Edna Earlene Motley: The Story of a Global Life Well-Lived

In remembrance of this matriarch and Army wife

By Julia Hubbel/Photos courtesy of Sonja Motley
Edna and her daughter Sonja, early 1960s

In the all-too-swift arc that is the story of our lives, we touch thousands, change many, and are ourselves changed — often for the better. If we’re fortunate, our children become our friends, and they are there to honor the work we’ve done in the world when it’s our time to leave it.

Such is the story of Edna Motley and her daughter Sonja.

Edna Earlene Bolden was born in 1925, the year that New York City became the world’s largest. It was a world in which a lovely dress could be bought for under $10, flappers were all the rage, and America was just beginning its love affair with cars — airplanes were still a novelty. A December baby, Edna came into the world in Denver, Colorado, U.S., then still a relatively small city with a population around 26,000. She was Dora and Earl Bolden’s first child.

Dora, burdened by her first pregnancy, would periodically visit the Denver Zoo to provide relief from her increasingly heavy body. Delighted by the monkeys’ antics, she would find a front row seat and rest, laughing to the point of tears. Not everyone thought this was a good idea, however. Dora’s mother Mimi believed that being too close to the monkey cage would cause trouble for the young mother.

Mimi might have been right — but only briefly. For when Edna was born, her shocked parents beheld a tiny baby with an unusual amount of hair covering her entire body. At that, her dumbfounded father declared all further children off-limits.

Edna as a baby in 1926

The Great Monkey Hex didn’t last long, however. Edna evolved in to a cute child, the first of seven. She swiftly became Mom #2 to Dora’s large family, known to be both bossy and highly protective of bullied kids. This earned her the nickname “Eddie.” She was not to be messed with.

The Boldens were famous in Denver for their barbecue, so Edna grew up surrounded by great cooks, as well as deep faith. Family, faith, food and fellowship were the cornerstones of her life. She loved the kitchen and swiftly developed her skills in creating great food and providing a lovely presentation.

Her cooking skills led to her being hired to work at Richthofen Castle, which was built in the late 1880s by the uncle of the famous WWI flying ace the Red Baron. She also ran cafeterias for a number of Denver’s large businesses and provided catering services.

Edna was also a very talented piano player who performed with a male jazz band during the glory days of Five Points, one of the wealthiest Black communities in the West and also known as the “Harlem of the West.” Welton Street, in that same neighborhood, was also home to over 50 bars and clubs where famous jazz musicians performed regularly. Oscar Peterson, called “The Maharaja of the Keyboard” by Duke Ellington, was one of Edna’s favorites, and she often told the story of meeting him when he visited the restaurant (Bolden’s BBQ stayed open after-hours for the out-of-town talent).

One day, a young Army sergeant saw Edna coming home from working at one of the cafeterias she and her father ran. This young man was so flustered he uttered what later became a famous family line:

“Can my complexion go your direction?”

Edna with her husband Tom

That Army sergeant, who was on leave at the time, had been living next door to the Boldens in the 1950s. Sgt. Thomas Motley might have been tongue-tied, but he was also determined. Maybe it was the barbecue sauce, maybe it was Edna’s spirit, maybe it was a whole combination of things, but one thing was clear: Tom wanted Edna. Happily, she wanted him back.

The Motleys welcomed their only daughter Sonja Louise into the world in June of 1961. Sonja would spend part of her young life in Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam. Edna would shepherd her small family around the world through Germany, Thailand and Holland, as well as stints in Virginia and Texas, U.S.

Once Tom retired from the Army, they settled back around family and friends in Denver, a much-changed city by then. Edna threw her heart into her family, becoming known for her ability to make gorgeous clothing and fine food. She was always present for the PTA and provided a loving home for her husband and child.

In the 1950s, Edna was named one of the best dressed women in Denver. It was this fashion sense and love of good lines and tailoring that had a strong, early influence on Sonja’s fashion career. Edna led an active social life through club memberships and engaged herself in a broad range of activities and hobbies while simultaneously providing a safe and protective home for her child and husband. She was a great mom, a loving wife, but even more so, a great best friend.

As Sonja grew into a young woman, her relationship with her mother flourished. Edna and Sonja would be joined at the hip through thick and thin, more like sisters than mother and child.

