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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A Black mama’s dilemma, or My private fears

It was a simple request and yet in asking my permission for what should be a natural progression, it triggered my worst fears on a week where news of Black and Brown girls gone missing in the nation’s capital is finally starting to get the media coverage it deserves.

After months of my parental nagging about getting involved in extracurricular activities at school, my daughter (who is now in middle school) wanted to learn about a possible activity but it required being at school a half hour earlier than the official start of school. Given our island residence, that meant getting up an hour earlier to take the earlier ferry to the mainland and rather than taking the school bus as usual, she and her friends would walk the mile or so to school at 6:35 in the morning. Her friends have done this trek before. Island kids before them have done this trek. Hell, it’s probably some type of rite of passage as an island kid. A chance to walk the city early, grab a doughnut and head to school sans the adults. A taste of freedom.  

Yet in my mind, all I could think about was the fact that at 6:30 in the morning, the city is just starting to stir as the street people start getting out and about; the same ones I have walked past who have made comments about my blackness. The ones who leer, the ones from whom I have made sure to keep my girl sheltered. In that moment, I was aware that her white friends don’t face the same challenges that she faces. Yes, there is the potential for leering and catcalls but there are the ones who also will single her out for her color in addition to her gender; the potential for people to single her out when they might not single out her other friends.

I reached out to the mom of one of the girls, who felt that with three girls making the trek, there would be safety in numbers. Also, her daughter, one of my girl’s closest friends, had done the walk before and knew the most direct route for avoiding the more unsavory elements that might be walking around at that early hour. I talked to my daughter’s dad who admitted that he had his concerns but that she is getting old enough to start being able to walk around on her own off the the island. I said yes, but not before giving a list of directives that including calling me as soon as she made it to school safely and that if she forgot, that would be a mistake she would not want to make.

In the end, the girls got up early, hopped the boat to town and the dad of one of the other girls gave them a ride to school, thus calming this anxious mama’s heart. Yet I know I cannot hold her as tightly as I have; I have to give her space to test her wings. In some ways, it was easier with her brother. The circumstances between his father and I demanded a trust that now seems naive in my middle age. Yes, I had fears for him but I always trusted that he would be okay. My son is my emotional and mental doppelganger. His warrior spirit was always present. My daughter’s warrior spirit is not yet present; she trusts in the goodness in the world and in people and until recently I have wanted to preserve that almost ethereal quality that has been present since birth.

Yet in a world that consumes Black women and girls with little regard for our spiritual, emotional and mental well-being, I find myself at the crossroads. As her mother, I must equip her with the tools to navigate this world but at times I fear that the harshness will be too much for her. At times the burden of Black motherhood feels to heavy to carry and yet my work isn’t only to love and nurture but to literally take her sweetness and stuff it down enough for her own survival. That is a task that no mother should have to consider but, for Black mothers, we do many things that our non-Black counterparts don’t have to do.

We live in a world that has little value for women and girls like us. I probably have written this more than a few times but with my daughter growing ever closer to the teen years, I feel a greater sense of urgency around just how undervalued we are in this society. I feel it in my own life, I see it in the lives of other Black and Brown women whom I know. Some days when I think too hard about how for most Black women our worth is only tied to our labor and what we can do for others, to quote Marvin Gaye, “it makes me wanna holler!” 

I want a better world. Not for myself but for the beautiful Black and Brown girls who deserve to stay cerebral and light throughout their lives instead of being forced into society’s roles and/or forced to adopt separate and unnatural personalities with which to protect themselves from the worst of society’s predations and oppression. I am not quite sure of how we get there but damn it, we have to keep trying. In the meantime, I will work on stuffing down my fears so that my daughter can start taking the baby steps she needs to make as she starts the transition to the teen years.
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Longing for Becky’s good hair, or hair and cultural occupation

Ever since dipping my toe briefly in the “mommy blog” waters a few years back and realizing it just wasn’t for me…plus things like increasingly bright spotlights on me as I became one of the “official” Black voices in Maine…I’ve begun to shy away from writing about my kids. But things eventually circle back on you and intersect no matter how hard you try to keep them discrete, and so let me talk about my daughter’s hair for a moment.

My recently turned 11-year-old increasingly tween girl had a hair crisis recently. I had let her take on responsibility for her own hair without my meddling (like braiding it at night before bedtime) and all seemed well, even if her desire for long hair almost always ended up with her making a big, uninspiring curly ponytail or letting her hair hang loose and long and coily once or twice a week when weather and such cooperated.

Some days back, she told me she had a knot she couldn’t get out. What she had, it turned out, were two large portions of hair that had dreadlocked, but not into organized locs. No, they were dread-clumps for lack of a better term. Turns out she wasn’t paying attention while brushing and when she thought she had all the tangles out, it turned out she had only gone halfway down her head.

I did some emergency deep conditioning but couldn’t loosen the dreaded hair. A couple days later, while she was with her dad for a few days, he went in with some products recommended by some of my Twitter followers and after more than three hours of intense work managed to loosen up most of the smaller clump and a very small amount of the large clump. The rest had to be snipped off, giving my girl the most asymmetrical look ever (and not in a good way) and an emergency trip to the hairdresser a couple days later to give her a short, bouncy bob-like cut to save what she had and set her up for a fresh start at growing.

She hated it. No matter how much me, her papa and one of her best friends told her how cute it was; how much it showed off her face and eyes and made her look older; how much easier it would be to take care of; and even that she didn’t have to love it, just accept that it was a flattering look she might not want to keep…she insisted on hating it.

She went out of her way to put her short hair into a ponytail one night and then let it loose when her daddy tried to talk her down from her hatred again, then fluff it out purposefully and claim she looked like Larry from the Three Stooges. Admittedly, she kind of did when she forced her hair to look that way but otherwise, she was a cute girl hearkening back to some of the short, cute, classy cuts of models in the 1920s but with a modern twist.

In the days since, she’s calmed down and, even if she might want to grow it out a bit still, she admits it has advantages and she likes it a little now.

That’s good, but it brings me to a place of remembering how much white standards of beauty drive us Black women…and our daughters…to places of self-loathing and hair choices that sometimes burn our scalps, leave us with early-life hair loss and more.

My daughter has always dug long hair. No matter that her hair isn’t that so-called “good hair” too many Black people still covet; she wanted it to hang long and not to have to go through hoops to keep it from dreading up. She always liked herself more when her hair was loose and long, even though shorter cuts and buns and pony-poofs and such were often much more flattering. Even her grand-dad (her white grandfather) has commented to my co-parent how he likes pictures of her with her hair down more.

This is a subtlety of white supremacy that too many of us, white or Black, don’t notice often enough. Black girls and women are reprimanded or punished at schools and workplaces still for things like dreads or afros, even though those are natural ways for their hair to grow when chemical straighteners aren’t involved.

I think my daughter wants long hair not so much because it’s a true desire, but because it’s a desire to fit in and adopt the prevailing cultural norm of society. Long hair, straight hair, etc.

It’s an insidious and real threat to the self-worth and self-images of ourselves and our daughters. How many of us truly want to have hair like white people, and how many of us just don’t want to stand out or be ridiculed? How many of use alter our hair to fit something unnatural to us just to be seen as more attractive when we’re already beautiful as we are and should be demanding to be seen as such?

I’m glad my daughter is beginning to like her shorter hair. I hope she begins to love it. More importantly, I hope that she soon embraces letting her hair be what it should be and helping it to stay there, rather than trying to force it into an unnatural mold.
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If 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.