In this story from April 2005, the Empress of Soul shares how her mother's faith impacted her career and spiritual life.
How's this for a shocking statistic: One in four African-American women over age 55 has diabetes. That's even more shocking for me since I'm a 60-year-old African-American woman with a family history of diabetes. Factor in my love of high-calorie foods, and maybe it seems like my odds don't look so good.
But I'm confident I can beat those odds and help others do the same. All because of a spirited, strong-willed woman named Elizabeth Knight, my late mother.
Mom was just 30 when she got the devastating diagnosis. Back then in the 1940s it was different for people with diabetes. "You might not make it to 50," her doctor told her. "And you can never eat sugar again!" There would have to be insulin injections and a carefully regulated diet.
Mom didn't sink into despair. No, that wasn't her style. A health-care professional herself, she knew a thing or two about diet and exercise—and about the importance of being informed. Like every mother, she dreamed of watching her kids grow up and of someday bouncing her grandbabies on her knee. She couldn't bear the thought of missing out on all that.
There was something else that helped keep my mom going, something powerful. Her faith.
Knowledge. Hope. Faith. No wonder Mom was able to face her illness and take control of it. Despite her doctor's gloomy prognosis she lived with diabetes for 50 years. Fifty productive, well-lived years. Fifty great years.
It was Mom who encouraged me to make my debut on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour (believe me, Daddy wasn't thrilled with the idea!), which made me a singing sensation at age seven. It was Mom who helped to raise my children when my career took me on the road, sometimes for months at a time. And it was Mom who taught me how to keep my faith strong.
Back in my touring days with The Pips, when we crisscrossed the country performing hits like "You're the Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me," Mom would send me notes and care packages.
I'll never forget one special package. The strain of life on the road was getting to me, and I missed my family. So I was thrilled when a brown paper parcel from my mom arrived one day before a performance. I sat in my dressing room and unwrapped it. Inside was a black velvet jewel box containing a necklace with a picture of a mustard seed on it. It was simple and lovely. I picked up the phone right away and called her. "Mom, thank you so much!"
"Oh, Gladys," she laughed. "It's just a little something. To remind you."
"That it only takes that much faith to move mountains."
A little later, Mom showed us—the band and me—how we could carve out a little sacred space no matter where we were. In the music business in the '60s and '70s that was no small feat!
Mom gathered us together backstage before a show one night. "Join your hands together and squeeze tight," she said, her head lifted toward heaven. "Now, give thanks with all your heart!" One by one, we dedicated our music to the glory of God.
Since my mom was diagnosed, many new medications have been developed, and the quality of life for folks with diabetes has improved greatly. And, yes, people with diabetes can eat sweets—as long as they're part of a healthy diet and exercise plan. (The cookbook I wrote for the American Diabetes Association, At Home With Gladys Knight, isn't lacking in the dessert department—check out that delicious cheesecake recipe!)
I'm proud to be a spokeswoman for the American Diabetes Association. Every time I help people get a little better informed about diabetes I'm honoring an extraordinary lady. Thank you, Mom. For the mustard seed necklace. For the gifts of knowledge and faith. For everything. You know, sometimes I think you're the best thing that ever happened to me.
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