My mother turned 60 years old just the other day. I sent her a dozen orange roses for the occasion, one for every five years of her life. They should last at least a couple of weeks, since they weren’t in bloom just yet. I also sent her a card, wishing her nothing but a great day, a great decade, and peace on the start of her seventh decade of life.
My mother doesn’t even look close to 60, but as all of you know from other blogs, some of those first six decade have been tough and brutal, for her and for me. My mother was the first of twelve kids for Beulah and Samuel Gill, Sr., born in the small town of Bradley, Arkansas. They were tenant farmers in the Red River Valley of southwest Arkansas, just five miles from the Louisiana border, growing cotton and just enough food to feed what would become a huge family. Bradley was and remains a one-flashing-yellow-light-four-corner town on Route 29. Just over five hundred people lived there, with farms, shotgun houses, and ranch-style homes neatly segregated between a few affluent Whites, lots of poor Whites, and the abundantly poor Black side of town.
Being born into the Gill family in the late 1940s meant that my mother’s life would be a difficult and emotionally tortured one. She started doing household chores when she was five, began her role as a babysitter for her (eventually) eleven siblings when she was six, and graduated to hoeing and picking cotton by the time she was eight. Given that, it’s amazing that she wanted to get married or have kids.
Still, my mother had her half-Choctaw and half-Irish great-grandmother, her great-aunt, and her high school basketball team growing up (they team made the state semifinals in 1965). They all worked in her favor, as all three provided for her emotional well-being as she grew into an attractive six-foot woman. After drifting a bit after her high school graduation in ’65, one of my mother’s cousins came from the Bronx for a visit the next summer and told her that there were good jobs in New York City. Without much thought, my mother took a three-day bus trip from Texarkana to New York to what she hoped would be a new life. Given the alternative of tenant farming and generational poverty, New York must’ve seemed like going to heaven.
Sixteen years, a dead-end job and two abusive husbands later, my mother must’ve been thinking that Mount Vernon was an outpost somewhere on the outskirts of hell. With a fourteen-year-old kid in a school for the retarded, a twelve-year-old (me) getting beat up by the second husband, a three-year-old who all but refused to speak because of his abuse, a one-year-old and another one on its way, it was little wonder that she showed affection about as often as it rains in Death Valley.
My mother represents the opposite spectrum of my issues with women, the side that wants to help every woman in distress, especially women who may be in trouble. For twenty years after Memorial Day ’82, I tried to do everything I could to help my mother and to help make her happy. Over the years — many of which were as a college and grad student — I sent and brought home between $10 and $15,000 to pay for food and bills, to shop for my siblings’ clothes or to take them to a movie or a baseball game, to help take care of whatever needed to be taken care of for her and for my younger siblings.
But it was never enough, and I knew that deep down, even as a teenager. My mother has been on a lifelong search for meaning in her life, for someone or something whom she could pour all of her hope and faith into. Her search would explain why she chose to be with and marry my father Jimme, even with all of his shyness and growing addiction to alcohol as his method of making himself a New York “big shot.” He worked hard, making $300 a week as a janitor working at the Federal Reserve in Manhattan in the late ’60. It would explain why she rebounded into a marriage with my ex-stepfather in ’78 after her divorce from Jimme, for the self-assured and bombastically arrogant Maurice was in some ways the opposite of Jimme (he was more the other side of the same coin). My mother’s search would explain our collective conversion to Hebrew-Israelite Judaism in ’81, her embracing millennial Christianity in the mid and late ’80s, and her cutting herself off from any relationships with men after her second divorce in ’89.
There are many things I don’t like about my mother, both in terms of her outlook on life, the things that she’s done and the mistake she made by commission or omission. From our descent into welfare poverty to being forced to live with an abusive asshole for so many year. My older brother Darren’s stint in a school for the retarded even though he wasn’t retarded. Moving back into 616 East Lincoln three years after a fire had gutted the building in April ’95. Her complete distrust of anyone interested in dating or hanging out with me or any of my siblings. Her bigotry toward everyone who wasn’t poor, Black, heterosexual and from the South. Her refusal to trust anyone in authority, and her lack of confidence in herself and in her abilities.
I spent an entire family intervention in ’02 going over my mother’s faults and mistakes as a way to reach my younger siblings, who had never known my mother to work a regular job or as someone who had hopes, dream, aspirations and the energies to pursue them. I knew that the intervention would change my relationship with my mother for the rest of our lives. I just never anticipated that over the years that our relationship would get better and more like mother and adult son, and less like mother-young son, brother-sister, wife-surrogate husband, etc. Despite all of her ridiculously bad decisions and tendencies to take the path of least resistance, I still love her and want her to be happy. I’ve learned, though, that she has to be the one to want to be happy in order for anything I do to make a difference. I still hold out hope that my mother can find peace and rest in this life, maybe even with someone in her life who’ll take the time to understand her and have the patience to work with her to acknowledge her difficult past and to put it all behind her.