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Mom’s Lessons

“Maybe I’m just like my mother, she’s never satisfied…” -Prince

As Mother’s Day is approaching, I’ve been thinking about my mom a lot.

For the last several years, Mother’s Day has been difficult for me, and no. My mother isn’t dead, she’s very much alive.

Mother’s Day is tough because, my mother had a nervous breakdown from which she has never recovered when I was just 16 years old.

Since then, I’ve had aunties and career mentor moms, an older cousin and older sister who picked up the slack and carried me through when my mom just could not.

I appreciate those women and their impact on my life, and while I still struggle with my feelings and insecurities involving my mother’s mental illness, I know for a fact it made me the person I am today.

It taught me compassion. It taught me that life was unpredictable, unfair and cruel. It taught me not to take my mental health for granted. It made me painfully aware whenever I felt really overwhelmed, that I needed to pull myself from the brink and do whatever it took to get back to center.

Prior to her illness, my mother was just absolutely fabulous, vibrant, gorgeous. In my mind, she was Claire Huxtable in real life.

She grew up in the South, and was determined to get the hell out. She knew she was different. She never had a southern accent, my aunt and grandfather attest to this oddity. My mother’s dreams were always bigger than her coastal town and newly integrated high school. She graduated a year early.  She met my father, “an airman” serving at a near by Air Force base. They fell in love, and when he decided not to re-up, he took his bride away to New York.

My mother always had a deep respect for teachers and any job that required a woman to wear pantyhose and high heels. She worked for sometime as a teacher’s assistant in a special education class and even years after she left to work for and rise through the ranks of a large insurance company, former students would happily flag her down in the grocery store or even stop by our home to say hello.

My mom had an amazing effect on people. A huge laugh, big reddish hair poofed to perfection thanks to that massive aerosol can of hair spray and a strict regimen of sponge curlers every night complimenting her soft, brown skin.

My mother taught me how to sit properly. She made me hold my ears, so she wouldn’t burn me while straightening my hair for special occasions. I watched how she walked in those heels, her quick cadance when she talked. She walked so fast. She’d go to work, shuttle her children around, serve on countless boards at church.

I was fascinated with this woman who would cook dinner still with her heels, pantyhose and office clothing on. She was so strong an opinionated, always had a joke and held you captive when she’d tell a story or gossip about someone at her job or at church.

My mother had no college education, but she was clearly intelligent and driven. The young girl from Mississippi had it all. A handsome, devoted husband, pretty and intelligent daughters, and finally the office job she held in high esteem.

My mother adores my father. Even after her long days of work, and his long day of work, after his shower, he’d sit on the floor, between her legs, shirtless and still damp. She would take a comb and dip her fingers into a red can of Royal Crown hair grease, and slowly part his hair, and massage the oil into his scalp. Sometimes they’d chat, sometimes they’d both just watch the t.v. together. It seemed the stresses of his day melted away with her touch, she seemed to get pleasure from seeing him become more and more relaxed because of her touch.

It was a tender moment, and humble lesson for me in this age of women not wanting to appear weak or subservient. She was a strong woman finding joy in taking a moment to take care of her man. She wasn’t lowering herself to do it, she did it because she wanted to, and she knew how it made him feel.

This ritual, was hardly sensual, but the image has been seared in my brain as one of love, respect and a strong, strong woman simply taking care of her weary, hard-working man. Working the oils through his hair, saying, “I love you,” and “Thank you” without saying a word.

When you see someone you love go through a terrible thing such as suffer from mental illness, memories of who they were can be the only thing you have left to hold on to, because the person they are can scare you. Can frustrate you. Can make you feel like you’ve been robbed, that you’re whole family has been robbed of a most spectacular member.

There are two moments that I look back on, and it makes me think how similar I am to my mother, in terms of our spirits and our love for fashion and for things creative.

