Every time I talk to my mom on the phone, just as I’m getting ready to say goodbye, she slips in an abrupt update about her parents — my grandparents. Sometimes they’re in Switzerland. Sometimes they’re in Loma, Montana. Sometimes they’ve gotten “mixed up with bad people.” Sometimes they’ve completely disappeared or died mysteriously. Sometimes it sounds like a government conspiracy — a murder plot. At first, I didn’t know what to say in return. I’d ask how they died or what they were doing in Switzerland. In more recent conversations, I tried to place her back in reality. I’d say, “Mom, your parents have been dead for forty years.” I’d ask her how old they were and she would say 60, 70, or 75. She’s not sure. She says that all the time: I’m not sure. “How old are you?” I ask, and she laughs and says, “Oh, I think I’m about 25.” Once she said she was 18. She’s actually 88 years old.
For about two years now, my mother has been fighting with Alzheimer’s and the dementia that comes from that disease. She’s had years of struggle with diabetes and epilepsy — but her mental condition was always sharp. A lifelong democrat and the mother of six, Patsy loved sewing, making quilts, reading mystery novels, and watching Seattle Mariners baseball while enjoying a Pepsi (never Coke). I am her youngest son.
In 2015, she fell off a street curb and hit her head. She didn’t tell me about this until a week later. She prefaced the story of this accident by insisting that she was fine and only suffered some scrapes on her face and arm. I asked if she went to the hospital to make sure she didn’t break any bones or have a concussion. She said my brother, Mark, her main caregiver, took her to the emergency room but she left when they wanted to do some tests on her. She has long believed that doctors were just trying to take her money — which she has very little of anyway. I tried to chide her for not staying for the tests, for some kind of care, but she was stubborn and said it wasn’t necessary.
Meg first appeared to me as a nimbus of curly red hair, looming above my top bunk late at night. The hair, backlit and aglow, was so remarkable that I reached up and patted it as though it were a rare creature. Meg offered the nervous, extra-buoyant “hi” of the girlfriend meeting the boyfriend’s kid for the first time. In reply, I stroked the hair.
I was five; she was 25. Just a few weeks before, she had met my dad at an art opening. He was up-front about the fact that he was 37, divorced, with a 15-year-old and a five-year-old. She was working the second shift at a hospital, reading dense Buddhist texts, hanging out with a band of artists whose blue velvet berets and psychedelic hand-stenciled trunks would later color our house. They met in February and married in October. The ceremony was in the backyard of our old brick house near downtown Cincinnati. There was carrot cake, a smoldering fall sunset, an exchange of vows inspired by a California guru. Meg walked down the aisle to the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place.” In November of the following year, my brother Jackson was born. Read more…
On a still summer night in the last year of last century an overweight woman in a wheelchair appeared, as if an apparition, under a street lamp in a parking lot on the west end of campus. I had not seen her when I pulled my car in. It was an hour till midnight, and I was covered in sand.
I’d spent the night playing volleyball and had returned home to married student housing where I was summering with a friend’s wife, while he interned in Minneapolis. She was a nurse who worked nights, and I was an English major lazing between my junior and senior year. We rarely saw each other; the only complication in our cohabitation resulted from my inability to lift the toilet seat when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. In the mornings we’d cross paths and she’d tell me, again, that it was no fun to come home and sit in piss.
That night in the dark parking lot, the woman rolled her heavy body from behind a street-lamp. “Excuse me,” she said, coming closer.
“Hi!” she said cheerfully. “Can you, uh—would you be able to give me a ride home?”
She worked at a telemarketing place near the corner of University Ave. and 42nd St. Work had let out, but the buses had stopped running, and she needed a way home. She crossed the busy intersection and wheeled into the expansive parking lot waiting for someone to help her. I was tired and dirty. I just wanted to slink into the stuffy efficiency, shower, and distract myself to sleep with PlayStation. But here she sat.
“Sure,” I said. “Sure, I’ll give you a ride home.”
There is no grand unified theory of motherhood. Within every paradigm–chosen families, queer families, nuclear families, adoptive and foster families, on and on– mothering may vary a million times over. In this Mother’s Day reading list, I’ve attempted a rough chronology, from pregnancy to mourning, concluding with information about the crucial, joyful National Black Mama’s Bail Out Day.
