Half the Word
Over the last few weeks, I have gotten into the habit of taking daily walks. I grab a couple of beer, put on some musical theatre, and cruise. I wander around Berlin and feel like a tourist. It’s great. I use that time to organize my thoughts for writing. It’s very useful. But today was different. Today, instead of my normal Broadway playlist, I put on some hip hop, pop, and German rap. And I did something entirely new: I walked in the rain, and I actually enjoyed the experience. It was beautiful. And new. And needed. Because before that walk, I was hot. I was boiling hot. Before that walk I was consumed with anger. No, it was more than anger. Like Claire Huxtable in my favorite episode of The Cosby Show, it was RAGE, Vanessa. That is where we are now. We are in RAGE. See, last night, I had the mother of all fights with my mother. I mean, it was a surprise, but in retrospect, this really has been brewing for a quarter of a century.
Before I get into this, please understand one thing: I love my mother. In spite of everything, she was my original shero. You need to know who my mother is, to understand. She is a visually impaired black woman that will put the fear of god into anyone who crosses her path. For a good chunk of my life, I thought that she was untouchable. Nobody in my family would mess with her. In my contentious family that routinely uses Jesus as a bargaining chip, there are precious few people that are unassailable. My mother is among the precious few. Nobody comes for her unless she sends for them. For a large portion of my life, I have been in awe of that. It is an enviable feat.
Please understand: I didn’t have the kisses and cuddles kind of mother. My mother was tough. She was in the business of raising men. My toughness comes directly from her. One time, I was mowing the lawn, and I ran over a wasp nest. I got stung on the ankle and the cheek. I went inside and told my mother. She told me to put some ice on it. So that’s what I did. I went in the living room and put some ice on my stings. About 20 minutes later, she came in the living room and said, “What are you still doing in here? That lawn’s not gonna mow itself”. So I went out and mowed. The next day, the side of my face was completely swollen. I looked like the elephant man for a week.
In addition to all that, I am so similar to my mother, there are moments in life where I think I’m actually becoming the hairy version of her. First of all, I have her sense of humor. My mother has a razor sharp wit and a tongue to match. She can tell you to go to hell and make you look forward to the trip. It’s only half an hour later, when you’re driving home, that you even realize that you were insulted. My mother and I laugh together all the time. She gets my humor in a way that nobody else does.
I got my intelligence from her. She’s a very smart woman, and she was determined that I would be a very smart man. She started reading to me in the womb, and she continued until I was old enough to read for myself. She read to me so much, that I could simulate the act of reading long before I actually had the skill. I would say all the words in the right order, and even turn the page at the correct time. I would do all of that from memory. I also knew what buttons to press on a calculator to get the numbers I wanted, long before I understood math. That was my mother’s influence.
She is also my role model as a teacher. When I was a teenager, she owned a daycare. I worked there during the summers when I was in college. She was a great teacher. Loving, yet firm. Playful, yet strict. She gave me the perfect blueprint from which to build my own little benevolent dictatorship that benefits both me and the tiny humans in my care.
During our conversation last night, we had the following exchange:
Mom: That’s the problem with this generation. They’ve decided monogamy isn’t an option.
Me: To be fair, that was happening before. That’s why “outside children” are a thing. (For those who are confused, that’s how my family refers to the children married men have with their mistresses, because “bastard” is too harsh for them)
Mom: You know what I mean.
Me: YOU know what I mean. (There’s side-eye in this comment, even though you can’t see it right now. Either way, she HEARD it)
Mom: Remember, you’re talking to your mother.
Me: You know who I am. I have a smart mouth.
Mom: You know, I always pray to god that my words are peppered with grace.
