wanted to live in Westwood or Brentwood, your agent would tell you there were no homes for sale in those neighborhoods.

It was racist and disgusting, but of course it happened every day. And if you were a black couple who thought you could find a new home in west L.A. by driving around and looking for houses on the market, you were likely to get pulled over by the LAPD.

"Most of the blacks lived in a certain area," recalled Mom. "And if a black person or couple came looking for a house, they'd be shown homes only in that area."

Shattering that appalling custom became one of my mom's duties at the NAACP. All these years later, she can't remember if it the plan was her idea or someone else's. What she does remember is how well it worked.

My mom would call the phone number from a listing out of the newspaper and make an appointment to see a house for sale. When the real estate agent would arrive, he or she would be greeted by my mother, who was accompanied by a black woman or man. Mom would introduce them as a co-worker or assistant. In fact, they had only just met, minutes before.

With the trap set, the unsuspecting agent would then eagerly show the house, telling Mom how great it was, ticking off every amenity and mentioning how it was priced to sell. After the agent would actually quote the price, Mom's black "assistant" would speak up for the first time. "I'll take it," was what they usually said.

Generally, remembers Mom, the agent would freeze, and mumble something about how they thought Mom was the client. "Oh, I just made the appointment," Mom would say, no doubt using that smile that makes you smile even if you don't want to. "I never said I was the client."

If you're thinking this part of the story is no big deal, then I need to tell you how wrenchingly hard it must have been for Mom to even make it to the outskirts of actually lying to anyone, for any reason. She just doesn't have that gene.

But time and again, that one falsehood became the gateway to righting a wrong. For the real estate agent who was suddenly on thin legal ice, there was no turning back. They would have no excuse for not going ahead with the contract and selling the house. And faced with that Hobson's choice, they would do so. Mom estimates that she helped perhaps a dozen black families get a foothold in a real-estate market that otherwise wouldn't have been open to them.

Mom went on to do a lot of other things, including raising two journalists --one of whom is seriously embarrassing her as you read this. She almost never talks about this story, but I remember her telling it to me in the midst of the 1960's civil rights debate, and of course I've never forgotten it.

She'd grown up in an all-white town, and never went to school with or even really knew any black kids, but Mom's sense of outrage was set off in her high school years when a Japanese-American girlfriend of hers was yanked out of her home in the middle of the night and sent off to an internment camp.

That -is- a story Mom tells all the time. The episode played a huge role in transforming her; it clearly left her with a sharp sense of what constituted social justice. She was raised a Mormon, but left the church when she was still a young woman, in part because church doctrine at the time stipulated that blacks could not be ordained.

Not too long ago, one of those families Mom had helped wrote her a letter, telling her they'd finally sold that house, some 40 years later. We raised three kids in that home, they said, and all three went to college. Oh, and their profit on that house they weren't supposed to ever be in? Close to a million dollars. Holly, they wrote, thank you.

I called Mom at her home recently, briefly interrupting her pursuit of some errant dust that badly needed busting. I wanted to know if she thought what she'd done back then was noble or heroic.

"Nooooo!" she replied, using that same tone that accompanies my forgetting to use a coaster. "I don't see anything noble about it, then or now. I was just trying to correct an injustice."

The truth is that lots of mothers all across the country are heroic, every day, in ways that sometimes no one notices. But I wanted you to know about mine, who stood up to the system when there was absolutely nothing in it for her except the knowledge that she was helping us all to do the right thing. She doesn't think she did anything heroic. She's usually right. This time, she isn't. So Happy Mother's Day, Mom-- and thanks.

Josh Mankiewicz
Correspondent, Dateline NBC