I think of my mother often. On occasion, I speak of her to others. I always want to be able to say wonderful things about her; that she was especially gifted or talented. I want to be able to say that she was insightful and intelligent, well-read and educated. But she was none of those things. She was just our mother. And that’s all I could ever say about her, except that she was there, until she wasn’t. When she died, my life changed and it is from that point forward that I usually evaluate my life. But what of those first 14 years? She was my mother, for God’s sake. Isn’t there something in her mothering that is everlasting, that helped form me, helped me survive her loss?
How is it possible that being a mother might be all someone is? Yes, it’s important to be a mother, but to be thought of as just a mother? What is just a mother? What does that mean? Somebody who is nurturing, influential and inspiring to her children? A mentor who teaches her children how to face the challenges of life? And if she had not been a mother, what else might she have been? Had she been able, what might she have chosen to be in addition to, or instead of, being just a mother. Even on her tombstone, it says: “Mildred W. Beloved Mother of Four.” That’s it. That’s all. Is that it? She was also a daughter and a sister and a friend. She was these things to different people, but not to the same people.
When she died, at the age of 38, I assumed that discoveries would be made. I would find out “things” about her. There would be ever so much to learn about this mysterious and closed woman. I would be able to brag to my friends about her accomplishments — or at least her “secrets” — those things she revealed to no one, but which elevated her persona to a level that I could feel proud of. Didn’t she have dreams and wishes to be something — else, somebody else? Instead of the gray dull hopelessness she exuded, which radiated a surrender to life and all its disappointments, life that she saw as hardship and challenge sent to make her lot even more difficult. I eagerly awaited those discoveries, uncovering her beloved secrets; searched for them, anticipated understanding the woman who was my mother, but who had to have been so much more. There were no such discoveries.
I have a hard time recalling her experiencing true joy. Perhaps when my baby brother was born. Her smiles were few, her laughter virtually nonexistent. Yet … there was a soulfulness in her that allowed me to attach myself to her, to become an extension of her. She would confide her deepest thoughts to me, even though I was a child when this first began. Thoughts about her feelings, her friends, her sexuality even. She spoke to nobody else of these things. “You are the only one in the whole world that I trust,” she would say to me. I listened, my childhood falling away from me like an unwanted shroud, replaced by a mantle of temporary and fabricated adulthood. I could not advise her, even though it often felt, both to her and to me, as if that was exactly what I was doing when all I was really doing was listening and trying to understand and be of comfort to her in some small way.
When my mother died in an automobile accident, my younger sister and I went to live in an orphanage. I was 14; she was 8. (We “kids” called it “The Home.” Even as adults, we continued to refer to each other as “The Kids from The Home.” “Have you been back to ‘The Home’ lately?” “Have you seen any of the kids from ‘The Home’?”) My middle sister, who was developmentally delayed, was sent to an institution (in later years she came to live with me) and my baby brother was given up for adoption.
I was the oldest girl in my “cottage” at The Home, and at night, after the girls in my cottage were asleep, I would sneak out to the porch, light up one of my secretly hoarded cigarettes, huddle in a corner and look up at the sky, dark and sprinkled with so many more stars without the city lights to dim them. And I would begin to talk to her, out loud, in a hoarse whisper, beginning with a plea, ending in anger and frustration.
“Ma? Mama? I’m here. Are you there, Mama? I don’t know what to believe, Mama. I don’t know if you can hear me or not. I don’t know if you are really always with me like everyone says. I just don’t know. But, Mama, I miss you so much. I’m just alone. There is nobody. Nobody to talk to. Nobody to care about me. The baby is gone. Do you watch over him, too? Or is this all hogwash, and I’m just talking to the air?”
On occasion, I would feel calmed and reassured by the breath of the cool night air, my futile attempts to understand what had happened and what experiences life had waiting for me notwithstanding. Usually, I would feel empty and disappointed. There was never a response or a sign or any of the things that I had heard and read about, and come to wish for. There was just the sky and the stars and the night — and stillness.
I tried very hard to remember her; to conjure up some image that I could focus on and enjoy, something to soothe my aching, empty sorrow, something to allow me to grieve. Grieving was a luxury that I did not allow myself. I was expected to be strong, to be “brave.” In place of my denied grief, I searched for memories of her, something to keep with me so that her absence was not so excruciatingly painful. For someone who was “just” a something, “just” a mother, she left a huge void in my life. In my memories everything seemed to be swathed in gray. All the images, all the memories. Except for the singing, and … oh, yes …
Pictures of you
Walking down the boulevard with my mother, my younger sister in a stroller, me walking alongside her, my hand on the stroller, or sometimes in her hand, I was always delighted with the sights and sounds around us in East Los Angeles. A familiar old man would approach. It seemed he was always on the boulevard, old, smelly, dirty, in torn clothing and ripped shoes with open, gaping soles that flapped as he walked. My mother would always take out a nickel or a dime (a lot for us in those days — back in the early ’40s — and we were so poor and often hungry ourselves) and give it to him. “Thank you! God bless you and your beautiful children!” he would say. My mother would smile, thank him, shake his hand, and we would walk on.
“Mama, why is he so poor?” I would ask.
“I don’t know. I don’t know why any of the bad things in this world happen to people, but we must never turn our backs on people who are suffering. Never. Do you understand that?”
“Sometimes,” she would continue, “I believe that there is no God. Or else, he doesn’t care. He just put us here to make our own way and never mind how much we suffer. What’s the point of it all?” That was when I also began to doubt. My head believed her; my soul shriveled at the thought.
