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My mother and me in 1985
I am the only daughter of the most gorgeous woman in White Plains. Throughout the years, I've worked tirelessly to learn her language by studying her every move and mimicking her every gesture. Yet I've worked the hardest trying to amass her every wisdom. Wisdom that I've come to realize, emerged from sullied and complex situations; ones she wished I'd never have to experience. I know now, a mother's language is hers alone. And it is the responsibility of a daughter to develop a language all her own. Still, if not for the fervent and sometimes inadvertent tutelage of our mothers, be she single or otherwise, we daughters would understand nothing.
My mother worked for the city; she was a single parent on a budget. While this meant we had food on the table, clean clothes, comfortable beds, and a warm apartment, we rarely traveled, and had nothing left over for the spoils of sleep away camp or dance classes or designer clothing. We were a family who used Mamaroneck Beach as our summer escape, and television as our weekend retreat. Although my mother had plenty of opportunity to remarry rich and up our ante, at the protective advice of my grandmother, she'd made the wise decision to wait until I was off on my own.
For a short time, when I was around eleven years old, I’d wished she'd remarried this radio jockey, whose interest in making me happy made him the most qualified contender for stepfather. He'd provided my friends and me with front row seats to every New Edition concert in the TriState between 1984-1985. I still have one of Bobby Brown’s shoelaces and a signed album cover from a concert in Long Island. I used to wonder why my mother didn't like him as much as I did. He seemed the best thing going with his spoils of concert tickets and sporting events. But as it turned out, he was a liar and a cheapskate. Something my mother shared many years later. I suppose that's why she played men like video games: after mastering one, she was on to the next. Yet interestingly enough, her former conquests would sit idly on shelves, hoping my mother would play them again.
On my twelfth birthday, my family came over for cake. I’d received a video camera and twenty-five dollars. I'd planned to use the money to buy rubber bracelets and Boy George stickers from the Galleria Mall. But that night, a stranger standing atop my dresser awakened me. My room was pitch black aside from the moon, which cast the palest light against my bedroom wall. At first, I thought I'd dreamt the whole thing, but the next day I woke to my money missing and my camera gone. My mother appeared unaffected, but from then on, she kept the doors and windows locked, and any loose change or special item locked away. Crack had hit White Plains, and a few of my family members had fallen victim. As a result, my mother had my brothers and me watch a true story of a series of murders committed in Atlanta, Georgia, from the summer of 1979 until the spring of 1981. She used the film to explain the importance of keeping our windows and doors locked at all times. She insisted we stay aware of our surroundings, of ourselves.
Around the same time, a ubiquitous white van had topped the local news. Children were being abducted in droves. One Saturday, my older brother and I were coming back from the convenient store after picking up an afternoon snack of Susie Q's and Jungle Juice. Before turning the corner to our apartment building, a white van opened its doors and a man wearing head to toe black yelled, "Get in!” I was grateful thatour mother had programmed us to drop everything and run. And unlike too many children that year, we arrived at home, safe and sound.
The following weekend I ran into a childhood friend whose father had been a buddy of my father's. He appeared distraught. He told me his dad had AIDS. I asked if his dad was gay. My limited education on AIDS made me sound ignorant. A question appeared on his face when he said, "No, my dad shot heroin like yours." I didn't know what he'd meant. My father died of an aneurism; my mother had told me so. At home, I told my mother what the boy had mentioned, and she said,
“Don’t listen to what people tell you in the street. Your father loved you!”
I hadn't asked whether my father loved me; I knew he'd loved me. Something in her protest suggested the boy's words held truth, as she pontificated on people trying to bring our family down. My mother was the same person who'd taught me what’s done in the dark shall come to light. I’d later discover the boy was correct.
That night, I thought about how fragile life is, and how much I had in common with people who were not my family. Still, I lay in my bed itemizing differences between myself and a boy I liked at school. He lived in a house with a basement. I did not. He’d likely survive if Gaddafi dropped an atomic bomb. I'd most likely die at the hand of a zombie. He still had both his parents. I had my mother and a few items that belonged to my deceased father. He was white, and though some classless classmates considered me a 'white girl', I was a black girl, through and through.
It seemed when straddling the blurred lines of adolescence, individuality existed as an anomaly. “Blackness" had emerged as this thing in a specific box, and several of my black classmates found my embrace of Madonna and Bon Jovi confusing. Meanwhile, white classmates voiced their appreciation for the difference I represented as they compared me to my black counterparts. Both, disturbing accounts of prejudice. The game of figuring out what box I belonged in had taken its toll. But I had my mother, who’d insisted I reject any box put before me, and to never wait for others to appreciate me. Instead, to focus on loving myself.
