My mama was a poet, an artist, a seamstress, a fan of etymology and Matlock, and could run like the wind. Those are the things I recalled when I did the exercise of remembering her outside of her service to others. It takes work for me to remember her as an individual. My knee-jerk recollections involve everything but her being her own person, even in death. She was my mama. She was my daddy’s wife. She was God’s servant. Most people who only know her through my stories don’t even know her name: Lou Verda Mae.
Children were always mama’s ministry. Before she had children of her own, she spent time caring for her oldest brother’s six children, whipping them into shape for their mild-mannered, overwhelmed mother. As the oldest daughter, I found myself following in her footsteps. There were four of us, so I learned to cook, do minor sewing, comb hair, and change diapers at a really young age. Taking care of my unruly sisters was a chore, but I knew that I was going to be a mom one day. I always had a baby on my hip. When I found myself pregnant and single at 21, the choice I made was a no-brainer.
“Mom” contains so many moving parts. My mama saw it as a bigger than life role that encompassed every part of her life once we arrived. When she would spend all night sewing four dresses or skip out on every event that wasn’t kid-friendly, she’d look at me and say, “You’d better do the same for yours.”
My house was always open, I expended myself until I almost snapped. My mental well being was stretched so thin, I wouldn’t be able to tell you if I had snapped. All things to all people, except myself. I even tried being a stay at home mom in a resentful marriage. Just like my mama. There was no writing nor lunches with homegirls. My weekly salon trips dwindled down to semi-annual appearances.
“You’d better do the same for yours.”
I tried. But ultimately, I did not.
What my mother did may well have been right for her. The heaviness that accompanied the notion of disappearing into a life of service was crushing. I didn’t want my children remembering that I was a person with my own thoughts and dreams only after I died far too young. That was her way, but it wasn’t for me.
What’s for me is terrifying and uncharted. The women in my family don’t say no, and when they do, it’s always served as a cautionary tale. They stand next to husbands and boyfriends, and eat last. They were powerful and forgotten, outside of what they gave. Since I wasn’t that way, I felt wrong; wrong for wanting to be in the sun. I cramped myself into their boxes, with entry fees that demanded nothing less than a sacrifice of self. I sacrificed. I forgot myself. I died over and over, hoping each death was the last. I held court with my own ghosts. They questioned why I refused the safety of being invisible. Because, I can’t. That isn’t who I am.
This year, I turn 43 — the age my mother was when she died. Producing work that my kids can look at — creations separate and apart from them — has never been more important to me than it is now. I will live past 43. My years will be mine, that I choose to share with others. I didn’t know my life could be my own, because I wasn’t taught that. This will be the legacy I pass to my children: themselves. They can figure it out, screw it up, and keep moving forward as they see fit. I hope they create and cultivate beyond what their biology allows. And if they choose serving others, let it be their choice, and not a predetermination because they saw no other choices.
Mom is part of who I am. Maybe the best part. Maybe not. I love my children. My sacrifices have been intentional and willful. I was a person before them and will be a person when they establish themselves in the world. I chose to be a person while I raised them. Daily, I sit and make peace with my flaws. Without a doubt, I’ll look back and think of the things I did wrong, or at least would have done differently. Those are the things I chose. Those things aren’t perfect. But they are mine and what’s mine is fearless.