Motherless on Mother’s Day

Me and My Mother on an airplane, 1979. (Scirbbles by my daughter.)

For years I’ve avoided Facebook on Mother’s Day like the plague, because my own mother is dead and because her life, and our relationship, was complicated. She died at the age of 55 of stage 4 lung cancer in 2005, while I was pregnant with my daughter.

My mother was a smoker for as long as I could remember, and when I conjure her image in my mind, what I see is her sitting on the floor in ragged sweat pants in from the TV, watching The Andy Griffith Show, and smoking cigarette after cigarette. If I came into the room to talk to her, she’d try to part the smoke with her hand. Often she’d tell me to come back in a few minutes when she wasn’t smoking. Sometimes, those few minutes of her not smoking never happened. By the time the plumes of pungent white clouds around her had settled down, she would be deeply asleep, having been sedated to unconsciousness by the many glasses of port she drank while she smoked and watched tv.

It was smoking that killed my mother, but I know that my mother smoked because life hadn’t turned out the way she wanted. She was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1950 into a large, loving family. But having come of age watching Westerns on the newly acquired television set in her home, she thought that real life was like what she saw on The Big Valley. The life she was living — as the daughter of a preacher and professional painter, living on Auburn Avenue — held no value for her. At least, this is what she always told me. Life wasn’t good unless it was white, wealthy, and far, far away from what she called the “slave mentality” of the people from whom she had come.

She married my father against this backdrop of criticism for her own body and her own origins. He was a white man — of recent German immigrants and old Irish confederates — and he was not rich. Marrying him and having children hadn’t resulted in her fantasy of wealth or power; he was just a regular guy, working a regular factory job, with regular, racist parents and family members. My father’s family wasn’t all so different from my mother’s, though — the only true difference was the color of their skin. My mother hadn’t grown up poor, nor had my father — but they were most certainly working class, and my father wasn’t particularly enamored of wealth. He was a hippie radical Christian and believed, truly, that it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven.

They didn’t last, and my father soon died, and my mother found herself single again, raising 3 children alone. (My father’s story is for another day.) It was late 1980 and Ronald Reagan would soon be President. My mother did what so many black women have done and do every day — she made a way of out of no way. She found a job that allowed us to live in one of the best neighborhoods in Atlanta. I got an excellent education because of this one, simple choice my mother made throughout my life. I am, undoubtedly, a college professor now because of her insistence that we live in neighborhoods with highly rated schools.

I grew up hearing my mother talk about all of her dreams which would never come true. “I wanted to be a doctor,” she told me once. “But everyone told me my skin was too dark for college and I believed them.” So instead she got an associates degree and became a lab technician. “I wanted to join the military and work my way up,” she’d once said. “But I was told only dykes do that.” There were so many stories of how race, gender, and class boxed her in and there was so much despair and hopelessness in the narratives she created around the possibility, or impossibility, of getting out of them.

My mother often lamented that if she didn’t have us kids, she’d have so much more money to spend on travel, on maybe going back to college (which she did, eventually), on putting a photography studio in the basement (she loved doing photography in her spare time), or on just getting away from the craziness of America. I felt guilty for existing, sometimes, because it seemed without me my mother would have a better life. As I grew older, I resented my mother for saying such things, but as I matured even more, into having a daughter of my own, I knew what she meant. She thought it was a given, that I knew unshakably that she loved me, and that she was just sharing with me her innermost angst. Now that she is dead and gone, I understand these things so much better. It was hard to understand her, and some of the horrible things she said, when she was alive. Now, as a mother myself, I know that children think in beautifully simple, innocent terms and that the dark night of the soul is not for talking through with them. My mother, in her supreme loneliness, never realized the harm she was doing.

Sitting here, motherless on mother’s day, I do not “miss” my mother for who she was when she was alive, and when last I knew her, so much as I mourn the lost opportunity for her and I to grow and change together. Had she lived, I hope that I could have reached the same compassionate perspective on her life I have now and talked to her about it — and that doing so would allow her to come to a full recognition of how she sometimes failed me. I would want that recognition to be balanced by the evidence of all that she did right, and I would relish the opportunity to show her my gratitude for those things.

My mother was not just a product of her own thinking, but of the narratives and political pressures in our culture and society. I do not see her failures as a consequence of some internal weakness in her, as much as I see them as the result of a society that could not, and would not, love a black woman such as my mother. And my mother, God bless her, managed to raise three successful black children alone, despite suffering through a tremendously internalized hatred of black people. She was not a perfect mother, but her legacy will not go up in smoke. I am here, an iteration of her and my father, and I am loved, and I am love.