personal growth

My Black life matters, or Ramblings of middle age

The past several months have left me feeling sluggish and out of sorts. It’s been a period of rapid change professionally and personally, and to say that I wasn’t ready would be an understatement. It’s also been a time when being middle-aged has become quite real to me. Bodily changes are coming at me fast and furious…and why am I always hot? Seriously, I am always hot or at least that’s what it feels like. I swear, I am running 20 degrees warmer than most people these days as evidenced by the fact that when other people are wearing sleeves and coats, I am quite content sans to bare my arms and shoulders. Frankly, I find myself wondering: Must I wear clothes at all?

So, I am on fire all the time just when my body has also decided that sleep is optional and that my memory is something it doesn’t need to spend much time maintaining anymore. Nothing brings this perimenopause thing home like being in a meeting and forgetting your words in mid-speech. All you can do is laugh at yourself…wait? What is that word again?  Then, to add insult to injury, caffeine no longer loves me. Last year when my healthcare provider told me that some of the bodily shifts could be mitigated by giving up caffeine, I balked and agreed to lessen my consumption. Apparently that wasn’t enough, my body is flat out rejecting caffeine and when I do have a day where I don my inner toddler and declare that “I am the boss of me!” My body pretty much lets me know that caffeine is not my friend. Sob.

No matter what this “40 is the new 27” world tries to sell me and my peers, my body is saying “Not so fast” and I suspect a lot of my “I’m still young” fellow middle-agers are getting the same or at least similar bodily reminders. Aging is real and there is a physical and mental component and, despite my best attempts at ignoring it all, the CHANGE is here and is demanding my full attention.

Growing older in a Black female body is a special trip, though, especially because the majority of the health indicators aren’t exactly in our favor. Did you know that heart disease is the number-one cause of death for men and women in the U.S. but, moreover, Black women have heart disease rates twice that of white women. I have an aunt who isn’t even 60 and she’s been living with congestive heart failure for years now. We have higher rates of diabetes, and diabetes is prevalent in certain segments of the Black community. Oh yeah, there is also breast cancer, which is the most common form of cancer that affects Black women. The life expectancy gap is closing along racial lines but that is namely due to the plight of white folks dying earlier than they once did…probably from the stress of realizing life isn’t going so much their way as it used to and that only the really well off have futures with any comfort (welcome to some semblance of the world we Black people have lived in for decade upon decade upon decade).

If that wasn’t enough, there is also the cumulative effects of racism and patriarchy and the sense of being expected to always carry the loads. And yet rarely is there reciprocity. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote so many years ago “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”  That pretty much sums things up. We are often the first to show up, the first to do and yet almost always the last to be acknowledged or cared for. For all the work we do, it most certainly isn’t reflected in our economic status.  A study several years ago found that, on average, Black women have a net worth of $5. Then again, we do live in a world where the racialized wage gap leaves Black women earning sixty three cents to the white man’s dollar. It’s worse for our other sisters of color.

So you get to middle age as a Black woman and realize that all your hard work probably won’t prevent you from a retirement spent with the occasional kitty chow for dinner inside either your kid’s house, the subsidized apartment that may not exist by the time you actually get to retirement age or a snazzy cardboard box under the bridge. This while you are juggling whatever ailment that you are statistically doomed to suffer.

You can either get pissed off as hell, roll over and wait for the end or you can grab some joy where you can. I recently opted for “grab some joy” and did something that I have never done before. I went on a mini-vacation for two days and…damn it!…I feel refreshed. A few months ago, it hit me that I have never been on an actual vacation. All my travel has been either family or work-related. Never have I treated myself to unscheduled time alone. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, since my Facebook feed tells me that most of the people I know are always traveling. However, I decided on early marriage and motherhood and spent my late 20s and 30s putting myself through college, graduate school and starting a career. They say shit happens but in my life shit happens often enough that the idea of vacations never materialized.

I am returning today from two nights away that fed my soul. I didn’t go far from home but I went just far enough that I was in an area  of Maine that is not part of my daily rounds.  I threw caution to the wind and it felt good and while racial bias is never far from the life of a Black person (a racially prompted traffic stop on my way to my getaway, plus being mistaken for the local help and not a lady of leisure by a waitress), it was just delightful overall.

My two nights away made me reflect on the importance of time away and how it is good for everyone. But for Black women and femmes, it is even more critical. Our bodies exist in a society where psychic and emotional abuse and misuse are the norms; we often internalize it, and it is hurts us. Too many of us are juggling too many balls often without a real support system. Too often our support system is simply another form of stress.  

How often do we look at the Black women and femmes in our lives and marvel at their strength without asking what that outward strength is actually costing them? How often do we profit from that strength without questioning it? How often do we truly give back to the Black women and femmes who bring beauty, knowledge and so much more into our lives? Do we ever see them as people who need a hand or a hug? Or do we sit so comfortably within the box of white supremacy that we take them for granted because deep down, we think they are indeed the mules of the world?

