Had a great pair session with my mentee yesterday. We haven’t met in a couple of weeks because of my work schedule and her summer vacation, so it was extra especially nice to see her. She’s started doing the summer assignments she got for the AP classes she’ll be taking in the fall. For one of those assignments, she’s reading a book I hadn’t heard of, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. In addition to reading, she has to do some reflective writing after every 20 pages. Never mind that I love this idea and think I should start doing it my own self with every book I read. It also inspired our writing for today.
I asked if there was a line or section that really stood out for her already – she’s only just started the book. She showed me a passage about Robert Peace’s mother, Jackie, that ended with this line: “She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”
And we started writing.
I thought I knew where I was going, but I went somewhere else entirely. And where I went shouldn’t be surprising, but it caught me off guard all the same.
* * *
“She had a baby boy and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.”
Because isn’t that part of what you hope for when you have children, that they will just love you, one hundred percent love you? No judgment, no anger or shame. Pure love. Of course.
And I think about my mother’s reaction after she read my first Hunger essay. She felt bad about herself as a mother, wondered how she never knew about the camp counselor, the man at church, the boy, how she never knew about these bad things that happened to me, how she never knew about any of the bad thinking that was going on in my head.
But how would she have known? She wasn’t with me every minute, and that would have been the only way she could have protected me from bad things, from bad people. And that wasn’t possible. And she isn’t psychic, so she certainly couldn’t have known about anything I was thinking if I didn’t tell her.
Her feeling bad about her mothering of me makes me sad. And it makes me think of that famous Anne Lamott quote, one of my favorite things I’ve read, ever: You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.
My mother did behave better. She was a great mother. Was she perfect? Of course not. Perfection would surely have made her an awful mother. Not perfect, but mine. And I have never looked at her with anything but love. Sometimes a desperate love, but always love. She’s my mother. I know that answer isn’t a given. But it is for me. Even when I haven’t agreed with her or wanted to do or be what she’s wanted me to do or be, my mother has always been one of those people who I love completely. And maybe part of that is that I’ve always known that she loves me the same way. Even when she hasn’t understood me, when she’s been puzzled or disturbed by me, when she’s wished I’d go another way, she has always been fiercely in love with me. How can I not reciprocate?
I own everything that’s happened to me. And I’m telling my stories. But I don’t want the barbs strung through my stories to catch her soft, smooth skin. I don’t want to hurt her, to make her question my love for her. I will write about her warmly … but I will also tell other parts of our story. Yes, her sending me to Weight Watchers when I was 13 was a mistake. Yes, a mistake that came from a place of love, but still a mistake. And all these things can be true at once – her love for me and not knowing how to make the world safe for me, my love for her and my honesty about her impact on my life.
I like to tell this funny thing about my mother. I’ve always said how lucky I am because I don’t have to worry about how my mother will react to the things I write about her … because she has always read my work backwards: when I’ve written stories that weren’t about her, she’s read them and asked how I’ve remembered so many of the details. When I’ve written things that were absolutely about her, she’s marveled at the power of my imagination. And that was sort of perfect. But it is clearly now done. I’m telling my stories, and she’s seeing herself in the lines.
There are a lot more Hunger essays to come. I don’t know if any of them will be as hard for her to read as that first one, but there will definitely be hard moments. And I worry.
I worry about how she will respond to things I write, how she’ll see herself in my words. I don’t want her to ever think that I see her with even the barest trace of pity or scorn. I see her. I see the woman she was trying to be in the face of the world she was in. I see her learning how to make a way every time the floor disappeared from under her. I see her standing up for us, her three very different, not at all easy children. I see her. I am impressed by who she is, who she was, all the ways she stays open to learning and growing.
Do I wish things for her? Of course. But not to change the past. That’s something I told her when we talked about that Hunger essay and she was wishing I’d been born to a better mother. Change one thing, change the world. If she’d been whatever that idea of a “perfect mother” was, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. “I like who you are today,” she said. Yeah. Me, too. And the person she is. I like how we’ve grown up to have this powerful, loving friendship, and that I can still count on her to mother me the way I sometimes need mothering.
So I keep digging, keep writing. I know there will be hard moments for her. And I know we’ll come through them. No pity. No scorn. Only love.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.