Yet even with the staunch self-assuredness my mother had set in place, blackness on a whole was being polarized. Black High School students were arrested for selling drugs. Black Mercedes arrived in front of my junior school to pick up young black girls I'd once befriended. I recall one Friday after school, I’d missed the late bus, and a classmate offered to give me a ride home with her eighteen-year-old, car-driving boyfriend behind the wheel. During the ride, he'd offered me a piece of candy he'd kept on the dashboard. It was a white, rock-like substance housed inside a vial with a black plastic top next to others with red and yellow tops. Common sense kept me from accepting candy from a stranger. When I'd arrived at home, Channel 7 news flashed images of the candy. It was Crack Cocaine. Black on black crime had become a reoccurring theme. Artists rapped fluidly and frequently of attacks on blackness, on black people. While Nancy Reagan, along with every school community, pushed the rhetoric: "Just Say No".
I thank god for a mother who delved deeper, who made sure I watched the news. Media referred to Crack as an epidemic sweeping the nation. Celebrities set themselves on fire because of it; adult men and women sat half-naked in the streets begging for it, sacrificing everything just for a taste. My mother had said many times,
"If you do drugs, you'll be out on the street like those people you see laying in gutters."
What else was she to do or say? She was a single woman with growing children and nothing and no one to rely on, but herself and her precautionary words. She too, had lost a parent. Her mother. And after my grandmother died, my mother tried filling the void by attempting to fill her shoes. It was a feat larger than life; too much for my single mother to bear. She had tried to be the glue for her entire, extended family, but it was enough raising three children alone. Besides, my brothers and I needed her most. She had no other choice but to hammer fear into our heads and hearts; to warn us of the daunting future of a drug addict or uneducated person or worse, a woman who doesn't know her worth.
In winter 1986, after a violent assault on three black men in Howard Beach, Brooklyn, my mother implored my brothers to protect their bodies in our suburban streets. She was a black woman giving her black boys the talk, saying, "You need to behave yourself outside this house. If you're approached by the police, be respectful and say, yes, sir." Looks of terror and sadness spread across their faces. From then on, I worried for their bodies, for their minds; I worried of how racial discrimination would affect their lives. They were my innocent siblings, my mother's young sons. Boys, who'd eventually become men. Her men. She was our mother, and our father.
That year, our Christmas tree was enormous. It was as if the rustle and swish of the towering pine somehow eradicated the deafening silence swarming my mother's existence. I received a word processor and stacks of white typing paper under the tree; I’d wanted to be a writer ever since the age of five when I first heard my mother and father recite lines from the 'Three Little Pigs', "I’ll huff and I’ll puff and blow your house in." I recall the words floating off the page. I knew then I wanted to make words leap and flutter and dance; to spark the imagination of their readers. That night I prayed for my mother. I prayed she'd one day have a better life. A life with a proper home that didn't need the girth of an oversized evergreen to feel full; I prayed she'd have less worry for the mouths she had to feed, and less concern with putting on a brave face for people who didn't matter. She was my beautiful mother; she deserved a beautiful life.
On New Year’s Eve, I watched as my mother stood over our deep porcelain sink cleaning chitterlings (pig intestines). It's a southern tradition meant for delivering prosperity in the New Year. Albeit a gross and indigestible and god-awful tradition, it reflected my mother's optimism. Twinkling, white lights illumined our small, warm apartment as the smell of boiled guts stifled the air. On television, NBC ran down the year’s top stories. At no point had they mentioned the struggles of my single mother inside our fatherless home, or how she worried herself to death for our safety, or how she'd felt the need to secure a "man's job" in order to provide for her family. Only to be denied a position by the White Plains Fire Department because she was a woman. Regardless of the fact, she'd had the highest scores, and best physical fitness results of all the applicants.
She is also the woman who had to contend with my brothers and me, whom too embarrassed by what publicity might do to our social lives, had begged her not to seek vindication over job discrimination. Mine is a mother, who instead, took a job as a meter maid, which paid less, but kept her children from embarrassment. I'm ashamed every time I think of my resistance; I wish I'd had her back; I wish I'd had a better sense of what it meant to be a woman, especially then.
Today, my mother is retired. She no longer has the responsibility of feeding young minds and growing bodies. She is a woman who relishes Wednesday night bible study and Sundays at church; she is a woman who takes frequent trips to North Carolina to visit her twin; she is a woman whose incessant joy rivals all others, and who still has the innocent eyes of a young widow. Although she is no longer a single woman, my mother is every bit the young and hot and gorgeous mother she once was. Only now, she carries the wisdom and gravity a well-honed life brings. I marvel at my single mother's boundless optimism and irrefutable stamina, which to this day, has me considering myself every time.