My mother is more than 70 years old. She is not sickly or forgetful or frail, but she is strange.
Annie Pearl Smith was part of the great early 1950s migration of blacks from the south to the cluttered and chaotic west and northside neighborhoods of Chicago. She searched for a factory and found it—a place where she could create drone with her fingers, plopping product onto conveyor belts in neat, insanely measured rows, a place where relentless machinery hissed and pounded inches from her hands.
From Alabama, she brought with her a Southern sense of order. Children were to be raised a certain way, no sparing of the rod. Bring them up in the Baptist church of the holy-rollers, bombarded by solid walls of organ, rollicking choirs and preachers speaking in tongues. Children were always to respect white people—yessir, yes ma’am—because white people made the decisions that inevitably trickled down to where we were.
Nothing strange about that, you say.
But how about this?
In the 20+ years I’ve readily identified myself as a poet, my mother had heard me read—uh, once. And that was pretty much because she was trapped in the room.
She is merely horrified by the knowledge that I write so freely about my life and family. She comes from a culture of secrecy…the abused wife, the gay church organist, the barber with the mysterious prison record and the pregnant preteen all populated her world, but their stories were never told out loud. And if there was some dysfunction in the circle of family, it stayed behind closed doors. If Uncle Eddie wore lace bloomers under his dungarees or Dad liked a little honey on the side, you just shut up about it. You certainly didn’t look for a microphone and a room full of strangers. You didn’t pen it and push it to publishers.
My mother knows that I process my life through my writing, and that’s all she knows. She prefers that her knowledge ends right there, without ever hearing me work out the kinks of divorce, insecurities, motherhood. She’ll never hear how confused I am by her chilly demeanor or how obsessed I am with making sense of my father’s death. She doesn’t want to hear about sex, kinky or otherwise, or how I felt after the towers collapsed. Gaining insight to her daughter has never been on her “To Do” list—especially if it means listening to me spout truths that are, at least as far as she’s concerned, nobody’s damned business.
Mom has never understood the concept of writing for a living. Her idea of a job was a gig at some company, preferably a service organization, with a time clock, a 9 to 5 Monday through Friday schedule, paid vacations and medical benefits. Penning a book with no guarantee of a paycheck by a certain date strikes her as unbelievably reckless. Getting paid once or twice a month (maybe), a different amount every time, is no way to live a life. I’ve sent her copies of plump paychecks, updated her regularly on both financial and creative successes, but nothing worked. Up until about a year ago, she’d call me and say, with what I’m sure was a straight face, “You know…they’re hiring at the post office.”
(The post office was always my mother’s vision of an ideal job. The fact that a berserk worker bee loses it and peppers the place with bullets every five minutes hasn’t changed her mind.)
So, for more than half of my life, practically everything I should have said to my mother I’ve said to someone else. Instead of mother/daughter conversations, all those giggly secrets, those heartbreaks, those strict confidences have lived inside books and on stages.
Not necessarily. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been embraced, comforted and encouraged by those readers, by those faces in the shadows.
So, Happy Mother’s Day….not only to real, in-the-flesh moms, but to those who hear our cries and do what mothers do--beyond the links of blood, no questions asked.
Patricia Smith has been called “a testament to the power of words to change lives.” She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Incendiary Art (2017), winner of an NAACP Image Award; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (2012), which won the Lenore Marshall Prize from the Academy of American...