Strong but Safe

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In May 2018, I was honored to be part of a performance of the Charleston performance of, “Listen to Your Mother,” a live performance of essays about motherhood. 

You can read my essay below, or scroll to the end and see a video of my performance. It was a helluva show and I made some wonderful friends. Enjoy! 

“Are you going to be okay?”

My mother was on her deathbed and she wasn’t letting go until she made sure that her only child would be all right. Her dark eyes were sharp despite the pain, and lasered into mine.

A good daughter would offer reassurance. Mom had struggled for months and she was tired. A stronger daughter would ease her mind so that death could ease her body.

At that moment, I didn’t want to be strong. All I wanted was to push aside the monitors still strapped to her, and nestle under her soft arm, wailing and moaning and being weak. Mama, please don’t leave me.

Who will I be if I don’t see myself reflected in your eyes? How will I stand strong when I no longer have you as my soft place to fall?

My mother, my closest friend and biggest cheerleader, was dying. No, I wasn’t going to be okay. I probably would never be okay.

But that wasn’t what she needed to hear, and this moment was about her and her death, not me.

So, when she asked, “Are you going to be okay?” I answered, “Yes, Mama, I’ll be okay. You raised a strong one.”

And, she did, although I didn’t feel strong at the moment. She raised a strong one almost despite herself.

My mom lived in terror that something would happen to me. It was so important to her that I stay safe.

Her fears ranged from the traditional “stranger danger” to the repetition of mistakes she made. My mom married my dad quite young because she was pregnant with me. Up until she fell in love with my dad, she was a good Catholic girl from an Italian immigrant family, going to a Catholic high school. Sex – let alone pregnancy – before marriage was a sin and my presence in my mom’s womb caused grief for everyone my mom knew.

It didn’t matter that she and my dad married and would stay happily married for 53 years until Mom died. My mom was determined that I would never make the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, it meant that she overreacted a bit.

My announcement in 7th Grade that I was “going steady” with a boy – which meant only that we would hold hands and sit together at lunch – was met with screaming… and tears…and threats… and dire warnings unless I returned the cheap silver ring he had given me. Sobbing, my mother explained that spending time alone with a boy so young would lead to “urges”… and then giving in to those urges… and then sex and pregnancy and disgrace and destroyed potential.

It seemed a bit extreme, but I gave the ring back.

In college, when I went camping –not my thing, but my boyfriend at the time sure loved it – she sent news clippings about a crazed killer who had murdered young people in their tents.

It was just one of many dire warnings as my mother let me know that I was truly wonderful – but likely to be struck down by fate or drunken drivers or serial killers at any moment.

And, as I got older, I promised myself I wouldn’t be bound by my mother’s irrational fears.

Living in the city? Yep. Waiting for a bus on dark street corners after covering a meeting for the local paper? Sure, I was tough. Sex? AIDS wasn’t really a thing yet and the Pill was, so BIG yes.

I was fearless. And I wasn’t going to let my mom’s obsession with my safety affect my life.

And, when I had my own daughter one day? She was going to be fearless too.

Except, right before I got pregnant with my fearless daughter, there was a case in which a young girl was taken, just as her mother looked down to pack up their things after a Christmas party at their apartment complex. She looked up and her daughter was gone. And she would stay gone until her body was found, years later.

So, yes, my daughter would be fearless, but I would keep a better eye on her so she would also be safe.

And because I had taken so many risks in my life on the road to being strong, I could share with her the obstacles that might trip her up.

I would raise my daughter strong but safe.

Well, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Isn’t it funny how your children can become a mirror to reflect back to you a version of yourself you just don’t see?

My daughter is an adult. She has a wonderful job, a rich life, and boundless enthusiasm for one thing after another.

Recently, she decided to raise chickens. She has her own house, so it’s not like she’s going to be raising them in an apartment.

But I immediately started trying to clear the obstacles. Had she checked zoning in her city? Informed the neighbors? There are woods nearby and her yard isn’t fenced – what about the danger of coyotes?

Hard to imagine, I know, but she didn’t react well.

And, confident in my rightness, I laid out a list of all her enthusiasms over the years and how few she’d stuck with, and why listening to me would have saved her time.

This was by text, by the way. That’s how we seem to conduct all our arguments these days.

And, my daughter, in the most loving way possible considering how angry she was, sent back a text with a list of her own. All the times I had responded with dire warnings very much like my own mother had done.

