Beatrice "Bea" Sweet says the biggest influence in her life is her grandmother. The 83-year-old matriarch, Cintrilla Hampton, known to everyone as "Big Mamma" taught Bea about patience and kindness, and that no family gathering is complete without mouth-watering ribs.
So, when Bea and her partner Trice (short for Beatrice) decided to marry, they wanted a traditional wedding before family and friends. Big Mamma's presence was crucial and so were the ribs.
"Their wedding ceremony was a new experience for me," Big Mamma recalls. "I was there...anything my children do ...whether I agree with it or disagree, I'm gonna be there with them. We're family. If you fall I'll be there...If you rise I'll be there."
Trice, who now edits an online magazine about lesbian issues, recited a poem she wrote. The couple included the African tradition of jumping over a broom.
"It symbolizes stepping into a new life together," Bea says.
Since then, the couple has applied for domestic partnership and later went to city hall in Norwalk for legal nuptials. But, Bea says, their family celebration in the woods is the one they remember and cherish.
Looking back, Bea says, planning the wedding was stressful and at times sad, because they didn't involve their families that much. Not all family members approved or understood why they wanted to "get married."
The support of Bea's grandmother was especially important to the couple.
"I just want both of them to be happy...they seem to be happy so it don't bother me at all," Big Mamma says. "They're living their life the way they want to and I accept it completely. They visit and they call me. Trice calls me big mamma...and she calls me and tells me what a good time she had at my house."
Big Mamma worked as a nurse at the VA hospital in Long Beach. She also devoted her life to caring for foster youth. Since 1959, she's cared for some 500 foster children, something she said she felt compelled to do because she enjoys having a full house.
"I come from a big family, my grandmother raised me from the cradle...at one time...there were 18 of us in one house and we never had fights or any arguing," she says. "I was the baby, she never whopped me too much...I was the last child she raised. I was particularly her heart."
Raised in a big family, Big Mamma said she learned to value tolerance and peace, along with faith and education.
"If you're dissatisfied with something, let's sit down and talk about it," she says. "That's why they hang around me now, because I support them."
On a recent Sunday afternoon, family members gathered at Big Mamma's house in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California for a barbecue. Big Mamma showed Bea's wife Trice how to make the sweet and spicy sauce, based on an old family recipe.
"I'm in love with the one we been using for years-- red pepper, vinegar, brown sugar, and liquid malt. Baste your meat as you turn and it comes out real good," Big Mamma says. "I taught my kids and grandkids [to make it] and we are still having ribs."
Ngoc Nguyen is an editor and reporter at New America Media
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