The mere 20-year difference in our ages must have played a part, but I wasn’t old enough or wise enough yet to consider that.
The tension between us has been there for as long as I can remember. She says it was because I was “so damned smart.” My questions were endless. Her answers were never quite complete enough to satisfy my curiosity. Especially when it came to things sexual.
At home she was a fastidious housekeeper, a mediocre cook and an accomplished seamstress. At work she was a secretary at Lions Clubs International, a service organization that at the time was lily white.
She was a statuesque 5’ 81/2” of singular beauty when my memory of her starts to kick in. That would make her still in her 20s. In retrospect, she was still a young, vibrant woman who had married at 17 and divorced at 24. In my child eyes, she was beautiful, but… Difficult is the best word, for now.
Her life as a teen was far from easy, and that was AFTER having lived through The Great Depression (which we heard about every time we turned our noses up at whatever she had concocted for dinner.) She was a quadroon living in a Midwestern suburb where her family was required to live in the African American “section” because of her Moorish grandfather’s dark skin. To the naked eye, she was white.
There were “mean girls” in the 1930s and 1940s, too. That is not a 21st century development. She had a tough time fitting in with either race and because of it, developed a turtle-shell exterior which was more often than not mistaken for haughtiness. Over time, that is exactly what it became.
Who knows how a child’s temperament is truly developed? Science says a person’s personality is equal parts nature and nurture. What I do know is I was not cool with the “we are better than these other people” attitude that she tried to instill in my sister and me, and I knew it from an extremely early age.
Although I really believe she would have preferred to marry a white man, she married my father. Her circumstances practically guaranteed that, because black men were attracted to her like metal shavings to a magnet. That union produced me and my own set of social challenges, but I am usually glad they came together.
Butting heads became our way of life. I learned to be passive aggressive; corporal punishment was a daily event, especially when I mouthed off. Instead, I seemed to intuitively do things I knew would irritate her. At the age of around 7 or 8, right around the time I was allowed to cross the street by myself, I made friends with a girl in the next block. Betty M. was as dark as a black person gets. She was very poor. Her hair was never combed, her clothes were never completely clean and she smelled bad. She was my ace!
There was no way for her to effectively discourage this friendship with Betty M. because she had sent me to a Catholic school. She says she did that to assure a good basic education. I knew she did it to avoid having her girls associate with the The Others. But, in the meantime, the nuns taught me kindness and tolerance as virtues. Catch-22.
My first serious boyfriend arrived on the scene when I was a sophomore in high school. He was a big man on campus athlete, a senior. At first, she was rather flattered that such a guy would be smitten with her girl. Soon, however, she noticed one of my yet-to-be-discovered traits – I am relentlessly monogamous. Dating around or playing the field, as it was called then, was not to my liking. I was loyal, devoted and deliriously in love. She panicked and my life became a teenaged hell. It took her another four years, but she finally managed to torpedo that relationship.
She has not changed in my 67 years. If anything, she has gotten even more judgmental, or maybe she is just less able or willing to stifle it in her old age. And I resent the hell out of her sometimes. But, in the safety of my distance outside her sphere of control, I have come to see her in a less judgmental light of my own.
She was a champion swimmer in high school. She went to Kentucky State University for a time. She took flying lessons and earned her pilot’s license. She became a legal secretary and office administrator at the American Bar Association. And she has lived with multiple sclerosis since long before her diagnosis at age 44.
She wasn’t perfect. Neither am I. She did what I am sure she thinks was her best to raise two “ladies.” She passed on a lot of scar tissue that resided in her, but she did it unknowingly. For better or worse, she is my mother and without her there is no me. In these golden years of hers, I try every day to cut her some slack. She’s earned it.