Mama (third from right) and her sisters in 1948
But she always said that, or something like that. No matter how poor we were, as long as we had the nickel or dime in our pocket, we should give it to someone less well off (if that was possible) than we. The having of the coin demonstrated our well-being. The giving of the coin, our compassion. Both of equal importance according to my mother, no matter how incongruous, given our own poverty and hunger. How often did she put her children to bed early in the afternoon because there was no food for dinner?
My mother was fearful of cats, as I also came to be because of her fear. (But only as a child. Later on in life, I came to love cats and even had a very special cat who I had found in Baltimore. I had him for 16 years.) When she saw a cat, she let out a little cry and would jump away. But if anyone were to mistreat an animal, any animal, even a cat, she would object strongly.
“There is never a reason to be cruel to anything on this earth,” she would tell me, “no matter what it is. If it is a bug that needs to be killed, then kill it quickly and mercifully; do not torture it as some children do. Never be cruel. Never, never.”
“Why, Mama? Why do we have to be kind to bugs, too?”
“Because they are living things, and every life should be respected. Think of it as if it were you.”
But, I think, none of this tells me anything about her. Who was she? What did she want from life? What was I supposed to do with my life, if my own mother didn’t have a direction? If she showed no interest in herself, in her own breathing, waking and sleeping, who would I be? What would happen to me, I wondered?
Me and my sister Brenda in 1944
The issue of racism was tantamount to a religion for her. She could not tolerate anything that smacked of racism. This shy, quiet, withdrawn woman would come alive with a fury if she felt someone was exhibiting any sort of bigotry. She would not allow a comment to go by unchallenged. I watched her when she confronted someone about a statement made, or an attitude exhibited. Shock would register on the guilty party’s face; where did this come from? Who was this woman? That was what intolerance really looked like, I learned. Her intolerance of prejudice was strong and unwavering. Her intolerance was heroic.
But my mother never defined herself. She was not this, or that. I searched long and hard for the woman who was my mother, for the woman who was supposed to be my mentor.
Well … we sang, she and I. At every opportunity, she sang, we sang. The radio on the old kitchen table would play as we puttered around the kitchen, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, washing clothes in the big tub. She had a nice voice, always on pitch, in tune, soft and easy. My voice matched hers easily, so that we were almost of one voice. Frankie Laine, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Billy Eckstine. All the romantic crooners of the day. We sang along with them as their voices released and soared into the air of the kitchen. Sometimes we would almost skip around the kitchen in our enjoyment of the music. So many songs. They defined the era. There is no way to hear one of those songs that I don’t conjure up the image of my mother wiping the kitchen table, in time to the music, with a damp, soapy dishcloth. Swoop, hum, swish, hum, almost a smile on her face.
Mama, 8 yrs. old, 1922
“I used to sing that with my mother,” I’d comment to anyone within hearing range. “She and I sang this in the kitchen.” (Why should anyone care what and where we used to sing?) It surprises me, those memories, those images. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because they bring so much pleasure. Was she actually happy when she sang? Did those days, those moments, have significance to her beyond anything I was able to perceive at the time? Do I have any understanding of them now?
So. What can one say about such a mother? She told me once, during her sharing of herself with me, of her wedding to my father. It was not a joyous occasion and the marriage ended badly after four children, repeated abandonment and huge betrayals.
How could she know? She was young, lovely, innocent, trusting, naive and very lonely. A photograph of her at the time shows a very pretty young woman in a white hat and white dress sitting on a cement stoop, smiling shyly at the camera. It is easy to see why he picked her. She had been a sickly child, overprotected by her mother, virtually isolated from the outside world, and she saw my father as her chance to escape a suffocating existence. She was ripe for the plucking. And she was right. The life with my father was not suffocating; it was completely destructive to her; it drove her down into a deadly depression and kept her prisoner there for the rest of her short life. I have often thought that her death was an escape from a life that had become completely intolerable. Perhaps an escape from her four children, whose need depleted her of all energy, all hope. We were, the four of us, with our outreaching arms and pleading voices, like an octopus engulfing her with our wants. Three of us sickly, one developmentally disabled. All of us completely dependent on her for everything in our existence.
Her days often ended in depression and tears.
“How much longer can I go on like this? I wish I were dead,” she would say. “What will happen to you kids if something happens to me? And even if nothing happens, what is going to happen? I can’t get enough food, enough medicine, enough clothes, enough anything to take care of you.”
By the time I reached the age of 14, I grasped what she meant and began to question in my mind whether our lives would continue as they had been. I began to accept that my mother would not be around forever, and that we would one day be left to get on with our lives without her. It did not seem that she would be able to continue much longer.
Once, after I slapped my disabled sister, she slapped me and I told her I hated her and that I wished she were dead. It was the only time I ever talked back to her; it was the first and last time we ever quarreled.
Within a few months, she died in a car collision; all her struggles were over. For us, a new set of struggles had begun. I never forgot what I had wished on her that angry night.
So what do I tell anyone? What can I say about a woman who taught me that bigotry is morally wrong, that all life is precious, that helping the poor is essential, that singing fills the soul? I can say all of this, or I can say nothing. I no longer need to justify her, because this much I know: Whenever I look for her, I find me. To question her existence is to question my own. She gave me myself; she is who I am today. She cannot be dismissed without dismissing myself. I am my mother.
The four of us. First time united in 50 years! Richie, Marcia, Brenda and me.