Lost that extra 10 pounds? Great, but don’t expect the rest of the weight to come off as quickly because the last five pounds always hang on. Buying a house? Great, but don’t spend too much on decorating, because things are going to break and you’ll need money for that. Make more money than your photographer boyfriend? Fine, but one day he may come to resent the disparity — and you may as well — so be prepared for that.

My daughter told me: “You will say that you’re proud of me but honestly it doesn’t mean much because you turn around and question every decision I make. Not in a constructive way, in a limiting way, a way that takes away my feeling of autonomy. I’m simultaneously the light of your life, but incapable of making informed decisions, impulsive and foolhardy. It gives me whiplash.”

I, who prided myself on being fearless and optimistic, had become the Greek chorus of doom in my daughter’s life.

Even in the midst of the text argument, I had told my daughter that I loved her. Her response?

“I love you right back but my perception of you is that you are far more negative than you think you are.”

It rocked me.

All I wanted was my daughter to be safe. Why couldn’t she listen to me?

And then it hit me.

My daughter was ignoring my dire warnings, much like I used to roll my eyes at my own mother’s doom and gloom. My daughter wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t reckless, but she had assigned my drumbeat of fear the role of just background noise.

And, by raising a daughter who ignored me, I too had raised a strong one.

WATCH THE VIDEO

 

 

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Hurricane Season

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Happy Hurricane Season.

We are still reeling from Harvey, remembering the anniversary of Katrina, and looking over our shoulder at Irma.

Hurricane season. The time of year when many of us get to gamble about whether to stay or whether to leave, whether to be foolish or brave. Time to face that, no matter how much we hate our neighbor, it just may be his generosity that pulls us out of the flood.

I’ve been doing a lot of hating on my neighbors lately.

Not necessarily my literal neighbors – although the 3 am revelers get special curses – but my metaphorical neighbors who proudly and defiantly still support the other guy.

I have even more special curses for them and for their stupidity. Why they would vote for someone who bragged about grabbing pussies, who clearly and demonstrably lied every time he opened his mouth, is beyond me. No time to talk to people that stupid.

I don’t suffer fools well.

When I was in public relations, I had a client – let’s just say they were concerned with mental health – that never wanted to use language that they called “blaming and shaming.”

I got where they were coming from – those who had mental health issues had enough to deal with without stigmatizing language. So, I carefully wrote language that talked about “people with mental health challenges” as opposed to “schizophrenics.” It is the kind of language that has come up with the tongue-twisting “differently-abled” instead of “disabled” or “handicapped.”

And, while I wrote this stuff – they were the client, they paid the bills – I secretly sneered. In real life, I’m all about the blame and shame.

Call a spade a spade. Idiots are idiots, and life’s too short.

But here’s what I see on Facebook:

–people on BOTH sides spreading fake news

–people on BOTH sides getting angry about things that don’t matter (okay, admittedly bad optics, but does it really matter that Melania wore heels to Harvey? Really?)

–people on BOTH sides slinging insults (Libtard, Trumptard, etc.) and just not listening.

And, I get it. Yes, call a spade a spade. A racist is a racist is a racist. It shouldn’t matter why.

Except, it does. Because just shaming and blaming does nothing to change things. It’s not like a racist is going to see my scorn, slap his head in dismay, and realize that he has been mistaken his whole life.

And, I realize that I have the white privilege to just scorn something that doesn’t affect me personally.

Still…

That client liked to change my language from using, “but” to using “and.”

“Different things can co-exist,” she used to say.

People can vote their self-interest AND still sacrifice to save others during a hurricane. People can have a fundamentally different mind-set AND still be lovable.

So, it’s hurricane season.

Maybe it’s time to wash away all the shit we’ve been wading in since November. To pull our neighbors out of the flood of invective. To hold out a hand and say, “Hi, I’m differently politically-abled than you are. Want a seat in my boat?”

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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Tribe

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The good stuff about being an only child:

–being the only one to lick the batter off the beaters

–not having to wear too many hand-me-downs

–growing up to have your parents become your best friends

I loved being an only child. Oh, there was a brief time when I urged my mom to adopt a playmate for me, but mostly I loved being the dreamy bookworm who had no problem talking with adults.

My parents moved away from our extended family when I was 8 so I learned to create my own Tribe. As I grew older, I started forming a family of choice: dear friends whom my own daughter would grow up to call “aunt” and “uncle.”

Still, my parents and I were a tight unit with our own memories and jokes, an exclusive triad. Even after marriage and the birth of my daughter, my parents were the curators of my childhood stories.

And then my mom died three years ago and my dad died last month.

