My mother is very much alive. In fact I talked to her the other day. For the first time in over a year. She said things like, “You know I don’t like girls. Girls come here to suffer.” She criticized. She reminded me, “tu dejas la inteligencia en la escuela.” Then laughed when I was silent. “You always hated when I said that.” I still do.
I didn’t know there was a term for me until after my brother died in June of 2013; when I was dealing with my grief and all the griefs that grief brought up, including the grief over my antagonistic relationship with my mother.
They call us unmothered. There are those who are unmothered because their mothers died. Then there are those like me, whose mothers are alive and still don’t mother us.
According to Merriam-Webster online dictionary the Definition of UNMOTHERED: deprived of a mother: motherless <adolescent gosling that, unmothered, attached itself to him — Della Lutes>
Dictionary.com takes you straight to the various definitions of “mother” as if unmothered couldn’t possibly exist. As if nature would not allow that. God wouldn’t. The universe wouldn’t. And yet, I exist…an unmothered daughter.
I’ve been trying to write this essay for days. On Mother’s Day, I woke up and ran to the park. I sat on a bench by the water. Watched as little kids skipped by innocently as children do. One kicked a soccer ball, his cleats tapping on the pavement rhythmically. A woman sat on the other side of the bench with her son, who must have been three. They blew bubbles and I watched as the child ran after them. He laughed when he poked them and they burst. One splashed in his eye, he shrieked and mom came running. She pulled him close and soothed him. I saw that child lean into his mama, his safe space, sure that momma would make the ache go away. My chest tightened.
A pigeon pecked at the floor. White with splotches of gray on its small body, his heart hung out of its chest. A soft mound that throbbed on the pigeon’s undercarriage. I marveled at this bird who still fed, still flew, with its heart softly pounding outside of its chest. I marveled at that heart that still sustained and kept that bird alive, pulsing just beneath where it’s supposed to be housed. I wondered about that heart. How it kept going, unaware that it was exposed and raw. It did what hearts do—it beat, it lived, it thrived.
I’ve been thinking about mom’s garden. I’ve returned to the story so many times this week, and each time I’ve felt that same longing I felt while I watched my mother tend to her garden with a patience and tenderness I rarely felt from her. A part of me is still that little girl who just wanted her momma to love her.
I finally wrote the scene and when I was done, I knew it belonged in my memoir Relentless, in the chapter about my mother, “They Call Her Saint”:
I grew up in a railroad style apartment in a three story building in 1980s Bushwick, Brooklyn. We couldn’t do much to keep our home from falling apart, the walls from crumbling and constant leaks in the bathroom making the ceiling collapse, but since we lived on the first floor, my mother took it upon herself to clean up the backyard to plant a garden when I was six and seven years old.
The yard was partly paved. A fence covered in chipped red paint separated the paved area from where mom planted her garden. This area was separated in two by a pathway which led to a red ladder that went all the way up to the third floor. On the left side towards the back was the plum tree I started climbing when I was five. I’d stretch out on one of the thick branches and watch mom work.
Mom wasn’t the Martha Stewart kind of gardener with a sunhat, gloves and gardening apron. She was third world, an Hondureña from La Ceiba. She didn’t have those luxuries where she came from and she didn’t have them here. She planted in her bata or simple shorts and a t-shirt stained with sofrito and dirt.
Mom threw the mounds of trash she collected over the falling apart plywood fence into the junk yard next door. It took days for mom to weed and till the soil that had been packed hard by years of snow and sneakers. First she pulled out the weeds and got on all fours to yank out the stubborn ones whose roots clung hard to the earth. She used an old shovel she found in the basement to till the soil. With her right leg she pushed the shovel into the ground to bring up the dark soil underneath. Squirming earthworms came up with the mixture. The sweat dripped from her nose. Mom wiped her brow with her forearm, looked up at the sun and closed her eyes, a small smile curling the corners of her lips. Then she got right back to work.
The right side she tilled right up to the gate that separated our yard from the yard of the building behind ours. The left side she tilled up to the base of the plum tree.
Then Mom went out and bought the seeds. I don’t know how she figured out what she would plant or how she would arrange the seeds, but she was deliberate in her choices. I watched from the plastic covered couch in the living room, pretending to watch our tiny TV. She laid the envelopes of seeds out on the wooden table my second mom Millie built and lacquered when we first moved into the apartment when I was four. Each packet had a picture of the potential inside: peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, squash; herbs like peppermint, rosemary, thyme and recao; flowers like sunflowers and geraniums.