This is an essay about your mom: her Hooters uniform, her Mensa card, her abstinence, and the potency of mother-love:
What would I want for my daughter?
The answer was always correct and its implementation reliably unpleasant. Human intimacy, so she suffered hugs until she became enthusiastic with affection. Honesty, so she said what she meant. Love, so she showed hers.
Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, and its film adaptation, Carol, are the rare queer stories with happy endings. Writer Melissa Moorer sees reflections of herself in the story’s cast of characters and analyzes how representation affects the possibilities we see and don’t see for ourselves and our parents.
4. “Mama.” (Jasmine Sanders, Catapult, March 2016)
Is Mama a title to be earned or a biological fact? If it is the latter, does the exaltation, the importance of blood require me to love my mother unquestioningly and unconditionally? Or, if there are conditions, who determines them?
My grandmother, my adoptive mom, raised me. She is the salt and marrow of who I am, and when I hear the word Mama, the hollow, red ache in my chest belongs to her. My mother, between her six children, would have spent almost five years of her life pregnant and swollen. Half a dozen times, she made room in her lovely body to house a person only to have it ripped apart when they left. She split open at the seam and I slid into the world, ribbons of her blood curled under my tongue. I am left wondering, now: Does that mean anything? Should it?
It’s one thing to cloak your familial angst in the guise of fiction or wait for your relatives to die in order to air your grievances. George Hodgman did neither. Instead, he wrote the New York Times bestselling memoir Bettyville. It’s about his decision to leave New York City and its freedoms for small-town Paris, Missouri, to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty. Hodgman talks craft, secrecy, and identity in this hilarious and honest interview.
I watched Sally Potter’s Orlando for the first time last week, so I’m giving myself over to the throes of a Virginia Woolf obsession. It’s a long time coming–I’m a queer former English Lit major, for God’s sake. Anyway, Christopher Frizzelle has written a delightful piece of literary criticism, delving into To The Lighthouse’s Big Revealand the textual variations spearheaded by Woolf herself.
It’s true that the pain wears off, slightly, around the edge, like a knife in need of whetting. But here’s what they’re missing: It gets harder to explain to myself why I haven’t seen her. A month can make sense. (I took a trip; she was busy with work.) Even six months is excusable. (I moved; she’s on sabbatical.) But how to make sense of more than three years worth of distance?
It’s an initiative to free moms who can’t afford bail in time for this Mother’s Day:
The idea for Mama’s Bail Out Day is about “naming the massive impact cash bail is having on families and on black mamas,” says Mary Hooks, the Atlanta-based co-director of Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The idea came to her out of the haze of the election last November, she says, a way to enact “abolition in the now.”
It is also a campaign that’s deliberately expansive in its definition of motherhood, “queer and trans, old and young,” Hooks says, “all the many ways in which we are mothered, and have chosen family. We want to honor black mothers who have held us down in a myriad of ways, whether that’s SONG elders or the first lesbian you meet at the bar when you come out, who teach us things, mothered us along the way and helped raise us.”
You can read the rest of Melissa Gira Grant’s coverage of the Mama’s Bail Out at Pacific Standard. WUNC interviewed mother-daughter activists Courtney and Serena Sebring about their work with S.O.N.G. Dani McClain covered the Bail Out at The Nation.
This essay, recommended by Longreads contributor Maud Newton, is by the writer Elizabeth Bachner and appears in the current issue of Hip Mama magazine. The first issue of Hip Mama was published in December, 1993, by the founding editor, Ariel Gore, as a multicultural forum for radical mothers. Our thanks to Elizabeth Bachner and Hip Mama Magazine for allowing us to reprint this essay here.Read more…
I first noticed “mama” while pregnant with my son in 2012. I was browsing on the internet—familiarizing myself the different types of mothers out there, trying to figure out what kind of mother I might become—when I noticed a number of alternative moms who referred to themselves as “mama.” This was the radical homemaking, attachment parenting, extended breastfeeding bunch, and “mama” was right at home with their folksy, back-to-the-earth approach to motherhood.
This use of mama can be traced back to women like Ariel Gore, who began publishing her alternative parenting magazine “Hip Mama” in 1993. Inspired by her experience as an urban single mom, the magazine became the source of parenting advice for riot grrrl types, tattooed and pierced women who wanted to find a way to embrace parenthood while simultaneously rejecting much of the bourgeois accouterment that comes along with it.
