Our Pledge To You


After long decline, my mother’s death at 91 not unexpected but still painful

Mary Mitchell with her mother, Carrie Duncan, known as Mama Carrie, at a Mother’s Day gathering in 2017.

Mary Mitchell with her mother, Carrie Duncan, known as Mama Carrie, at a Mother’s Day gathering in 2017. | Family photo

My mother, Mama Carrie, used to tell us: “You’re not going anywhere until the Good Lord is ready for you.”

The Good Lord took his time with her. A month ago, she celebrated her 91st birthday.

On Monday, she died peacefully.

The past 10 years, she had suffered from Alzheimer’s. After a recent fall, we knew she was leaving us. But that didn’t make her passing any less painful.

My mother was part of the Great Migration from the South and lived longer than all her peers.

Carrie “Sue” Duncan was born on Aug. 25, 1927, in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and grew up during what she called the “hard times.”

Like many black people of her generation who lived in the South, she chopped cotton from the time she was big enough to drag a sack across a field until she escaped to the North.

She left school early and was illiterate well into adulthood, when she taught herself to read by struggling through the daily newspaper.

Mama Carrie was a fraternal twin (her twin brother preceded her in death) and gave birth to two sets of twins —  fraternal and identical.

She met my dad at the old Riverview amusement park. Having served in World War II, he was still wearing his Navy uniform. They were married in 1951.

Petite but wiry, Mama Carrie probably never weighed more than 110 pounds.

Carrie Duncan at her 90th birthday celebration.

Carrie Duncan at her 90th birthday celebration. | Family photo

They say everyone has a gift. I think my mother’s gift was bearing the responsibilities of childbirth. She brought 15 healthy children into the world — three of them before leaving the South, two after she and my father divorced.

She was always in motion. I’d see her standing over our wringer washing machine or the stove for what seemed like hours.

There was never a day we didn’t have something hot to eat before heading off to school and a meal waiting for us when we got home.

There was never a day that we couldn’t find clean clothes to wear.

We lived in a concrete village, but she loved nature. In the summer, she would gather up her brood and take everyone to the lakefront to spend most of the day.

Mama Carrie never learned to drive. My father tried to teach her once, but he didn’t have a lot of patience.

Her mode of transportation was walking. She walked everywhere — sometimes carrying heavy shopping bags. I couldn’t stand to see her carrying a load down the street, but she wouldn’t accept a ride.

“Let me do this while I can,” she’d say, waving me off.

By the time I was raising my own children, my mother had moved to Milwaukee. But she would come to Chicago at least once a month to help me out.

She never had material things to give me.

What she gave was her work. She cleaned. She washed. She folded clothes. She cooked. She watched over our kids.

That was how Mama Carrie showed her love.

When we came to visit her at the senior citizen building where she lived before moving in with my younger sister, she would wait on us hand and foot.

“Mama, you don’t have to cook,” we’d insist.

But she wasn’t hearing any of that. Mama Carrie would welcome us with a pot of collard greens on the stove and a pan of fried chicken warming inside the oven.

“Come on, eat while the food is hot,” she’d say.

My mother lived a simple life. No matter how much money we’d give her, she still shopped at the thrift stores because she thought the prices at retail stores were outrageous.

On Sundays, she put on her white suit, covered her long dark hair with a hat, grabbed her bible and walked to the nearby “sanctified” church.

Four of her children preceded her in death.

On special occasions, like Mother’s Day, she loved that the rest of us could fill up the pew.

Her other surviving children are: Ollie Mae Rush (who lives in Mississippi), Marie Crossley (Texas), Joseph Duncan Jr. (Wisconsin), Larry J. Duncan (Nebraska), Nadine Galloway (Wisconsin), Leroy Duncan (Nevada), Sandra Duncan (Illinois), Terence Duncan (Minnesota), Debra Brown (Iillinois) and Angela Duncan (Wisconsin).

My mother taught us that, as long as there is life, there is hope. We will miss her terribly.

We are her greatest accomplishment.

Visitation for Carrie Duncan will be 10-11 a.m. Tuesday followed by a funeral at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Christ, 3500 W. Mother Daniels Way, Milwaukee.

Carrie Duncan, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell's mother.

Carrie Duncan, Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell’s mother. | Family photo