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Beyond the grief: The Cissy Houston story

Beyond the grief: The Cissy Houston story Cissy Houston was in Barbados recently for the Barbados Music Awards. (Picture by Insight Digital.)

By Sherie Holder-Olutayo | Sun, January 20, 2013 - 12:00 AM

Emily “Cissy” Houston emerged from her hotel room at exactly 1 p.m. The woman who is a stickler for promptness was sporting a sleeveless polka dot top and white linen shorts, proving that at age 79, though she walks with a cane, she still has a stellar fashion sense.

As we sat down together at Barbados’ Crystal Cove Hotel, she told me “You have to speak up loudly”, concerned about the music, and then cracked a warm smile.

The woman who proudly describes herself as the “matriarch of her family” was enjoying her first visit to Barbados, relishing her escape from the chilly winter weather of Newark, New Jersey, where she resides. Cissy, who was in town for the Barbados Music Awards, admitted she didn’t know much about the event but was honoured to be here.

“I don’t know too much about the award, but all awards are great, because it’s people getting honoured for what they do,” she said.

At 79, though she has been slowed from the effects of ageing, Cissy has kept looking good through the years.

“I try to eat right and exercise, though I don’t exercise as much as I should,” she said, flashing her trademark smile.

But underneath the smile that she willingly gives is a mother who is still reeling from the pain of loss in the tragic death of her daughter Whitney Houston.

As much as any parent is fully able to bounce back after losing a child, especially one that was considered one of the greatest singers of all time, who faced her public and private battles with drug addiction, Cissy has managed to rebuild her life, though she admits that she is by no means over her daughter’s death.

 “It’s been very difficult losing my baby, very difficult,” Cissy says. “I’m by no means over it, by no means in very good shape. I’m just depending on God to help me through.”

God and her faith have been integral parts of Cissy’s life ever since she was a child growing up in the church. Cissy, who is one of eight children, used to sing gospel music with her sisters and brothers as part of a singing group The Drinkard Four (Drinkard is Cissy’s family name).

“My faith has remained the same,” she said. “I’ve always had good faith in God and I’ve always trusted him to guide me and see me through. He’s been really good to me. When I did wrong, he’s been able to bring me out.”

But coping with the loss of her only beloved daughter has taken a toll on Cissy.

“Right now I’m the matriarch of my family. My sisters and brothers are gone . . . . There were eight of us. I’m the last one, the baby,” she said. “I lost a brother right after my daughter died, my last one. So it’s been very difficult.”

When you live in the public eye, sometimes picking up the pieces after a tragedy can be difficult under the glare of the spotlight. Cissy, though, has managed to stay within her familiar confines of home in New Jersey, which has been her haven.

“During the last year I think I’ve gotten even stronger because I’ve depended on God,” Cissy said. “I’m not overly religious and all that kind of stuff. I just trust in Him. I’ve always trusted in Him. As a young girl I learned how to, because my parents died very early.”

The only time within the last year that Cissy has been visible to the public has been on episodes of the family reality show The Houstons: On Our Own.

“Well, that was really not my reality; it was my daughter-in-law’s reality,” she said candidly. “She asked me to be on it, but if you noticed I was not in every segment. I went to help her, and that’s it.”

Dealing with family issues after Whitney’s death, especially her relationship with her granddaughter Bobbi Kristina, is one that has received special attention.

 “I tried to give her the same advice that I’ve given my children, but I don’t see her that often because she lives one place in another state and I live in New Jersey,” Cissy added.

“You know I talk to her occasionally, not as often as I’d like, but I do talk to her and I try to guide her. I don’t travel to Atlanta that often, but my son is there and he looks after her or tries to, as much as you can tell a 19-year-old what to do.”

Along with playing out family dramas in the public eye, Cissy has also made some personal changes to her life, in terms of scaling back her living arrangements.

“Newark is where I was born. It was where I grew up,” Cissy said, laughing. “It’s where I’m going to stay. I doubt it very much if I’m ever going to move out of Jersey. Well, I’m really too old. I just moved from one house to an apartment building. It’s much smaller . . . . You know I had a big house, but there’s nobody there but me, so I decided to scale down and I’m very happy. People in the building are very nice.”

Though she’s experienced the change of address over the past year, Cissy’s biggest change has been adjusting to a life without her daughter Whitney in it. Next month will mark the one-year anniversary of her death, and nobody is more aware of that date than her mother.

“I know with the help of God I’ll get through it,” she said.

 Cissy remains close to her two sons Gary Garland and Michael Houston from her two previous marriages.

“One son lives by me and my other son is Atlanta,” she said.

Now that she’s forging ahead with her life, Cissy has written a book that will be out on January 29.

“I decided to write it because everybody else wrote something and didn’t write the right thing,” she said. “The book is about her and me and our relationship. I wrote it this past year. The book is Remembering Whitney – Love, Loss And The Night She Died.

Cissy admitted that writing the book proved to be very therapeutic for her.

“I got a lot of things that came out of me. I remembered a lot of things that she and I did together,” she said. “It’s about her growing up. Everybody has their own opinion of everything. I get sick of people just writing, writing and they don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, it bothers me but when you’re in the limelight, you got to go through all that kind of crap and you learn to deal with it.”

As Whitney’s mother, Cissy would know more than most people who only saw her daughter through the lens of a camera. She raised her, dried her tears, shared in her triumphs and tragedies, and did the unimaginable as a parent – bury her child. But despite the pain, Cissy finds solace and peace in her role as a parent and in the daughter that mesmerized the world.

“She had her problems like most young people do today,” Cissy said. “I taught Whitney the same values I had, but most kids when they grow up, they do their own things. Sometimes they get into things that they can’t get out of. I’m sure any mother will tell you. Nobody raises their children to be what they sometimes turn out to be, but . . . .”

Almost a year after’s Whitney’s death, Cissy has proved that she has the strength to go on, as difficult as it may be at times.

“I’m doing what I always do. I sing, go to church, I go different places, I’m here, I do what I’ve always done. I’ve worked all my life, before Whitney, after Whitney,” she said. “I’m pretty much the same.”

But if you think that Cissy has regrets about anything, she doesn’t.

“I’ve tried to give my children the values and the things they should know and do, and that’s what I did,” she said. “And I’m not sorry that I did anything in my life. I’ve done it. I miss my daughter immensely. Sometimes I really have some bad times, but I didn’t do anything that I should not have done. There’s no book on raising children. You do what you can, you love them and give them the values and the things you’re supposed to give them and then it’s up to them.”

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