And then came the bad stuff about being an only child:

–the knowledge that there is no sibling who can miss your parents in the same way you do

–the realization that no one can vouchsafe a memory that is starting to fade a little because no one else was there when the memory was made

–the understanding that mysterious papers or objects found in old safety deposit boxes will never be explained because you didn’t know about them and you didn’t know to ask

And that is when the Tribe steps in. They say you are stuck with the family you get, but my family by choice chooses to let me in, to fly across the country so that I have my Tribe with me at funerals, to call and to let me say ugly, hateful things or nothing at all, depending on where I am in the grieving process.

An aunt at my dad’s funeral – not one of my more tactful aunts – said, “Now you know what it feels like to be an orphan.”

Orphan as in without parents, yes. But orphan as in alone in the world?

The Tribe won’t let that happen.

Not Alone

 

AME Anniversary: Making Charleston My Home

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(ED NOTE: The following blog first appeared in Charleston Skirt Magazine at http://bit.ly/1W1bZM5).

I moved to Charleston in 2013 without knowing a soul here other than my husband. I wondered whether the city would ever feel like home.

But people were kind and they would take the time to have coffee or even dinner with me. I didn’t mind that I was the one to do the asking every time, even if it stung my pride just a little. After all, I was the one trying to find new friends; the others already had their circles and, while they didn’t exclude me, they had no reason to think of me as they planned outings, either.

I loved Charleston, but was it home?

Visits back to the DC area where old friends and neighbors lived were always visits “home” for me.

And then June 17, 2015, not even a five-minute walk from my house, the unthinkable happened.

Peaceable people mown down by an angry, bitter young man with easy access to a gun.

Footage of faces both grieving and numb right there – right there! – where I’d stood to watch the many silly parades Charleston loves to hold. The curb where I’d stood with my leashed dogs watching decorated cars and costumed people strut past for Christmas, and St. Patricks’s Day, and Martin Luther King Day.

A New York newspaper called me right away and asked whether I could use my proximity to interview people. They would hire me, they would pay me well, to bring Charleston’s story to the world.

“I can’t,” I told them. “I’m not from here. I don’t know enough to know who to call, what to ask, that won’t increase the hurt.”

My home, but not my home.

The next days, after the police told us it was safe to go outside again, that the armed gunman wasn’t in our neighborhood and on the loose anymore, strangers on the streets spoke to me and I to them.

“You okay? You doing all right?”

Black and white, speaking with the tentative tenderness that a married couple shows after the kind of vicious fight that could have taken down the whole marriage. On Marion Square. Up and down Calhoun, in and out of King Street stores.

“You okay? You all right?”

We were the same, those people and I. They were my family. The tenderness I felt was for them, it was for the city. It was the tenderness I felt for my home.

Charleston, my home.

 

 

STANDING TO GRIEVE IN CHARLESTON

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(reprinted from Charleston GRIT)

I live in Charleston and I love Charleston, but as a relative newcomer, I feel like maybe I have no standing to feel the grief and outrage that I do.

I live midway between the Mother Emanuel AME Church and the neighborhood where little Tyreik Gadsden was left paralyzed after being caught in crossfire. The night of the church shootings, our telephone rang with a message from the police: stay inside. All night, a helicopter crosshatched our street with a searchlight.

I watched television helplessly as black men formed prayer circles outside of the church, their pain so raw that I felt it through the TV screen. And I grieved with them.

I am not a native Charlestonian, I am not black, heck, I don’t even go to church. No one’s going to seek my quote on this tragedy because it isn’t really MY tragedy.

And yet. Tonight, one night after the shooting, a police car lit up and raced past my house, heading into Tyreik Gadsden territory. I heard sirens and my skin twitched the way a horse’s does when a sandfly lands. Because suddenly, whatever tragedy was happening “over there” was mine too.

During the vigil last night as we walked from one church to Mother Emanuel, a neighbor said she had asked the pastor, “Why here?” and said she was not comforted by his answer: “Why not?” She was trying to understand the meaning. But maybe that vigil of black and white, young and old, was the meaning.

Whether or not I have standing, I will be standing – next to the mourners, arm in arm with those who stand vigil and show unity, behind those who lost family members and the first responders who will never erase the images they encountered.

Because despite the rage, despite the hatred, despite those who might shrug off my comforting hand because I could never understand, I’m joining Charleston – suddenly and irrevocably my home and not just where I live – in standing for the strength of love over hate.

Photo Credit: Ferris Kaplan

Photo Credit: Ferris Kaplan