My mother is a poem
I’ll never be able to write,
though everything I write
is a poem to my mother.
Since my mother passed away in 2007, I have come to hate Mother’s Day. It was not always this way as I recall sharing many happy ones with her and sad ones too. Some were bittersweet, others hold too much pain and mock the imperfections in our lives.
I would always get a red flower to pin to my dress. I would ask her why do some people wear red flowers like I do and others wear white.
“Because their mother is dead,” she told me.
I came to feel sorry for someone when I saw that white carnation pinned to their clothing. I glanced at their white flower and promised myself that I would be very old before I would have to wear a white flower. Old like 60.
I was wrong.
This Mother’s Day I will wear a white flower at 39 years of age.
Funny how things never go as planned.
Now I am an orphan, a motherless daughter.
No longer is that feeling of stability and fulfillment on Mother’s Day, knowing that she will be there for me always.
We would have 38 Mother’s Days in all. Too bad I did not know that we only had 38. I would have been nicer on some of them. I would have always remembered a card, some flowers, taken her to dinner.
Perhaps only half of the 38 were good ones. Those were the ones where we would go to church and see grandmother afterward for dinner.
Then there were thornier ones.
Like Mother’s Day nineteen hundred and eighty one.
1981. I would have to say that one of my least favorite years was 1981. Mom and I were living in Oak Park, Illinois. We were four months behind in our rent. It was April and my stepfather had been gone for seven months. We were without food, money, and soon we would be without shelter. Here lies the dilemma of the women in my family. The conclusion was unanimous. Men always men were the problem. The children did not really matter. Oh we did but no one could bring the women down more than a roguish boyfriend or in my mother’s case an African man from Nairobi, Kenya that she had only married the year before. A man who was six years her junior and merely wanted a green card.
I was eleven years old and even I could see that he was a dirt bag. My sweet persuading and pleas for her not to marry him only earned me her contempt. We were doing just fine before he came along- just the two of us, I would say. Mother felt differently. Approaching her mid 40’s was not easy for her. She had never been married and had given birth to four children, two of whom she raised. The sun was setting on her. Her life would never be exceptional. That boat had sailed.
My grandmother being her usual uplifting self, only echoed the sentiment. She ridiculed my mother for her lack of sophistication and the general fucked-up-ness of her life. “ You will never get married at your age, no education, no decent job.” Mom was the middle of eight children. The “Jan Brady”. The unlucky daughter.
While my mother proved her wrong that January afternoon in Chicago’s city hall, little did she realized that her marriage to the Kenyan would cost us a precious gift and our relationship as mother and daughter would be forever changed.
After my stepfather left us my mother had a little problem with depression that became a big problem for me. I watched her deteriorate as she sat and starred out of our one bedroom apartment window. She had lost her job as a dog pound desk clerk with the City of Chicago and had no intentions of finding another one soon. Refusing to go back on welfare, she had decided we would starve to death. Or rather at least that is how it seemed to me.
She was being stubborn in her self pity and unreasonable. I had no one to turn to. Grandmother was on the outs with us. I could not tell my teacher at school or I would be taken away and sent to a foster home. Brother was far away in Korea.
Did I ask her why didn’t she get a job? Of course I did.
Her answer was that Ronald Reagan cut government programs and had made it impossible for blacks to get ahead. Now he wanted to abolish welfare and what would we do?
“Why should we get on welfare when Reagan was going to cut it anyway?” she asked.
It was a rhetorical question. My answer would get me nothing but more excuses. That would not fill an eleven year old’s empty stomach.
For children of neglect, school is a refuge. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, become your favorite days of the week. Friday is the day you dread. Friday you go home and wonder how you will eat on Saturday and Sunday.
I told myself that my mother was not neglecting me. She was hurt and needed time. Until she got better, I would take matters into my own hands.
I had taken to stealing and occasional dumpster diving. Back in 1981 it was just called digging in the trash. One of the things I loved about mother was that she was resourceful. By way of her likeness, it was a trait I too had inherited. Our last source of food was a can of pumpkin pie filling. It was the last can left from bag we received from the community food pantry.
Mom and I looked at the can for a day or so. Pumpkin pie filling in April was about as appetizing as dirt stew. I knew it would taste terrible and it did. The next day was my second day without food and the day I began to take food without asking.
