Your mother is so rigidly structured…
that she sometimes speaks
in Haiku which annoys you
but makes her seem smart
Your mother is so black…
that, due also in part to her very adequate grades in high school, she was awarded a $4,500 academic scholarship from the United Negro College Fund. She accepted the scholarship uneasily, but nevertheless used the money to enroll in an accounting program at a modest state school an hour upstate. She never revealed the exact details of the scholarship to her parents, mainly because your mother isn’t black. In fact, she’s white and is of European descent. No one in your family is black or has even married a black person, yet still your mother is as dark as they come.
For years after your mother’s birth your grandfather believed that your grandmother cheated on him, which unintentionally grew into a deep-seated hatred of all black people and a simmering resentment of your mother, convinced as he was that she was not his child. However, despite his faults, he was a decent man and stayed married to your grandmother and raised your mother, believing all the while that she was not his but obliged by his faith to see that she was cared for. He did, however, move into the spare bedroom at the back of the house, not speaking much to his wife when he would come home from the factory in the evenings, choosing instead to retreat to the back porch where he smoked cigarettes and stared into the encroaching darkness, praying to God for understanding and trying to find some significance in his life.
In the mid-1970s, your mother long since graduated with a degree in accounting and working as an entry-level clerk in the Macy’s head office, DNA testing took its first few tentative steps into the world. Your grandmother, hoping to finally vindicate herself and your mother in the eyes of her husband, spent an outrageous sum of money that she could scarcely afford on her typist’s wages to pay for a test. Despite your grandfathers insistence to her that the test was unnecessary, he felt in his heart that its results would only prove to the world what a decent man he had been all along, a decent man cuckolded by a lying wife.
Three weeks after both he and your mother submitted to a blood test, the results were read to them by a young doctor in a small laboratory office, where the furniture was mismatched and the carpet badly wanted replacing. The results stated conclusively that your mother was your grandfather’s daughter, and the doctor calmly went on to explain how an excess of melanin or a recessive gene or two may have been responsible for her dark pigmentation. Your grandfather felt wash over him a wave of shame at the years he’d needlessly spent in anger and resentment, and apologized to your grandmother and mother so sincerely that they instantly forgave him all those years of pain and silence. Together the three of them left the laboratory and drove home with tears running down their cheeks, glistening in the late autumn sun.
But despite your mother’s decidedly non-black ethnicity, she has an unquenchable thirst for purple drink and malt liquor. Explain that, scientists.
Your mother is so uptight…
that people routinely jest that she must have had a rod inserted in her ass. What they fail to realize, however, is how close this comes to the truth. Whenever someone mentions the proverbial rod, you fake a laugh and say apologetically, “Come on guys, she’s not that bad.” You do this to draw attention away from your own guilty countenance, your eyes cast downward, since your mother does actually have a stainless steel rod and it’s there because of you. Let’s be clear, though: it’s not up her ass; the rod was surgically grafted into the lumbar section of her spine after her back was broken in a car crash. A car crash that you caused.
It happened the same day you passed your driving test, and afterwards you begged your mom to let you drive home on the freeway. She was naturally apprehensive, you being such a new driver and also (it pained her to admit) not the smartest of her children, but you persisted (in that high-pitched wail you always use to get your way — you know what I’m talking about) until she finally gave in on the condition that you keep it under 50 miles an hour and only take the freeway for a single exit. Immediately, you swerved into traffic without checking all three mirrors. As though you’d already forgotten your driver’s ed classes, your hands were all over the wheel instead of the recommended 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock position. Other drivers honked and shook angry fists at you and your mother politely suggested that you pay more attention to what was going on around you.
Blame the exuberance of the new driver, blame the sting of her criticism, but regardless of the mitigating circumstances, at that moment you stomped down on the accelerator, a desperate gleam in your eye. A split-second later the car was upside-down on the exit shoulder. The car had only a single airbag, keeping you safe, but your mother was thrown forward with such force that when the seatbelt stopped her it broke two of her vertebrae. Before the police and ambulance arrived, you both stayed in the car, still strapped painfully in your seats, clutching hands and crying. You sobbed profuse apologies for those few minutes that seemed to you both to last for days. Your mother, though she was in great pain, told you over and over that it would be okay.
Although her injuries were minor compared to what they might have been, her specific type of spinal trauma was degenerative. After wearing a back brace for five months, she was, at first, fine. It was only after another two years that the long term affects of the injury began to show. Before long, her pain became unbearable. The only choice, Dr. Zakorsky told her, was to fuse a section of her spine via rod-insertion. Her movement would be greatly impaired (she can no longer tie her own shoes or use a standard toilet), but to be rid of the debilitating pain it was a small price to pay.
