“My mother, poor fish, wanting to be happy, beaten two or three times a week, telling me to be happy: “Henry, smile! Why don’t you ever smile?” and then she would smile, to show me how, and it was the saddest smile I ever saw.” –Charles Bukowski
About five years ago, when I was just starting as a student at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, I attended an exhibition by the graduating MFA students of that semester. It was pretty much as you would expect from a bunch of self-indulged, twenty something white kids living on their parents’ dime. There was your token flamboyant gay man, dressed in Rocky Horror tribute, complete with requisite corset, makeup and thigh high nylons. There was (another flamboyant? Attention starved? Probably molested as an infant?) gay man dressed in a giant, fluffy penis costume. Clown attire. Vaginally-shaped henna drawings. Damaged walls designed to resemble outdoor plumbing…and a creepy girl with a bad perm in gaucho pants singing ‘We Are The World,’ while her unshaven sidekicks handed out postcards boasting images of bloated African children. I say ‘boasting,’ because she was just narcissistic enough to want YOU to acknowledge her ‘awareness’ of poverty and starvation in Africa, but not vested so much to present strategies on how to combat those issues. In other words, just another art kid.
Oh yeah, there were a few paintings too…
There was also a young woman, dressed in completely normal attire, for a change, walking around handing out buttons. When I approached her to uncover the purpose of her project, she wouldn’t tell me what it was about. What she DID say was that I could have a button, if I promised to wear it for the rest of the evening. When I looked in her basket, I saw that every button voiced a statement, and that each statement began with the words “I fear…” But it wasn’t your normal “I fear spiders,” or “I fear swallowing,” kind of declaration. These were fears that provided a small window of insight into the bubbling cauldron of denial from which most of us source to function.
“I fear failure.”
“I fear never living up to my parents’ expectations.”
“I fear that nobody could ever love me.”
The project was pretty telling and, in the blink of an eye, I understood her objective. It was just one of those (very few) performance pieces that actually made sense…so much so that I still think about it five years later, from across the other side of the world. I still have my button. The rest of the exhibition didn’t even come close to this one piece. All those kids, spending THOUSANDS of dollars of their parents’ money to go to the alleged best art school in the country, wanking on stage and then go cutting themselves the day after, when they should’ve just learned Photoshop and gotten a therapist like everyone else. But THIS girl…got shit.
Think about the fears that we walk around with every single day, but never acknowledge out loud. We bury them, we internalize them, we try to dress them up with clothes, cars and alcohol-fueled rants at 3 in the morning…and, in turn, they manifest with the most predictable of consequences…infecting our most intimate relationships with anger, bitterness and resentment like a pus. Those fears end up controlling an inordinate amount of our lives, simply because the only thing that we fear MORE than that actual fear coming to fruition, is the idea of facing that fear before it becomes a reality. Amazing!
I fished through the buttons, thinking then as I had for many years before, that I was, essentially, fearless.
…Until it was staring me in the face from the palm of my (henna tatted) hand. And, like most honest things in life, you know the truth when you see it:
“I fear I won’t be a good mother someday.”
One of the most common ‘side-effects’ of the middle passage is widely known to be the deconstruction of the black family unit. The whole concept of the ‘nuclear family,’ consisting of mom dad brother and sister has evolved, for the sake of survival, into something completely different. With slavery came a complete disassociation from the motherland and a shredding of the usual suspects that comprise a family. With mothers and sons and fathers and daughters being separated from the moment they stepped off of the boat, a period of disenfranchisement began, I think, that persists to this very day. Boys become fathers before they become men. Girls become mothers before they become women…but many of them are not taking care of their children. As a result, many grandparents, aunts and uncles have stepped up where moms and dads have left off. This isn’t just a Gen Y thing, or a sign of the times…it’s been going on for ages. For example, my father called his grandmother, Ethel, mom and called his mother, Mary. My mother called her oldest sister mom, and called her mother Eliza. My sister and I don’t share the same father…or mother. She is my cousin, but she calls my dad her own, and calls our Aunt Irene, her mother. Parenthood is basically a transient term used to refer to the person who steps up to the plate, and not the person who’s blood flows through your veins. If your mother ran off to join a group of Gypsies and travel through the Midwest, someone else was going to make sure that your child made it to school and back every day. If someone’s father left to be with a younger woman, there was usually someone to drop by and help fix things around the house. I equate this a lot with the Pan-Indian identity…how indigenous tribes across America came to adopt anyone who shared an ounce of Indian blood, regardless of what else it was mixed with, in order to maintain bloodlines and survive in an increasingly complex and industrialized society. Unfortunately, it also makes shit really hard to trace.
