616, 616 East Lincoln Avenue, Darren, Domestic Violence, Eri, Family Responsibilities, Leaving Home, Maurice, Mother-Son Relationship, Pitt, Poverty, Sarai, Siblings, Survivor's Guilt, Westchester Business Institute, Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health, Yiscoc
I am now three full decades removed from Moving Day 1987, the final Wednesday in August, when I moved for my freshman year of college to Pittsburgh. I was leaving Mount Vernon and 616, but neither would begin to leave me, at least for another year or so.
It was a day of days. But really, it wasn’t the hardest leaving day I faced. In the summers I’d come home to work and watch after my younger siblings, the end of those Augusts were tearful ones. I played music for me and my siblings to sing to before I left at the end of the summer of ’88. I added an extra week to my stay in 1990, just so I could spend extra time with Maurice, Yiscoc, Sarai, and Eri, teaching them how to ride a bike and how to tie their shoes, and missed a week’s worth of classes at Pitt to start the fall. Even in ’92, when I came back to 616 to work for two months that summer at Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health because I couldn’t find a teaching gig at Pitt, I stayed an extra week. That was my life outside of college, grad school, and Pittsburgh for a good decade after my first trip to Pittsburgh. It got easier to leave as my life became about working, teaching, dating, and writing, but leaving was always hard.
My hardest leaving day was in late-August 1989. After a full summer of work, between two jobs, the end of my Mom’s marriage (finally!), my older brother Darren moving out, and my schedule of activities with the younger Gang of Four, I saw going back to the University of Pittsburgh for my third year as a vacation. But it wasn’t going to be one for Mom. She would be completely on her own with my younger siblings for the first time once I left. And I knew the thought of being with them without any help, or least, without any enemies at 616 to war against (like my idiot ex-stepfather Maurice) terrified her.
I stayed an extra five days before leaving on August 30, because Mom still had two weekends of summer courses left to finish at Westchester Business institute. Mom made the decision to not finish up her business law and accounting classes that session the Saturday before I left. She said to me, “Go on to Pittsburgh, Donald. I’ll be all right.” It didn’t make sense to me. She had an A in the business law class, and likely could’ve talked with her instructor about taking an incomplete and then the final exam once my siblings started school after Labor Day. I said as much, but Mom, per usual, didn’t listen to me. She ended up with a D in the business law course, and an F, of course, in the accounting class. Mom wouldn’t return to Westchester Business Institute to finish up her associate’s degree until January 1996.
I felt guilty at the time that I put my own education over my Mom’s. I felt guilty that I couldn’t help out more. Mostly, I felt guilty that despite what I saw back then as “my responsibilities to the family,” I wanted to leave, and part of me wanted to stay gone. I didn’t want to come home for Christmas, my birthday, and New Year’s every single holiday season. I didn’t want to spend my summers living at 616 while working in Mount Vernon or White Plains. And though I wanted to help the Gang of Four out as much as I could, I would’ve preferred bringing them to Pittsburgh, and not going back to Mount Vernon over and over again.
Looking back, though, I realized the truth. Mom really didn’t enjoy school. Mom decided to go to Westchester Business Institute because I was in college. And as a professor who has taught hundreds of adult learners (students twenty-five and sometimes much older), I know that earning a degree with your kids can be a great motivator for enrolling in higher ed. It just can’t be the only motivator. At some point, it has to be about more than a friendly familial competition or even about using the degree to earn a few extra dollars. It has to be about improving yourself and the people around you. Mom wasn’t ready to juggle that burden, and likely had gone through too much that summer to spend another fifteen months in school while also watching after my younger siblings.
Boy, it was hard to leave that last Wednesday in August ’89. I was nervous for Mom, sad for my siblings, and maybe even a little angry with Mom and God about the impossible choice I thought I had made at the time. But I reminded myself that I wouldn’t be any good to anyone if I couldn’t finish my degree and use it to help others. I reminded myself that I was still only nineteen years old, that, my outward maturity and 616 aside, I still had a lot to learn about life.