At first I would steal other kids lunches from school. In Oak Park there was no free lunch program or mom was too proud to get on it. I am not really sure but all I knew was that we were expected to provide our own lunches.
Everyday we would have to stand in a single file line and drop our lunch bags or boxes in a bin. There the lunch would stay until 12noon. My Holly Hobby lunch box was a poseur. There were no sandwiches or Twinkies inside. No can of grape soda pop or celery sticks. The box was filled with air and the thermos contained only sugar water. Thinking myself clever because I was too embarrassed to go without a lunchbox, I would carry on this facade throughout the school year. The empty Holly Hobby lunchbox got dropped in the bin with all of the rest of them.
Our lunch period was open campus. I had an affinity for books and would spend my lunch hour in the school library. Afrocity did not eat lunch because she was too busy reading. No one would ever know that my mom could not feed me.. After school, I would dig through the lunch bag bin and take all of the lunches that the other kids left behind. I would resolutely affirm to myself that this was not stealing.
But it was stealing. I knew it when I saw the look on someone’s face. Once I took someone’s bag lunch and it had extra snacks for after school. Peering from behind a wall, I watched as the boy dug through the bin at least 4 times looking for his bag of Fig Newtons, Ruffles potato chips and ham sandwiches spread with butter. His name was Jason. It was written in green marker on the brown paper bag hidden in my book satchel. Jason was a rather large boy, stocky and rough. Well known for being a bully and prankster. There were at least five boys in school who would have killed to know that they could make Jason cry simply by stealing his bag lunch.
Mom never knew that I was stealing the lunches. She was happy that we had something to eat for dinner and somewhat amused at the variety.
“Why do white people put butter on sandwiches?” I asked. Jason’s ham sandwiches were tasty but the butter spread was foreign to me.
She shrugged “His mom must be old. It is a white thing though.”
“So are the Fluff sandwiches too,” I said .”I hate those. Why would you want to eat a marshmallow sandwich?”
“Beggars can’t be choosy.” Mom was uncomfortable with the situation. She looked haggardly, hair up in cornrows and a red bandanna covered it.
“It is nice of them to give you the sandwiches that no one wants.”
All she got from me was a serious expression and a nod.
That night I watched the television alone. Mom was closed up in the bedroom again. She would tell me that she was praying and did not want to be disturbed. That was not the truth. She was crying. Our apartment had little furniture. Mostly rickety antiques. There was an old rattan bench that I would sleep on in front of the TV. Ronald Reagan was talking about Mother’s Day.
Proclamation 4834 — Mother’s Day, 1981
April 13, 1981
By the President of the United States of America
Each year our Nation designates Mother’s Day as a moment of special tribute and appreciation for the mothers of America.
Recent years have brought many changes to the lives of American mothers. Today they are increasingly involved in business, politics, education, arts, sciences, and government as well as the vital work of the home and family.Yet, whether they seek careers outside the home or work as homemakers, they remain the heart of the American family.
They shape the character of our people through the love and nurture of their children. It is the strength they give their families that keeps our Nation strong.
On this Mother’s Day, we express our deep personal gratitude to our own mothers and thank all those women whose devotion to their families helps sustain a healthy and productive citizenry.
Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate Sunday, May 10, 1981, as Mother’s Day. I direct Government officials to display the flag of the United States on all Federal Government buildings, and I urge all citizens to display the flag at their homes and other suitable places on that day.
In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my hand this thirteenth day of April, in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred eighty-one, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and fifth.
It all seemed so paradoxical. I brought dinner home, she ate and went to bed. I stayed up and watched television while wondering where our next meal would come from.No longer was there any way to distinguish between mother and child.
Hearing Ronald Reagan’s words reminded me that I had forgotten to give her the card that I had made for her in art class. A simple pink piece of folded construction paper decorated with a tempera paint imprint of my hand. It was buried between the homework sheets and an assortment of cookies I had stolen. Thinking about the card for a minute or two more, I grabbed the bag and slipped it under her bedroom door.
She was essentially a good mother and I was essentially a good child. Or at least we would pretended to be that day.
Autographed Letter Signed,