In a world where we must vocally declare that Black Lives Matter, I am declaring that my middle-aged Black self does indeed matter and that I will honor this vessel that I reside in, treating it as well as I can given my realities. If we say  that Black Lives Matter than we need to make sure that we are honoring those closest to us.
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Two sides of the same coin with a different value: a son’s perspective of Mother’s Day

Yesterday I wrote a post reflecting on what it means to be motherless as I grow older. My brother wrote his own reflections on being a motherless son and man and asked if he could share them in this space. Often we hear women discuss their feelings but far too often we don’t hear from men, so I am honored to share this space with him on a days that heavily weighted for both of us.
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First off I would like to thank Shay Stewart-Bouley for allowing me to write in her space. For those that don’t know I’m her brother.  She normally calls me “little” brother, and she doesn’t know i seriously abhor the title but today I will let her have it because i am in her space.

The reason for writing today…Mothers Day.

If you follow her…you know how the loss of Marilyn has been a dramatic impact on her. I can only imagine the impact of what that is like of losing the parent of the same sex. My vantage point is that of the brother…

14 years ago, life was moving for me…just graduated with a Bachelor’s degree…on my way to grad school in another country, engaged…and it was like the last episode of the Cosby show…as when Theo was headed out to school…then the nightmare came…the details I wont bore you with but lets say there were moments were Guantanamo Bay would have been welcomed.

In her passing, in my sister’s case at 31 in my case 23, there was a forced maturity that I wouldn’t wished on anyone. The first year of everything was brutal, so much so in my case that in the first 18 months, after her passing I couldn’t eat a home cooked meal without literally breaking down into tears (To this day I don’t eat macaroni and cheese because it can stir those emotions.  Don’t judge me, if you had her mac and cheese, you’d cry too lol)

As well 18 months later, Granny aka my mom’s mom passed. So what did that mean for me as “Lil brother?” Well if death wasn’t enough, it came with learning lessons about a deceased love one you couldn’t elaborate on. Also in death as a young man it was realization that there was no fall back. At the time I was engaged (of which that situation didn’t work out) and there was no “going back home to mom”. Our father, was dealing with things that well we can NEVER imagine himself in losing his life partner, partner in crime, helpmate and every other term of 32 years and learning to live in a world that frankly, my sister and I were versed in already.

Over the years, unbeknownst to her, this moment in time destroyed my optimism and brought about some serious darkness in my life. Not just the obvious in the form of depression (which I was diagnosed with in 2007, the mild kind), but a certain lack of emotion that has played well for me professionally but not so much personally. The loss of our mom, has created three perspectives that now exist in three different sections of the country as we live in different places and has created a different impact. (Father, sister, and brother respectively)

14 years later, as the son of Marilyn, the youngest I reflect and it is in these moments the sting comes back anew. Why now? Life changes…my evolution as a man, as an artist and more is traced to that moment in time. In many moments i miss her wit and insight.  My sister valiantly attempts to be the matriarch, but in many ways that’s not fair to her, as the researcher in me observes her struggle, yet I empathize with her attempts to be better. Truth is, if you have not been made a motherless child, you can only imagine how it rewires you as a person. In my travels, since her transition, I myself have done things that she would be proud of and some well, not so much. Over the years i have sought counseling, positive and negative replacements and well nothing compares to the original O.G. I have had the pleasure of watching her impact and her legacy grown through my nephew and now his family, my niece, the work of our father who can bring tears to your eyes, when he says I am STILL married. (Fighting tears at the thought just writing that) and well if you know Marilyn’s kids, you know her.

If you wanted to know Marilyn Stewart, look in her kids eyes.  Its a fire to us…if your wanted to know her, watch our tenacity. We are both super stubborn lol.  Our  mom was a fighter to the end, and a person that would make things happen out of nothing. I learned more about her in death than in life. I learned why family was important to her so much as someone instrumental to her discarded her. I learned of the decisions she made that as her youngest i definitely didn’t agree with, but I empathize and understand. If you want to he know her, look at her children’s accomplishments. 2 kids, with a total of 5 degrees (3 master’s and one working on a PhD, because education was important to her). But if you REALLY want to know Marilyn’s kids, watch our smiles.. She had a way of disarming people even in the midst of the darkest situations and could make a true friend out of an enemy in a way that diplomats would envy.

So year 14, and we are at Mother’s Day. When folks sit in church all day, take mom’s to get cheddar biscuits and get cards…I am in the distant, pursuing my goals in one part of the country, my sister being a mom and now Grandmother in another, and Pops in the homeland in yet another, probably listening to Kenny Roger’s Lady (You’d have to know him to get that one)

Truth is, as a member of the motherless child clan, these moments provide a sting, and yet we know she lives on in us, and generations to follow. We grieve at painful and happy moments because she doesnt inhabit this space, yet inside she is with us. Somewhere in heaven she is sipping some good champagne, with her legs crossed shaking her food listening to Maurice White from EWF or having the angels play some steppers music.