“Here’s the thing, I can’t change the health of the world alone, but I’m absolutely convinced that as a group, women and moms can. … Not only are we raising the next generation, feeding them, teaching them, etc but we control the majority of food dollars spent around the world.”
She continues by explaining that being a “Wellness Mama” is a way for women to counter any criticism they might receive for being a stay-at-home mom. “I hope to make being #justamom just a little easier for you.” Mama isn’t just a pet name, it’s a manifesto. Read more…
In Bloomberg Businessweek, Claire Suddath reports that there are only two countries in the world that don’t have some type of legally protected, partially paid leave for working women who just had a baby: Papua New Guinea and the U.S. The result is another big gap between the haves and have-nots:
The policies vary widely across industries and pay grades. A BLS survey of “business, management, and finance” workers—basically, those in white-collar jobs—found that 26 percent of them get paid leave. At many Silicon Valley companies, which compete for talent, new parents have it made. Facebook offers a little more than four months to everyone. Google offers five for mothers and three for fathers or new adoptive parents. The company developed its policy a few years ago when it noticed that many new mothers were quitting their jobs. After it added two more months and offering full pay, the number of new mothers who left the company dropped by half.
Some older companies also have generous policies. Goldman Sachs offers four paid months, and General Electric offers two months to moms and two weeks to dads or other parents. Waitresses and sales clerks are often out of luck; only 6 percent of service workers get anything at all. That means the ability to adjust to parenthood, learn to breast-feed, and manage a newborn becomes a luxury only certain people can afford. “We have these policies set up from the Mad Men era when dads worked and moms stayed at home. But that doesn’t reflect the American workforce anymore,” says Gillibrand, who as partner at the Manhattan law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner wrote the firm’s maternity leave policy in 2002.
Perhaps the greatest influence on the “Jewishness” of these men were their mothers. Many of the major Jewish mobsters, including Meyer Lansky, Dutch Schultz, Lepke Buchalter, Longy Zwillman, and Mickey Cohen, as well as those I interviewed, revered their mothers. Family and friends recounted to me how these men doted on their mothers and treated them with utmost kindness and respect. In the 1979 book Meyer Lansky: Mogul of the Mob, Lansky told Israeli journalist Uri Dan how his mother “hated to see us go hungry, and she was always ready to give us her share because, like every Jewish mother in the neighborhood, she gladly sacrificed herself for her children.” These mens’ relationship with their fathers was more problematic. Part of this resulted from the fathers never reconciling to their sons’ criminal way of life.
Jewish mothers sacrificed for their children, but they expected something in return. One of their requests was that their sons sei Yidden (be Jews) and maintain a connection with the Jewish community. At least during their mothers’ lifetime, a goodly number of these tough Jewish mobsters obeyed. Detroit mobster Harry Kasser told me in a 1986 conversation that he attended synagogue on the High Holidays solely to please his mother. All of the old-time Jewish mobsters I interviewed could speak Yiddish and practiced some of the Jewish customs. Most of their closest friends and associates in crime and outside of crime were Jews; they married Jewish women (at least their first wives) in ceremonies conducted by rabbis; they contributed to Jewish causes; they attended synagogue on the High Holidays; and they circumcised their sons and made bar mitzvahs.
—Robert Rockaway writing for Tablet about the paradoxical nature of Jewish mobsters, who stole, murdered and “still saw religious observance as an integral part of their identity.”
When I arrived in her room, my mother was crying. She cried a lot that first night, and then, the next day, she cried some more because she was certain Christopher Hitchens had done no such thing, and she was devastated at the thought that she might not be as brave as him about death.
It terrified me to see her cry like that. She loved me, showered me with gifts, e-mailed or called every time I wrote something that made her proud. But even after all the weekly meals, the shared vacations, the conversations about movies and journalism and the debt ceiling and Edith Wharton, I still viewed her with a mix of awe and intimidation. It wasn’t often that I caught a glimpse of her vulnerability.
Now there she was, in her Chanel flats and her cream-colored pants and her black-and-white-striped blouse, looking so pretty and so fragile as she dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex; and I finally understood what she meant when she said she was a bird — that she wasn’t just talking about her looks but something inside as well.