My earliest memory of my mother was when we were in the supermarket when I was three. I was in the cart’s child seat and as we pulled down the sanitary napkin aisle to get her tampons, I asked her,
“Mama, if grownups have to wear diapers too, than why do I need to get potty trained?”
She looked at me with a face of half amusement, and half disbelief at my question and said, “Because you’ll know when you’re older, that’s why.”
I bring this up because on the 4th anniversary of her death, I’m trying to remember her good parts because it’s so easy to remember the bad ones. She was absent much of my childhood due to her own problems and when she finally came back into my life regularly, it was still disjointed and hardly in person. Her absence feels more physical than I remember her presence being, but she was more than the hole in my life she left when she died. Her spirit is the reason that such a hole exists to begin with.
Before I was even an abstract thought to my mother, she was an active member in the New York roller derby scene, (and on the Manhattan Chiefs if I can remember clearly) as well as a promotions model for Bacardi. She was loud, beautiful, crass and colorful, naturally commanding the attention of any room she walked into. She met my father in the early 80’s after an promotional event, and after initially finding him annoying, agreed to let him take her on a date. My brother was born 2 years later and I was born 3 after that. By the time I arrived to the scene however, the marriage had already started to deteriorate, so the only memories I have of my parents together are of them fighting.
After the divorce, things were turbulent for what felt like forever. Back in those days, custody automatically went to the mother regardless if the father was in the better financial and emotional standing. As a result, without much of a notice, my mother took my brother and I swiftly to Florida so we could live with her and her parents.
I remember a regression in my mom around that time, as though she were having a second chance on what she had lost in motherhood. My brother and I spent a lot of time with her parents because of this, but the point of this isn’t to trash her. She was magical in those years despite her lack of stability. I remember seeing her long frame dressed to the nines in off shoulder tops and high waisted shorts, makeup done to perfection. I admired how people would stop to look at her when she walked by and I wondered if people would look at me like that when I was grown up. She would spend evenings away and leave us in the care of family members. When she returned she’d come with presents and stories of the glamorous places she went and all the sunsets she had seen. She grew addicted to those sunsets, which excited me but made me uncomfortable at the exact same time.
She would continue to feed into that sunset, dating sports stars in Miami and running around in the club scene. I never wanted to know exactly what she did after she kissed us good night because I know that sometimes there are parts of you that you wish to keep to yourself, especially from your children.
After skipping out on a few court hearings, my father gained custody, again without much notice. I was 9 at the time and my brother was 12. From then onward, we would only see her in spurts until she died roughly 15 years later from a 3 year stint with cancer she chose not to battle and subsequently told no one about.
Prior to that though she reestablished a somewhat functional relationship with my brother, but I was still skeptical, and as a result it would take a couple tries for her to succeed. That time occurred when I had just started college. I guess she figured that if she couldn’t connect with me as her daughter, she would connect with me as a woman. It worked. Before long, we were talking daily for at least a half an hour on the phone about everything from boys to politics, and the mysticism that I always remember her being interested in but she was finally learning to embrace. After a stunted career and some failed relationships that brought her up the coast and back again, she found herself taking care of her elderly parents, making regular walks to the library to read about world religions. She bought a deck of tarot cards and taught me how to read them long distance. From her I would learn how to interpret my dreams in the literal sense. As a young woman trying to find her own identity, my mother appealed to my sense of rebellion, much to my father’s distain. He would accuse her of “unparenting” me while talking to relatives, remarking that it’s easy to look cool when you have the luxury of not handling any of the discipline.
Our relationship would still be strained though, with her trying to be my mom, and me seeing her more like a really cool aunt.
I reckon that when you live that fast, dying young is inevitable, hence why she chose to let her illness take her. I didn’t have time to ask, but I don’t believe she saw anything really worth sticking around for, which is painful to say as her child but reasonable when I consider her as a woman. The thing with my mother was that she made no qualms about the fact that she was a woman first and a mother second. Some would shun that ideology calling it selfish, and maybe it was, but it was honest. Furthermore, while she seemed to let other things challenge her identity, motherhood was not one of them-a quality which I find admirable in retrospect.
She was able to keep that identity even until death, making jokes until the sickness took her organs quietly and put her to sleep. She ran her fingers through my hair as the last maternal act she would ever give to me, telling me that she loved me and that she was so proud. At that point I hadn’t done anything worth being proud of yet. I had graduated college, (expected) and had a decent paying job, (again expected) but it was nothing to brag about. She loved me regardless, knowing the me as her baby and as the person I meant to her- a person that I still don’t quite understand.
But it’s not about that. It’s about her. All her flaws and all her gems, all her laughter and all her pain, every mile of her beautifully beaten road and every second of her widely misunderstood life. My mother was a lucid, wild, woman who was unapologetically herself, and because of that I got to see her in a light that most children will never get the privilege of seeing their mothers in.
So here’s to you, Mama. Here’s to forest green, gold jewelry, Virginia Slims cigarettes, and coffee with milk and one sugar. He’s to the color your brought, the color you left, and the color I keep within me. Thank you.