Essay: How I Met My Mother
Last July 4th was my first as a member of Facebook, the first time I was literally faced with telling my mother happy birthday (her 60th, no less) for all the Internet to read. Since joining what I endearingly refer to as "the socials," that has been the most daunting task—finding something meaningful to say on days that are meaningful. As a so-called writer, I suppose the pressure is purely self-imposed, seeing as how my mother would just as soon us sit still long enough to rock on my grandmother's front porch, to talk awhile before I'm gone again.
But I believe I owe her more than that, especially for all of those odd and even and perfectly round years when I didn't adequately convey what her being my mother has meant, those years when I didn't bother to sit still long enough to talk awhile. My mother has admitted to me that she wasn't keen on having a child. It was my father—a fifty-nine-year old man, thirty years her senior, with two grown children of his own—who lobbied for me, lobbied to a woman who had stitched her younger sister's clothes, escorted her younger sister from the bus stop home, played the role of parent far too soon. But my mother relented, pleased with her second husband and with where her life now seemed to be headed, and I came to be. (This is where, as if on cue, my mother would remind me that she's been a millionaire ever since, that I'll always be her million dollars.)
I have written often in this space about my fondness for my father, the man I lost at fifteen. Yet the first three to four years of my life were spent clinging to my momma. Entire week-long vacations would go by without my momma being allowed to leave the hotel pool, lest I throw a fit, refusing to swim with anyone else. At night, when I was afraid to sleep alone, afraid of what lurked out there in the wild of a chid's imagination, my mother would enter my bedroom and whisper to me: "When he smiles from ear to ear, his blue eyes, they dance around/They sparkle, like diamonds, like stars in the sky/When he smiles from ear to ear, his blue eyes, they dance around." She would sing those lines on a loop and put a hand on my back until I drifted off, safe and secure and content, the calmness that comes with knowing the person you love most will be there in the morning.
As I entered adolescence, the roles of my parents reversed. My mother had a full-time job at a car dealership, and added part-time jobs at night, while my father settled into semi-retirement, taking on more of a grandfather role to my mother's necessary bad cop. I understand now that the progression was natural, a cycle of life that was unfortunately cut short by my father's death. He had been the balance between my mother and me. He was my confidant and her backup and support in my rearing, those difficult choices parents must make for a teenager who doesn't have the hindsight or foresight to appreciate. The loss of my father inevitably put a strain on our day-to-day, how we orbited around one another in a house that was nearly swallowed into the gaping hole he'd left, a hole only we could see, but did not dare speak of.
My stoicism and emotional detachment was confounding to my mother and to most adults, yet my ability to achieve high levels of success in the classroom and eventually in the workplace kept the therapists and the preachers at bay. During one stretch of my senior year at the University of Tennessee, I was enrolled in six courses, editing the yearbook, interning as a reporter for a weekly newspaper, getting paid to cover high school sports for a daily newspaper, while managing to squeeze in the bar scene every Friday and Saturday night. In that bygone era before smart phones, weeks would turn into months without my mother and I speaking a word, even though she lived less than forty-five minutes away, in that house with the hole inside it, the house I would help her move out of the day after I graduated college.
I left for New York City in the summer of 2007 to be an intern at a national magazine, but also to leave behind that gaping hole once and for all. And then an unexpected quiet set in. I was alone in Queens, alone in that silence that can overwhelm a life once sustained by small-town social circles, a life sustained and marked by semesters and letter grades and tangible awards that could be hung on walls. I was a naive twenty-two-year old renting what amounted to a crawl space in an apartment with two other adults, one a woman who'd left middle America to pursue her dream of acting at forty-something and a middle-aged Dominican man who was an overnight manager at a grocery store. I had enough room for a futon and a shelf and a chair, which served as a stand for a ten-inch tube TV.
But the room did have three large windows overlooking a concrete park on a corner in Jackson Heights. At night, I would open the windows and have nothing else to do but lie still long enough to listen to the sounds of the city, the sirens and the car horns and the car alarms and the barely audible conversations punctuated by the faint rumble of subway tracks in the distance.
That gaping hole opened up in this crawl space in Queens, and I stared into it, and I missed my momma. I would close my eyes and hum, "When he smiles from ear to ear, his blues eyes, they dance around." I would try to conjure the actual sensation of her hand on my back, to replicate the safety and security and contentment, the calmness that comes with knowing the person you love most will be there in the morning. Yet, as adults, we learn the difficult lesson that they won't always be, that the tactile sensation of your mother's hand on your back or the tenor of her voice will fade with age, that the memory of the thing will give way to the recitation of the thing, until all of it is simply a story to be reminisced. And as adults, we learn to be glad that at least we have something to reminisce, to be glad that the fond memories of a loved one outweigh the indifferent, or the memories that we only wish we could forget.
I have not told my mother any of this, have not admitted to her that to this day there are nights I lie awake and hum that tune. She stopped by today, on her sixty-first birthday, and we sat on my front porch and we talked awhile. We talked about my father awhile, too, not afraid to stare into the gaping hole together. I don't know that I'll ever feel that safety and security again, that calm of my mother's voice and her hand on my back. There is contentment to be had, though, the contentment in knowing that my mother and I are building a new relationship, one not predicated on the blood we share, but rather on the accomplishments we've shared and the hardships we've overcome as two adults.
I invited her over for dinner next week, to sit on my front porch and talk awhile. I'd say it's the best gift I've ever given her.