She brought the seeds, still in their envelopes, into the yard. She separated the rows by furrowing a shallow hole between each. Then she used her index and middle finger to make small holes. She put seeds into them and packed the soil down with her palm. She did this softly, handling the seeds tenderly.
The herbs and flowers went in the rows closest to the gate. The vegetables followed. Tomatoes first then the peppers, squash and pumpkins.
In the mornings, Mom stood by the window, staring out at her garden while she sipped her coffee. She cursed when she saw garbage thrown out the window by a tenant. “Estos desgraciados. Por eso es que no tienen na’.” Then she climbed out the window, picked up the trash and tended to her garden. She hummed while she worked, carressing the shoots that sprung from the soil, as if singing to them.
Some days, when the sun beamed down hard and rain didn’t come, Mom connected her long green hose into our kitchen sink and pulled it out the window into the yard. She watered her plants, screaming at me to lower the pressure if the water shot out too hard.
I watched her smile as the tomatoes and eggplants came in. When she turned them over in her hand, I imagined her talking to them in her head, encouraging them to grow and flourish. The sunflowers grew so tall mom got old shoelaces and tied the stalks to the fence to keep them from toppling over.
One day, mom was making dinner when she sent me out to the yard to get tomatoes. “I need them for a salad,” she said. A small pile of onions lay on the cutting board on top of the table. A few days before I noticed that the tomatoes were red and green. I turned to see if mom was watching before I touched them, turning them over like I’d seen her do. They were firm to the touch.
When I climbed out the window, I gasped at the scene that greeted me. The rats had feasted on mom’s tomatoes the night before. They were scattered, bitten into in chunks. I could make out the little teeth marks on the flesh. A few still hung limply on the bush. I gathered what few I could and climbed back into the apartment.
“Mami,” I said almost in a whisper. “The rats ate the tomatoes. These are the only ones left.”
Mom slammed down the knife she was using to chop cilantro and stomped out to the yard. She cursed and yanked up some of the bushes. I ran to the room and hid. I didn’t come out until she called me for dinner.
After two years mom brought her plants into the house where she could protect them.
My timeline is filled with people writing about their mothers, the love mom has gifted, how supportive she’s been. “I could never have done it without you, mom.” “Now that I have a daughter, I understand how much you loved me.”
I wince when I see these. I still long for that relationship, for that kind of unconditional love. Even now, at almost forty, I still want that though I’ve come to accept that I cannot have it from my mother.
A part of me cringes when I write this. I hear myself say: But what about that time she stood up all night because you were so sick. You woke up a few times to her hovering over you. Waking you up to give you medicine. Rubbing Vicks on your chest. Then, when your fever wouldn’t go down and the asthma meds didn’t work, she took you to the Emergency Room at Woodhull Hospital. And when they didn’t tend to you right away, she flipped out on the nurse so a doctor hurried out to calm her down. ‘Idiota, she has asthma, can’t you see?!’ And the doctor turned to see you gasping for breath and hurried you to the back, where they put you on a nebulizer machine and later they gave you that shot that made you collapse like you were melting off the seat. But you were better after that, remember? Mom made sure of it.
Yes, I remember that, but that’s just it—that was a moment. Yes, there were moments of love and even tenderness, but the overarching feeling is one of loss. Of not having my mother. Of feeling lost and unwanted. Of being unmothered.
I almost ran out of Rite Aid the other day when I absentmindedly walked through the greeting card aisle and was accosted by the rows and rows of Mother’s Day Cards. I didn’t have to read them to know what they said. They were praising all things mother. I sped by.
I keep going back to that garden in the backyard of the apartment building I grew up in in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I keep going back to watching my mom create that garden. The tenderness she put into it. The patience. A patience I didn’t know. A tenderness I didn’t feel most days.
Mom was hard slaps and gritted teeth. She still is. The last time I saw my mother, she pulled her arm in as she walked past so she wouldn’t touch me. I still feel that ice. I resist it every day in the ways I mother my daughter and my students. I break that ice every time I tell my daughter a few times a day, probably too often, that I love her. That she’s special. That she’s smart and compassionate and she’s the best thing that ever happened to me.
The other morning, I woke my girl up with a shout from my bed, “Mama, it’s wake up time.” “Okay,” she said, her voice drowsy. We stayed up late the night before watching Gilmore Girls. Just because. She was with her dad Mother’s Day weekend. It just worked out that way, so I was alone on Mother’s Day. “I’m sorry,” she said, watching me. “I know, babe.” I kissed her forehead. “I promise to make it up to you.” And I know she will. She always does.
