My mother turns sixty-one tomorrow. She only twenty-two years and two months older than me, so I’ve never thought of her as old, even though she’s acted older than her age for years. Still, despite all we’ve been through, her body remains a young sixty-one, and will hold up for years to come.
Now, I know that many of Boy At The Window postings tend not to show my mother in the best light. As many of you should be aware by now, there were only a handful of silver linings in the six years before I went off to college. But my mother did have moments, few and far between as they were, when she rose to the occasion as my mother. Those moments startled me. They were unexpected, like minor miracles after a long, horrible day at school or work. Or, more to the point, like my Giants beating the Patriots in the Super Bowl last February or me finishing my master’s degree in two semesters. Those were the moments that reminded me how tough and fair my mother could be when she embraced her best inner self.
Below is a Top 5 list of those moments when my mother came to the rescue, looked out for me when I would’ve least expected it.
1. Thursday, September 6, 1984 — It was the day I came out of the spiritual closet as a Christian, forever taking off my kufi and moving on from three years as a beaten-down Hebrew-Israelite. My ex-stepfather threatened to kill me after I came home from school. My mother stood in between us and said, “You lost, Judah (my ex-stepfather’s Hebrew-Israelite name),” and told him that she would kick him out before she would allow him to throw me out of 616. That would be the last time I talked about being a Hebrew-Israelite until graduate school.
2. Tuesday, December 6, 1983 — It was the day after I’d been mugged by four of Mount Vernon’s most wonderful teenagers, including one who I knew from 616 because his older brother had gone to elementary school with me. Instead of letting it go, my mother took me to MVPD’s juvenile division to look at mug shots and press charges. I found three out of my four attackers as a result. Under normal circumstances, my one-time stepfather would’ve beaten me up and no one would’ve done anything. Going to the police was always out of the question. That was until my mother decided that I needed to do more than fight off attackers while going to the store to buy food for the family late at night. Her doing that made me feel better, at least that day.
3. April 1983 — The month we went on welfare. It was the death knell of nearly two decades as a working-class wage earner for my mother, and more than thirteen years of seeing my mother as nothing but a dietary department supervisor at Mount Vernon Hospital. She handled it much better than I thought she would. Maybe it was because she was too shell-shocked to be angry or bitter. Maybe she was depressed. But it didn’t show. She handled my embarrassment well, too. Especially after she realized that I had refused to use the food stamps in public at first (that story involves my one-time first crush and the C-Town grocery story on Prospect). Still, after years of bad decisions, she made the best of really awful situation, and made an adjustment that I knew most people couldn’t make without completely going insane.
4. August 1987 — Unbelievably, my mother decided that she wanted to go back to school to earn an associate’s degree. Even though I knew that she would never admit it, I knew that it was no coincidence that her going back to school was influenced by my acceptance to the University of Pittsburgh and my decision to take their offer. Though she didn’t handle my decision well at first, she decided at some point in the summer of ’87 to find a way to get off of welfare, to get a decent paying job, and to distance herself from her idiot second husband. It took her a decade to earn her associate’s from Westchester Business Institute, but this was the month that she started down a path of independence.
5. May 1981 — Besides buying the ’78 edition of World Book Encyclopedia for me in March ’78, this was the most important decision she made regarding my education. I had tested in the 11th and 12th grade percentiles for math and reading respectively on the SRA tests (owned by IBM in the ’70s and early ’80s — had been part of Lyle Spencer’s portfolio before he sold it to IBM before establishing the Spencer Foundation in ’68 — talk about irony). Between that and maintaining straight A’s for three years, I was a shoe-in for this Humanities Program. My sixth grade teacher Mrs. Bryant pushed me to talk to my mother about it for nearly a week. My mother seldom seemed that interested in my education, and with my stepfather back in the picture after a six-month separation, I wasn’t sure what she would say. But with very little reservation, she did say, “Go ahead,” with a low-keyness that sounded less like disinterest and more like she was worried about me being in this program with lots of White kids. Or maybe worried that I would be less like her and see her as stupid or too Southern in some way. I’m glad that she didn’t stand in the way.
There are a few other moments. These are the most important ones, the ones that let me know that my mother still loved me even in the middle of our maelstrom life. She still had hopes and dreams, for herself and for me. Even though I know that my mother’s life hasn’t turned out anywhere near as well as she would’ve wanted, and our relationship not exactly where I would like it to be, I still love her very much. I hope that her sixty-first birthday day is a good and peaceful one, with about as much drama as watching paint dry, given all the drama we’ve both lived through.