It was six years ago this week that two events occurred to forever change my relationship with my mother and family. It was the joining of these events in my mind, born of my desperation for relief from years of frustration, anger, resentment and emotional exhaustion. It was my family intervention, occurring the same week that my youngest brother Eri became a dad, at the end of January ’02.
The roots of all of this likely go back to when my mother was pregnant with me, but that’s a story almost as long as Boy At The Window itself. The more immediate context begins with one of my once-a-week calls to my mother at the end of July ’01. I called to wish my brother Maurice a happy twenty-second birthday, to encourage him to go back to Westchester Community College and finish his associate’s degree, to find out how the rest of “the kids” (as my mother still called them) were doing.
What I got was nearly an hour of stress and despair from my mother about my siblings. The “Judah babies” (my ex-stepfather’s Hebrew-Israelite name) were out of control, my mother said, with the exhaustion of someone who no longer knew how to parent or nurture. Eri “makes me sick,” she said as she went on and on about his girlfriend, the pregnancy, his defiance and threats of violence to her and to the other siblings. Of course, my other brothers Yiscoc (pronounced “Yizz-co,” an old form of Isaac) and Maurice were no good as well. They were “sittin‘ on their asses as usual,” my mother said. My older brother Darren, the only sibling other than me not living at 616 was also on my mother’s shit list for only coming over on the occasional Sunday to eat from her trough. By the time I hung up the phone, I felt stressed like I’d never been before, episodes of abuse included.
At this point I was on a regular phone call schedule with my mother. For nearly fourteen years, I’d spoken with her at least once a week, only to find that these conversations were mostly venting sessions for her. If I had any good news, her response was usually no response. If I had any bad news or not-so-good news, like during my days of underemployment (when I was only teaching part-time at Duquesne University in ’98 and ’99), that gave her the opportunity to talk about her employment struggles and how “West Indians,” “Spanish people” and “Orientals” were taking all the jobs in Mount Vernon. If I asked her how she was doing, she’d say “Tired” with a sigh that made me wish that I never asked. Despite this, despite the way she acted during my doctorate graduation at Carnegie Mellon, despite her never asking about my wife or about my career, I kept in contact. I wanted my journey to be an example of what was possible and real for her and for my brothers and sisters. That’s why I kept calling and frequently sent money, even when it was obvious my success had meant little to my family.
After hearing that Eri had knocked up his girlfriend and that she was do in January ’02, my mindset became less stable for a while (my wife can attest to this). Eri had recently dropped out of Mount Vernon High School after spending nearly two and a half years in ninth grade. He wasn’t working, wasn’t looking for work, and was offended by the idea that I would even ask him to do so. Yiscoc had also dropped out, was working (under the table, of course) and hanging out all hours. Sarai, the next youngest at 18, shared the same room and bed with my mother. The only thing missing from my sister’s infantalization was a chastity belt. And Maurice, my allegedly retarded brother who finished high school with a 3-something average in standard high school courses had stopped going to Westchester Community College after two part-time semesters. Between them and my mother, I became depressed myself. For the next seven months after the end-of-July call, I would have trouble sleeping, often getting only four or five hours a night. I was occasionally testy for no apparent reason, and my co-workers often got on my last nerve (that was more typical, but it lasted longer during those days).
The 9/11 attacked didn’t help matters. The terrorists, in fact, had delayed my original intervention plans. I had planned to go to Mount Vernon in September or October to visit and meet with my family. Being unable to leave Atlanta for three days and all the things that happened after that forced me to push my plans into ’02. Meanwhile, I still needed to keep up some appearances, continue to call my mother and semi-listen to her gripes and aches and pains. The fall of ’01 was total torture, with my mother forgetting my birthday (again) and trashing the Xmas gift I’d bought her. It was a book by one of her favorite pastors on racism and the modern church. “I already know all about racism,” she said with the disdain of someone who didn’t want to be bothered.
By this time I began making my plans. I contacted my Uncle Sam (my mother’s brother living in Mount Vernon), my older brother Darren and a couple of my mother’s old acquaintances to let them know that I would be in town and that I needed to talk with them. I talked with my mother about coming over for dinner on the last Friday in January. I put together a three-page chart of the critical errors our family (mostly my mother, of course) had made since the early-70s. And then I prayed. I prayed for the strength to do this, for finding some positive things to say to temper all of the negative ones I knew I would have to say. I prayed to make sure I wasn’t doing this out of spite or some warped sense of hatred toward my mother.
That week, the week of the intervention, was an exhausting one. I ran a conference for my job in Atlanta in the days before, as well as visited my father Jimme in Jacksonville for the first time since he had stopped drinking four years earlier. “You know what your mama gonna do?,” he warned after I told him about the intervention. At least he understood why.
