For The Motherless or Unmothered

mom and dad
Mom & Dad & Me & Mom

I live at the center of an odd emotional Venn diagram that falls around this time each spring. I learned of my father’s suicide on Earth Day in 2010. My mother died from cervical cancer in early 2012.

It is my mother who I miss most because insofar as I knew either of my parents, I knew her or tried to and she sometimes let me.

I am a word person but I increasingly love numbers as I get older. They are specific and neat. They offer a clarity words can obscure.

It has been five years since I commemorated Mother’s Day without my mother’s physical presence, without her outside voice shouting at me on the phone to wish her a happy mother’s day, or the arrival of a card she’d sent to me as if to say, “This is how you send a Mother’s Day card…see?”

It has been five months since I moved home to the Bronx, the place I left because my mother was here, insistent and ever-present and manic in a way that made it difficult to be close.

Before I returned, it had been 17 years since I had been a New Yorker. Every day that I was away, I missed being here: The noise, the dirt, the crowds. The possibility, the energy the light pollution that shames darkness and makes visible stars seem like survivors.

I left poor and afraid, following pragmatic versions of my dreams to Texas and the West. I came back successful by some measures, with enough experience to give back what the world had given to me, still battling survivor’s guilt and impostor syndrome, writing through it in this new, shiny life of freedom.

On my way to work immersed in Kendrick Lamar’s language on a crowded 6 train, another woman’s husband tried to shout at me through the music until I pulled the headphones out.

“You Jamaican?”

“No,” I said, not sure how to respond to the question. “But, thank you? What makes you say that?”

“It’s a compliment. It’s the hair,” he said, still smiling. His wife nodded and they went back to trying to eat breakfast sandwiches in the crowded car.

I thanked him again even though I was slightly confused at why that was urgent.

I went back to Kendrick’s DNA, thinking again of the number of times someone in New York has said I look Jamaican. Later, I will realize that moments like this, too, remind me of my mother, that she was my beginning, my origin, an African American woman from the South who like so many seemed to take more pride in her Native American lineage than her Black African one.

The story I used to have about grief was that I would cut my hair when my mother died and I neared the edge of that boredom with my old self without leaping off the cliff into the unknown that is my head shape. Also, my mother loved long hair. She liked to tell me that my grandmother Edna had hair so long she could sit on it. Mom wore a wig over her own hair, so I never saw what texture of hers would inevitably also be mine.

The hair I have now is the same I started locking 20 years ago, when I accidentally fell asleep in a barber’s chair in an effort to go to Vassar looking like Angela Davis and woke up looking like a Grace Jones acolyte. At least once a week, I realize I can’t cut it now, because it ties me to that time. I should probably cut it eventually for that very reason.

I want to stay connected to my mother and her memory like any motherless child does. Because the stories in place of or in addition to memories help with the efforts to grow up. To move on. To grieve properly.

I will likely not be a biological mother to my own children and I have never fully desired that. I resent the notion that women are not fully formed and do not have North Stars without giving birth to children. Black babies being snuffed out without consequence by the people who are supposed to be protecting them gives me no further incentive to procreate.

But knowing this only complicates Mother’s Day. It means I have no one to celebrate but myself and that will likely always be the case. Because I have been a mother, all this time, by mothering myself. I mothered my mother. Small gestures and kind words were what my mother offered when she was in her right mind, which was not as often as I would have preferred. That is not the same thing as being mothered.

Standing on that train listening to Kendrick and thinking about the stranger’s compliment, I remembered when my mom came home to our apartment near Southern Boulevard with a bootleg Shabba Ranks tape. She loved music and so did I, and aside from faith, our love for the arts was one of the only thin threads that connected our hearts aside from shared trauma. From that bootleg tape to the street parties that blasted Shabba and Patra and Buju from throbbing black speakers flooding summer streets, I learned it didn’t matter where I was from, I was of a Diaspora that knew so many different kinds of ways to be, to dance, to live.

I resented Mother’s Day every year and a small part of me still does. When my mother was alive, in particular, I felt like an unmothered child expected to perform gratitude for the missing nurturing I needed.  Every year, I failed to find a compromise between the truth of what I had experienced my whole life and hurting my mother’s feelings.

This year is no different and yet, five years is a solid amount of time. It is not a long time and it is not insignificant.

That first Mother’s Day, four months after she died, my heart was so heavy that I felt like my flesh would be crushed under its weight. My friends and co-workers came bearing food and drink, puppies and children, filling my bare Austin house with love that would have brimmed out of the windows had we opened them. It was the most people I have ever had in my home ever in my life.

The years after, I remember feeling that the wound had started to close little by little, an eclipse of the throbbing heartache, sun passing over moon.

But now I’m home. Full circle. It feels so different and yet, the familiar ache is still there.

This Mother’s Day, I might play a little reggae and get in some real dance time. Maybe I’ll walk through Central Park, which I think was one of Mom’s favorite things to do because she was wild and free. Whatever I do, I’m likely to make sure I don’t talk or write or zone myself out of missing her and feeling it, sitting with it, waiting anxiously for the day to pass one more time.



4 thoughts on “For The Motherless or Unmothered

  1. “I mothered my mother. Small gestures and kind words were what my mother offered when she was in her right mind, which was not as often as I would have preferred. That is not the same thing as being mothered.” This basically describes my own childhood.

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