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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

 

Sunday Soliloquy: Memories From The Womb Chamber May 10, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — afrocity @ 12:17 AM
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TapestryMy mother is a poem
I’ll never be able to write,
though everything I write
is a poem to my mother.

~Sharon Doubiago

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.

Black woman

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.

a11557

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.

black girl

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

A Proclamation

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.

Ronald Reagan

Black Woman Dag

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,

Afrocity

 

 
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