I'm overwhelmed--knee deep in a deadline for a Celebrating of Rage retreat. At that very moment, the telephone rings. It's my mother. I scream, "I'm so angry I could kill." Not a very wise comment from an emotional wisdom expert, right? My mother replies, "Girl, you ought ta come out here and climb in my bed so I can rub your head." I pull the phone from my ear, staring at it in shock of this "unlike my mother" moment. My mom is brilliant, independent, and wise, but I wouldn't characterize her as intimate or nurturing. Deeply touched and greedy for more, I put the telephone back to my ear and say, "I'll be on the next flight." I'm off to catch the one hour flight from SF to LA.
There she was at the airport, glowing with simple dignity, wearing a wide proud grin like Maya Angeluo. We enjoy a flavorful meal of fried catfish, yams, greens, and cornbread which she has proudly prepared. I eat like a starved thief and begin to feel tired and proceed to climb into her old, rickety bed with poor back support feeling more comfortable and loved than ever, as I sob for no apparent reason as she rubs my head. No words were spoken. No words needed to be spoken. I fall into a deep, peaceful sleep-the kind of sleep that only the scent of your mother's bed provides.
The next morning, feeling refreshed, I'm surprised with how happy I am to be home. Mom is cooking grits, eggs, sausage, and homemade biscuits. Strong coffee is perking on the stove. It's been a long time since I've been with my mom when it was just she and me, and it's rare that I feel this special around her. There was much competition with seven siblings.
The moment feels so ripe and real, that I find myself sharing with my mother the work I'm doing in the world. Don't ask why. Mom never understood my work in the world. When I told her I had landed an organizational development consultant position at Levi Strauss several years earlier, her reply was: That won't last long. You know how you hate to sew! My heart lightens with this memory. Nevertheless, I find myself babbling on.
Mom, my work matters to me so much I can't even explain it. I'm helping women work through their childhood rage issues. They feel better about themselves and are better parents as a result. I've never felt more alive. It's like what I'm here to do, you know?
Mom's silence appears to be saying: What the hell is this chil talking about? The scent of judgment competes with the other aromas in the air. She gives me the benefit of the doubt by asking reasonable questions like: Why'd you do work that's so damn upsetting? We all have rage, we Black. What's the big deal? Do you mean to tell me people pay you to feel this bad? How are you going to take care of me when you get old if you're doing this for a living? I catch myself nodding in agreement. Let the truth be known I silently struggled to answer these questions also. My reply seems childlike: I don't know, mom. This work touches me in deep and scary places, and I just know it's important that women have a place to release rage and rest better in their own skin. Mom replies: What in the world are you talking about? Are you crazy or stupid? I raised you to have better since than that! But then, you like crazy, don't cha?
I feel my shoulders huddle at my ears. My heart is pounding and I'm feeling a deeper truth revealing itself-a truth I'm afraid will change the color of the walls if I speak it. If I say what's I'm really feeling I'll lose this special and unprecedented homecoming. Yet every painful memory of growing up in my mother's house was exploding within me.
My mind takes over and I begin to create stories of what might happen if I told her the truth-She won't listen. She'll storm out of the room and leave me, again. She'll be hurt then blame me for not appreciating her. She'll accuse me of always wanting more. I consider forgetting the whole matter. After all, it feels good enough right now. But my desire to connect with mom and be true to myself overrides my need for safety and those collard greens cooking on the stove.
Mom, I have a lot of rage about how I was raised. Mom turns off the fire underneath her pots and pans on the stove. She sits down, but it feels as if she has brought the boiling along with her. She looks confident and prepared for this fight in contrast to my drowsy righteousness. We are so still that neither of us appears to be breathing. Mom's silence is more a dare, as if she is saying, So...? I continue in utter terror, as if leaping off a tall building without proper gear. The beatings, Mom. You beat me a lot when I was growing up. And I don't feel like I got much love from you.
I felt myself growing in emotional size as I spoke this truth, and I had a bit more inner space to breathe. I realize that my words are more honest than angry. I search mom's face for clues about what to do next, wondering if I've said too much too soon.
Those were not beatings. Mom replies. Don't you know the difference between beatings and discipline? When kids do something wrong, you punish them. Hell, if I didn't, the police would. You don't respect the position I was in. My face and hands became clammy and hot. I was so uncomfortable that I couldn't organize my thoughts. A part of me wanted to scream and shake violently, slap some sense into her, but the truth I had to speak was more persistent and in control.
Those were beatings, Mom, beyond punishment or discipline, and it happened a lot. I learned how to be afraid and obedient, and later how to be just like you. Your rage didn't belong to me but it was dumped on me. I never felt I deserved that kind of treatment. For the most part, I felt unloved and unwanted.
I couldn't believe that I was speaking to my mother as a full-bodied woman, not a child. Mom reacted as if she had been electrocuted with the truth, something she was determined to deny. I hope you don't expect me to listen to this nonsense. You don't let ya kids disrespect you and get away with it. I'm not gonna sit hear and listen to this. What do you want from me? To say I'm sorry, or to agree with you, or to apologize? Hell no! You can forget that.
The energy between us was at war as we sat silently, occasionally glancing up at each other. Waves of shame, embarrassment and self-righteousness flowed between us. I didn't know what to say. I felt as if I had been put in my place and was being forced to be a child, yet I was disobeying-insisting on being a woman.
In this pause, I reflect on a recent experience I had with my then 4-year-old grandson who was visiting for the holidays. He was hungry but I wanted to take a bath first. So he went to the kitchen, emptied the canisters of flour, corn meal, grits, salt and sugar in the middle of the kitchen floor. Being a smart kid, he mixed it all together with water and then rejoined me upstairs. Now refreshed, I announced it was dinnertime and off we went to the kitchen.
[This photo gives you an idea - these are my great grand nieces:]
Upon almost slipping on his prepared meal in the center of the floor, I scream, damn it! Terrified, my grandson runs for his life to the next room and hides his face in a couch pillow. Then it dawns on me: He has no idea why I'm upset. He has no reason to believe that it's related to his culinary creation. In his mind, I should be proud-he had prepared dinner. Instead, he sees me as a crazy woman that he must hide from. As I hold and reassure him, I silently laugh as I visualize him 20 years from now in therapy sharing the story of his crazy, emotionally abusive grandmother who screamed at him for no good reason. I realize that intention does not matter to a child, only behavior, and I begin to empathize with the different ways a parent and child remembers their experiences. I return to the moment with my mother wearing a smile. I search her face wondering if she is having a similar flash of the past.
You don't have to agree or apologize, Mom, although I wish you would. I understand that our experiences were both different and true. I'm just grateful that we can finally share what we feel. I remember when I was too afraid and hurt to tell you the truth, and when I did, you wouldn't listen. That didn't feel good. It only kept us apart.
Mom was starting to look like that woman that picked me up from the airport. There was a soft, prideful welcome back in her face, as if she had been affirmed and was relieved that she didn't have to change. I saw this as an opening and stepped in: One of the reasons I do this rage work, Mom, is because I sincerely believe that had you, as a single mother working two jobs and raising eight children, had a place to go and release the pinned up rage you felt, you wouldn't have had to come home and give it to us.
Mom displays a righteous smirk on her face and pivots her body in her chair away from me. She reminds me of those sanctimonious mothers in white that sit on the first row in the Baptist Church on Sundays with their fans, listening to the preacher in dutiful suspicion. Mom smiles at me and I sense that she has heard a disliked truth. In this moment, I simply love her.
Mom stands and returns to her stove. I look at my watch. It's only been fifteen minutes but it felt like a lifetime. Mom says: Girl, you never could cook. I tried to teach you how to make greens for years but you just couldn't get it, why is that? The myth of my not being able to cook was long enjoyed in my family, and it was more fun to play along with it than to prove they were wrong. The air suddenly feels blameless and melodic, and I take a deep breath knowing that talking about food is Mom's way of saying I love you!
© Ruth King, 1999. All Rights Reserved