Saturday, May 10, 2014

Miss Betty-A Love List

The picture to the right is of me and mom circa 1972. I was almost 2.

I found the picture in a pile of other pictures I had asked mom to send me for an assignment I had in my memoir class. I asked her to send me pictures of our family on vacation. She sent me about 40 pictures of lions, tigers, and monkeys (we did a lot of Great Adventure Safari in New Jersey on our Summer vacations), the rest were pictures of relatives and cars, but this was the only picture of the both of us together.

It was hidden between a picture of my dad's burgundy Cadillac and some monkeys on the New Jersey Serengeti.

Of course I don't remember the picture, but the pose is familiar and comforting. My mom holding my hand, and both of us looking in the same far off direction. We've always looked in the same direction my entire life. The problem is that we don't always see the same thing. Which is why...

I don’t write stories about my mother.

One, because she and I are too much alike, writing about the things I don’t like about her would mean I’d be writing about the things I don't like about myself.  And it might also mean I'm more like her than I'd care to admit. I’m not ready for that type of self-reflection…no daughter ever really is.

Secondly, she doesn’t like me telling her business to folks. Her direct quote is. “Everyone doesn’t need to know my business.  That’s how folks get killed by Axe Murderers.”  Um...okay.

But this Mother’s Day I’m going to go against all my inner shouting and the possible shouting I’ll receive from her once she reads this, and go on and talk about Miss Betty or as I call her...Ma.

Here are some list-worthy thoughts about her:

1.     She writes lots of lists.  I inherited this affliction from her. She writes lots and lots of lists. There are lists on napkins, toilet tissues, backs of envelopes, fronts of envelopes. If it’s a piece of paper and Miss Betty has a pen she’s going to write a list. Grocery, to-do, children’s names in the family, Christmas lists, QVC stuff, Macys’s stuff, budget line items, more family names , subway lines in New York City, states in the Union; doesn’t matter. If there are more than two things that relate, my mother will write a list about them. (She writes so many lists that my kids sent her a mug with a bunch of list pads for Mother’s day this year.)

2.     She will forget lots of things, but won’t forget that her leg has never been the same since she was pregnant with me.   44 years later whenever it rains, snows, sleets, or the wind blows too hard her leg hurts. She has no problem texting me (NYC to Raleigh, NC) and saying, “You know, my leg has never been the same since I had you.”  My retort, “Really, Mom?  Really?”

3.     She’s great in an Emergency.  No matter what the emergency, my mother is calm. She just wants the facts and then she puts a plan together. Whether it’s “Hey mom, our landlord is throwing us out of our beautiful home, can all five of us stay with you? Or, “Everyone is coming to your house for dinner in a hour and no one eats pork”  She’s able to put out cots, go to Pathmark for supplies, sometime passes a few bills to the afflicted, and defrosts a chicken in no time flat.  Of course that always leaves me wondering why I can’t get spaghetti out of the box, or money out of the ATM without transferring .67 to make a full twenty.

4.     She adores her grandchildren. I know, every grandma does. Or at least they know how to fake it real well. But my mom didn’t let me sit on the furniture when it had plastic on it. Her reason,“You never know who may stop by.”  Now my children walk on the sofa with abandon, leave a trail of crumbs from the kitchen to the bedroom, and sit in the crook of her arm while I give them the dirty eye for running to Ne-Ne before I got to their butts.  My mother’s favorite line, “Aww, they’re just babies.”  “Really Mom?  One of them is 12!”

