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Freddie Mae’s Southern Cooking closes, family turns to faith for comfort

By Chris Levister

Willa F. Bratton’s the matriarch behind Freddie Mae’s Southern Cooking died February 28, just short of her 100th birthday, according to her mother Freddie Mae Fort. Four months earlier, on October 6, 2011 Bratton lost her oldest daughter Doris Bradford at the age of 80. Sadly, mother lost a daughter. I lost a mother and sister,” said Freddie Mae.

Bratton’s authentic sweet southern lemonade, mouth watering macaroni and cheese and trademark ‘ooeygooey’ sweet potato pie spawned a cult following and birthed the popular Rancho Cucamonga eatery named after Freddie Mae.

On Friday family members announced that Bratton received a posthumous award last week from President Barack Obama honoring her work as a mentor to entrepreneurs and small business owners. Ironically news of the distinguished recognition was overshadowed by yet another family loss. On Wednesday, April 4 cancer claimed the life of Freddie Mae’s 46-year-old daughter Sylvia Charamaine Fort. She died from complications related to pleomorphic sarcoma, a rare soft tissue cancer. At Draper Mortuary in Ontario Friday family members and friends gathered at Sylvia’s wake trying to make sense of losing three loved ones in a space of six months.

“There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven,” Freddie Mae said borrowing from Ecclesiastes’: “A Time for Everything.” Sylvia was a teacher at Frisbie Middle School in Rialto. She held a master’s degree in business administration.

“There's grief. There's sadness. There's anguish. But there are no words to describe the loss of a child,” said Freddie Mae. “Grandma Willa had the recipes and Sylvia had the business brains,” said Leticia Rogers, Sylvia’s sister.

“She loved the Lord and lived to run things,” recalling Sylvia’s entrepreneurial spirit. Rogers says the family’s painful journey began in April 2011 when Sylvia who had been healthy all of her life noticed a small abrasion on her breast.

“We were getting ready to renew the lease for our restaurant located at Victoria Gardens,” said Rogers. “Sylvia advised us not to. I think she knew she was facing an uphill battle.” Stunned by the news, the family closed the eatery to focus on Sylvia’s care. “We all thought she would heal quickly and return to running things, instead she continued on a downward spiral,” said Freddie Mae.

“My sister was a fighter who dreamed big. She relished running the family business. In the classroom she was not just a teacher. She was an inspiration,” said Rogers. “When she took ill, it was difficult for her to accept that someone so full of life and vitality could be staring her own mortality in the face.”

Freddie Mae says when Sylvia’s health worsened the family turned to faith. “Two pastors in our family held daily prayer vigils at her bedside. We prayed every morning and every night. When news of Sylvia’s illness spread throughout the community the outpouring of love and support proved overwhelming.”

Still says Freddie Mae, “sometimes I have to step back and look in the mirror and ask myself, is this really happening to me. But wisdom has taught me that strength doesn’t grow without the support of others. That’s why I know now we’ll get through this. I don’t think God would give us more than we could handle.”

“A lot of tears, handwringing and prayers,” says family member Marilyn Bratton. “We’ve had our share of bumps and setbacks on the journey, but also had some miracles. We can attest to a family that prays together stays together.”

At Sylvia’s funeral Saturday, Mt. Zion Baptist Church pastor Brian E. Kennedy told mourners, “We are comforted knowing our Sylvia is free from all pain and suffering.”

“You never really know a person’s pain from losing a loved one until you’ve stood in their shoes and walked around in them,” said Rogers. “We’ve walked in those shoes now - three times in a row.”

As for the future of Freddie Mae’s Southern Cooking - It will remain closed for now. “Like a tree we’re bending beneath the weight of God’s wind and mercy,” said Freddie Mae. “He will use our pain to plant a seed, which will grow into a future of many great things.”

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