After my mother died, I noticed a repetitive pattern in my writing. My mother had secretly slipped into my pages of prose, and no matter what I was writing, no matter how much I gently and respectfully tried to nudge her away, she refused to leave.
She worked herself into the characters in my stories: strong black women who were matriarchs in their families, women who wore knee-length flowered house dresses just like my mother did and sat at the kitchen table snapping green beans for a soul food Sunday dinner, letting out elongated sighs when they finally finished and were ready to dip the beans into a bath of water.
Seven years earlier, my father’s death had left me reeling, but it was my mother’s death that made me feel abandoned, like a motherless child even though I was in my early forties. I quickly learned that the antidote to my grief was writing. When I pulled out one of my notebooks and began to jot down random thoughts about her, she reappeared on a blank page, and I no longer felt motherless in spirit.
But in my grief, and guilt-ridden about the fact I hadn’t always been the ideal daughter, I tried to write my mother in the most flattering light, making her into a martyr. Whenever I wrote something that emphasized her vulnerabilities and flaws, it was difficult not to press the delete button on my computer.
I first started to take my writing seriously a decade before my mother’s death, when I was in my early thirties. I was married with three children then, two boys and a girl, and I mostly wrote fictional stories about June Cleaver-type families living in pristine neighborhoods. That’s the life I wanted for myself and my children, so I created it on the page. But those rose-tinted, happily-ever-after stories never got published because they didn’t ring true.
I knew I needed to come clean. I knew this because it was only when I did write about the darkness in my family that I was able to breathe. So I began to stretch out my life on paper, ink stains and all. I wrote about my struggles as a young mother trying desperately to be a perfect mom to perfect children. I wrote about the ways I over-planned and over-scheduled our days with crafts, academics, and “fun” activities, ending up overwhelmed and cheerless.
I wrote about my marriage and about how, although my husband and I were madly in love, we didn’t understand what it meant to be husband and wife. We were teenagers when we married, and we lacked examples of what healthy marriages looked like. Both of our families were fraught with relationships that began with the promise of love but became tainted by disappointment, regret, and lack of communication.
I wrote about my disconnection from my sister, my only sibling. And I wrote about the battles in my extended family, from domestic violence to substance abuse. My writing veered from fiction to essays. Writing about the truths in my life felt like releasing a deep breath that I had been holding for years.
Similarly, after my mother died, I knew that eventually I would have to come clean. I knew I would have to write our truth and her truth, painful as it sometimes was. So I wrote about the fact that I called her “Evelyn” rather than “mother” or “mom” or “mommy.” I’m not sure why I started to do this, probably because that’s what other adults called her. And she let me, probably thinking it was cute at first. But she must have regretted it when I became a smart-mouthed adolescent and spat her name at her in the sassiest way. She must have regretted it when she heard my own children call me “mommy.” I wish I had at least whispered a tender “mother” or “mom” in her ear when I knew she was just a few breaths away from being taken from me, but I didn’t. I wrote about that.
I wrote about how I distanced myself from her as a teenager. I wrote about the way we clashed about boys and curfews and clothes. I wrote about my mother’s insecurity, how she never felt she was beautiful. I wrote about her struggle with her weight and the self-conscious way she put her head down and twisted a section of one of the silky black curls on her wig when she was out in public. I wrote about my mother growing up without a father and the ways this led her to reach for food for comfort. I wrote about the bright red nail polish she loved, the way she always chewed Wrigley’s spearmint gum, and how she made lists of everything she could think of, from actors who won the Oscars to ingredients in her favorite recipes.
I finally let all of her — and all the parts of our relationship — exist on the page. And the more I wrote, the less alone I felt. I forgave myself for not always being the best daughter, for my impatience, for not having time to take her with me to the grocery store.
And another thing happened — my characters became more real. I let my mother inhabit them. When one of my characters sighed heavily, I knew my mother was there. When one of my characters sat at a kitchen table in her house dress, big legs crossed at the ankle, head bobbing to a song on the radio, I knew my mother was there. I began to nurture those details and allow them come alive in my characters.
Sometimes I hear my mother’s voice, urging me to let my characters break free. So through my characters, I now can let my mother have her say about gender issues, politics and culture, love and parenting, and even about something as simple as an absolutely scrumptious apple crumb pie. I can allow her to do things she never did in her lifetime: dance barefoot in the park, take off her long black wig so her natural hair can become disheveled in the wind. I let her jumble her cans into the cupboard instead of lining them up like a perfect row of soldiers. My characters leave clothes on the floor, hang their pantyhose in the bathroom to dry, don’t vacuum for a week, don’t care about the neighbors coming over and seeing the house in disarray.
When she was alive, my mother was my most ardent fan. When I was thirty-six and my first article was accepted for publication in a woman’s confession magazine, I told my mother the news first, even before I told my husband. It felt as if I was back in grade school showing her all A’s on my report card. I knew a proud smile would crease her face and the telephone line would be tied up for hours as she bragged to my grandmother and my aunts. After that, whenever I published an article, she would carry the magazine in her over-sized leather pocketbook everywhere, even to the grocery store, to show everyone that her daughter was a writer.
My mother can’t carry my articles in her pocketbook any longer, but I have learned to let her — all of her — live in my writing, in my characters. She sits on my shoulder, and when my own words are slow to come, when writer’s block has plunked me into an abyss, she brings me and my words back to life. She urges me on, helps me stay true. She has taught me how to mother my writing.