Even saints have their purgatory. My mother’s is her bedroom, on the second floor of a sunless two-story edifice that she and my late father purchased a few years after I moved to New York, a house that telegraphs its sepulchral aura as soon as one steps across its threshold.
One look inside her room and it’s clear that the shades aren’t the only thing blocking the outside light. Some of these items I recall from childhood, like the boxes of store-bought dress patterns, their covers illustrated with slim women wearing Madison Avenue versions of the dresses, coats and pantsuits she’d whip up for herself and my sisters until they themselves learned to sew. Not that my brothers and I were stiffed in the needle-and-thread dept; we reaped the benefits of her expertise, to the extent that she inspired one to become a tailor. “Ya’ll need to learn to do for yourself,” she’d crow in that low honeyed Savannah accent that as a child made me swoon when she called my name.
They join boxes filled with mother-loved mementos of quantifiable and incalculable value: picture albums, old diplomas, some of my father’s old clothes, all clues to a life lived in service to her family. But these items don’t impede her progress from bed to door, or summon waves of anger and sadness in anyone who’s had the misfortune to bear witness. Foodstuffs crowd the keepsakes, some in bags, some in boxes, others stacked nakedly in the open as if to trumpet their incongruity. Her once homey refuge feels dominated by cans of tomato sauce, apple sauce, green beans and the house favorite, cling peaches in heavy syrup. Piled in bags are boxes of pasta, detergent and other cleaning supplies. Rolls of paper towels and toilet paper complete the unholy chaos.
The first time I laid eyes on Mama’s makeshift bunker, I wasn’t sure what upset me more—its existence, or the matter-of-fact way in which she tipped me to this new situation. Handing me a key to the room where I’d bunk, she issued a warning with the same familiar warmth that’d accompany an invitation to dinner: “Keep an eye on your stuff, honey. Things have a way of walking around here.” That explained why the kitchen freezer was padlocked; as I’d discover, even the lowliest chicken wing could be bartered for drugs.
Mama wouldn’t address Etonia’s substance abuse directly; maybe she knew that I’d received reports from my other siblings, enraged by our sister’s use of alcohol and crack, frustrated by our mother’s willingness to engage the potential danger under her roof. More likely she’d grown weary of her children’s attempts to dictate how her house was run. At 78, she’s slowed down physically but the eyes behind those thick reading glasses still glowed with the fierce determination of one who’d survived Jim Crow, the loss of 2 husbands and double cataract surgery. So, denial was in the house, buttressed by her high-holy Church lady ethics, those that counseled she love the sinner whose actions brought about the siege-like atmosphere.
Such blitheness, coupled with Mama’s refusal to kick her daughter out reinforces everyone’s impression of Mama as either a saint or a fool. After all, this is a woman who managed to get ten children through high school, most of them with perfect attendance. But then, Mama loved a challenge: her antennae were particularly attuned to the hard cases among us, like my dyslexic younger brother Tyrone, or my older brother Alan, who contracted polio at the age of 5.
Some of our issues were subtler. I was the over-sensitive middle child who the neighborhood kids teased for “talking proper.” Bookish, thin-skinned, I felt adrift in the sea of our large family but Mama had her eye on me too. Instead of telling me to shut up when I sang along with the radio, she found an Episcopal church with a children’s choir and signed me up. Sensing my ineptitude at the brawny sports my brothers embraced, Mama found an old tennis racket at the Salvation Army; for years she’d let me whack balls against the side of our house until I finally broke a window. When my siblings berated me for my preoccupation with the set of encyclopedias she’d bought on “time,” she’d wither my critics with a retort: “and what, I want to know, have you done to try and make something out of yourself lately? You better leave that boy alone—at least he tryin’!”
Etonia was the hardest case of all. With the onset of puberty she became someone I and her other siblings ceased to recognize, the kind of girl my mother called “fast.” She had to repeat her junior year of high school; she started smoking; she ‘back talked’ my mother and came in at all hours of the night. Of the three girls, her relationship with Mama was the most contentious, but my mother never gave up, even after she discovered Etonia was pregnant.
It wasn’t a conversation anyone was meant to hear. Maybe they thought the house was empty, but as I left my bedroom that afternoon my mother’s sobs rang out in a way that telegraphed this wasn’t one of their standard rows. “No! Don’t you know yo’ father would throw you out of this house? I froze on the stairs. She and my sister were the only ones in the kitchen and when I heard my mother say, “I’ll pay for it, but the next time you gonna have it,” there was no mistaking what had happened. Mama fixed it, sparing her daughter the stigma of unwed motherhood.
Later Etonia wed and had two boys. But the marriage ended, and motherhood failed to cure her “running ways,” as mama would snort when my sister dropped her kids with grandma before hitting the streets. Alcohol fueled her late evenings/early morning arrivals and those occasions when her young sons nudged their drunken mother back into the house in various stages of undress. The crack started after she and the boys moved in with Mama, followed by run-ins with the police and disappearances of appliances and jewelry. No one can remember the last time Etonia held a job, but the money fueling her excesses comes from somewhere. Child support, perhaps—or my mother.
I wouldn’t be surprised. Mama always ran hard and soft—on the one hand, a firm disciplinarian who never spared the rod but on the other, a big old softy when it came to her kids. I remember the horrible January night I came out to her long-distance. Years earlier, I’d dropped out of college and moved to New York with a man she’d met as “my best friend.” Dan and I were together for 12 years before it ended, but when he contracted AIDS I became his primary caregiver. The night she called I hadn’t planned to tell her any of this; I was 36 years old and by then, hiding my sexuality from her had become a reflex, like breathing. Despite the exhaustion of dealing with doctors and the realization of impending death, her voice initially prompted the usual subsumation of the adult I’d become. As always I reverted to the good son of my youth: “Frances’ little boy.”
When I asked how everyone was her response was always the same. “Oh, you know, fair to middlin’. Yo’ brothers and sisters alright, when they ain’t actin’ like fools.” We’d cover the rest pretty quickly: Ohio’s weather vs. New York’s, politicians, my work.
The small talk was torture, and before I knew the words flew out of my mouth. “Mama, Dan’s in the hospital.”
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He has AIDS.”
A whoosh of breath on the other end opened the floodgates as one by one I deflated the lies. “Mama, I’m gay. Dan was my lover until a few years ago. But I’m not sick; it happened after he moved out. I just feel like hell.” My mother was silent; I interpreted the lull as judgment—man is not meant to lie with manshe’d quote whenever the subject came up. I refused to give her an opportunity to reject or embrace me, ending the moment with, “I can’t talk, I’m…tired. Give everyone my love.” I practically hung up on her.
The next day the phone rang minutes after the alarm went off. She didn’t mention my rudeness of the night before—instead she asked me how Dan’s folks were holding up, what the doctors said, how I was. She defused my bomb with waves of concern and before she hung up she said, “I love you, honey. Be careful.”
Another one of Mama’s mantras: “You are all my children, in my eyes you are all the same.” The last time I stayed at my mother’s house the dog days of August had descended on the Ohio Valley, and since the house lacked air conditioning I sought as many escapes as my imagination would conjure. Coming home the night before my return to New York, I climbed the stairs to see her bedroom door open—Mama sat on the edge of her bed peering through thick reading glasses at something in her hand, her upper lip curled the way it used to when she was sewing on a button or taking a hot comb to one of my sisters’ hair. Her house was quiet for a change, and in that silence she looked impossibly small and round, not my mother at all but an old lady who suppressed her own dreams for the sake of those she loved.
She waved me in, and I sat next to her. The room felt like a closet, but she squelched my fretting with a “lawd you know I can’t stand air conditioning, it’s too cold.” At her feet was a shopping bag filled with old photos. “Come and see if there’s any of these you want.” Pieces of our lives sifted through our hands; often I’d fail to recognize the face of a relative or family friend but she knew everyone. She scolded me for my faulty memory, and my mind flashed to one of her age-old mantras: “You got to hold on to your people, they’ll do for you when no one else will.”
Such equal opportunity love made me think of Etonia who was mercifully absent that trip. My older brother Alan—the one who’d recovered from polio to become a tailor—summed it up. “Mama would rather put up with Etonia’s mess than get that call in the middle of the night sayin’ her daughter’s been found in an alley with her throat cut, or worse, OD’d.” Knowing she’d fault herself should Etonia come to harm I allowed a hair’s breadth of sympathy to dilute my anger, my urge to judge the saintly woman who endures claustrophobic nights enclosed within her fortress of mementos and groceries.
I watched her caress each photo as if they were living beings. For her, abandoning “blood” was inconceivable, and as long as good health allowed no kin of hers would be shown the door. Etonia’s issues were not a subject for debate: my mother would continue to bail my sister out of jail when funds allowed, or hastily don a robe on those nights her daughter caterwauled for someone to come downstairs and let her in. My eyes scanned the hoarded mounds crowding us closer together that stifling August night. That’s no way for a saint to live I thought, but the rationale falters when it’s clear how strongly a mother’s love can cloud reason, making it impossible for the saint to see.