mommy dearest

November 17, 2009 § 2 Comments

“I wouldn’t write about people who are living and who are close to me, because I think it’s a very violent thing to do to another person… And anytime I have done it, even in the disguise of fiction, the results have been horrific.” -Zadie Smith (NPR– Brave, Brainy, Changeable — Zadie Smith Revealed)

Unlike Miss Smith, who gives the above as reason why she only wrote about her father after his death in Changing My mind: Occasional Essays, whenever I’ve felt the need, people close to me have been incorporated in my writing. Some celebrated. Some surreptitiously ranted and lamented about. Some overtly raged against. If this, more particularly the latter, was/is considered a violent act then gladly I bear the onus for every intended casualty and collateral damage that resulted from being honest. Quite frankly, there may never be any remorse. Those in my circle know the creed: I’m a writer. if you’re in my life, you’ll be written about. The context or tone is the sole responsibility of that individual. On the other hand, minor arguments and petty disagreements do not serve as fodder for writing. However, when significant things transpire in and around my life, a deep sense of compulsion to write about it follows. For example, my mother‘s visit in the summer of 09. But in this particular case, my earnest desire is for these words to function as capsules of truth. and respect. I really hope they embody love and are the epitome of non-violence.

After five years we were sharing space under the same roof and I pondered if a mother could truly accept her daughter is a woman. Surely she can recognize glimpses of her own childhood and adolescence bygone and surely she can see the independence, but does she ever really acknowledge the woman her little girl has become?

Over the last few years, my mother and I discussed the mundane to the very important; menopause, career, my first time, my most outrageous, the best to date, and migration hardships, over a phone line. Many times I considered what it would be like to have that kind of open communication face to face. This summer the opportunity presented itself through the most unforeseen circumstance. For those of us who hail from developing cities, towns, villages and islands outside these United States, the difficulty connected with getting a visa is a story we are pretty much aware of. Either a friend, family member or we, know the ordeal. Nevertheless, my mom was sent on a conference to a US territory where they granted her two entrances and a six months stay. As we counted the months, weeks, then days to her visit, my excessive anticipation and euphoria gave way to worry. Would she enjoy staying with me? What can I do to make her stay worthwhile? Would Brooklyn be too much? But most of all, would how I live disappoint her? Would she like my apartment? Would it be too small? Would she demand that I return home?

Why wouldn’t she? Home is a two storey five bedrooms, two full baths, three living rooms, library, dining room, porch and veranda, house sitting on a sprawling landmass of mowed lawns, coconut trees and a sprinkling of other exotic fruit trees that she shares with her husband and my two siblings. Why wouldn’t she say forget this garbage and move home? And in this instance, garbage is not a figure of speech. My apartment is a dump in comparison to the aforementioned. I have an ongoing war with roaches. HELL!!! As I bomb them from my abode, their friends and kinfolk move from the hoarder down the hall and the war wages on. So for the first time, I compared myself with this 48 year old woman I call mom. This woman who has the career of her dreams, a beautiful home, a loving husband in an imperfectly happy marriage [we know perfection is not to be had], and children who are mostly obedient and doing very well in school.

Why would I do such a thing? Well, I came into knowing my mom the individual, the woman when she was in her 30s. By that time I was an early teen and the only child, and now, as my 30s approach I can’t help but draw the lines. She was more than a decade into her career of choice, in love , and passionate about her NGOs, and the list goes on. On the other hand, I am a struggling artist whose moonlighting gig is her real job, living in an apartment that is less than half the size of a storey at home, and love? Well love the way I want it evades me. And children? Non at this point but I am quite happy about that. The lines do not connect horizontally. They have to be drawn diagonally for point mommy to match point me. So I worried. And as much as I didn’t want to fight during our first meeting in what seemed like light years, the willingness to hide insecurities behind resolve was there.

I want to make it on my own. I want to be in New York doing this writing thing that has become my fulcrum. Nevertheless, I was still a daughter- my mother’s daughter- whose mom was coming over to stay. Therefore, I cleaned the apartment which is usually 99% in order on any given day, did laundry and stacked the cupboards with her and my kind of food. The next day her plane arrived early. Traffic to the airport was lousy. She called. I missed the call. She was upset. I finally got there but the line to the terminal snake like. I crossed the distance by feet and was amazed that she hadn’t aged; still molasses coated, bald & beautiful with the black girl bottom that has escaped me. The same derriere I envision on jeans & bikini days. Teeth ever rivaling porcelain with a gap that needs no braces to be called beautiful. We hugged and stayed in the embrace that was needed for a very long time. She smelled divine. A hint of ocean and lots of allure. Definitely something expensive…something I hoped to snatch before the visit was over.

The drive home encompassed chatter about family and the joy of being in the flesh with one and other, smiles and the ease of falling into the ever familiar Creolese only to find mine laced with American speak. Six years and I had walked a significant distance down the Decreolization Continuum. At home, she wanted to “cuddle & smell me.” Indeed a familiar past time of ours, but at twenty five cuddling lost a great chunk of its storge, philia and agape connotations when it became associated with the opposite sex & post orgasm conversations. She asserted, “one is never too old to love up on their mother.” I knew this bunny behavior is part of her varying ways of saying I love you so with the memories of blissful screams filed, night found us nestled in the crest of arms where sleep came easier than it did on most days. However, my mom snores louder than I on the hardest work day. The night cap became a feat lost until being too tired to count the length of each drone forced a collapse into the quiet of night.

