After a long stare at me she leaned forward in her wheelchair to say, "Please fix me some hot cocoa." I was 8. She was 98, and had just finished telling me stories she recalled from a time before automobiles. I didn't know if her request was intended to test my gourmet ability or if she really craved a cup of cocoa. Off I went to "chef up" some hot cocoa for my great, Grandmother, Lottie Blake.
Our cupboard held only Nestle Quik, which uses milk. Cold chocolate milk is easy; add powder, add milk and stir. Hot cocoa, on the other hand, required getting a pot, measuring milk, heating it on the stove with care that it didn't burn or froth over.
Tapping into my 8-year-old wisdom, I deduced that "hot tap-water cocoa" would be equally delicious, easier and quicker.
I handed great Grandmother the cup of perfect-looking cocoa on a saucer and waited as she took a sip. With no change of expression, she handed it back to me saying, "This has no flavor. Make it again."
"How could that be?" I wondered. I had used extra chocolate to make it yummier for her. Out of sight in the kitchen, I snuck a taste and it was awful. I then took the time to prepare it the correct way with a pot, careful measuring, and heated milk. My next serving of cocoa earned me a smile and a "Thank you" from great Grandmother.
I've always wondered how she knew I would prepare the cocoa any differently the second time. She simply said, "Make it again," leaving the solution completely to me. Given her background, she may have wanted to see how her great grandson would deal with challenge that didn't come with instructions. At the time, I didn't know that I was being examined by a woman who was a true master of such challenges.
My great grandmother, born in 1876, had an ambition to meet life's challenges that was obvious from a very young age. She learned to read by age 5 and was so eager to begin school she was sent back home to wait until the mandatory age of 6 for enrollment.
Fascinated by her grandmother, a midwife and herb doctor, an eager young Lottie Isbell gathered plants for the preparation of medicinal remedies.
She graduated from high school in 1894 and earned a teaching degree in 1896 -both huge challenges for any black man or woman in those days.
With the blessing of her parents, she took a train to Battle Creek, Michigan where she had been accepted to nursing school. World renowned surgeon and director of the college, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of cereal fame) immediately noticed her academic abilities. He invited her to live in his home, then mentored and financially backed her. She not only finished the nursing program, but earned her medical degree, graduating in the top of her class in 1902. This made her one of the first black female physicians in the United States.
Satisfied with the results of her educational challenges, she focused on the challenge of practicing medicine as a black woman. This challenge was magnified by moving to the segregated south. In Nashville, she became director of the Rock City Sanitarium, pioneering many holistic medical treatments after scoring 90% in the Tennessee state board.
Her next home was Alabama where she stubbornly sat and waited-out the administrators who refused to allow her to take that state's board exam. Eventually they gave in to this petite, black woman that wouldn't be denied. To their chagrin, she passed it with the top score in 1904. She practiced medicine in Birmingham and trained nurses at the fledgling Oakwood College that now has a Lectureship in her name.
Married life offered as many challenges as her educational and professional life. Lottie met and married a minister named David Emanuel Blake who later earned his medical degree. They had 4 children. Just before World War I they left for Panama to follow a dream of self-supporting missionary work. For 4 years they worked as a husband/wife physician team treating the construction workers of the Panama Canal.
Lottie lost her husband to pneumonia shortly after returning to the United States. She continued to practice medicine in Charleston, Columbus and finally, Pittsburgh where she retired at the age of 81. Her discovery of a cure for "Smoky City" pneumonia is an achievement that may be her most noted contribution to the medical world. The American Medical Association honored her with an award for 50 years of service capping a long list of tributes and honors from blacks, whites, medical establishments, educational institutions and friends. She met every challenge directed her way -most of which came with no instructions.
Much of what I know about my great grandmother's accomplishments, I wouldn't learn until years later. Her impact began to dawn on me one day when I visited her church in Ohio where word got out that I was a descendant of Lottie Blake. A group of wide-eyed children surrounded me -many of them hollering "You're Dr. Blake's kin? You're Dr. Blake's kin?"
She died at age 100, two years after I had the pleasure of seeing her smile at me after a sip of great grandson, correctly-made cocoa.