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Posts Tagged ‘mothers and daughters’

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.

 

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In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

*

I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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I am proud to announce that I am part of the New York City line up for this year’s Listen to Your Mother reading! I was so nervous about auditioning, and I didn’t finish my audition story until the moment before I had to leave for the studio. Crazy. I’m lucky I had a story at all. I had weeks to write something, but could think of not one story to tell. Yes, that’s even more crazy than my last-minute finish. I have only about 600,000³ stories, many of them about my mother. Couldn’t think of anything. And partly that’s because I had to tell a five-minute story. There are few things I’m able to do in just five minutes, and talking about my mother is definitely not one of them.

Or so I thought! Thanks to a lunch conversation with on of my coworkers, I had an idea. I wrestled it into a five-minute box and off I went to audition … where a strange thing happened: I was nervous about reading, but I felt entirely calm about my story. Dare I say that I felt … confident? As soon as I finished the first paragraph, I knew.

Where did that come from? This story (which I’ll post after the reading) isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written. It hadn’t even been revised when I auditioned with it. A first draft is pretty much never going to be the best thing I’ve ever written. But still, I was completely certain of that story, certain it would land me in the cast.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out that “I got this” feeling ever since the audition. I’m not looking to become America’s Cockiest Girl or anything, but it would be nice to set aside the Poster Child for Low Self-Esteem mantle every now and then. Even more amazing would be to have this feeling about my writing on a consistent basis. Imagine how much work I’d submit!

While I keep trying to figure myself out, please consider coming out for the LTYM reading. It would be so great to get to meet you in person! If you’re not in New York, check the LTYM website, there may be a reading near you!


It’s Slice of Life time! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

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Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.

 

I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.

_______

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Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

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I saw them again! The lovely mother and daughter from my Cat in the Hat post the other day! We were on the bus again, heading downtown. This time, the mom was doing the reading.  Her daughter was curled up against her, listening intently.  Mom was reading The Wind in the Willows. Put a smile on my face that she had chosen a classic.

The bigger smile on my face came from watching and listening to the way the mom read the story — thinking out loud after she read certain lines so that her daughter could see the way she thought about what she was reading, pausing and asking her daughter to predict what might happen next, etc.  I love how invested the mom clearly is in her daughter’s literacy, how patiently she waited for her daughter’s answers and talked through them with her, how cute they looked snuggled up together on the bus seat, deep in their story, deep in that book.

They made my morning.  And I wonder what I’ll get to hear them read next time!

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Check out all of the slices on Two Writing Teachers!

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My bus was super crowded this morning, and I was squeezed in the center aisle, standing all the way downtown. So much for reading on my way to work. I didn’t even have room to maneuver my bag and get my headphones out so I could listen too some music.

Good thing. Left my ears open for some conversation:

“I have always been someone who knows what they want,” asserted forcefully by a beautiful girl who was maybe 17.  “I always say what I want.  I’m not confused.  I’m complex.”

“Listen,” from a stern-voiced woman to her 9- or 10-year-old son, “you want me to change colors right now?* No? Then sit still and keep quiet.”

“Driver, you were supposed to tell me when we got to Flatbush.

“I will.”

“You were supposed to tell me.  I asked when I got on.”

“I will tell you.”

“Driver –“

“We haven’t gotten there yet.”

“Thank you, driver.  I still need you to tell me when we get to Flatbush.”

And then the best of all:

Seated near me was a little girl who was focused quite intently on a book. She was tracing across the page with her index finger, going over each page at least twice before moving to the next. I couldn’t see what she was reading because it was down in her lap. She was maybe six years old, so I was pretty sure  she wasn’t working through War and Peace, but I was curious.

Then her mom leaned over and asked her to read aloud. “I like hearing how nicely you read,” she said.  (And yes, how much do I love her for saying that?)

The little girl smiled and squinched up her face, concentrating.  She turned the pages back to the beginning and started reading.  I couldn’t hear her at first, but after a few lines, she felt more comfortable.  She lifted her chin and read out, not loud but strong.  And then I heard it, knew what she was reading.

“How I wish we had something to do.”

I’d know that line anywhere: The Cat in the Hat!

“Too wet to go out, and too cold to play ball,
So we sat in the house. We did nothing at all.”

I edged a little closer so I could listen in.  The little girl was wearing a Jayne hat** with an adorable, extra large and puffy pom-pom.  Her skin was such a beautiful deep, dark brown.  Her voice was quiet, happy.  Her face was serious as she focused on the words.  She sat up straight, but her mom leaned in a little closer, almost snuggling against her shoulder.

I will admit, I’m only a lukewarm fan of the Cat.  I find him a bit creepy.  More than a bit.  (He shouldn’t be trusted, not one little bit.)  And he triggers that thing I tried to describe yesterday.  The Cat is all about things that are just not right.  Too much Cat and I think my head might explode!

“No, no!  Make that cat go away!
Tell that cat in the hat you do not want to play!
He should not be here! He should not be about!
He should not be here when your mother is out!”

Hmph.  Tell me that’s not right.  Don’t get me started on Thing 1 and Thing 2.

But my mistrust of the cat notwithstanding, I was utterly charmed by my bus ride reader.  And equally by her mother’s clear pleasure in listening to her baby display her new skill.  An excellent way to get my morning off and running.

_____

Eavesdrop on the rest of today’s slices at Two Writing Teachers!

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(“I saw her — your mother — your mother is here!”)

__________
*  I’ve never heard getting angry described in this way.  I kind of like it.  And I have to admit that, when I heard her say it, I really wanted to see her change colors.  That would have kept things lively on our commute!

**  Oh, that.  You know, a Jayne hat.  That was a Firefly reference.  The hat, as knit for and worn by Jayne: jayne_hat_4

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Melanie enrolled her daughter in drawing and dance classes as soon as they’d settled into the new apartment.

“Culture,” she said to her new neighbor.  “The kid has to grow up without a father, that’s one strike against her going in.  At least I can get her some culture.”

The woman nodded, but Melanie thought she detected a hint of pity, of alarm.

“I mean, I took piano lessons and dressage when I was her age.  It’s the least I can do, say.”  She didn’t wait for the woman’s nod, just turned and went inside.

Piano and dressage.  It was true for what it was worth, but that wasn’t much.  She’d never been interested in learning an instrument, and the riding lessons had quickly turned into easy cover for making out with João, a Portuguese stable hand she fell hard for the moment she saw him after her first class.

But her daughter, April, was different.  She would see to it that April took advantage of the right opportunities, that she never thought letting a 37-year old man play with her in an empty horse stall was a good idea.  April would never drop out of school to follow a man, certainly not one old enough to be her father who — when she reached the Algarve and found him — turned out to have a wife and a house full of children.

She didn’t think she had to worry so hard, in truth.  April was already so different.  Beautiful, for one thing, where Melanie was only pretty.  It pained her to admit, but there was no denying it.  Those looks would give April choices Melanie never had.

“And it’s my job to see that she goes down smart,” Melanie said to herself, watching out the window for April’s return from her first dance class.  “What else is a mother for?”

__________

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