It may sound sad to someone looking in from the outside, that a lot of times a father can’t be a father, or a mother can’t be a mother, but trust me…sometimes it’s better to have someone else step up to a job that isn’t necessarily their own, then to stay just for the sake of saying that they did when they were never emotionally invested.
Since I’ve started this heritage journey, I’ve become acquainted with some pretty amazing facts. I am part Choctaw Indian. I have a Scottish crest. I have hundreds of cousins and, consequently, I can’t sleep with any black guy (of any tint, hue or shade) in the Southeastern part of the United States (or Scotland) without possibly committing an act of incest.
There is something else that I’ve learned or, rather, acknowledged since I began this journey.
As I’ve said before, the search on my mother’s side of the family has been thus far uneventful. In fact, the only information that I’ve gotten has been from my mother’s stories…and she doesn’t like to discuss the subject to any satisfying length. My mother, while not social, is certainly talkative to her immediate family (me, my brother, my father). She’ll talk your ear off about anything…does the weather seem like a two sentence conversation to you? Try two hours. How was your day? Well, apparently, hers was an epic battle between good and evil that waged all day, and requires a synopsis that will last all night.
But when you ask her about her family, she shuts down…completely. She gets anxious. She walks away. She’ll come back later visibly agitated and looking to start an argument. Up until recently, the solution has been simple: Don’t talk about it. But now, with both grandparents on that side deceased and no functioning relationship with any of her ten remaining siblings…I didn’t really have a choice. The following information, details the conversations that I’ve had with my mother about her family:
My maternal grandmother, my mom’s mom, didn’t love me. Hell, she didn’t even like me. She didn’t like me, or my brother or even her own daughter. She…hated us.
To some extent, I was always aware of this, but never fed into it past a fleeting thought. Since her death in 1999, my thoughts of her have largely been reduced to a thick concentration of only a few memories: I remember going to her house when I was a little dude and literally counting down the minutes of the requisite two hour visit until I could start hinting at an escape. I remember that her house was small…really small, and that rats lived there. I saw them scurrying from corner to corner, some as big as ground hogs. I remember not being able to sleep there; staying up to watch the long shadows turn short as an indication of dawn approaching and, therefore, pending escape. I remember that she made my grandfather sleep in the garden shack in the backyard. I remember the bitter gumbo that she made out of chopped tomatoes, squash and raw okra that had too much salt and too much bite. I remember that my grandmother did not have a television or a radio or, check this out, books. In fact, the only book in her house was the bible. And there were several to choose from…one with what appeared to be blood stains turned brown that she kept on her nightstand, and never left.
She never hugged me. She never hugged my brother. She never hugged my mother or my father. She never hugged her husband. She never kissed him.
“She never touched anyone except to beat them,” my mother told me once.
…and she NEVER smiled.
There are photos of the old family reunions in the eighties and early nineties; my grandmother surrounded by her dozen living children, and fifty more grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all of whom are smiling from ear to ear in their best Sunday dress…and in every single photograph her face is long and hard with dozens of dramatic lines deeply drawn at each corner of her sun-weathered mouth that appear to be less an indication of her mood at the time, and more an expression of her general attitude towards celebrations as a whole: Shit. Waste. Garbage. Excess.
Photographs might be necessary…but enjoying yourself while they were taken? Optional. Food might be necessary, but taking the time to make it taste delicious? Pointless. Speaking might be necessary, but discussing philosophical truths that did not contain the words “book,” “chapter,” or “verse”? Get the fuck out of her house.
