Do you know what I’ve discovered? I could really do without Mother’s Day. In fact, I pretty much hate the celebration. It is not my fault—it’s God’s. He could have arranged for me to be born as Michelle Obama and have her delightful mother and her life, or God could have delayed my birth and let me be one of Michelle and Barack’s kids. I’d be so cute, rich, and smart right now, and man, my upper arms would be on the road to becoming spectacular like my mother’s instead of flapping in the breeze like the morning wash hung out to dry. But noooooo! God had to let me be born to a crazy woman who thought if she, ever so sweetly, ignored me (except when she was trying to kill me), that maybe somehow my sister and I would disappear before anybody noticed we belonged to her.
I suspect my mother was paranoid-schizophrenic long before I was born, but she kept it well hidden until the hormones of menopausal, illegitimate pregnancies produced offspring who demanded to have a mother. Children are self-centered like that. They don’t give a shit what is going on in your life, if you’re their mother, then you better damn well show up and do your job:
“Feed me, change me, hold me, love me, discipline me, goddamnit, or I’m going down to the nearest ne’er-do-well office and fill out an application to become the local (fill in the blank____________) thief, drug-addict, ‘ho, gangsta, self-centered brat—you name it. Forewarned is forearmed, Mommie Dearest.”
There is an old adage that women end up emulating their mothers which scared the bejesus out of my sister, Pee-wee, and me. We were always looking over our shoulders to see if the crazies were going to catch up with us. We’re both in our sixties now and we’ve managed not to go insane (knock on wood), but we did so by tip-toeing past the graveyard of Mother’s Days lost and putting each other through a sanity check once or twice a year.
Cartoon by Dan Piraro | www.bizzaro.com
Pee-wee and I would take each other’s mental temperature with questions about scenarios that once plagued our mother’s daily existence:
“Are you talking to the wall, yet?” (No, only to myself, but I try not to answer me or to talk to myself more than once a day!)
“Are you sewing extraneous pockets inside your sweaters and coats and stuffing them with stolen Saltine crackers, sugar packets, salt and pepper shakers, and anything not nailed down at the lunch counter of the Woolworths 5 and 10 to prepare for Armageddon?” (No, but I must confess that I take home the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner from fancy hotels. Does that count?)
“Do you make up conspiracy theories about the Russians trying to take control of your mind through radio waves?” (No, although I must admit that I am starting to believe a conspiracy theory that the Tea Party has hypnotized some of my ex-friends who are evangelical Christians, and the Baggers have syphoned the love of Christ, their goodwill, and the intelligence out of their hearts and brains. Given the troll bullying from the Baggers that I get regarding my blog, I think they may be after my soul next. I’m paranoid that I may turn into an idiot like Palin, Bachmann, or Cruz.)
“Do you fantasize about killing your children in order to protect them from the “Russians” and white people”? (No, but I did have copious dreams for years about me killing our mother after that time I invited her to the Girls’ Ensemble concert I was conducting at a church. It was my last ditch effort to reestablish a relationship with Mama after cutting her out of my life for years. Mommie Dearest hadn’t been in the concert for more than fifteen minutes before she got “agitated from being surrounded by too many white people” she said, and decided to accompany the Negro spiritual I was conducting [“God’s Gonna Rain Down Fire”] with her personal pyrotechnics. She couldn’t understand why I didn’t understand that she was aiding God and me with the lighted matches she was throwing with trancelike abandonment into the audience’s hair. I can still hear the curses of those poor white folks as they scattered like roaches swatting their heads while security tried to subdue our crazy-ass mother. Did I ever tell you how I kept conducting the choir as if nothing crazy was happening, and as if I didn’t know that woman? I was too horrified to turn around and face the audience. All I could do was sob like a hot mess while never missing a beat with my baton, hope the audience thought the crazy woman was related to the only other black person in the choir, and beg God to open up the ground and yank our mother down into the deepest hole in Hell.)
Cartoon by Peter Broelman | www.broelman.com.au
Every year, Pee-wee and I have passed our own litmus tests, and we didn’t become paranoid-schizophrenic like our mother—thank God. But one doesn’t rub elbows with that type of mother and come out unscathed. Children of alcoholics, drug addicts, or crazy people usually become like their parents or become the polar opposite. With all due respect, my sister Pee-wee is a control-freak and never had children. I overcompensated for my mother’s mental and physical abandonment by trying to be the perfect mom who was always up in my children’s grill, which almost drove my kids and me insane. All children make mistakes and have to find their own way in life, no matter how inept or how great the mother. Every stumble, every rebellion, and every mistake my children have made, I took it as a personal rejection of my “shoddy” parenting, and I would just try harder. My kids weren’t allowed to fuck up in life and that is a pressure no child can withstand, even if their hearts are in the right place to do the right thing. They love me dearly, and I them, but I’ve always felt that I could have done better by them by providing more clear-thinking advice about the pitfalls of life. I have nightmares about the things I never had a chance to teach them before they flew the coop. My secret horror is that they will be confronted with something in life and not have the life skills with which to overcome, and that lack, in turn, will fling them into the insanity of their grandmother. When asked what keeps me awake at night—this is it.
Cartoon by Nick Galifiakis | www.nickandzuzu.com
I am discovering that I am cautiously falling in love with the memory of my crazy-ass mother and coming to the adult realization that she did the best she could, given her circumstances. Mama has been dead for thirty-two years now (died in her sleep on an Easter morning after singing in the church choir), and I’m just beginning to see her through the prism of a life destroyed by intrinsic racism, sexual abuse, and poverty. As I interview people from my past to chronicle my mother’s all-consuming insanity for my memoirs, I am beginning to see a woman who was not too different from me in her aspirations, dreams, and talents. The difference in my sanity and my mother’s insanity is that I found the true love of a man (she was summarily abandoned by my father and left to perish in poverty with two babies). The winds of history blew open the doors at just the right time for my intelligent mind to be educated and my talent to be cultivated beyond the aspirations of scrubbing somebody’s toilet (Mama was never allowed to go past high school and spent much of her life as a maid rather than an opera singer which was her dream). I have traveled the world and lived extremely well (wasting more money on Broadway shows, travel, and gourmet meals than my mother made in her entire life as a servant).
Am I sane because I escaped ignorance and want? Can I “get over” in life because I don’t have to live under an apartheid system as my mother did in the US? Were my babies safe from my descent into madness because I had hope for tomorrow and didn’t have to worry about my children’s next meal? Only God knows. But one thing is for sure—I no longer judge my mother for the pain I endured as a child. Besides, it has made me who I am and given me a riotous sense of humor. I am truly coming to love and understand the woman who gave me life. From the conversations I’ve had recently with my grown children, it seems as if they are affording me the same grace.
HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY, MAMA!
“Mothers are all slightly insane.”—J. D. Salinger
“Our mothers always remain the strangest, craziest people we’ve ever met.”― Marguerite Duras
“When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it’s a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.”― Erma Bombeck
“Through the blur, I wondered if I was alone or if other parents felt the same way I did—that everything involving our children was painful in some way. The emotions, whether they were joy, sorrow, love or pride, were so deep and sharp that in the end they left you raw, exposed and yes, in pain. The human heart was not designed to beat outside the human body and yet, each child represented just that—a parent’s heart bared, beating forever outside its chest.”― Debra Ginsberg
Cartoon by Dan Piraro | www.bizarro.com
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