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Sunday Soliloquy: The Unforgiven May 9, 2010

Joan Crawford and adopted daughter, Christina. June 1944. Getty Images

On this day of all days, we as some woman’s child, cling to  an understandable pre-occupation with visual representations of women who embody the perfect mother. Smiles, candy, roses, an ornate $7 gift card that sings when the recipient opens the pink envelope.   Our mothers are all special today- whether they deserve to be or not.  Next to Christmas and Thanksgiving, I am willing to bet an FTD floral arrangement that Mother’s Day follows closely behind its autumn and winter competition when it comes to holidays in which we are inclined to turn a deaf memory towards a dysfunctional family member.

Recently, I was watching the movie The Lovely Bones. The mother in the film is portrayed by Rachel Weis. Without giving away too much of the plot, a young girl “Susie” is murdered by a serial killer (Stanley Tucci) which sends her family into an emotional black hole.  Each  family member deals with the tragedy in their own way.  The father played by Mark Walberg becomes obsessed with finding his daughter’s murderer. The mother has the opposite reaction and wants the family to move on with their lives.  Finally, the mother can no longer take the stress and abruptly moves  away…leaves…yes leaves her family- her precious children to deal with this loss all on their own.  In what sense does a “good mother” leave her own family?  Cursed was she, that awful character, for me throughout the entire film.  Good mothers don’t leave.

But I was wrong.  Why would I find it more acceptable for the father to have walked out on the family rather than the mother?  With its emphasis on the “good mother” what does Mother’s Day really communicate about the reality of motherhood?  Are we to forget the failings of the women in our lives who serve as  mammary gland in chief?

1953 photo of Actress Judy Garland with daughters Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft

What about mother’s who experience postpartum depression? Are there any Mother’s Day cards that come with a sample of skin salve for chaffing breasts?  Any IOU cards for 3AM feedings that you pass on to your nanny?  Some mothers steal their son’s credit cards.  Does Hallmark have anything on the shelves for that? Other moms  only call when they need their daughter to send money.  What about the mothers who fail at society’s demands?  Sterling in American iconography are the June Cleavers and Carol Bradys.  Florence Henderson with six kids in a case study-esque house.  She  fawns over Marsha’s golden tresses while Alice cooks pork chops and applesauce. Dutifully waiting on the AstroTurf  lawn as husband Mike creates architectural masterpieces at work.   Those pictures of motherhood were remote for Afrocity.   What about when the realities of motherhood transform from black and white fantasy into technicolor pain?

Scene from the movie "Precious". Actress Monique protrays an abusive mother.

The first time my stepfather fondled me would be the last time.  The 1980′s was the beginning of the sexual and child abuse revolution.  ABC After School Specials relentlessly chipped away at the pressure to uphold images of the ideal family.  Secrets leaked from beyond the grave.  Mommie Dearest brought all of the skeletons out of Joan Crawford’s closet which hung by their wire hangers.  Soon stories of Judy Garland and others followed.  It is impossible to imagine that the women behind those beautiful visual representations  of motherhood were unfortunately amateur photographers when it came to child rearing.

For a moment when my stepfather rubbed his hand across by breasts which were really training bra nubs, I sat paralyzed.  He smiled his Kenyan smile of white teeth which contrasted with his dark blue black skin.  I was eleven years old at the time; old enough to know that his hands were not where they should be.  Pushing his hand away, I pretended not to care.  Whatever was playing on the television in front of us did not matter. I needed a focal point, something to forget that he was sitting next to me on the bed.  A container of Vick Vapor Rub was on the floor lying on its side.  The room smelled stagnant with cough syrup and funk from the chest cold I was getting over.  Where was my mother?  Isn’t she just in the next room being depressed or making his dinner?   Isn’t this the part where she is supposed to dash into the room, kick him in the balls and rescue me?

Nicole Kidman as a distraught mother in "The Others"

No Afrocity, you are in the wrong tele-drama.  I could not verbalize my protests to my stepfather who put his hands on my breasts again.  Somehow, I managed to find the courage to rise from the edge of the bed and leave the room.  For some time I stood in the railroad hallway of the apartment.  This was my fault. I was not wearing enough clothes and this is why this happened.  How inappropriate of me to wear only a tank top and some panties in front of a grown man.  Having dug through a closet of black trash bags, I found a thick sweater that was stored away for the season. It was May but I did not care.  I had to cover my breasts.   I am so sorry, so sorry. I am such a stupid girl.  What a dummy.   For the next several days, I stayed away from my stepfather and rarely spoke to my mother.  I should tell her, I thought. She always told me to tell her if a man was bothering me.  Did this only apply to strangers?    One morning as I prepared my pet rabbits’ meal of shredded carrots, I stupidly felt I could trust her.  So I told her what had happened in the bedroom.   She did not react with any emotion.  Why was she starring at me as if I was some child she did not know?  It was awkward.  She promised me that she would confront him about the matter.  This not what I wanted to hear because I wanted her to throw his clothes  and smelly cheap Pierre Cardin aftershave out on the streets of Oak Park, Illinois.