I kinda zoned out for a minute after that, because that is not the woman I remember. I do not remember grace in her words at all. In fact, when I was young, more often than not, I felt like I was the one getting cut by her razor-sharp tongue. For instance, there was one morning that my brother and I were getting ready for our Boy Scout meeting. We disagreed about what time the meeting started. Apparently our argument got to loud, because suddenly, my mother’s bedroom door opened, and we got the full power of her wrath. She told us ALL about ourselves. How she wished we were never born. How she wished she had never laid down and had us. How she wished that we would just take the car and leave. Being her child, and being so very much like her, I decided to take her up on her suggestion. When we left, I told my brother that I had no intention of going to Boy Scouts. I told him I was leaving and not coming back. He said he was just going to go to Boy Scouts. So I got out of the car and started walking. He drove off and went to our scout meeting. I started walking down the interstate. I walked for a couple hours. I wasn’t certain exactly where I was going, but I was determined to go. At one point, a couple of family friends drove by and saw me. They pulled over to the side of the road. They asked what was going on. I told them. They told me that I had to go home. I told them that they were mistaken. They physically forced me into their car. When I got home, my mother had turned the air conditioning off, and the windows were open. This was strange, because my mother loves air conditioning as much as I do. This was a message. When she saw me, she said, “So this is the one time you do what I say. If you want to leave so badly, I can send you to your father.” I heard and understood the threat. And I resented her for it.
See, that’s the thing about my relationship with my mother. There was always that undercurrent of resentment. It started very early. I was never actually allowed to express anger. As an adult, I joke about it. I toss out a Karen Walker witticism like, “Oh honey, feelings are for ugly people”, but the truth of the matter is that I was forbidden from showing natural emotions for so long, that I actually became unable to feel anything. I remember the first time I felt rage. I was about five years old. I had just gotten a beating, and I was in my room. I had a huge bookshelf, and that day I decided to knock it over. That felt so good. Until I got the next beating for that, and to add insult to injury, I had to put it all back the way it was. My next attempt at anger was the silent treatment. I decided I was not speaking to my mother one day. She informed me in no uncertain terms that that behavior would NOT be tolerated. So there I was, powerless, with nothing but my growing resentment for company.
Speaking of resentment, let’s have a talk about spanking. Honestly, I think it’s a really bad tool for teaching discipline, because it teaches kids the wrong lessons. I had a friend whose mom would beat him with whatever was handy, a Hot Wheels racetrack, an extension cord, a whiffleball bat- I even saw her throw a chair at him once. This had an interesting effect on him. It made him bolder and more confrontational. He would actively taunt her. There was one day when he was doing just that. I was sitting beside him on his bed, and we were playing video games. His mom told him to do something, and he made a smart remark in response. The next thing I knew, she was in the room with his nephew’s plastic baseball bat in her hand. She drew back to hit him, but accidentally hit me in the face instead. She was so concerned with taking care of me, he never got that beating. My reaction to beatings was the opposite of my friend’s. I was quiet. I was good. But I was resentful. Once I got beat for something that I didn’t even do. I was extra resentful that day. I usually only got one beating a year. It was usually about not doing my homework. It wasn’t that often, but it was enough to make me resentful. And that resentment grew over time.
On top of that, my mother is an excellent mental tactician. I’m not saying that there’s a school that mothers attend where they learn the fine art of manipulation, but if said school does actually exist, I’m fairly certain that my mother was valedictorian. She’s good. She’s VERY good. It took time and distance to see, but in retrospect, I can see subtle manipulations all over the place. The well placed “Oh, so I’m the worst mother in the world” that forces you to have to compliment her. The compliment followed by the insult, which is the parental equivalent of negging (If you don’t know what negging is, google pick-up artists. It’s totally gross.) The constant reminder that you’re “too sensitive” when you acknowledge the aforementioned insult. Some of her best work came during the time after I came out, and we weren’t really speaking. She would leave the saddest messages on my answering machine, “Aaron, it’s your mother. *sniff* I’m just calling to *sniffle* make sure you’re still alive. *sob* Call me!” And the award for best dramatic performance on an answering machine goes to…
My family’s religion really didn’t help matters. My very strict, testifying, speaking in tongues family has no love for gay people. They have always been very vocal about that. In fact, at my stepfather’s funeral, one of my aunties hijacked the service to do a Christian theatre piece where she sent people to hell for various reasons, including accepting gays in their church. I knew how my family felt. I knew how my mother felt. But I couldn’t change who I was or who they were.
