This past weekend, Mom turned seventy years old. 70! Wow! I sent her a plant with orange blossom roses, a vase and a candle setting, which arrived on time for her birthday on Saturday. We had a good phone conversation about the gift and about her day. When I turned the conversation to what she planned to do for her big day, she said she might “go to the Red Lobster at Cross County [Mall].” That was disappointing, but also somewhat expected. After a lifetime of drama, abuse, and pain, maybe a relatively peaceful weekend of phone calls, well wishes, and a table for one at Red Lobster is really all Mom can aspire to seven decades in.
I’ve thought a lot about Mom the last few days. Especially in light of my mother-in-law’s last two years of dementia and decline. Mom’s been a hard worker in her life, but not a strategic one. Mom dedicated a good portion of her life to relationships with men, to two abysmal marriages, and to the basic provisions for raising six kids. None of which she did with inspiration and passion, for none of this was what she dreamed for herself. Mom, when focused, could and did learn, but she’s not a particularly curious person, or a person devoted to learning new things. Mom was also one of the most vain persons I knew growing up. Despite $16,600/year for eight in most of the ’80s, would preen and primp for going on The Avenue (South Side Mount Vernon’s shopping district, Fourth Avenue) like it was an evening gala at the Met.
The good news and bad news about only being a bit more than 22 years younger than my Mom is that I have observed her growth and lack thereof for so many years. Some people say that to have a younger mother is to have someone who grows up with you while you’re growing up. No, not really. I was Mom’s second kid. My brother Darren came two years and eighteen days before me. Between my alcoholic, losing-one-good-job-after-another, seventh-grade-education dad and a full-time job at Mount Vernon Hospital, where was the time for Mom to grow as a young adult?
At the same time, I know this. At twenty, I had barely begun to know myself as a history student, writer, and human being. I had tons of thoughts, but often couldn’t find a way to articulate them fully. At 22, I was better at all these things, but not so much better that I could determine how I would raise one child, much less two. And before my wife of now more than seventeen years, I never saw myself getting married. Heck, I didn’t start regularly having sex until I was twenty-one!
Mom made a lot of decisions in her younger years by letting men and friends and circumstances — and really, fear — decide for her. Then, she played increasingly bad hands, each more laughable as they were more oppressive to all of us. Domestic violence, child abuse, grinding poverty, being Hebrew-Israelites. These barely scratch the surface of the emotional, psychological, and even spiritual torture Mom endured until she was 42.
But you know something? I endured all of this as well. Because, when you are a keenly aware son of a Black woman going through all this, and you decide that you must help, that you must act, you take on the same burdens and the same pains. Being keenly aware isn’t the same thing as knowing what I signed up for, though. Certainly not at twelve, not at twenty, not even at 32. I only knew that I had taken on too much growing up after my son was born fourteen years ago.
Someone on my Twitter feed said recently that he couldn’t believe the cats who would get on Twitter to criticize their moms. I’m not arguing that grown-ass men should criticize their mothers on Twitter. Nor should that put them on pedestals. If we are doing too much of either of those, we’re not seeing our mothers as real human beings, ordinary and flawed like most others. Except that they carried us in their wombs, birthed us, and even under circumstances as crushing as mine, attempted to raise and nurture.
My relationship with Mom will always be complicated by the fact that I know more than most people ought to know about their mothers. Mom couldn’t hide, Mom couldn’t protect, even on the many occasions she did try. Since I couldn’t hide or protect, I just went out and did all I could to help her help herself. Only that by the time we’d driven off my idiot stepfather in ’89, the damage, the depression, the PTSD, was already fully manifest. The fire at 616 and having the burden of my younger siblings made it worse.
Now that Mom is a septuagenarian, it would be interesting to know how she looks back at her life, to see how she sees her years spent on Earth. I wonder because for so many years, the only thing Mom desired was for “the Rapture to come and take her up.” I wonder because nearly all of her southern Black migrant friends from her first decade in the Bronx and in Mount Vernon are dead. I wonder because I’m not sure how it is that she’s managed to make it to 70 under the constant strain that has been most of her life.
I have no idea if Mom has ever read or will ever read my blog. I know others around her have. If she is reading, I want her to know that I do love her, and want for her seventies to be her best decade ever. I want her to want to learn, to finally find herself, to take up projects, to travel and explore a bit, even if it’s only Manhattan. I want her to find some meaning in life, even if it’s only the size of a speck.