My mother had gone shopping for a cousin’s wedding. And she saw the most glorious bone colored strappy heels. The store was an expensive boutique, and my mother prided herself on having a well-dressed family. This one particular day, she really wanted those shoes, but there wasn’t a price tag on it. She looked at me and said, “That usually means it’s too much.”

She looked at the shoes and then paused for a moment. I was about 13. My mother said “Size 9 please.” She tried them on.

She took a moment again, and said, “I’ll take them.”

We got to the register and we both held our breath. The shoes were about $200, but she finally treated herself. She walked out with her head held high. I walked out with my chest out too, holding our bags. Yep, I knew it. Mom was Claire Huxtable!

Flashback a few years.

My mother was working very hard, juggling it all.

Then all of a sudden, she purchased a casio keyboard and set it up in the living room. She declared that once a week she was going to take piano lessons.

And so, for several months she did. Scales, and little ditties filled our home as she prepared for her weekly class.

I wondered why my Mom did this religiously and was not to be disturbed.

Then I got grown. I started working a crazy job with crazy hours and when I decided I wanted to take guitar lessons and have a standing appointment– job be dammned– it clicked.

I understood why my mom was so intent on those weekly piano lessons.

My mother needed something for HER. She needed an outlet where she could be herself, and learn something completely new, and do something that had nothing whatsoever to do with her husband, her kids, her job or other civic duties.

When my mother splurged for $200 shoes, she decided to do something for her. I now totally recognize that look in her eyes while deciding to do it, because I do the same thing. You rationalize, and then you say, wait, I deserve this! I’m doing it and I don’t care!

Who knew me watching her do those things for herself was going to have such an impact on me in terms of realizing, no matter what, you have to take care of you.

But the lesson of the piano lessons didn’t end there.

She’d be mortified if I told this story, but she had prepared a piece to play for our church’s annual Christmas program.

She’d been practicing and practicing at home.

She had it down.

They called her name. She sat down to the piano, and nothing.

She froze completely.

She went to her seat completely embarassed. Until someone, probably my dad, encouraged her to try again.

She went back and she played her song.

Afterwards, in her amazing way of telling stories, she said, “I saw nothing on the page. Literally, all of the notes, just jumped right off. I couldn’t play a thing!”

And she laughed. She was horribly embarrassed and admitted it, but she still could laugh at herself in the end.

My mother has always been brutally honest, sometimes silly and sometimes even crass. I see flashes of that even now in the thick of her illness.

I love my mother. There have been times I have been angry, and even ashamed, then angry and ashamed at myself. My mother is a recluse and is scared to leave our house. She hasn’t gone further than our front yard in over a decade for sure. She hears things and sees things and believes the government is watching our every move. It’s difficult for her to sleep for very long.

I don’t know why these things happened to her and happened to my family, but that woman who raised me and taught me how to be a vibrant woman, who speaks her mind and always has a fresh pair of pantyhose on standby, is my mother, for better or for worse.

She is the only one I’ve got. She had to be one hell of a woman, to influence me so much and make me so strong, even though it seemed like I had her at full capacity for a very short period of time.

She got me to 16, and she is still teaching me, she’s still making me stronger and better and compassionate and a fighter. Sometimes she has these moments of clarity, where her mind is still and she’s speaking to me so clearly. I want to cry because I know it won’t last, but even for a few moments, I am like my friends, who can go to brunch with their moms or have a spa day. I listen to her words, I sip tea and I cherish it.

The moment slips instantly and she’s back to patrolling the house for signs of government infiltration. My heart sinks. I had her. I saw her again, I heard her voice.

For a long time I didn’t realize she still has been giving to me, even when I couldn’t or wouldn’t see it.

Her illness did not steal my mother from me. It made me see her even more clearly and see the complexities of womanhood and whatever secrets she held from her past held on her.  It made me further appreciate what hard work it is to be a excellent and real woman, wife and mother who is strong, but can be very fragile.

She’s not Claire Huxtable, and she doesn’t have to be. My mother as she is, now and forever will always be good enough for me. I love you, Mom.

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