"Rabbit" by Wayne Thiebaud

But being a reasonable child, of course I knew that Rome was not built in a day and families probably were not torn apart in a day either.  He would be kicked out later, after their confrontation I thought.   Later that evening he came home and mother cooked dinner as usual.  During the meal she motioned for me to go into the kitchen with her head.  This is it, I thought.  Eagerly, I jumped off my stool and went into the kitchen. My rabbits’ large green wire cage was in the corner by the back door.  I looked at the gray and white  bunnies hopping around; one was  drinking water from the silver ball dispenser.

Did they know how I felt?  Why couldn’t my life be simple like theirs?  I would always feed them and make certain they were never hurt.  They would always have shelter and be warm.  My thoughts were interrupted by what should have been yelling and anger but was instead laughter. Loud mocking laughter.  I remained crouched by the rabbit cage.  What the hell was so funny?   They should not be having a good time.   Hearing their footsteps approach the kitchen,  I went to the refrigerator and grabbed a carrot.  Appearing to do something besides wait was my best defense in case my stepfather said I was lying.  I did not want to look him in the eyes even though I was telling the truth.   Now, there they both were standing in the kitchen doorway.

“Afrocity,” he said with a huge smile.  I will never forget his face or the deceitful smirk.  Mother was just standing there like some mannequin.  “I was only playing with you when I touched you.”

Silence was all I could give them.

“You know that I was only messin’ with you,” he went on. “You crazy girls nowadays think everyone is out to rape you. Crazy American tee-vee poots too much crazy thought in girls.  In Kenya, a girl would never think such things.”

He turned to my mother who was not looking at me.  This almost never happened.  Her being silent. A dummy with his words coming from her mouth “You are too sensitive,” she accused. “You have no breasts anyway- just little nubs.”

They both began to laugh.  After that moment, I had no subsequent reason to ever believe that her only duty in life was to protect me.  I hated her and in a very non-Afrocity moment, I threw the carrot in my hand at her.  They both ducked.

“Bitch!” she yelled.

“You see how American kidz are?  Ungrateful…In Kenya we would hang them upside down by their feet-”

I ran past them into the bedroom, closed the door behind me.  Why don’t these apartments ever have locks on doors like they do on TV when Jan Brady locks herself in the bedroom?  Soon they were in the bedroom.  Mother grabbed me and started shaking me as I screamed and kicked.  “I do not know what is your damn problem, ” she said throwing me on the floor. I don’t know if it is those Stouffer’s meals with MSG that make you hyperactive but you have a problem.”


Silence was all I could give her.  My chest was heaving from the fight. My  hair had freed itself from the Goody barrettes and now stood on my head.  Stepfather was in the doorway smiling.  He liked it when mother and I argued.  We were friends until he came along. That was when everything changed.

"Mother and Daughter at Penn Station, New York City, 1947 " By photographer Ruth Orkin

“Do you want to move back to Chicago?” she yelled. “You should be thankful that you are here in a nice suburb. Now we are around these white kids and you are acting ungrateful just like them. Cursing at their mothers.  I won’t have it.  Now you stay in here and think about your homework which you never want to do lately.”

With that, they left me in the room alone.  My tears dried, my knee was skinned from hitting the hardwood floor. It was getting dark outside, still I did not move from to turn on the lights. The rabbits were probably hungry. She would not feed them.  Soon I would have to swallow my humiliation and face the grown-ups.  Maybe in a few moments, I could move again but for the time being I  sat there in the dark.  Perhaps an hour passed by before mother opened the door.  She had some ice cream in a Parkay Margarine container.  We used them for bowls when they were empty.  Handing me the ice cream,  she said nothing and we did not look at each other.  What occurred was unspoken of.  Slowly I stood up and sat on the edge of the bed.  The same edge where my nubs where violated, tasting the sweet ice Neapolitan cream mixed with dried salty tears.  This was to some degree, her way of apologizing, this eloquent mother ,her daughter forsaken for a man’s love.  She went back out into the living room closing the door behind her on her little brown rabbit in a cage.

Still loved. Still mother. Still unforgiven. Still, silence is all I can give her

Autographed Letter Signed,

Afrocity

 

 
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