I had just started tinkering with this blog post, which I had been planning to write for weeks in honor of my 40th birthday, when my mother called. We talk several times a week and she often calls me before the evening news comes on in NY so that she can watch it and go to bed right after like she does every night. She joked with me about the final moments of my thirties and told me that she knew I would “grab forty by the horns and ride it out…” and then we talked about a crazy mishap with her surprise gift for me and some other stuff. When I hung up from her I laid across my bed and like I had many times in the last year, I thought about her fortieth birthday. When my mother turned forty, I had just turned 17 the month before. Her birthday that year is pretty vivid in my mind because I threw her a party. It was on ‘the hill’ in our old neighborhood in the Bronx in a lounge called Mr. Jimmy’s. Jimmy’s place looked like the lovechild of Harpo’s juke joint and the smoke-filled back room where Dons get made. There wasn’t nothing but grown folk business being handled in there, but it was where the adults in our neighborhood went to unwind, and one of my mom’s favorite places. In hindsight it might have been a bit inappropriate for me and my four-year old brother to be there, but the occasion called for it. When I close my eyes I can still see the whole scene. My mother, whose hobby was sewing back then, made her outfit for the occasion, a black and white skirt suit with a black and white head wrap. She wore black leather stilettos by Bandalino, a brand she was loyal to until her back issues forced her out of four-inch heels. Her shoes had a black and white leather rose on them and she carried her black leather clutch. (The one she won’t pass on to me no matter how much I ask.) She was, as we say on such occasions, sharp. Or as my grandma would say she was “clean as the Board of Health.” I remember thinking she looked like a movie star walking in that place. I also remember that my mother had to work that day. She left work, maybe early, and went home to change before arriving to her party that evening, but she did have to travel to mid-town and work like she did any other day. Days off were a luxury in our house, I don’t know how many times I heard something to the effect of: “If I have to take a day off of work for this…” growing up. In any event, the party was a success. It was a modest affair and all of her buddies were on hand to wish her well with plenty of food, snacks and drinks for everyone. My stepdad helped me with the food and my mom’s girlfriend Lynda made sure she got there. She had a good time. I know she did. I could see it in her face all night long.
I have been thinking so much about her and that day for weeks and mostly thinking “I’m so not her.” As I started to seriously evaluate my life in this last run up to my birthday and think about who and what my mother was at forty, I didn’t feel as grown or as responsible or as together as she was to me back then. And I know I have a child’s perspective from that time, but this is not just random self-deprecation, she and I are very different.
My story is as cliché and as uniquely individual as any number of brown girls from the Bronx or other urban centers. In a nutshell: raised by a hard-working, single mom, who emphasized education and a strong work ethic. But my mother was also decidedly un-cliché, at least in my neighborhood. She found and enrolled me in an African centered daycare that began teaching me Swahili at three years old. Although she held customer service and clerical jobs for many years, she managed to pay for me to attend Catholic school when I could have easily gone to P.S. whatever number in the neighborhood. I couldn’t pledge allegiance to the flag in school and had to sit down with the Jehovah’s Witness girls every morning. When teachers asked me why, I was instructed to say, “I can’t pledge allegiance to a country that won’t pledge allegiance to me.” I was in first grade.
My mother sent me to the library on weekends and made me do book reports – just for her. I also went to a pretty swanky summer camp upstate every summer. The other campers were Black and Latino and white kids from the upper West side. Their parents were doctors and professors and they went to schools like Fieldston and York Prep. I lived in public housing and went to a small parochial school, but if I wasn’t supposed to fit in no one ever told me. I was as smart and talented and charismatic as any of those campers and I learned a great deal about history and art and culture at that camp. What I didn’t learn until much later was that my mom used her income tax return money every year to pay for me to go. The only lump sum of money most working class people can look forward to in order to get nice things or go nice places is their income tax return. My mother has never been on vacation, but I never missed a summer at Goddard. She also put me in program after program: Cadet Corps, drill team, African dance class, track team – some of which came with a price, all of which came with amazing experiences that shaped my childhood and my life. By the time my mother’s 40th birthday came I had traveled around the country, been to the White house and met world leaders. When I wanted to campaign for David Dinkins she let me. When I wanted to protest about Yusef Hawkins and the Central Park 5 she let me. When I wanted to travel half way across the country to join a national youth leadership program, she let me. If it would expand my horizons, broaden my knowledge base or enrich my life she let me do it, even when she couldn’t do the same things and even when she sometimes couldn’t afford it – she found a way and she let me.
I have been anticipating my 40th birthday for a while now. Like a number of my fellow early ’70s babies, the last few years have been an interesting mix of anxiety, preparation, anticipation and dread. Over the last two years however, I have started releasing some of the typical fears around leaving my thirties and have begun embracing this ever-present sense of freedom that planted itself in my spirit when I was still a child. I feel more determined to do the work I had put off for half of my thirties: writing, working with brown girls, and being fabulous (yes, that’s real work) and that is a wonderfully fulfilling feeling. But I recognize my privilege.
My mother is a great writer. If I have any talent as a writer at all I have to acknowledge it in deference to her. She is incredibly well read, and made sure I was too – early. I once asked her why she read so many books and she said “Because it makes you smart and who can dispute that?” She is also a social and economic justice advocate. It was partly watching my mother fly into action to advocate for those who had difficulty finding advocates that taught me about fighting for what’s right and against what’s wrong. She would have been an amazing activist and organizer, but social justice workers don’t get paid enough to put a child in private school and send them to fancy camps. I know because I tried.
When my daughter was born and I realized that I would be raising her pretty much as a single parent I was scared. I came home to live with my mom for eighteen months and took a job as an organizer for a small anti-sweatshop organization in Brooklyn. It paid next to nothing and I couldn’t pay my mom much rent. She told me to save up my money so I can move when I’m ready. I did move, a year and a half later, I moved back south. It was a big, risky decision, but she supported it. I moved to Montgomery, AL and got a regular job for a while (regular meaning in an office) but still social justice related. But after three years, my “real” work was calling me. I quit my job and moved to Selma, AL. I took a significant pay cut – meaning no pay – but I was doing everything I loved. My mom, who worked hard to find positions for herself that had upward mobility, and who had gone back to college to earn her Bachelors degree, surely didn’t get it, but she didn’t verbalized it to me. Soon after I moved to Selma I decided to actively pursue writing again. I was accepted into a highly regarded fellowship program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. The program lasted four months, but I couldn’t bring my daughter. My mother volunteered to take her. A few more years passed and I decided to leave the South. I had no idea where I was going or how I was getting there – with little money, but I packed up nonetheless. When I said to my mom, “I’m not sure where I’m going and I don’t have a job yet, but I’m leaving here.” She replied, “alright…but are you sure about that?” I said yes and that was it. By the summer I was ready to wrap things up in Alabama but had a lot of ripping and running to do. Again, my mom volunteered to take her granddaughter while I handled things. Everything worked out fine and now I’m in Philadelphia.
As I sit here writing this post I have about four tabs open on my computer. Each represents a different project I’m working on. Even though I have never worked a ‘conventional’ job in my whole career, this past May I was laid off from the job I had for the last four plus years. While it was a bit of a set back initially, ultimately it was a blessing. I was freed up to really dig into these projects that I have been putting off for so long and I’m also free to give my baby girl the kind of attention she needs going into her junior year in high school. In fact, at forty, I almost feel like the world tells you to feel in your 20s – like anything is possible and I can ‘be’ what I want to be but that’s not the kind of grown my mom represented at forty. She was stable. She was consistent and she kept a spotless house (no comment). And she didn’t seem to lean on my grandmother the way I lean on her. Not just financially (mommy, I’mma get you back I promise.) but emotionally and in other ways. She also didn’t seem to focus on herself and her personal aspirations as much as she did on mine. And as intentional as I am about raising my daughter and shaping her childhood to position her well for the future, I haven’t sacrificed my dreams or set aside my ambitions to do so. My mother surely had other aspirations for her life and there are probably roads she would have discovered just by following her heart as I have. Instead, she hunkered down, found stability, and gave me that freedom.
My mother was who she was at forty so I could be who I am at forty.
She made me brave. She made me curious. She made me resilient. And she made me free.
I don’t think she had some blueprint or master plan for how she wanted me to turn out, she just believed that I could be anything I wanted to be and made me see that I had something valuable to contribute to the world and then found every way she possibly could to prepare me to do and be just that.
Being forty, at least for me, isn’t about harboring shame or disappointment about who I’m not at this point in my life. It is a celebration of who I’ve become and who I’m becoming. I don’t know what the immediate future holds anymore than the next person. But I do know that whatever happens next and whatever direction I go in, I will be true to myself, I will work hard and smart to achieve my goals and I will not be afraid to fail, because my mom made me that way.