I'm thinking at the moment about Christina Crawford's unforgiving memoir, Mommy Dearest, in which with just 216 pages the author transformed actress Joan Crawford's image from that of iconic Hollywood legend to maniacal abusive mother of the year. I'm also considering the urban lit classic Mama Black Widow, where masterful storyteller Iceberg Slim (a.k.a. Robert Beck) paints a chilling portrait of one Sedalia Tilson. In Slim's 1969 novel, we meet a black family transplanted from rural Mississippi to hipster Chicago and observe a mother so brutally desperate to control her family that she instead ends up mangling her children both physically and psychologically.
Although these are not the kind of images that inspire-or in some cases twist us pretzel-like with shame and guilt-millions of us to make sure we honor our mothers at least once a year, the freezing cold heartless fact is that every year some 200 mothers usher the same children they brought into this world right back out again. Small wonder that literary and film portraits of mothers range from the heroic and saintly to the tragic and monstrous. Somewhere between the two extremes stands the reality of a human life as wounded by sorrow as it is graced with integrity.
The first literary work I produced about my mother, the late Mrs. WillieMae Griffin Lloyd, was the poem titled Return to Savannah (which currently resides on page 108 of ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love ). I did not write it to present to her as a token of appreciation for Mother's Day or her birthday. Nor did I write it to spew across paper acid rants about memories of maltreatment, negligence, or other childhood traumas that had followed me into adulthood and periodically stunned my brain with revelations of just how tough I'd sometimes had it. I wrote Return to Savannah because we had come to a point where we were both adults and sharing space within a house where the priorities of our separate lives rarely matched and I needed to cultivate a functional understanding of her as a human being in her own right rather than simply as MY mother or as anybody's anything else at all.
Her job as the reigning matriarch of our five-generation African-American family required constant interaction with grandchildren and great-grandchildren, motivating her for a time to act like many of the parents' in the family on-call Supernanny. Soon enough, however, it became clear that despite her loving intentions, she was more in need of receiving care than she was capable of providing it.
For my part, I had recently returned to the United States after military service overseas, become a single man again, and needed the kind of introspective space that all serious writers require at some point when plotting to make a major leap forward in their careers. It wasn't about to happen if I remained preoccupied with arguments over a disruptive stream of garrulous relatives-whether much loved or not-- or resentment over an obvious lack of regard for my creative ambitions. I could also have heaped upon the burning pile of those aggravations any number of wounds from childhood days and become a very bitter soul indeed. It occurred to me, however, that the one most out of place within our shared environment was the writer, not the matriarch.
What I needed to do was learn to understand, accept, and possibly even celebrate, the person my mother was within the context of her own skin. I meditated for days on what I knew of her life: growing up in the hills of northwest Georgia where winters froze the ground as solid as icebergs, and she and her six siblings would gather in front of the fireplace or around the wood-burning stove of their thin-walled sharecropper's cabin to preserve heat and sanity. Summer was a switch flipped to the opposite extreme. From that life to marriage at nineteen, becoming a widow by the age of thirty-six in the apartheid American South of the 1950s, and soldiering on to raise ten children by herself.
It was true that the pain, challenges, and triumphs of her life neither negated nor diminished those of mine but it was also true, it seemed to me, that they were sufficient cause for respect independent of that obligated by our blood kinship. Some thought along those lines must have crossed my mind the day I finally picked up a pen and felt it quake in my hands as the lines of Return to Savannah came rumbling out of it. And so there she was: standing as bold, black, and beautiful in the lines of a poem as in her life.
Yet there I was too, in lines parallel to, but separate from, hers. By recognizing the biographical forces that had shaded her personality and shaped her destiny, I uncovered within myself a capacity for forgiveness that in turn expanded my ability to render a more complete, and more honest, portrait of an individual.
Causes Aberjhani * Supports
I make contributions to a number of charities through my lenses on Squidoo but the following are a few that interest me the most: