a portrait fills out between reverse and drive
Growing up, I saw my mother cry exactly once. The morning of her brother’s funeral, one long tear ran down her cheek through her make up until she caught it near her mouth and patted it dry with a tissue she pulled from inside her sleeve. Other than that, she did not break down. Not at school plays, first holy communions or high school graduations. Not when my brother Booker came to the backdoor with his shin ripped open from knee to ankle or when my dad lost his job or when my other brother GT crashed the Buick on 252 South.
She was raised to keep a stiff upper lip, and she did.
Over the last couple years though, she’s let herself go—or maybe she’s decided I’m old enough now to discover other parts of her that, when I was young, might have been too disquieting to behold.
I moved from Philadelphia to California when I was 25. I thought I’d go back home eventually to settle down, but I didn’t. So for 20+ years now, I fly back to Philly three or four times a year to see my parents, who still live in the house where I grew up.
This one particular visit, the first time I saw my mom really cry, we had a 6 p.m. flight back to Oakland, so the afternoon was spent regrouping. Mucking up, my mother calls it. I hunted down every sock and barrette. My mom brought in some stickers she got for the girls, a sheet of smiley faces and hearts, and handed me a stack of the girls’ paperbacks, mostly Junie B. Jones.
“You know you could get these at the library,” my mom said. She hates to see us spend our money unnecessarily.
She knows things we don’t about raising a family and hard times and hidden costs—she wants to put that knowledge to some use.
“They’re all hand-me-downs,” I assured her.
She went down to the kitchen to pack baggies of mixed nuts and Clementines and Zone Bars while I gathered all the art supplies.
“Edward?” I called down the stairs. “Did you charge the DVD player? If that battery dies before Glinda gets Dorothy—”
“I plugged it in,” my mom replied.
“Thanks Jam,” I said. My mother’s grandmother name is Jammy, because she was in Jamaica when her first grandchild was born and she thought Jammy sounded younger and snazzier than Grammy or Nana.
As I scanned the bedrooms, I called for Georgia, who, at 7, was plenty old enough to help.
“Hey, I need you to stop playing and find your other purple boot and your red hat.” I reminded her that part of coming is going, like part of making cookies is washing dishes.
Belongings collected, we made our way to the kitchen. Georgia went quiet as Edward carried the luggage past her. She knew we were leaving and she was mad at us for taking her away from Jammy and maybe embarrassed to have her fragility witnessed. She tucked herself behind a chair. Her lips were puffy.
Jammy reached out for Georgia, whose cry rose in the air like a minor note.
“Oh sweetheart, come here. You’ll be back soon and we’ll do the bubbles and go to the park and make Jell-O.” These were the things they did together every time we came to town.
“And the kitchen fairy,” Georgia added in a whimper. My mom liked to hide goodies in and around the kitchen — candy, colorful paper clips, cartoon erasers, butterscotch suckers.
“That’s right, honey.”
On my way out of the house, I bumped the kerosene heater purchased during the gas crisis of 1974.
“Oh Sugarfoot!” my mom said, reaching to steady the iron cauldron of water and potpourri she kept on top on the heater to mask the gas smell.
“Oh God Mom, that thing is — ” I stopped myself from criticizing. I’d said plenty of snarky things over the past few days. I teased her for wearing the same clothes every day and drinking jug wine and listening to cassette tapes even though she’d been given so many shiny CDs. I even ragged on her for how she said cassette: KASS (like ass) ette. We went back and forth about how to keep warm — push the thermostat past 64 or put on a sweater.
Is there anyone more superior than the prodigal child?
But all my “jokey” needling was offset by the crucial affinity that passed between us now. We had something meaningful in common. We were mothers.
In the driveway, Edward arranged the luggage in the trunk, spacial intelligence being one of his strong suits, and Claire approached my mom holding out some weeds she’d picked from the backyard. “Here, Jammy.”
“Thanks, Sugar. Gimme a kiss,” my mom said in a tiny voice as she slipped her a bag of M&Ms to share with her sister “even-Steven.” Claire kissed her on the lips, lusciously.
Then it was Georgia’s turn. My mom held her cheeks and kissed her forehead. Georgia stepped back but my mom pulled her in one more time before letting her get in the car.
As we backed out of the driveway—my dad behind the wheel, Claire waving, Edward checking his phone—Georgia sniffled next to me. I brought up Sadie and Olivia, her friends in California, and how excited they would be to see her. When that failed, Clever Edward handed back a piece of gum, the perfect distraction.
“All right, gang, here we go!” my dad said.
“Mommy, look!” Claire burst out as my dad hit the brakes.
“What is it?”
“Jammy!” We all turned to look. “Jammy is crying.”
And she was. Standing by the recycle bin in her powder blue slippers, a swishy nylon tracksuit and a turtleneck worn inside-out because the seams bother her, my mother was crying, a bouquet of weeds hanging from her hand.
The girls rolled down their windows and screamed out through the winter air. “Bye Jammy! We’ll be back soon! Don’t cry, Jammy!”
“Bye Sugar. Love you, honey.”
Edward looked back at me for some kind of explanation but I was looking at her, my mother, for what felt like the first time.
By the time we got to 95-S, Georgia had dropped into a cat nap, her head heavy on my arm. Frozen in position, standing guard over my daughter’s rest, all I could think was: if my mother had died before I had children, before I could bring them home to her and let her have at them, I’d have had her fixed in my mind as a hard-boiled utilitarian who worked hard every damn day to get her kids up and running and out into the world with a chance at success.
I’d have never known she could gush, coddle, pamper, cherish, adore. I’d never have seen the part of her that loves everything—which is to say, everyone—who is truly important to me as if they were her own. I would have misunderstood her forever.
If you enjoyed this, you might also like Kelly Corrigan’s memoir about her mother called Glitter and Glue. (The title comes from her mother’s famous line, “Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue.”)