Which brings me to the beginning of Family War I: It was my junior year of college. It was a very stressful time. I was working props on a show, and it was not going well. The director wanted 100 1940’s era props, and he gave me a $50 budget. Like I said: Stressful. Also, like most college students, I was broke, and I needed money. So, I called my mother. Here’s the thing about my mother: You don’t come right out and ask her for money. That will get you exactly nowhere. With her, you have to gild the lily a bit. So that’s what I did. But the other thing you need to know about my mother is that she can sense weakness, and when she senses it, she attacks. Here’s how that conversation went:
Mom: What’s wrong? I can hear it in your voice. I know something’s wrong.
Me: It’s nothing. Really.
Mom: You can tell me, honey. I’m your mother. (For those who don’t know, that’s a trick, to make you let down your guard)
Me: I’m just having some problems in the theatre department. (And I fell for it. Talk about a rookie mistake!)
Mom: (Mockingly) I thought this was what we wanted to do with our life.
Me: It is. I’m just having a hard time right now.
Mom: I always knew you were weak minded.
Me: I’m not weak minded.
Mom: If you were here, and you knew what was going on, you wouldn’t be able to handle it.
Me: (Genuinely interested, because, gossip) Oh yeah? What’s happening there that’s so bad.
Mom: Your cousin Chris has left the ministry and left his wife and moved in with some man. He says he’s gay!
Please understand that this is the worst kept family secret. EVERYBODY knew about Chris. What they don’t know is that there’s at least one more still to this day in the closet. As I’m sure several family members will read this, I wish them godspeed on the search. Now, the important thing to remember is that resentment that I mentioned before, because after two decades, I finally had an outlet for it. I finally had a weapon. But I could only use it once. And if I used it, I couldn’t take it back. I decided to use it.
Me: He’s not the only one.
She didn’t get it.
Mom: Who? Who else is gay?
Now, I had another chance tor really evaluate if this was what I really wanted to do. I would be blowing up my entire life if I did. (Apparently, even then, I had a thing for Mazel Tov cocktails.) But remember, resentment.
Silence. For the first time in my life, SILENCE! She ALWAYS has something to say, and in that moment, I let her speechless! I celebrated that victory. I did my happy dance. I relished that moment…until the moment was over. After about 30 seconds, she found her voice again.
Mom: You’re going to Hell. You’re going straight to Hell. You’re going to get AIDS. You’re going to die. You’re going straight to Hell…
I took that opportunity to put the phone down. I figured she would get the hint and hang up. I went into the living room with my roommates. They were watching a tv show. I watched until the end. Half an hour later, I went back to my room to hang up the phone. Much to my surprise, SHE WAS STILL GOING. She seriously hadn’t noticed that I was gone. That’s when I started to feel bad. I didn’t want my mother to have a heart attack because of me. So I talked her down. I promised I wouldn’t do anything. I promised that I would talk to god. I said everything that she wanted to hear, to get her off the phone. That’s the thing about me 25 years ago. I told people what they wanted to hear. That’s not the case anymore.
At that point, I thought the whole thing was settled. Until the next salvo in the war was launched. Three days later, I received a three page letter, front and back, that was the written transcript of our conversation. It started with “You’re going to Hell” and went from there. I threw it in the trash. A huge part of me wishes I had kept it. In the age of receipts, THAT would have been cash in the bank. Once the war was declared, it was open season on all fronts. I had a car accident, and my mom sent my uncle and my brother to fix my car. While my uncle was working, my brother was talking to me. He wanted to gossip about our cousin Chris.
Him: You hear about Chris? He says he’s gay.
Me: Good for him.
Him: *Confused* What? Boy, I hope you’re not like that.
Me: *Walking away* Hope springs eternal.
I was expecting awkwardness when I went home for fall break, but there was none. Until the last day, when my mother grabbed me and pulled me into her room.
Me: Well what?
Mom: Have you done anything?
Me: About what?
Mom: You know…Our little secret.
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. (Remember how I was talking about being resentful? This is a moment of that. I knew EXACTLY what she was talking about, but I was gonna make her say the words)
Mom: About your being…*whispers* gay.
Me: Well, I’m still gay.
