Forgiveness, quiet as it’s kept, is for the forgiver, not for the forgiven. Forgiveness enables us to move on with and enjoy our lives in ways that we otherwise couldn’t. It keeps us sane, ready to receive love and forgiveness from others, even when we think that we don’t deserve it. Forgiveness allows us to appreciate the good in people, not to mention the good in ourselves. Still, it’s something that we have to do regularly, if not every day, than many a day. Especially when it comes to family.
My mother turns sixty-two on Wednesday. And I love her very much. But over the years, I’ve learned about my mother past, ticks and behaviors that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that she should’ve never given birth to any of us. Of all of the parents I’ve ever met or known, few have been more unhappy or miserable as my mother. That fact and two abysmal marriages have left her in some state of depression for the better part of the past three decades. She 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.
For me, what made statements like that worse was when I learned that my mother grew up as the oldest of twelve — yes, twelve — siblings in the Red River valley area of southwest Arkansas, in a town called Bradley, just five miles from the Louisiana border. Growing up as the child of tenant farmers in the Jim Crow South in the ’50s was hardly easy. Especially with cotton on the decline as a commodity. The poverty that my mother grew up with was balanced by the reality that poverty was all around, especially if you were Black. After all of that, and then finding the opportunity to move to New York with one of her cousins in the summer of ’66, why would my mother fling herself into the heartache of marriage and kids that became her life in Mount Vernon starting at the end of ’67?
She must’ve asked herself the same question some sixteen years, a dead-end job and two abusive husbands later. With a fourteen-year-old kid in a school for the retarded (even though he wasn’t), a twelve-year-old 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 about as much affection as an NYPD police officer. The “I love you, Donald” faucet, which was an occasional drip prior to the summer of ’82, was pretty much turned off after that.
It would be awful enough if I could say with certainty that our hellish lives occurred because my mother made awful decisions. But the reality was, my mother often made no decisions at all. That allowed people in her life who had no interest in her interests to make decisions for her. Like when my two-sheets-to-the-wind father took my older brother Darren to Clearview in ’74 and forced him into the battery of tests that would determine that his severe shyness was really mental retardation, even though Darren had taught himself and me to read. She allowed him to go to school there for six years before she made any attempt to remove him, and by then, it was way too late.
Or when she took her spiritual confusion and channeled it into becoming a Hebrew-Israelite in order to hang on to her dead-beat, no-account second husband, dragging Darren and me into it in the process. Or when my mother just kept going to work at Mount Vernon Hospital in the summer of ’82, even when her friends and co-workers begged her to take part. Her non-decisions, as it turned out, were really decisions of the worst sort, the path-of-least-resistance type of decisions. Ones that didn’t require much forethought, self-reflection, assistance from others, or wisdom.
These things take their toll, and they did for my mother and for the rest of us. By the time I moved from Pittsburgh to the DC area in ’99, I had tired of listening to my mother’s weekly gripes about “the kids,” my four younger siblings from her second marriage. She’d been calling them “Judah babies” for nearly a decade by then. It referred to my ex-stepfather’s Hebrew-Israelite name, Judah ben Israel, and the fact that she saw them as burdens that God had given her, because “no one else would want them.”
I had been a mama’s boy for years, first by nature and because I’d been the younger brother for nearly a decade. Then by virtue of witnessing the full rage that my stepfather vented upon my mother on Memorial Day ’82. For years, I saw it as my duty to help her and my younger siblings survive those terrible, terrible days. But after ten years of higher education, academia, and finding myself, I no longer had the energy to provide the optimism and sense of success that my mother drew out of me time and time again.
Once I did my version of a family intervention in ’02, confronting my mother and younger siblings with this and much more than I could mention here, I knew that my relationship with my mother would stayed strained, maybe for good. The fact was, I was never so mad or resentful that I had stopped loving her. I decided long before ’02 to forgive, because I couldn’t have met anyone, much less gotten married or become a father, walking around with the kind of hatred a person could generate from learning so many horrible things about his family or mother. Yet I also understood that if my siblings were to ever leave 616, or Mount Vernon, or learn to see a world beyond their narrow version of it, I needed to perform a version of seppuku. I had to end my mixed friendship, boyfriend-girlfriend, husband/father-wife relationship with my mother. Just so that I could be her adult son, period.
That’s been tough, so tough, over the past eight years. Even now, I know that I can’t have a conversation with my mother about work, writing, teaching, finances or family without inviting stories about how “them Spanish people” took some job away from her or about how “fags are ruinin‘” this country. I stick to basic family stuff, nothing more, nothing less. I do love her, very, very much. I just hope that she can find her out of her own misery and enjoy life before there’s no more life left for her to enjoy.