And despite her naturally course disposition, she was never so hard as she was when she interacted with my mother. I know this, not just because of what my mother told me, but because of what her sisters told me (when they were still speaking to each other, of course). I’ve become re-acquainted with these fond memories since researching her side of the family. When I spoke with my mother yesterday, close to an hour passed where I asked her round after round of questions, leaving both of us frustrated and angry.
My mother is anti-social, paranoid and suffers from a combination of depression, bi-polar disorder and borderline personality disorder. I only say this, because I want you to understand how difficult it is to try and get any information from her at any point in time…on anything. She has trouble concentrating. She can’t string together a cohesive sentence. She can’t answer a simple “yes or no” question. She can’t look you in the eye. When she speaks, you have to put your ear right up to her mouth to hear what she has to say, because she’s incredibly insecure about saying the wrong thing. She lies. A lot. She will get so turned around in her head, that she has actually been known to make up whole situations in her mind about reasons why she dislikes people whom she’s never even met. And nothing that anyone says or does can ever convince her that she’s wrong in her assessment. She hords…like, pardon the pun, crazy. Because she grew up in a very small home with absolutely nothing, where she and her twelve siblings played musical chairs with two beds, she places an obscene amount of importance on physical possessions; the volume of which is directly correlated with the amount of approval/affection/love she did not receive from her mother. Essentially, each purchase is an impulse to fill a well of emptiness inherited from her family. The more zeroes attached to a particular item, the smaller the void seems in that moment. In her head, she’s an expert on antiques, fine China and crystal, because they are expensive. She’s more of an expert on the price of all of these things and is more quick to tell you the cost of each item in her living room, than to offer you a cup of tea. She doesn’t want you to look at her. She doesn’t want you to enquire about her life. She wants you to look and marvel at the exquisite excess of her home and, as a result, think better of her for it. She doesn’t trust anyone. She doesn’t trust my father. She has made an especial effort to isolate him from his family, in particular, his mother. Last Thanksgiving, she sat in the corner and didn’t say ‘hello’ to anyone. She has mood swings that would make a Darwinist believe in the concept of possession. There have been moments when she kissed me one minute, then pointed a knife at me and told me to get the fuck out of the kitchen or she would fucking kill me the next. And then, when the dust settles after her temper tantrum, she breaks into a cold sweat and starts convulsing…literally drained of all vitality, and sinks into the leather folds of the couch to such a point that I could swear she actually disappeared…
But she loves me. She loves me more than she loves herself. She’ll stand outside of my bedroom when I’m home visiting, lurking, just waiting for me to open up the door and say something. She tries so hard to talk to me when I call, usually picking up the phone in a breathless hurry before I speak to my father. She writes me e-mails every single day from work. They’re usually short, and can be condensed to “It was great talking with you on Saturday. It’s busy here. I have to go. I love you.” She’s stopped talking to me about religion, because it made things very difficult for us for a long time…
And while she drives me insane…and while she and I haven’t had a decent conversation since I was a teenager, I cannot deny even for a second that I am who I am because I never had to question her love for me. There’s never been a moment, not a single moment, even when she was pointing a knife in my face, that I questioned her love or commitment to me as her child. There have been moments when, while we were embracing, I got the distinct feeling that she wasn’t hugging me so much as she was imagining hugging herself as a little girl. There have been moments when I saw so much sadness in her face that she looked like a completely different person. There have been moments when I saw her face morph into a child herself, looking to me as the mother that she never had and, sometimes, that’s a role that I have filled when need be.
Sometimes, those are the kinds of things that we do for people that we love.
But when I think of her as a child, as a gorgeous little girl with twists in her hair and gaps between her teeth, I ask myself “How in the hell could you not love this child?” She would have been so kind, curious, creative, affectionate precocious and sweet. She would’ve had dirty diapers and cavities, wanted dolls and pretty pink dresses…but she didn’t get any of that. My mother wasn’t bathed as a child. She didn’t have any clothes. She went to school covered in dirt and rags. Her teeth rotted out of her head (as evidence by the extensive dental work she’s had as an adult). Her hair was so uncombed that it knotted up entirely and had to be just cut out on more than one occasion. She didn’t eat. She didn’t go to school with a bagged lunch, nor did she get money from her parents to buy it. She starved, feeding on the scraps of her schoolmates or whatever the teachers could spare. It wasn’t because her family was poor (and, believe me, they definitely were that too) and it wasn’t because they had eleven other children to feed…the rest of them ate…some quite profusely. My grandmother hated my mother, because my mother was named after her father’s mother; my grandmother’s mother-in-law.