Mom: Now I understand why men take their sons to prostitutes when they turn 18. You need to pray to god to give you back your manhood.
Me: Last I checked, it was still between my legs.
Mom: Just don’t tell anybody about this…But I did tell your Aunt Jean, and your Aunt Eunice, and your Aunt Bobbi…
Me: I thought it was our little secret?
Mom: I wanted them to pray for you.
Dear god, please deliver me from your followers. These bitches crazy.
After that debacle, I understood that the war was well underway. My next salvo: Absence. I decided to boycott Thanksgiving. I stayed in Asheville and did a spaghetti dinner and wine with a friend. When Christmas came around, I made sure that I worked up until Christmas Eve. I went home that evening. Between my arrival at 8pm and 10am the next morning, I received no less than three sermons. At 10:01 I packed my stuff in my car and went back to Asheville. In this war, absence was my weapon of choice, and I wielded it mightily. I called my mother less and less. I rarely visited. When I did, my ever-growing resentment became more and more noticeable. After my initial success at leaving my mother speechless, I constantly sought to repeat the event.
Mom: I just wanted grandchildren.
Me: You have grandchildren.
Mom: I wanted grandchildren from YOU.
Me: I can adopt.
Mom: But those aren’t really yours. I want you to make them.
Me: Well, as long as there are lesbians and turkey basters, the dream is still alive.
Mom: Don’t be vulgar.
The war raged on for years. Every interaction was another battle.
Mom: Don’t you know what homosexuals do? They have sex in parks!
Me: Is that what you think of me, mother?
After about four years, we had reached something of a detente. By that point, Claudius and I were living together. At one point, we even invited her and my stepfather to visit. From the beginning, she was acting strange. My mother, the woman who taught me manners, was being EXTREMELY rude. Even though Claudius and I were both nonsmokers, she tried to insist that she smoke in our house. We had some animation cels as decorations, and she actually took one off the wall, and insisted that we give it to her. When Claudius refused, she called him selfish. A week after the visit I called her, and she lit into me. “I cried all the way home,” she screamed.
Over time, the situation settled. I avoided a lot of relatives for the most part. When I couldn’t avoid, I kept quiet. That situation at my stepfather’s funeral was extremely hard to endure, but I did, and I stayed quiet about it. But that was then. Now, things are different. Now, I can no longer stay quiet. Now, I must speak the truth. Now, I am re-evaluating ALL my relationships, and when I find that they are lacking, either I work to repair them, or I let them go. And that’s where I am with my family. They see my gayness, something that is as much of a part of who I am as my eye color or hair texture, as wrong. Not just wrong, evil. Back in the 90’s, we used to talk about tolerance. But how would you feel if someone you loved merely tolerated you? How would that make you feel? How would that make you feel about them? How would that make you feel about yourself? I have reached the point in life where I can no longer tolerate being tolerated. I deserve better than that, and the days of me selling myself for less than my worth are over and done.
Which brings us to last night. Last night I called my mother as a courtesy. I wanted to give her a heads up, because I was going to write about my coming out story. We started talking about what happened, and I noticed something. She was telling a totally different story. Instead of the vitriol and judgement, she told of her concern, because she didn’t want me to have a hard life. She completely omitted the letter. When I brought it up, she acted like it never happened. She did to me what white people have done to black people’s history. She rewrote the whole situation to make herself the hero. I. Lost. My. Shit. I screamed at my mother. I cursed at my mother. I went all the way in on my mother. My mother hung up on me. Given the fact that I am very much like my mother, I am not going to be the one to reach out. I cut my father off 25 years ago and never looked back. I cut my sister off when she tried to use me as her personal ATM. I am my mother’s child. Sawing another branch off the family tree is no big thing. Please understand, I don’t want an apology from my mother. You know by now that I think apologies are bullshit. What I want is for her to admit to what she did. That is the first step to healing our relationship and getting rid of some of the resentment that exists between us. But that is her step to take. Maybe she will, and maybe she won’t. I don’t know what the future holds for our relationship. What I do know is that the bar for what is accepted as love has been raised, and I am never going back.