A few months after my mother and idiot ex-stepfather had broken up for the last time, we were sitting together eating breakfast one weekend morning. She was asking me if I was angry with her about all that had happened between ’81 and ’89. Not directly, mind you. But in her meandering, “don’t bring me no bad news” way, she wanted to see if I held her in contempt for taking so long to kick Maurice to the curb. “No,” I lied, somewhat unknowingly, “I’m not angry with you.” After a pause, my mother then said, “You know, he fooled us all.”
I was flabbergasted (what an understatement!) by that statement. It was as if I was talking to a woman who somehow thought that I was still eight years old. Either that, or my mother thought that I was an emotional and psychological idiot when compared to her. When I pointed out my running away from home in the weeks after their marriage in ’78, my mother said, “There’s no way you could’ve known.” Could’ve have known what? That my former stepfather pretended his way through life? That he had the parenting skills of DMX and Britney Spears all within his own persona? “Apparently, the only person he ‘fooled’ was my mother,” I thought.
It was the beginning of my mother’s attempts to revise history, in her favor of course. For years, she’d explain to “the kids” (my younger siblings Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri) that their lot in life as welfare kids was caused solely by their “no-good father.” Not to mention the “Spanish people” and “West Indians” and “Orientals” owning most of the shops on The Avenue in Mount Vernon and taking most of the good jobs in the New York City area. As someone whose knowledge of the world — being in it, if not necessarily of it — grew with each passing year, listening to these half-truths and bigoted lies became increasingly painful.
Then the big lie came, right around the time of the 616 fire in ’95. All of a sudden, my role in the family was rewritten. No longer was I the big brother/uncle/father figure that I’d been since I was twelve or thirteen years old. Now, my mother had become the only person to have taken care of the “Judah babies” (as she started to call my younger siblings). “I take care of my kids!” she’d yell at other people in public when they gave her weird looks as she’d yell at my siblings like she was a bit unhinged. Or my mother would say in exasperation, “I’m stuck with these kids! But they’re mine, and God gave them to me for a reason, so…” As if God forced her to get pregnant, forced her to give birth, and threatened her with lightning if she didn’t feed, clothe or shelter them.
At first, I took all of this as her way of coping with the trauma of homelessness and property loss — not that there was that much property to lose. But I realized — rather late I might add — that this was her way of giving herself affirmation through her bitterness about the lost years, those eleven horrible years of abuse and poverty. So what if it meant not acknowledging her oldest two children or the sacrifices they had to make on her behalf? Or not considering her own role in making matters worse than they already were, for herself and for the rest of us?
All of these issues led to my family intervention at the beginning of ’02. I was willing to sacrifice my mother-sort-of-son/sort-of-boyfriend/ex-husband relationship so that, at the very least, I could make sure that my younger siblings understood one thing. That it wasn’t just their father that played a role in screwing up their lives. That our mother had screwed up on numerous occasions as well. I wish I hadn’t had to do it. Yet I knew I couldn’t let Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai and Eri go into their adult years merely thinking that their father “had fooled us all.”
I certainly love my mother and acknowledge that without her hard work and persistence—at least through my thirteenth birthday—that I wouldn’t be here to write. But there are many things about her I didn’t like even when I was in the midst of constant abuse from my stepfather. The nurturing, affectionate mother that so many children take for granted as their first source of emotional strength was almost never there for me. My mother often said, “I like children when they’re [between] babies and two . . . it’s all downhill from there” while I was growing up, a sign that becoming the eventual mother of six children was perhaps not the best life choice.
It’s only been in the past couple of years that I’ve realized how much NOT receiving this kind of affection has affected my relationships with women and friendships with men. Emotional intimacy and the level necessary that each of us needs to function successfully in life can be the difference between experiencing happiness in almost any situation or dying a miserably slow death in an otherwise healthy life. I can honestly say that while I’ve made it most of the way back, I still had a bit of work to do on this front. Hopefully I’m not fooling myself in the process.