To those with a mother….be thankful,…if you she is on this plane, and you don’t talk, kill the bs…because there are those that would give every accolade back to have a convo with her…I’m one of em… to those that share in the grief of the day, you are not alone. We cry and we laugh together in the memories of our mothers. To my sister, life has come full circle from a daughter who lost her mother to a grandmother with generations that seek your wisdom and guidance. I pray that their wisdom is with you as much as their ability to cook (you still owe me that recipe book too I AIN’T FORGOT WOMAN lol)

Respectfully submitted
“Lil” brother
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The evolution of loss, or Thoughts on Mother’s Day

It’s been 14 years since I lost my mother to a valiant but brief (and ultimately futile) battle with cancer. The loss of my mother remains, even after all these years, one of the single most defining events in my life. She passed away six weeks after I turned 31 and four days after she turned 50. To say I was unprepared for her death would be an understatement. I spent the early years after her passing in a dark space that was only worsened by the death of my grandmother (my mother’s mom), just 18 months after my mother’s passing. In less than two years, I lost the women who had mothered, nourished and raised me. I lost my moral compass and foundation at a time when I still needed them.

As a Black woman, my very essence sits on the foundation of my mother. The deaths of both my mother and grandmother left me adrift in a family of men and, as I wrote many years ago, my father in the early years tried his best to mother me. But despite his attempts, the loss of my mother was always with me.

Over the years, I have gone through many stages of grief and growth. The birth of my daughter, for example, served as a reminder that at a young age, I had become the eldest woman in our family. For better or worse, I was the matriarch of our little clan. It isn’t exactly how one expects to spend their 30s.

Since my mother’s death, my relationship to Mother’s Day has been very complex. On the one hand, as a mother myself, my children and others have wanted to honor me as such; yet, all around me. I see generations of mothers who serve as reminders of what I lost.

My son’s marriage last year and entry into parenthood have combined to once again redefine the very role of mothering (and by extension Mother’s Day) as I settle into my newest role as mother-in-law and grandmother. The newest editions to our family have forced me to realize that with loss comes evolution but that it’s often a slow-moving process.

Several days ago, I found myself in the card aisle trying to search for a card for my beloved daughter-in-law as I wanted to acknowledge her own entry and transformation into the mothering club. I have not stepped foot in the aisle selling anything related to Mother’s Day since 2005, the year my grandmother died. To say it was a jarring experience would be putting it mildly as I searched frantically for a card appropriate for my daughter-in-law and instead was surrounded by cards to our own mothers. Halfway through the card search, I felt my eyes well up as I realized I was surrounded by people looking for the right cards to give to their own mothers. A simple and maybe even at times onerous task that I will never again do in this lifetime.

I eventually found a card and my way to the counter and held it together long enough to pay for the card and to exit the store. It was upon leaving the store that the shifts that I have been feeling in the past year around my own mother really made sense. I will never not miss my mother but there are certain milestones that loom so large that you need the presence of an elder.

The past year has definitely been one of those milestones as my son’s marriage and his wife’s pregnancy felt very much like uncharted waters. After all, how exactly does one support their adult child after they get married? The parenting manuals don’t include these tidbits and Lord knows, everyone has a story about “that” mother-in-law and the one thing that I have committed myself to is not becoming that kind of person.

My mother’s absence was acute for me not only during my son’s transitions but in the past several years as I have re-started my life after 20 years of marriage. Truthfully, as the decision was being made to separate, it was my mother’s words and wisdom that I craved most of all, as no one in my circle could understand the decision to part ways with my husband.

Gone are the daily longings for her, but in the big moments…in the moments of indecision…I miss home; I miss my mother. Yet as the years pass by, I see her reflected in the habits that I have picked up over the years. I see her in the way that my daughter jiggles her foot and in her build which looks like it will be as slight as my mother’s. I see her in my son; unlike his sister, my son knew my mother and was close with her until her death. I even see her in my grandson’s eyes. The same dark eyes that we all have: her eyes.

No one can ever replace her and as long as I am of sound mind, I will never forget her. But after all these years, I have come to realize that in giving me life and loving me, she bequeathed something far greater. A spirit that lives on in not just her children but her grandchildren and now her great-grandchild. The day my grandson was born, I had a somber talk with my father as I was feeling her loss on that day and wondering what she would make of becoming a great-grandmother. My father reminded me that she was with me and knew and indeed she is. So on this Mother’s Day weekend, I thank you Mom. Until we meet again and until that time, may your spirit rest over our clan and may I be half the woman you were.
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If you enjoyed this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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