Normally I do a post every May 18th on a topic related to my PhD graduation ceremony at Carnegie Mellon. They usually revolve around two subjects: Joe Trotter and my Mom, betrayal and burnout. For once, I have no intention of doing a post on the seventeenth anniversary of officially becoming “Dr. Collins” and all of the baggage that I brought/came with that. Instead, today’s post is about the day before, Saturday, May 17 ’97. It was the day that my Mom and my future mother-in-law would meet each other for the first time, during my Mom’s one-and-only visit to Pittsburgh during my twelve years there.
I covered the cost of my Mom’s round-trip flight on US Air from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh, knowing that she wouldn’t have been able — or, as it turned out, willing — to see me graduate otherwise. That Friday evening, May 16th, was my Mom’s first time on an airplane since she was pregnant with me, the summer of ’69, when she visited her family in Arkansas. She’d already missed my ceremonies at Pitt for my bachelor’s and master’s in ’91 and ’92 respectively, and, as a result, I hadn’t gone to my graduations those years either.
So I made it easy for her this time around. Or rather, me and my then girlfriend Angelia made it easy for her. I gave up my studio apartment that weekend, because my Mom wasn’t comfortable with me putting her up in a hotel. Angelia cleaned my apartment from top to bottom — including the moulding at the bottom of my apartment’s walls. The place wasn’t this clean the day I’d moved in back in ’90!
But with so many other things that week, my Mom showed little appreciation for the significance of this trip, or for what we were doing to make this trip as convenient for her as possible. I went through Friday night and Saturday at Angelia’s apartment on the edge of East Liberty, about a twelve-minute walk away, where I hadn’t done an overnight before. I spent the first half of the next day going back and forth between my Mom, Angelia, my high school friend Laurell and her sister Naomi and unofficial surrogate (who were all staying at the Downtown Marriott). I took my Mom to both Pitt and CMU, to show her the place of my ten years’ working toward something much more important than a second high school diploma. I might as well have been taking my son to both campuses when he was a newborn!
Around 2:30 pm, I realized we needed to get to Angelia’s mother’s place in Homewood for a mid-afternoon meal. That was next on the schedule. I think we took the bus, the 71D from a block off CMU to Homewood, and walked the three blocks up a steep hill to Monticello Street. There, Angelia’s mom extended a long greeting, a hug for which my Mom hardly seemed prepared. Angelia was also there, and had bought a KFC bucket meal for the four of us to share.
After a few pleasantries, it started. How my mother and eventual mother-in-law, in their first-ever meeting, spent three hours discussing their failed marriages and the horrible nature of Black men the day before my graduation, I really don’t know. I was in a fog, worn out from a week’s worth of insomnia and from the growing realization that my Mom didn’t really care about my journey or accomplishments.
I stayed and respected my elders, maybe too much. Three hours listening to stories I already knew, between my first-hand knowledge of my father Jimme and my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice, not to mention the stories Angelia had told me about her mother’s trials (luckily, Angelia never witnessed these, because her mother’s marriage was over by the time she’d turned two). A concussion here, a bruised lip there. A broken jaw, a fractured arm. Alcoholism and abuse, and men, working or unemployed, not paying any bills. “Men are no good,” my Mom said over and over again.
Of course, I didn’t count, for as far as my Mom was concerned, I wasn’t a man, because I’d spent the previous decade as a student. But that wasn’t the worst part. My Mom did a bunch of revisionist history in telling the story of “raisin’ six kids” and her doomed two marriages, somehow writing me and Darren and the decisions she had some degree of control over out of this story.
I’d never been part of a conversation like this as an adult. As a six or ten-year-old kid on The Avenue in Mount Vernon with my Mom and her hospital friends, yes, but not since those times. I felt as if I might as well found some stoop outside, sat down with a 40, and fallen into a deep sleep.
Even Angelia’s mom wanted to change the subject by the middle of hour number three. Instead, she used her elderly-ness as a excuse to beg off more conversation on the topic of misogyny, told me that she was proud of me, said that she was excited about going to the CMU ceremony, and retired for the evening. I wish I could’ve gone upstairs with her and done the same. I instead had the distinction of dropping my Mom off at my apartment, picking up Angelia and going down to Station Square to eat dinner with Laurell, Naomi and Archie. And that was all the day before the graduation ceremony!