My grandmother, Eliza, was born 1915 in Albany, GA. She was raised by her father, Elijah, and her step-mother, LeBertha. Her blood mother died when she was a baby, apparently. My grandfather, Eddie, was born 1906 in Thomasville, GA. They met and married in 1931 and then moved to Mulberry, Florida, when my grandmother was just 16 years old…this was, apparently, driven by my grandmother’s desperate need to escape her step-mother, whom she hated deeply. No other details as to why are known. My grandfather’s mother, whom he loved deeply, apparently did not approve of this union and was very vocal of her distaste for my grandmother, to the point where she wasn’t even welcome to their home.
She didn’t approve of my grandmother’s family. She thought they were low and beneath the standards of her first born.
Because my grandmother’s sister, Hattie, killed another woman with whom she had a lover’s quarrel over, and I’m guessing here, a man (hey, an adult becoming so enraged over not being able to express their homosexual desires that they kill someone? Stranger things have happened!). Grand-Aunt Hattie served time in prison for the murder and, when she was released, moved right across the street from my grandmother’s house in Mulberry. My grandfather, becoming estranged from his mother to keep peace with his wife, did what any loving father would do…he named one of this children after her: My mother, Emma. It is still said, that my mother was his favorite. He was then kicked out of the house and spent the remaining 43 years of his life living outdoors with the possums and searching for his balls. My grandmother took this as a personal mark against her and never let him, or her daughter, forget it.
And my mother became her mother’s least favorite person on earth.
She didn’t choose her name. She didn’t choose her parents! She was just a kid wanting what every other kid on earth wants. But she never even had a chance… It’s so unfair!
In the 83 years that my grandmother was on this planet, she never said the words “I love you” to my mother. Even on her death bed, when she was in the hospital and my mother was at her side, there was nothing. In fact, there was so little of nothing that my mom invented an entire scenario of reconciliation just to help HER to move beyond the nothingness that my grandmother offered.
“Mom’s at peace now. I saw it in her eyes, and I knew…that there was love between us.”
Look, I know that sometimes people have a difficult time voicing their feelings. And I know that actions speak louder than words, and that some people are better at expressing their love rather than voicing it. And sometimes voicing things aloud makes them more real than they were when you didn’t acknowledge them at all… But that was her MOTHER. And if you’re a mother, and you’re about to meet the big, black empty darkness of death and you’re staring your child in the face and you have nothing to say to them…you’re not a good person. You are an AWFUL person. You are NOT a good mother. So, she died. And I went to her funeral, and I didn’t shed a single tear.
But my mother was a wreck…and I get it. She wasn’t grieving for her mother’s death. She was grieving for the myriad of lost opportunities to be loved by her in life. And I struggled then, as I do now, with the question of whether or not I should push her to accept the reality of her mother, or if living in denial is really a better way of coping with the ugly, brutal truth? Just because I’m the kind of person who NEEDS to know the truth, no matter how much it hurts, doesn’t mean that everyone else handles personal tragedy similarly. Our brains are amazing, in that they often protect us more than we realize by burying painful memories or covering them up with pleasant ones. And I think my mother’s brain has devised this protective strategy, inventing an amicable reconciliation that never actually happened, to keep from living a life with the knowledge that she did not have a mother’s love. I don’t think that it’s made her any happier, but if that’s what she needs to do to function…than who am I to judge?
