My mother inspired me to graduate from high school early and join the navy. The inspiration was for me to get as far and as fast away from her as possible; I had started running away as a toddler and continued fleeing her presence throughout my childhood. This was my big break. Needless to say, my mother and I never got along.
My mother was called “Big Red.” She was a child of the Great Depression, and she raised five children in the projects (on public assistance) of lower Manhattan in the 1940s thru 1950s on her own—no easy feat, especially through three disastrous marriages, but there you have it. Big Red was a hard-drinking, brash-talking, fist-fighting, Pall Mall (unfiltered)-smoker raised virtually on the streets or with the kindness of relatives. She and her siblings were literally abandoned by the early death of their mother and an alcoholic father; they all have their own stories.
It was no stretch that Big Red drank a case of beer a day—I know, I was the one who went to the store for her. I also went out for cigarettes and an occasional trip to Harry the druggist for “a little something” for when she was “late.”
When I left home, at the ripe age of 17 years and three months, I weighed 137 pounds and was 5’9” tall. At that time, Big Red was 5’11” and weighed 180, and she kicked my ass on a regular basis for any infraction real or imagined. I grew up in a matriarchy with three sisters and a kid brother, five years my junior. I come from a time where to spare the rod was “to spoil the child” (the rod was not spared). I was more than eager to go to war; it seemed physically safer than staying. I was sure that one day, her “love” was going to be my death.
Years later, carrying the weight of Big Red with me—the physical, emotional, and psychic abuse that I was raised under—I examined my feelings, emotions, and my scars. I came to the conclusion that my mother was a product of her times, of an intelligence and instinct for survival and the well-being of her brood. The only way she could do that was by having complete control over her environment.
Fast forward into the 21st century where five grown adults live with their own versions of their childhood, their relationships with their siblings, and the experience of living under the umbrella of Big Red, and each is still haunted. They all, in their own ways, carry the ghost of their captor, and that’s what our childhoods were—living in close quarters in captivity. And now, like animals grappling with freedom, inhibited by living unfettered, we search for answers quantifying our past influences. Unfortunately, we, as adults in your society, are not anomalies.
The things that my siblings have found out reduces my mother’s stature: she was not a virgin when she married for the first time, unlike what she told us; her tales of naiveté were lies. My brother, through DNA testing, has found out that there was another father involved in her life, one that she was not married to—his father. Everything that we were told regarding her world now is suspect; our memories of our given histories of family, friends, and circumstances are now suspect. My blanket forgiveness of childhood abuses does not give absolution and, given leeway, can only lead to condemnation. If I allow it.
Yes, my older sisters know more than what they’re telling; they saw the ugly early days. My younger sister and brother were witnesses of the collateral damage created by Big Red and her life, and I, the middle child, was caught in the “middle.” Luckily for me, I am not restricted by logic and sanity; I have the ability to think for myself and outside of my opinions. I also possess the ability not to create a person to blame for my inequities; creating blame has got to have the equal creation of a victim. I am not a victim. I am my own person whose life choices and consequences are of my own making.
Sure, Mother’s Day is upon us, and I’m not going to rain in your Cheerios with my unfortunate upbringing. I have been so blessed with knowing the other mothers that have come through my life and consciousness—the evolution of motherhood, if you will. The mothers that I know of and see around me, by and large, are as foreign to my experience as if I were raised on another planet; and I celebrate them. My daughters have amazed me at how far we, as a species, have come. However, I still see throwback behavior in parents less evolved in everyday New Orleans attitudes toward our most vulnerable and impressionable children, our precious resources, our future.
Where do I see Big Red now? I see her as a person, nothing more, nothing less. How do I view the people I know and interact with? They are people, enigmas, coming from places and circumstances that not one of us can imagine from a casual viewing and can only be judged by their actions. Because, I believe, we are not controlled by our actions based on our pasts; we are, collectively, better than that. We are creatures with the ability of not being defined by others, even our parents.
Happily celebrate Mother’s Day with the mothers in your life. And from Big Red’s point of view, you know, “it ain’t easy dealing with you bastards on a daily basis.” Give mothers a break, they’re doing the best that they can with the tools that they’ve been given to work with. Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers.