To find one has to lose, one finds only by losing…To find is also to lose the self. While advancing, I am playing to find while losing. A thousand poets promise that if we lose ourselves — and we must — there always remains the path. The path leads to nowhere. We have to let the path work.
— Marina Tsvetaeva
My mother associates home with the tangible. She often demanded gratefulness from my brother and I by presenting a list of no’s and just’s from her childhood:
No butter, no bacon, just beans.
No toys, no socks, just a mattress on the floor.
No handouts, just hand–me–downs.
No hope, no hugs, just a pop upside the head.
No pot, no window, just a pocketbook full of pride.
Her mother was poor, and they moved around from place to place, shack to shack, in and out of shotgun structures never quite large enough to house them all. Her mother attributes this impetus less to poverty and more to her desire to never be found by the father of the particular child growing inside of her. It was a sick game of hide–and–seek, in which she would leave the house where the child had been conceived and proclaim that if he really wanted to be in his child’s life, he would find them, and if he never did, the child would be all hers. Mine, is how she’d lay claim after her victory. She couldn’t have things so she gave birth. She was never found, despite never moving more than a few blocks over at a time in Houston’s impoverished Third Ward neighborhood. My mother, who never laid eyes on her own father, not even a photograph, joined in on the game once when she saw one of her younger sister’s fathers standing outside the corner store. “I bet you don’t know where we stay at,” she yelled from the sidewalk, popping her hip out to shelf her hand there. In exchange for the location, she hoped for monetary compensation, but he countered with a piece of bubble gum; they settled on two. She knew there would be an ass–whooping waiting on her when she got home so she shoved both pieces in her mouth at once and took the long way back. Home, for my mother then, was a feeling of crowdedness without affection; it was a love that was unspoken and demonstrated only in discipline.
With a high school diploma, a field position at Southern Pacific Railroad, and an unsubstantiated belief in the promise of the American dream driving her ambition, my mother decided that she wanted a place where she could always be found. A fortified space in the earth that belonged to her. Her idea of home was constructed brick by brick by the films she’d sneak into at the local cinema as a girl. A wide, flat house at the end of a cul–de–sac, furnished with a man, a wife, a boy, a girl and a dog called Scruffy. Where there were manicured lawns and man–made lakes and beige neighbors who often reminded her that they had never had a Black neighbor before. What a sight to witness, civilized niggas. Although she emulated white social norms, she never felt compelled to appeal to her white neighbors. In fact, she ignored them entirely. She insisted that her children be fully-versed in white American speak, an adeptness assumed to ensure our literal survival and eventual success. She wanted our yesterdays and tomorrows to lie flat on top of one another with perfectly aligned edges. A stable and uneventful childhood, unlike hers, was a safe one.
Everything my mother collected would be permanent. She kept her green leather sofa for fifteen years even though it began to sink in the middle. She kept her husband for twenty years even though he began to belittle her. I’ll never forget the emerald green carpet, routinely shampooed to keep out the filth. Just before bed she would sit in the middle of the sinkhole sofa and beckon me over with the slap of the wide–tooth comb on her round brown thighs. The carpet would leave prints along my backside as I sat between her legs, directly in front of the television set that was turned down too low for me to hear over her gossiping into the cordless phone, swaddled between her ear and shoulder. She’d trace the comb down the center of my scalp, beginning at the bridge of my nose to ensure symmetry. If I squirmed she’d sting me with the back of the plastic instrument, which was her way of saying, hold still. The womanly smell between her legs as I leaned my pulsating temples against her warm skin, the soft strength of her thighs holding me up, the cool blue grease she worked into my relaxed hair before plaiting it and tucking me into bed. These are my most vivid memories of home, when I felt the most protected.
Each morning my brother, whose name is biblical and rhymes with mine, would meet me in the bathroom that adjoined our oversized rooms. On weekdays we were awakened by the hollers of our mother; on weekends we would wake to the smell of bacon—both just as loud and unpleasant. If we weren’t in the kitchen before the food was complete she would stomp to her room and slam the door, leaving us to dine alone. I’m still unsure why this bothered her so. Perhaps the idea of both earning and grilling the bacon was isolating.
Like all other aspects of her life, my mother was solely responsible. She married a man who lied like he breathed, and although she craved dependency, she resented our childlike helplessness. She surrounded herself with those who clung to her for survival. The extra bedrooms were always occupied by those in need of a place. The heron–addicted uncle who called out to his demons from the war at night, the religious aunt who was pregnant by the married minister, the cousin whose father never could and whose mother never would love him, my schoolmate whose mother’s weekend trips turned into weeks-long binges, the kinfolks, the coworkers, the crack addicts. She took in everyone, a queering of the Hollywood home life that she mimicked. This is where her value lied, in her seemingly selfless deeds. A duty I was taught to continue, an inheritance of putting all above self. Sacrifice and womanhood deemed inextricable. Endurance, however, yields great power, and she shifted her weight between altruism and resentment. She would never not let us know that it was her house. Her universe, and we were to merely orbit on command. I’m the only one who slams doors in this house, she’d say. Don’t you dare raise your voice long as you staying under my roof, she’d say. I quickly became aware that my time was limited. I think all of the guests felt this, including my father who would depart several years before I did. The home as we had come to know it would begin to lean heavily on one side and eventually, theoretically, collapse. But it wasn’t the house’s foundation that began to rot, it was my foundation, my mother.
It began with incessant sleeping. If she wasn’t at work, she was incoherent. Disappearing into her nightmares. She would wake up frantically looking for her lifeline, panting and wide-eyed, staring into us suspiciously. “You been in my purse?” she’d force through a clenched jaw. After tucking her monogramed bag beneath the comforter, her eyes would roll back and she was out again. Her most imminent fear centered on someone coming to take away her hard–earned middle–class life. Perhaps our mere existence was a threat to this wealth, or maybe it wasn’t us at all that she saw when she’d awaken, but little Black bodies resembling the eleven little Black bodies that overpopulated her childhood homes.
The emerald green carpet was covered in designer clothes as she would remove her garments, her armor, wherever she happened to fall asleep, and they would remain there until I was summoned to clean. I became the mother–in–residence, a role that brought me much purpose and admiration. I ironed and washed and cooked for me and my brother. I was being groomed to be a good wife to the wealthy Black man that she imagined would prevent the potential backslide into poverty. She’d remind me that she made me beautiful by marrying a white adjacent Black man with a narrow nose and thin slits in his face for lips. In many ways, my birth alone left me beholden to her. Like most children, I wanted my mother to adore me.
Eventually all the clothes my mother had acquired, in an effort to exude wealth, no longer fit. She had doubled in size, because if she wasn’t sleeping, she was eating. This too was a form of vanishing, retreating further into invisibility. Even in her sleep, she would grab handfuls of potato chips from the pile she poured on the nightstand or armrest of the sofa and stuff them into her mouth with her eyes shut. She wanted desperately to be fulfilled. I would stand over her, watching her chest rise and fall, and sometimes she’d stop breathing and I’d shake her awake. I would find crumbs in the folds of her sheets, in the crevices of the sofa cushions, wipe them into a pile in the palm of my hands, throw my head back, and sprinkle them into my mouth like confetti.
I couldn’t understand then that she was mentally ill because she was a Black mama, built to endure brute force. Depression and anxiety began disrupting her daily functioning, even at work. My mother only allowed herself to cry during films, like Clint Eastwood’s 1995 The Bridges Of Madison County. Like Meryl Streep’s character Francesca, she yearned to be saved from the mundanity of her family and the man she married for practicality. She yearned for love to come across the bayou bridge, even if only momentarily, and envelope her entirely. Other times, she evoked rare sentimentality, while constantly reaffirming her strength by taunting everyone around her as being weak, including me. She never said she was afraid to lose me as I grew older, but her eruptions often occurred during moments of my personal triumphs. Like when I moved away from the city we were both born in, or when I graduated from an Ivy League school, because who would be there to soothe her sores and quiet her howling? Instead of saying, I need you, she’d say, ”you think you’re better than me!” Instead of saying, you validate my existence, she’d say, “I made you”—a continuation of her mother’s tradition: your child belongs to you and shall abide beneath you. My mother’s house, with its many rooms and high–beam ceilings, could no longer hold space for me and the many selves I yearned to be. I moved away to New York City, retracing the paths of my literary mothers: Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, and Toni Morrison. These women gave me the permission I yearned for from my mother, to be able to embody multiplicity while living inside a Black flesh that beckons endless projections.
Many years ago, while many miles away, I received a call that my mother couldn’t breathe and was voluntarily hospitalized for panic attacks. I have always been her emergency contact person; even as a girl, I was her confidant and emotional laborer. She had surrendered to the reality of her suffering, and I felt guilty for not being there to trace the veins along the top of her hands. When I called, she asked me gently not to pretend to care.
I haven’t spoken to her at all this year, but I carry her heaviness with me. I’ve inherited her fear of dependency, her desire for dominance in a world where Black women are situated at the lowest rung, her single dimple, her ability to conceal her suffering behind a wide-mouthed smile. She designed the blueprint for how I love and care for others, through transaction. I give, so you give, but if you don’t meet my undisclosed expectations, I take all (my love) away, leaving you yearning for what once was. It is in these moments that I feel most sacred. My first girlfriend bore great resemblance to my mother while also sharing her explosiveness, and for this I was fiercely attracted to her and equally distrustful. I called her Rocket. Her emotional instability felt like home. A place where I could pull my bra off through my sleeve and let all my imperfections hang buoyantly. She reintroduced me to old wounds, and we dwelled there together. I manipulated her to see how much she could endure, tolerance as measurement of devotion. How can you say you love someone without fastening your hand around their neck and seeing how tight you can squeeze before they yell mercy? She once confessed that she wished I was her mother, and at night she suckled my nipples like a newborn before falling asleep. We looked to each other to correct our mothers’ neglect, and we failed miserably. She reminded me often that she wasn’t my mother, nor was I. I refused this truth, and her, because I couldn’t be with someone who didn’t allow me to rest, as I wished, in repudiation.
Mothers teach us how to love, and we mirror those gestures until we choose to unlearn them. I still pick up the phone to call my mother, but I never do. The mother I want to answer my call will not be the person on the other end of the line. In therapy, when we dig deep to the roots of my self-sabotage, we always find her there, buried beneath the soils. I grieve for her, and her desperate attempts to forge space for herself in a system not built with her in mind. The only thing worse than living in poverty is overcoming it, because at least when you’re lying on that mattress on the floor that you share with a dozen other people, you can dream of wealth and the wonders it can bring, but attaining it only reveals that there is no respite to being born at the intersection of Black and poor and woman. Suppressed traumas manifest into a stirring madness.
I grieve for the me I can no longer be. How does one release old ideas of oneself that have been meticulously molded and reflected onto us by those we care about? Where do they go to die?
Do they dry up and fall like the leaves of autumn?
Do they evaporate in the sun like the morning dew suspended above blades of grass?
Do they seep out of your pores and slip away silently like beads of sweat?
I want to collect these shards and swallow them to keep bits inside me, but as I pull myself apart, gathering and discarding fragments to construct a new container to hold space for this reformed being, I can still see all of our cracks.
—Sasha Bonét (from Apogee Journal)