A few days ago, when we were talking, I asked my mother about her oldest sister, Eddie Mae, who died when I was just an infant. I recall how, when I was younger, she spoke of her sister as her mother. But when I ask her about Eddie Mae now, she puts up yet another wall, saying that she wasn’t pleasant either. This came as kind’ve a shock, because she’s never uttered a foul word about her in the past…in fact, she’s the only sibling of whom she ever spoke favorably. When I called her out on this discrepancy, she dug her heels in and stuck to her modified statement. “She was cruel, angry and filthy.” I put the question to her…maybe it’s just easy to group all of her siblings into one category of crazy, to make it easier for her to live without a functioning relationship with any of them, if she just decides in her mind that none of them, living or dead, are worth knowing?
She denies it.
And then I realize…how lonely my mom is…completely shut off in her own world, estranged from everyone who knew her as a child.
Don’t get me wrong. I kind of get it. I’ve thought about reaching out to my aunts and uncles on a number of occasions, but the thing is…I don’t like them either. They’re loud. They talk for hours without saying a single damn thing. Every sentence ends with the word “Praise God” or “Hallelujah.” None of them exercise, but all of them eat fried chicken from Popeye’s. They’re bitter. They’re closed minded and revel in their ignorance. None of them read books by people who aren’t ministers. If you succeed somewhere, it’s because of God. If you fail somewhere, it’s because you didn’t give praise to God. God made all things beautiful and all people as brothers and sisters…except white people. One of them, my Aunt Elaine, was visiting once about eight years ago when I was still in college, and stayed at our home. Upon entering my bedroom, which was covered wall to wall in photographs of my friends from high school…many of Asian, Hispanic and White at the time…she lifted her head from the trough of chocolate turtles greasing her multiple chins and said “Jennifer obviously doesn’t like black people.”
No, Jennifer obviously doesn’t like cankles. Jennifer doesn’t like hypocrites. Jennifer doesn’t like cankle-clad hypocrites. Jennifer doesn’t like people who prefer to be referred to as “Dr” when their doctorates were earned from the University of Phoenix. Jennifer doesn’t like racists of any color or people who subscribe to the idea that race should dictate behavior and speech pathology. Jennifer doesn’t like her blackness being measured by people who source their opinions from BET. And Jennifer sure as shit doesn’t like people who make themselves at home in her bedroom without respecting the people who lend it to you.
Jennifer doesn’t like her aunts or uncles either. But I would be willing to TRY…if my mother stood to gain anything from the (strained) friendship. But she’s convinced that there isn’t anything…that there is no affection love or friendship lost by severing this tie.
And it makes sense…there are a few basic elements that we all need in life in order to prosper, or at least have the basic tools to prosper: Food, water, shelter, clothing and love. The first four are obviously needed for basic survival. But what about the last one? Love? I think that’s the one need that elevates the verb of ‘survive’ to ‘prosper.’ Think about where you are now, and think about where you would be if nobody had loved you as a child. I won’t quote songs or verses or anything trite like that, but all the clichés are true. You aren’t really anybody until somebody loves you. There’s something primal about the need to care for your child. Something innate and driven, like the urge to procreate. It’s a strong urge, I imagine, for the people who want to have children. Almost unquestionable. And if it’s as strong as the urge to eat, sleep or have sex, then can you imagine the illogical amount of exertion it would take to completely ignore it. And that’s what my grandmother did to my mother. She just didn’t care.
So, this is the dark side of the family tree.
It is a branch so dark that I’m pretty sure that any remaining good would be obscured in its presence. And I think about this stuff, and I think about my mother…how she’s come leaps and bounds ahead of her mother to keep my brother and I perpetually buried between her tits, and smothered in attention…and I know that she did the best that she could. She didn’t want us growing up with the same pit of despair that she’s carried around with her those entire 61 years. I have enough confidence to go to a job interview and look at the manager in the eye. I have enough confidence to say ‘no,’ to the wrong types of men. I am secure enough in myself to look at the things that I want to change in my life, and make them happen. So, I guess, she was successful.
But I’m still terrified that all of that poison still runs through these veins. And it has to come out somewhere….
That’s the reason why I’ve kept that button all these years; because that is a fear that I’ve never actually eradicated. After all, there’s really only one way to prove or disprove that theory and that’s by getting knocked up and finding out for myself! I’m not that desperate to find out…not yet, anyway.