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Becoming My Mother

My mother was always a free spirit.

I’ve always been curious about the unknown; the things that lurk in darkness. My earliest memory is proof of this sometimes dangerous trait. When I was about 3-years-old, I spotted a beehive nestled in the crook of low-lying tree branches.

While my mother sat on the nearby porch talking with several of her friends, I could not resist picking up a stick and poking it into the hive; stirring it like it was cake batter. Within moments those bees flew straight up my dress.

I don’t know who was screaming the loudest — me, my mother, or all of the ladies on the porch — but I’d be willing to bet those screams could be heard from Atlanta to Savannah. Mom reacted with Ninja-like precision to rescue me. Why did I do it? Hell, I don’t really know. I was three. But if I had to guess, I suppose I just wanted to see what would happen. That part of my psyche hasn’t changed. But now the hives are bigger and some would say — more hazardous. Through it all, through everything, my mother is there to snatch me out of harms way whether I want her to or not. She rarely criticizes or complains about it. And though I’m sure she’d like me to believe it’s because of her refined demeanor; I know better.

My grandmother told me many stories of how my mom (who is one of seven children) was always getting into something better left alone. One of my favorite stories involves a money-making venture between my mother and her oldest brother. They concocted a plan for my uncle to gather the neighborhood kids to watch my mom climb a big tree. If the kids wanted to see Mom climb to the lowest branch, they had to pay a penny. If they wanted to see her scamper to the higher branches, the cost went up accordingly. She was the embodiment of To Kill a Mockingbird’s “Scout Finch.” So, I guess my insatiable curiosity is the result of DNA.

While my mother wanted me to learn to be strong, my Grandmother stressed the importance of being a lady. They always seemed to be at odds with each other.

My grandmother was the most elegant woman imaginable. I loved watching her style her hair into a perfect French Twist; making certain no bobby pins were visible. She taught me how to put on pantyhose without creating a run or snag. Her bedroom and clothes always smelled of perfume and powder; all the things that appeal to a little girl. When she passed away, a coat I’d gifted to her was returned to me by my youngest aunt. On the long drive home after the funeral, the smell of my grandmother’s unique scent mixed with her perfume and powder filled the car. Once home, I sealed the coat in a plastic bag to capture its smell for as long as possible.

My mother is no slouch in the lady department herself. Tall and slender, in her youth she had long black hair and bright blue eyes which contrasted beautifully against her alabaster skin. On and off during her late teens and early twenties she would model clothes in ritzy Florida boutiques. To this day, despite sometimes needing a cane, she has a majestic gait. Like my grandmother, when she walks into a room, heads turn. But she is more than beauty. She came of age during the feminist movement of the 1960’s when goals for women were changing. Instead of stifling her independent spirit, she set it free. This was a thorny move; especially in the South, where the expectation to conform was still strong. Nonetheless, my rebellious mother exchanged her dresses for bell bottomed jeans and got rid of the bobby pins to allow her hair to flow free.

And God help us, her mouth flows free too.

That mother of mine is able to size people and situations up in an instant with 99.9% accuracy. And while she keeps her opinions close to the vest publicly, she never hesitates to let me know if she believes someone is taking advantage of me. One of her biggest criticisms is that I give people who have done me wrong, too many chances for redemption. Recently, while I was facing such a dilemma she lowered the boom: “I watch you work your ass off helping people who will steal credit for your accomplishments and are out having a good time while you sweat.”

She was right and once again, my mother’s Ninja skills had come to the rescue. All of the things she learned the hard way, she warns me about in the hope that I won’t have to experience it with the severity she had to endure.

My mother is the most fearless person I know. But I don’t think I’ve always appreciated that facet of her personality. When I was growing up, she had to work, so I spent a lot of time at my grandparents home; as a result much of my ideas about life were gleaned from a distant generation. Now, I can relate to her and she has become my touchstone.

These days, her long black hair is a short and sporty silver. I see my grandmother in her mannerisms. And I hear her in my mom’s laughter. She’s more nostalgic too. What were once harsh memories have become funny ones instead.

Most women, whether we like it or not, eventually morph into a version of our mothers. In the last years of my grandmother’s life she wore slacks more often than dresses. Today, my mother shops for dresses more often than for jeans. These changes are not about fashion, it’s the result of an inner transformation and appreciation.

The other day, I heard the sound of my mother’s voice coming out of my own mouth. So, I guess I’m transforming too. But I have a long way to go before I’m the tower of strength that is my mother. Until then, in spite of her warnings, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to pass by a beehive without wanting to stir it up with a stick.

Sorry about that Mom.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on June 6, 2017.

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