5.     She’s brilliant. There’s no subject my mother isn’t engaged in: sports, current events, fashion, entertainment, gossip, Oprah, power steering, baby rearing and American History.  Mostly because she’s passionate about everything she does, she takes in knowledge and makes it personal. My mother doesn’t know the adage, “It’s not personal.” For my mother, the political was personal way before anyone told her it was cool to think that way.  It’s gotten us into some tough waters when it comes to our relationship. I’ve often confused her passion as a rejection of my own beliefs. But now I see that our relationship is one of the few safe havens where she can be herself and say what she likes. I enjoy (sometimes) hearing her opinion on economic disparity in the U.S. as well as “the trainwreck that is Kim and Kanye.”  Mom believes “Beyonce is never going to accept Kim Kardashian as her bestie. She needs to let that one go.”  “Yes Ma, of course you're right”

6.     She’s my Hero. When I was 16 my mom came home from work pissed. She had been an LPN at her hospital my entire life, but she couldn’t move up in her career. Her friends told her to let the anger go and just accept being an LPN.  She couldn’t. So she went back to school.  The first year was agonizing. She struggled through the math, and chemistry that she had to pass in order to move into the stuff she loved. She cried, threatened to leave school, and then went back to the books, even after having had only a few hours of sleep. My dad would drive her around after class and buy her an ice cream cone. (It was his way of saying he loved her and it’d be alright).  When I was 21 she graduated Magna Cum Laude from college with her RN degree. No one else in her crew even attempted to go back to school.  She's the reason I'm doing what I'm doing now. I love lots of historical folks, but no one comes close to my mom when it comes to heroics.

7.     She’s my model for compassion.  She took care of her aunt who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. She made sure she was in a good facility. She visited her once a week, brought her cigarettes, candy, new pajamas, and housecoats. Mom took care of all her finances, and when the time came she buried her next to her family members. Before she started to take care of her, she hadn’t seen her aunt in over 20 years.  After she died, my mother told me that she was the only relative that had taken them in unconditionally when they came up from the South. She never made fun of their accents, she made them feel at home, and doted on my mom, uncle, and aunt.  She said to me, “How could I not take care of her, when she had loved me so unconditionally?” My mom wrote the book on kindness.

8.     She loves my dad.  For years I was never really sure if they loved one another. I had the television, Harlequin romance version of love in my head and I didn’t know what love looked like. I knew they liked each other, but love? Nah, they didn't have it. They didn’t kiss goodbye, or hold hands, or snuggle on the couch. If they weren't in love, what were they in? I had no idea.  If I didn’t learn when I married Milt was love was, I sure know what love looks like through the transition of my parents’ relationship now.  Alzheimer’s disease is a nasty, nasty thing. The man we knew as my dad is all but gone now. But I’ve seen her fight against losing him with grace, humor and a lot of grit.  We fight about the direction we want Dad to go in, but ultimately we do it out of love. She loves him, he loves her, and I love them both.

9.     She’s the one who hooked me on books.  She wasn’t sure if I’d go to Europe or Africa or reach Mt. Everest or be an activist First Lady or President. But she knew that the more books I crammed into my brain the more places I’d go in my imagination. And that my imagination would unlock the potential for me to actually go and do those things. She was right.  Our home has always been a place where books lived.  African American biographies lined the shelves, with nods to important fiction and serious non-fiction.  The Souls of Black Folks, sat next to For Colored Girls who Considered Suicide when the Rainbow isn’t Enuf.  Tar Baby sat next to Soul on Ice and Why we Can’t Wait.  When I asked her why she didn’t have the Feminine Mystique on her shelf she replied, “Betty Friedan didn’t know a damn thing about me then, and she doesn’t now. I have way more in common with the woman who cleans house for her.” Needless to say, I have yet to read the Feminine Mystique.

The list is far from complete. There’s nothing about her sacrifice for me to go to school, or the lecture she gave when I flunked out. Or the tears in her eyes when I told her she was going to be a grandmother for the first, second, and third time. Or how she defines the word friend for folks she's known her entire life. Or how important all her family is to her.

She’s a remarkable woman. And like many remarkable women she is misunderstood, criticized, maligned and laughed at behind her back. She knows folks do it. But, she always has the last word.

Of course I hate that about her...but only because I want the last word too.

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