Below are three stories that speak to Edna’s personality, as well as the conditions that shaped her life:

The Great Penguin Heist

In 1962, Tom was assigned to Germany. Bremerhaven was a smallish town, located on the Weser river on its western bank.  This was the first overseas assignment after Sonja was born.

A typical day involved bundling her infant and heading out early. She and Sonja would stroll the town, sometimes heading to a nearby spot for special treats. One candy shop offered black licorice in ropes, which Tom was particularly fond of, so Edna took Sonja to the store to pick up a supply.

German shops in the ’60s weren’t very accommodating for baby carriages, so on this particular day, Edna had to leave her tiny child in the baby carriage right outside the shop while she chose the licorice. When she came back out, the carriage was empty, her tiny child gone.

As Edna made her way into the circle, she saw a nun trying to gently rub the skin color off Sonja’s cheek. 

Stunned and terrified, Edna hurtled down the cobblestone street in her three-inch heels, calling Sonja’s name. She was desperate and crying. Suddenly, she noticed a group of “penguins” gathered in a circle — they were actually nuns, talking and muttering and discussing something. That something was Sonja. As Edna made her way into the circle, she saw a nun trying to gently rub the skin color off Sonja’s cheek. 

She retrieved her tiny child, wiped the tears of relief off her face and made her way back to the candy store. To the isolated Catholic community of 1960’s Germany, a black child was an impossibility. Thereafter, Sonja never left her hip.

Not a Sticky or a Dickie in Sight

In 1968, Cinderella City, home to some 250 stores, was the largest mall west of the Mississippi River. In its heyday, one could get lost for hours on end, tempted by four large anchor stores and a plethora of small shops and boutiques. It was a shopper’s paradise, and as such, was the perfect place for Edna and Sonja, who absolutely loved to shop.

One memorable Christmas season in 1980, they set out to shop in this enormous (now defunct) mall to secure just two things: sticky pens for the girl cousins and Dickies for the boy cousins. After hours and hours of walking, inspecting, trying on, putting down, picking up, putting back, and purchasing everything but what they had come to Cinderella City to buy, they still didn’t have the four stick pens and Dickies for the cousins.

They collapsed in the car to rest after lunch and both fell asleep. Upon waking, with one more department store search to go, Edna took a deep breath, eyeballed Sonja and said, “OK! Let’s go get these darn gifts. Dick pens and Stickies!”

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then both women collapsed in uncontrollable laughter and tears. Too weak to continue and too exhausted from laughter, Edna and Sonja called it a day. No Dickies or stickies were ever found.

That’s Not a Log!

Edna’s history with animals was also colorful. She was known for frying chicken with the family hamster in her apron pocket, three enormous poodles enjoyed her willingness to chauffeur them around in a convertible, and neighbors on their porches found it highly amusing that she would walk the family cat Nina on a leash.

However, not all creatures were welcomed in Edna’s life. On one memorable day, she was seen streaking down a city block in Bangkok in her spiked heels after realizing that the eight-foot log she had spied crossing a city street was not, in fact, a log — it was a python.

Through laughter, tears, wins, losses, the inevitable hard life lessons that shape us all, Edna and Sonja forged a relationship that transcended mother and daughter — it became a friendship that wove itself into their DNA.

These few stories, these snippets of Edna’s long and love-filled life, cannot possibly speak to the gift she was to all who knew her. Most especially for Sonja. There is no greater gift, no greater love, than for a daughter to be present when the torch is passed.

We should all be so fortunate. In celebration and in tears, in love and in loss, Edna and Sonja are forever joined in this life and the next, and in Jesus Christ’s love.

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  1. First of all, this article is beautifully written. Second, I find it very interesting to read that Edna became a sort of second mother to her mother’s large family of seven and I think this probably helped her be more of a friend to her daughter Sonja later in her life. Reading about Edna’s interaction with the racist catholic nuns was terrifying and really showed how much she invested into her relationship with her child and what it meant to her. Each of the stories shared were fantastic for showing the complex ups and downs that shaped Edna’s life story, she sounds like she was a wonderful and fun person to be around and I wish nothing but good fortune, happiness, and laughter to her daughter Sonja.

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