On Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 10th, 1931, Leonard and Corrine Smith’s first child, Mattie Mae was born in Prattville, Alabama. She would become their oldest of nine children. Lee Collin, Charles (Fess), Willie (Po’Boy), Thark (Truman) and Billy Joe, her deceased siblings. And Fannie, Priest and Dean, her surviving siblings.
In 1957, she married Robert Lee Sanders, Jr., and together they had four children. Delgretta, Gwen, Cheryl and Terry. She also has 11 grandchildren, Deena, Diana, Dustin, Jaime, Brandon, Shauna, Steven, Jared, Elischa, Jerhime and Kaja. And lived to see the birth of 7 great grands, Jay, Victoria, Alivia, Rowan, Della, Daisy and Jonas.
Mattie spent over 40 years as a beautician. The majority of those years, she spent in her own beauty shop, housed in the basement of the family’s home in Markham, Illinois. She named it “Chateau de Coiffures” even though she didn’t speak one lick of French. Her husband being in the Air Force meant approximately every 14 months or so, she had to pack up and move her family to a new base, a new part of the country and sometimes a new country until he retired in 1972. At one point, while stationed in Alconbury, England, her skills and talents as a hairdresser led to Mattie being recruited by the Air Force to travel across Europe, teaching other on-base beauticians how to care for black women’s hair.
Mattie loved, loved, loved going to “The Boat” or casino, playing the lottery and going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. “Her horses” (as she liked to call them) were loved so much that after retiring from hairdressing, she became a clerk at Arlington Park Racetrack. And on many a Mother’s Day/birthday, her kids and family would have to go to Arlington Park Racetrack if they wanted to see her. She got such a kick out of having her family there, telling them which horses to bet on and how to place a bet. One year, instead of working, she let her kids take her there as a guest for a big brunch and afternoon of betting and cheering on “her horses”.
Mattie was a loud, boisterous, vivacious woman who loved to laugh and loved taking care of her family and friends. She was a great cook. And all it took was someone spreading the word that “Mattie’s frying some chicken” to fill her house with hungry family and friends -- even more so, if she was frying fish.
She was cremated on her birthday, Monday, May 10th, 2021. And laid to rest next to her husband at Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, Florida.
As the oldest of nine, Mattie Mae always had a sense of duty and responsibility for her family. Even as her body started failing her, her fighting spirit kept her going. So much so, that she even laughed at her son-in-law, Johnny’s sometimes witty, sometimes corny, jokes. She was a woman ahead of her time, an entrepreneur and independent spirit who led by example. She made an impact on every single life she touched.
On Friday, April 30th, Mattie Mae passed away just 10 days shy of her 90th birthday. But every story told, every recipe shared, every memory re-lived will keep her with us always.