However, after the fusion she became increasinly curt in her demeanor. She began rudely interrupting people and had seemingly lost all tolerance for others. She and your father haven’t been intimate in four years (he now discreetly visits prostitutes twice a month, of which your mother is aware, which, as much as she hides it, fills her with shame and only exacerbates her bitterness toward you). To help alleviate the burden of your guilt for having caused all this, you now drink heavily in secret. It makes things bearable, but only just. Next week you’re planning on visiting your parents, but you already know what you’ll find and it fills you with despair.
Your mother is so passive-aggressive…
that she regularly leaves Post-It notes all around the house, which drives you god damn crazy. This morning, for instance, there was one above the kitchen sink (in which you’d left a single mug the night before) that read, “Do we do our dishes after we use them, or don’t we?” This one, coming hot on the heels of a note yesterday afternoon you found on the bathroom mirror that read, “Dear Melissa, I don’t like it when you squeeze your pimples on me! Clean me off! Ew!” You were livid, although weren’t sure if it was because your mother was making reference to your pimple popping or because she’d actually written the note from the point of view of a bathroom mirror.
It all began about a year ago when you inexplicably gained 25 pounds (inexplicable to her at least, but you know positively that you gained the weight out of concern for your older brother who was then still serving in the Army in Afghanistan) and your mother began to leave small notes in the refrigerator taped to the more fattening foods. These notes ran the gamut from “Ice cream is a no-no!” to “Being thin feels better than THIS tastes!” The only result these notes had was to add to your already high level of concern, which in turn caused you to eat more and gain more weight (the problem resolved itself nicely, however, once Adam finished his tour of duty and came back home safe in one piece).
Occasionally you’ll confront your mother about the passive-aggressive notes, which does little good. On those occasions, her voice turns a bit sing-songy and she becomes incredibly adept at ignoring you. She’ll usually attempt an abrupt change of topic, asking you instead if you thought a B+ average was doing your best or if it was just good enough.
You’re able to make it through the days (counting down the remaining months until you’re able to leave for college) by smoking a ridiculous amount of pot. Like, seriously, a LOT. Now you hang out with a different crowd than you used to—those kids who hang out by the river, you know, Tommy and Billy and Adele, and who you used to think all had about them a hollow, sunken-in look. Your old friends don’t hang around so much anymore, not out of concern but rather out of disdain. Lisa is going to Arizona State in the fall, and Amanda has been wait-listed at Yale. With the continued decline in your grades, you’ll have to do a semester or two at community college first before you’ll be able to transfer to a decent school. Now, is that really the best you can do? Isn’t a sense of accomplishment a better high than that dirt weed you smoke every day? Isn’t it?
Your mother is so divorced…
that she and your father no longer live together or file joint tax returns. Their marriage, never the most rock-solid or caring, teetered on the precipice of divorce for the last two years they were together, and was only sustained during that time by a fear of action, inertia, and an unwillingness by the both of them to enter into even the most basic of discussions. As a young child, you would sit with your little brother in the room you two shared with the lights turned off while listening to your parents argue. Your brother, even more frightened of these scenes than you were, would sob quietly as you told him—without believing it yourself—that things were sure to be all right, and all the while your father would drink and throw things while your mother shrieked, harpy-like, barely coherent. Finally, your father moved out (for a time he lived in a terrible motel near the interstate on-ramp called The Bungalow) and divorce soon followed. Your mother was awarded sole custody after her lawyer insisted that you and your brother testify before a judge that your father beat you (which, technically, he didn’t; he hit you only once, and afterward felt such remorse that he sat on the porch crying for hours), which you did, but as you said it you caught momentary sight of your father, whom you were trying desperately to avoid looking at, and the look on his face caused you to cry and wail uncontrollably, which the judge mistook for a welling-up of repressed emotion that indicated how severely your father did indeed beat you.
