Cissy Houston Reflects on Raising Whitney

In her memoir, the pop star's mom describes the folly and frustration of witnessing her daughter's life.

Cissy Houston and Whitney Houston (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment)
Cissy Houston and Whitney Houston (Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment)

(The Root) — When someone you love dies, the first question to escape before the grief hits you in the throat is often, “Why?” Why her, why now, why me, why not someone else? Nothing could be truer of the sudden death of musical icon Whitney Houston, who, after appearing on the upswing following years of battling drugs, left fans and family asking that familiar question last February.

But the answers to tragedy are never truly, satisfyingly found, and Houston’s mother, Cissy, doesn’t try to find them in her new memoir, Remembering Whitney: My Story of Love, Loss and the Night the Music Stopped, released recently. Instead of trading in salacious details, Mama Houston — known as “Big Cuda,” as in barracuda to Whitney’s roadies — tells the intimate story of a mother’s love for her baby girl, nicknamed Nippy. It’s a story of family, frustration and ultimately moving forward.

Cissy Houston’s voice throughout the memoir, co-written with Lisa Dickey, is as sharp and no-nonsense as one would expect it to be. It’s as if you’ve settled down at your grandmother’s kitchen table as she recounts all the fruit and thorns of a family tree. She describes unseemly drama (like Bobby Brown’s outburst at Whitney’s funeral) as “all that mess,” and when recalling her frame of mind as a young girl on her own at 18, she writes, “I was still so naive. I didn’t know my rear end from my elbow.”

For me the most telling part of the memoir, which is written in three parts, is Cissy’s own story as a little girl growing up in a wooden tenement house in Depression-era New Jersey. For Cissy and her eight siblings, music — specifically gospel music — was a foundation. Her father, Nitcholas Drinkard, was a stern taskmaster who kept the family’s singing group, the Drinkard Singers, on a strict schedule — school, chores, singing and church.

“I also came to understand that our family’s singing together is what ultimately helped us survive. It helped keep us together, even through the hardest times,” explains Cissy, who lost her mother when she was 8 and her father 10 years later.

The elder Houston is most reflective when describing how she dealt with loss and independence so early on. She talks about pushing away the sadness over her mother’s death and doing the same after losing her father. Cissy found an inner strength and simply carried on, consistently pointing to her childhood as having “toughened her up.” She established core principles that couldn’t be shaken by the music industry. Very early on, when she decided against her family’s wishes to switch from gospel to secular music as leader of the famed session singers The Sweets, Cissy decided she would be “in the world of secular music but not of it.”

With that kind of foundation one would assume that Whitney Houston’s path from the pretty little baby whom even the nurses in the hospital couldn’t put down to pop icon should have been paved smoothly. Whitney came from a musical dynasty of sorts, and her mother took her talent seriously from the time she was 12 and declared, “Mama, I just want to sing.”

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