I went up to suburban New York City, New Rochelle (which is only two miles from Mount Vernon and 616) and booked a hotel room. In the two days before, I ate dinner with my uncle and asked him to come to the intervention. I visited one of my mother’s old friends and told her as well. I learned a few valuable things about my mother’s past that gave me some food for thought about why she was the way she’d been over the previous twenty-five years. Then it was time for the intervention. I called my siblings to remind them that I was coming over and that I’d order pizza for dinner.
By the time I arrived, Darren and three of my four younger siblings (Yiscoc had left to hang out with his friends) were already there. 616. The place where beatings, muggings and a fire had happened to us. The place was a disaster of cheap, broken furniture, a petri dish experiment for the interior of the refrigerator, walls plastered and painted the colors of a jail cell. My siblings with the look and smell of poverty. I almost cried just thinking about what I was about to do. So for an hour, as the pizza, my mother and my Uncle Sam arrived, I tried to make small talk, tried but failed. At least the pizza gave me a few minutes to think before I went to it.
I started a few minutes after eight, about ten minutes after Uncle Sam got there. He would at least he my mother from attacking me. I went on for a few minutes about the family history, Darren being condemned to a school for the retarded, my own abuse, my mother’s horrible tastes in men and her consistently taking the path of least resistance in her decisions (including the one to move back to 616 in ’98), about my ex-stepfather and father and their stupidity, incompetence and violence. Then I started on each of my siblings, their laziness, close mindedness, petty jealousies and isolation from the real world. I laid hardess into Eri for making the mistake of becoming a father too soon.
That seemed to get things going. My sister attacked me for not understanding. “Look at you now! You have no idea what it’s like,” she said. I reminded her that not only did I know, I lived with the memories of “what things were like” every day. “You abandoned us! You left and went off to college and never came back!,” Eri screamed, as if my whole life should’ve been spent in the New York area watching over them. Darren and Maurice chimed in, both defending me by pointing to decisions about their education that my mother had made by not making a decision at all. Even my Uncle Sam came down on my side, only saying “Watch your language” a couple of times.
After an hour, Eri was upset, Maurice was crying, Darren was in some sort of delirious heaven, as morbid as he was, and Sarai was pouting, arms crossed while sitting on the bowing couch in front of me. Only my mother hadn’t said a word. She sat and stood in a state of shock, eyes teared and mixed with daggers of rage, face drawn, as if I’d slapped her in both cheeks. She hadn’t made a single sound. As I went on about how “fucked up our family has been,” I realized that as important a voice in the room as my mother was, it was more important to reach my brothers and sister than it was to reach her. So I left, shaking my head, promising not to show my head at 616 anytime soon, hoping that we “would get our acts together,” but realizing I couldn’t invest my emotions “in making all of our lives better anymore.”
I didn’t talk with my mother for three months, and only twice (once by letter) in the seven months after the intervention. I heard from Darren and Sarai how pissed she was at me, that she had said her famous “How dare I…” words after I left. Too bad she didn’t talk during the intervention. I wrote her a letter to tell her that she showed all of the signs of clinical depression, that she should see a doctor and find a way to talk about all of things that she had suffered through in life, only to be read the riot act in a voice mail message a week later. In all of that, there was some good news. After being depressed myself for nearly a month, I started sleeping again. I wasn’t talking with my family every week anymore, and I had found a way to come to grips with the fact that I couldn’t change the course of life for my family simply by doing well myself.
But my intervention did have an impact. Five weeks after my visit, Eri went into Job Corps in upstate New York. Within six months, he had earned his GED, gotten his driver’s license and was earning certification as an auto mechanic. Two years later, he joined the Army Reserve and started school at Monroe College. Maurice started up his associate’s degree work a year after the intervention and moved out of 616 even before that. Sarai and I had to have our own mini-intervention regarding her taking care of my son a couple of years later. By the end of ’04, she had moved to Alabama with friends to live her own life. Only Yiscoc was unaffected by the intervention, at least in a direct way, as he is the only sibling still living at 616 with my mother. At least he has his a normal job.
Me and my mother still don’t talk like we used to when I first started college. I call about once every six weeks, and tend to stick to topics that I’m comfortable talking with her about. I don’t talk about writing or teaching or work, refuse to talk about Mount Vernon in terms of race or ethnicity, and won’t allow a discussion of religion or sexual orientation, because my mother’s bigotry and seemingly blissful isolation bothers me. It means that the phone call typically doesn’t last more than thirty minutes, just enough not to end up with a headache. I’ve learned, tragically, that just because I love my mother doesn’t mean that I have to like her or like what she does. At the same time, I still hope that she finds a way to let out her pain and suffering so that she can deal and heal, making her remaining days ones that she can truly enjoy.