Shortly after the divorce your father sent a letter to the house that your mother read aloud to you in the kitchen. He was moving on, it read, since he wasn’t yet so old that he couldn’t make a clean start of it. He’d be moving west, to San Diego, where he planned on opening a restaurant with an old navy friend. He wished you all luck, he wrote, and eventual happiness, since he’d managed to let go of his anger and feelings of betrayal. And while their union had never been good, these wistful words put your mother into a state of extreme melancholy. She went several days with a sour film wrapped around her heart, feeling nostalgic for the few times she and your father had been happy together, trying to forget the years of neglect and accusation. On the third day after reading the letter, worn out from work and weighed down by the lingering depression, your mother went to bed and developed a fever. During the night she slipped in and out of consciousness and yet, when she recalled it later, she was beset by vivid and affecting dreams of colors and light. Something took hold of her during the night, a flood of emotion or perhaps some foreign spirit, and she saw its inky fingers wrapped around her insides, squeezing her, robbing her of breath. After what seemed like hours, the awoke with a start. It was still nighttime, the room dark as a bible, and her fever had broken. The sheets were soaked through with your mother’s sweat, her nightclothes clinging wetly to her body, and wet strands of hair plastered across her face. And with the dissipation of the fever, the fist, the sour film, those inky fingers that had squeezed her heart and pulled her face into a grimace, the regret she could not let go of, all fell away.
She blindly fumbled to open a window, and as her sweat dried in the slight breeze she felt that she would be all right. Her heart felt free and untarnished, and in the morning she would wake you and your brother with a kiss on the forehead. She will have already made a big breakfast and called your school to tell them you’d be taking a sick day. The three of you would spend the day watching Pink Panther movies and laughing, eating popcorn with too much butter on it, and that night, although you didn’t know it—wouldn’t know it for days—your father would be killed driving across the vast plain of America, a small, glowing ember on route 80, screaming westward and dreaming of a new life, when he fell asleep for just a moment.
Your mother is so French…
that when you were younger she insisted that you call her “maman.” The strange thing is, is that she’s not even really French. Her Francophilia began early on in high school when she became infatuated with Serge Gainsbourg and the French New Wave. She began affecting a slight French accent, which at first people thought of as slightly odd yet charming, but quickly became boring and pretentious. However, your mother never noticed the disapproval of others, or if she did she remained unconcerned. In fact, it may well have been this very disapproval that sent her ever more deeply into her love of all things French. She was simply too cosmopolitan, too avant garde, for Rochester, New York, and in her senior year she chose to study abroad in France. After a tearful farewell from your grandmother, your mother boarded a Pan Am flight bound for the City of Light: Paris! During the flight, she was so giddy she could hardly sit still and she plied the young stewardesses with questions about the Left Bank and the Champs Elysees. They took turns crouching next to her coach class seat to tell her about the nightclubs and discotheques that dotted nighttime Paris like glowing embers, calling out to the young and adventurous. They dreamily recounted stolen kisses and romantic views of the Seine from the ponts. Your mother swooned when they described Mont Martre and Ile de la Cite, dreaming all the while of a dark-eyed Frenchman to walk with her arm in arm down the narrow streets.
Hours later, when the plane arrived at Charles deGaulle airport, your mother was met just past customs by her host family, a slightly overweight yet cheerful couple and their 12-year old son. They drove with your mother not to Paris or even the outlying suburbs, but to Chartres, where she spent the next four months walking by herself to and from a small school house. The lessons were dreary and her host family forbade her from making the trip to Paris. Her only solace came at night when she would stare for hours out her second story window at the glowing image of the cathedral, one of the great wonders of European architecture. On weekends, when her chores and schoolwork were finished, your mother would walk to the cathedral and wander among the throngs of tourists. She never spoke with anyone, not wanting to reveal herself as an American. Hours later she would walk back to the modest house of the host family, but backwards, slowly backwards, always with an eye on the spires of the cathedral, careful not to trip over anything, hoping for something to happen, something she might one day tell her children about, anything.
Your mother is so poor…
that during a six month period when you and your sister were in middle school and your father had lost his job at the Pepsi bottling plant she would eat a modest lunch alone at the Sizzler. She wore a long coat with many large pockets, and in each pocket she kept a one quart Ziploc bag that she surreptitiously filled with each pass of the buffet line and later served to you at home. She did this three times each week, thinking that this was all she could reasonably expect to get away with without being discovered by the Sizzler’s manager, who was by all accounts a total hard ass. After she ate, your mother would return home and plate the food she’d secreted and serve it, never revealing how she’d come by it. Your father didn’t know about her trips to the buffet, and thought only that your mother was very adept at stretching his paltry unemployment checks. One night while the four of you ate dinner, your sister absently complained about having to eat macaroni & cheese and Texas toast for dinner twice in a single week, and this set your mother off. Living under the strain not only of raising the two of you but also having an unemployed husband and working a job herself (two days a week at the office of the registrar at the state university), she finally broke down. In a momentary display of fury under the cheap yellow light of the single 60 watt bulb hanging above the table, she upended her dinner plate, sending it to the floor with a wet thud. She regained her composure and walked quickly out of the room, followed by your father’s ignorant rebuke of, “Dammit, Sheila!” It was easy to see how much this upset your sister, and she instantly regretted her complaint, but you were compelled to be indignant and point out her misstep. Later that night you accosted her in the den, saying, “Look what you did, retard.” At that, feeling her guilt acutely, your sister burst into tears and ran out of the room and through the swinging door into the kitchen. You watched her leave, and as the door swung back outwards you caught a glimpse of your mother, who’d been sitting by herself in the room. The look on her face told you in an instant that she’d overheard your casual display of cruelty. She’d already put the episode behind her and was figuring out how best to console your sister, but now she simply sat there and wondered at the pettiness of your actions.