I woke up to a text from my baby girl on Mother’s Day morning: “You’re best mom ever. Thank you for choosing me to be your daughter. Happy Mother’s Day!!!!!!” followed with a dozen emoticons of flowers and smiles and hearts.
On Mother’s Day morning I wrote:
I don’t want to feel like this. I don’t want to feel untethered. I don’t want to be here, sitting by the water, searching, groping for some solace. An escape from all of the balloons with big letters and flowers. #1 Mom. Best Mom in the World. I love you Mom. Happy Mother’s Day. I was trying to get away from the messages and email and texts and flowers and cheerful people walking with their mommas, in their Sunday best. Pastels pinks and blues, sun dresses, slacks. Everyone dressed up to be with their mommas. I want to be happy for them. A part of me is. A part of me smiles and says, “Yes, praise your momma and all she’s does and has done.” But another part of me, a sad, lost part of me, is jealous. I’ve always wanted that for me. At nearly forty, I still want that for me. I wish I could have made intricate plans to take mom out for a lavish meal, perfume and jewelry bought with much consideration, gift bags stuffed with tissue paper, sealed with shiny bows. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one in the world that feels this alone on Mother’s Day, but it’s what I’ve felt all week leading up to this day. I can’t deny that because some people can’t handle it.
The other day I posted a status on my facebook: “Mother’s Day for the unmothered…”
A sister friend responded. She said she couldn’t let me go there. Go where? I imagined a hole like Buffalo Bill’s torture pit in Silence of the Lambs. I saw the scratch marks on the wall, a nail still clinging, ripped from the root of a now dead girl who was trying desperately to crawl out, to save her own life.
You’re fierce,” my friend wrote. She told me that I was an inspiration. She posted on my wall, telling me how proud she is of me. How relentless I am. She said she knew I’d rationalize what I was feeling but she just had to tell me.
I thought of something a former lover told a few years ago: “I know why you take care of me…because no one took care of you.”
Other friends commented, reminding me of what a great mother I am to my daughter and how fortunate my students are to have me dedicate my heart to them. They were all trying to hold up a mirror. Tell me, “I see you.” I know they had the best intentions. I know they come from a place of love when they remind me of all the love I have and give, the students I’ve inspired, the tenderness with which I mother my daughter. I know all this to be true but… I felt silenced. They wanted me to get past it. I know most people don’t know what it is to be unmothered and they can’t fathom the pain of it, so they try to be comforting. They don’t realize they’re being dismissive of my feelings. That’s not fair to me.
don’t you know that the way you touch a woman can remind her of all the ways that she’s ever been hurt? ― Leslie Feinberg, Stone Butch Blues
I know I am fierce and relentless. I know that I give my entire heart to everything I do; to raising my little girl with the love I didn’t have; to working with students, guiding them to write their stories. I am proud of the life I’ve created for myself. I also know that this pain of being unmothered is real and there will be times, like on Mother’s Day and the days leading up to it, that despite all my accomplishments and all the love I have in my life, that first wound will sting especially hard and I will feel untethered and unanchored in the world. I will feel distraught. I will feel like I’m not enough. I will be terrified of repeating that cycle, of failing my daughter. This has always been so; this fear, this suffering. And letting myself feel it when it comes does not negate the rest. It just is.
I’m learning to love myself through these difficult days. I do what I have to do to make myself feel safe and whole. Yesterday I came home and read and watched Netflix. I stayed away from weepy storylines. I took a long walk in the park late at night, when I knew the Mother’s Day festivities were over, the flowers were in their vases, the balloons tucked in the corners of living rooms.
Today, the day after Mother’s Day, I was finally able to finish this essay. Maybe I just needed to feel all of it, the loss, the sadness. Maybe I needed to explain to people that this unmothered life is not an easy one and feeling this pain doesn’t negate all the beauty in my life, of which I know there is so very much. Maybe I just needed to sit here, in my messy room, flowers I bought myself to the right of me, gerber daisies and sunflowers, a picture of my brother and me to my right, to remember that though I may feel untethered sometimes, letting myself feel these emotions has made all the difference. Letting myself be vulnerable isn’t easy but it’s what I must do. As Leslie Feinberg said in Stone Butch Blues: “surrenderin is unimaginably more dangerous than struggling for survival!” But we ain’t surviving anymore, Vanessa. We’re learning how to live.