The following morning worry returned to inquire whether she sees me as a woman and what kind of woman. Although it mattered, I was willing to let on otherwise and refused to ask. Still insecure about the apartment, over breakfast I fired question after question wanting to know if the space was too small, if she is uncomfortable to the loving reply, “I am fine…just really happy to see you sweetie.” Yet, that wasn’t good enough because she failed to mention anything about the apartment. I replied, “I am really happy to see you too.” And I was. “but what about the place…will you be comfortable here?” she said “it is fine. I‘d be comfortable anywhere with you .”

The days eroded during an unseasonably cool summer where we visited relatives, went shopping, waxed nostalgic and cooked delicious but unpretentious meals reminiscent of my childhood. Meals that lost their authenticity at my hands. Our first spat came when she insisted on eating bakes (fried dough) after 10 at night. My fear for her health gave rise to arguments that would eventually try our patience. She would run several guilt trips of being unwanted in my home; the music that came from the headphones was always too loud, she can’t sleep with all that noise….I’m forcing her to go to bed hungry….she’ll develop an ulcerated stomach. On the other hand, my demands for phones and text messages to be put aside whenever we conversed annoyed her. How could a mother be more attached to technology than the child born of the digital age? She claimed she has other children, younger children, that needed her attention too. This gave rise to a slighted feeling on my part; after all this time, don’t I at least deserve a few moments of her undivided attention? She tried to text less but then the demands of being an administrator stole her fingers and the keys clicked in between our words. Feeling very much like the unattended lover, and in this case I was displacing or maybe after everything I had gone through here, my inner child needed nurturing. I didn’t want to be mature. I just needed my mother and I didn’t care much about the woman she thinks I am. I wanted to tell her how alone I felt in the beginning and how hard it was at times to adjust to the blinding lights of neon city. Where was the open communication? Lost in between pride and the desire not to hurt her feelings.

Growing up, we were each other’s companion and cheerleader which provided a conducive environment for fierce loyalty and love. So being fully aware that hurt people hurt other people and that I was hurting from wounds only living in New York can inflict, I allowed sleeping dogs to lie. We sauntered on. She bonded and went shopping with my friend, cooked for another to rave reviews and despite the hiccups we were still very happy to see each other. Under the covers of my bed- not hers where we used to paint toes, read the Sunday Stabroek and discuss the week before- I asked about undefined, on and off, in limbo relationships, their repercussions and discussed my passion for a lover. One that makes me come undone, inhabits my art and heart and with whom most of my days were spent. My mom, who is one of the most liberated and outspoken women I’ve met became bashful, stuttered and denied having any of ‘those.’ As a matter of fact, when words finally found coherency she reprimanded “you need to slow down and that’s what you need to do!“ Me? Slow down? Reminding her that this lover was my first of that nature; a precarious situation indeed but different from always being in a serious relationship or single, only set the tone for a diatribe about how much I had changed. If my mind served correctly, we had discussed one such relationship of hers ; one she used as a testament of women’s lib. Unearthing that memory only served to put her defenses on high alert since she saw it as an attack on her morals.

I wasn’t charging after her morals or placing them on the chopping block but she was correct about one thing. I had changed. Always a precocious child then an independent adolescent, as an adult I found little need to demand a sovereign space. Instead, a desire for interconnectedness and the truly candid communication only sisterhood can provide took its place. Also, I started measuring my success against hers and with it came a slew of insecurities. On the other hand, I was less prudish and very much in tuned with my sexuality where she found religion and closeted her womanist behind prayers. I was convinced that the years had dug a ravine between us. An urgent phone call from home would force the premature expiration of her visit. Still concerned with how I would be perceived and too proud to beg, I clothed myself in alleged maturity to help with packing and acquiring the new ticket. Until mid act when all pretenses crumbled into shards of tears. I came apart. Sobbing child like because time had vaporized, my insecurities still wrestled on the inside, I was afraid we had grown apart and had gotten accustomed to sharing space under the same roof with her again. Eventually, I broached the subject and we tangled. Attacking the crux of the matter, ignoring the surface stuff that served as distractions, I’d expose how much her perception of me matters, my new desire for sisterly camaraderie and the extent to which the visit reminded me of that. She in turn stated that being more spiritual would never efface the sometimes ribald woman of her flip side and how it aches to leave. Among the words uttered from her lips, these would stick closest to the heart, “it is a sincere honor to be your mom.”

The fifty ton gorilla had left the room. Our conversations grew lighter, laughter punctuated many more sentences, shoes were bartered, and the perfume I wanted to snatch stayed with her. A lot had changed in a matter of weeks, from being consumed with what type of woman she saw to understanding the woman being revealed. One who understood that as much as I wanted to be seen as woman, sometimes a petulant child reared her ugly head, that my mother and I will always have open communication whether near or far and like me, she will continue to change. From these changes, a few head butts are guaranteed but if we continue to make common ground the goal, our relationship will grow stronger.

Days later and over our overpriced JFK sandwiches, she said “this city bothers me with its constant motion and buffet of stress activators. I couldn’t live here. But you are a stronger woman than I was at your age. It is something I admire a great deal.” Boarding call interrupted her speech. Teary eyed she continued “I’m so happy I got to see you. You’ll never really know how much I love you ‘cause there is no way to show the full extent of this love…maybe when you become a mother you’ll understand…but I love you dearly.“ We embraced then garnished our goodbyes with humor about tear stained cheeks, snotty noses, balled up tissues and next year’s visit.

Back at home, I opened the door to the roach infested abode that houses my emotions with gratitude for the space that now holds precious memories and one of my most cathartic experiences. It has been months since her visit but every now and then, the insecurities surface except they are now accompanied with a stronger drive to persevere, to excel. To write. To evolve. How can I not? I’ve got my mother. The very person who introduced me to the arresting beauty of literature; the power of honest words, the comfort of prose, the life of poetry, and the dance of musings as inspiration. As a prime example. As my catalyst.

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