She didn’t speak to you at all for the remainder of the night, but the next day, as though to make up for the whole episode, she returned from the Sizzler with two pocketfuls of prime rib, which she then served on her finest china, complete with sprigs of parsley. Although your parents and sister talked animatedly while they ate, you cleaned your plate in silence, wondering how best to make amends. You were wondering still when your mother brought out three bowls of melted soft-serve ice cream, rainbow sprinkles floating in the liquid like the remnants of breakfast cereal.
Your mother is so lame…
that she obviously doesn’t understand you at all. I mean, it’s not like you’re six years old anymore or anything. Yet she still insists on treating you like a child and not a capable and autonomous human being. Come on, right? It’s so lame how just because of that one time in 7th grade when you happened to mention that robots were rad that she still now to this day always gets you robot-themed birthday presents and leaves newspaper clippings about robots on the kithen counter for you to find. You’ve grown as a person and have diverse and mature interests, how difficult can that be to comprehend? What is she, an idiot? You’re on the lacrosse team, for Christ’s sake! You have a girlfriend! Enough already with the fucking robots! And it’s not like your dad is any help at all, wrapped up as he is with his woodworking in the garage. I mean, geez, he hardly comes in to dinner anymore and so most nights it’s just the two of you, you and your mother, sitting there quietly eating the nutritious yet tasty meal she’s spent two hours preparing. And for a while, all you can hear are the sounds of your combined mastication, interrupted by short, whining bursts from your father’s table saw or lathe. Finally, over desert, your mother will mention something to you about how she can’t wait until you invent her a robot to help with all the housework and then she laughs a little, but her laughter is tired and thin. You’ll exhale forcefully, disapprovingly, and scrape your knife across the china and, finally, your mother will get it. She’ll look up at you and wonder where her sweet boy went, her young son, and, in fact, her husband, her family. How did it end up this way? she’ll ask quietly, as if not wanting to bother you with it. She’ll look outside through the large bay window in the dining room and see the indifferent wind blow a solitary piece of newspaper down the street and across the subdivision. In the garage your father fires up his router. No one says anything for a long while, you just sit there as the last few string beans grow cold on your plate.
Your mother is so tall…
that as a young girl she was frequently teased by other children at school. They’d engage wantonly in every cruel impulse, calling her names and manufacturing any pretense to ostracize her. In the afternoons, she’d walk home alone, eyes cast downward, and disappear into her bedroom to read until your grandmother called her down to supper. But let’s also admit that she was indeed exceptionally tall. By the time she started 7th grade she was almost 6 feet tall, and she towered over all the other students in her small, Midwestern middle school—boys included. She politely declined when the girls’ basketball coach, Coach Pedersen, begged her to play varsity ball, preferring instead to gracefully bear the insults of her classmates and spend her afternoons reading in solitude. Her remarkable height was compounded by her rail-thin frame and lack of any noticeable breasts. Your grandparents worried themselves sick that the teasing she was enduring would wreak emotional havoc on her, but deep down your mother was uneffected. Three weeks before the start of 10th grade, eight days after her 15th birthday, your mother was out shopping with her parents when a modeling scout approached her and asked if she would mind posing for a photo. Your mother demurely complied and two months later she and your grandmother were flown to Chicago in order to take test shots. A week after that, she was cast in a fashion shoot for Halston in Vogue. This being the mid-1970s, tall and thin models were just coming into style and your mother’s unique looks made her an instant hit in magazines and on runways, and in short order she became one of the world’s highest paid fashion models. Never one to rely solely on her looks, though, your mother insisted on obtaining a college degree and in only three years she graduated from NYU with honors with a BA in comparative literature. She continued to model for several years, but gracefully bowed out of the profession once she entered her early 30s. With the money she’d saved, your mother returned to school and earned a masters degree and eventually a pHD. Today, she’s a distinguished professor of humanities at a small liberal arts college in New England. She’s widely esteemed by her colleagues and publishes regularly.
You respect her very much and want only to make her proud of you.