Mom was the kind of person who would call you up at three in the morning and just start reading to you something she had just read. Or worse, at three in the AM she’d see that your light in your apartment was still on, and knowing you were a night owls, would have her date stop and park and ring your apartment’s buzzer and come up for a night cap.
I loved the role reversal, watching grown men squirm while we either talked about them or, conversely, totally ignored them while she had her whiskey and I busted a joint. Thankfully she never dated a cop. I got her to try weed once. She said she just didn’t like the way it made her feel, she’d stick with the sauce. In those days it didn’t phase me so much that she drank. Hell, I used weed to self medicate so what was the issue, right?
When I was twenty I decided to find out who this person was. Sporadic visits, dramatic court room scenes, and occasional letters didn’t give me any sort of feeling that I really know her in any real sense. My family’s barrage of negative images of her and her family…wait, let’s be fair and accurate, my father and my father’s family badmouthed my mother and her entire family. This went on for years. I don’t remember one good word about them for any of my relatives.
This memory is painful to this day. In a very real way it still functions in my life I have first cousins on my mom’s side that have continually shown me love. Yet I don’t feel close to them. That’s a net loss no matter how that shakes out. The few times we’ve been together have been fantastic and rewarding. That’s changing now. (Promising myself to contact them soon, this weekend).
Okay…back to me and mom…
I showed up at mom’s door one Friday night after hitching a ride from Princess Anne to DC. In and of itself not an unusual occurrence but this time when Sunday night came I stayed. I hung out for almost two weeks, went back to school and got caught up on work that I’d missed for a couple of weeks then went back to DC for a couple of weeks. I repeated this pattern three times. We spent most of the first two weeks just talking, finding a way to communicate. Nothing really deep, just talking.
But I noticed that every time she came home from work she went straight into the bathroom and seemed to be throwing up. Every day and every day when I asked her if she was alright she acted as if nothing happened. Thursday I waited in the hallway not far from the bathroom door. When she came out I was very insistent that I heard her throwing up and told her I wanted to know what was up.
When mom left Philly in 1952 she got a job at the Defense Department. In the sixties she was working in the Pentagon and living in an apartment off Georgia and New Hampshire avenues in northwest DC. (The Hidden Figures story resonated with me as mom had become one of the head programmers at DOD…there were lots of trips to get educated on the latest room sized computers back in the day. She’d marvel at the size and power of the MacBook Pro I’m using to write this!).
She calmly pointed out that she was not only the only woman where she was then stationed, she was the only person of color. She was surrounded by “majors, generals, oak cluster-fuckers, and full of shit bird colonels, and enlisted men. All of them think they can boss me around like I’m their maid. I get angry and upset several times a day but I’m not going to let them see that they have any affect on me.”
“So you bottle that all in and let it out when you get home?”
“Each and every day! All of them are white, all of them think they’re better than me. Some of them know how intelligent I am and they are the ones who treat me the worst!”
She started attending Hampton at fourteen and was in Who’s Who at 20. The next year she was teaching at Fisk. Her mom had multiple degrees, her dad was awarded his PhD from Lincoln University in 1914 (Between 1910 and 1919 546 PhD’s were awarded in this country. My grandfather was one of them!) Mom was fucking brilliant…This was the person, this was the family I had been taught to belittle.
I had multiple offers for post graduate work, I chose the scholarship the National Law Center at George Washington University gave me to be in DC to be near my mother. I’ll write further about that experience later in this series. I moved here after the summer I graduated and spent as much time with her as I could. Looking back on it I can say we did make up for lost time, we created many memories, most warm and good, a few painful.
All of them I carry with me every day…I’ll share them soon.