where the writers are
How I Wrote about My Mother within the Context of Her Own Skin
bibliomaniac
A bouquet of award-winning art and poetry called ELEMENTAL, just right for Mother's Day.
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books
Portrait of family matriarch Mrs. WillieMae Griffin Lloyd (photo by Wallace E. Lloyd Sr.)

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. 

 

NEXT: PART 2 at http://www.redroom.com/blog/aberjhani/how-i-wrote-about-my-mother-within-context-her-own-skin-part-2-2

 

 by Aberjhani

 

 

Comments
9 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

This is such a memorable journey

To be able to recount such moments of closeness with an element of intellectual understanding is indeed something.

"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."

I spent years thinking of my mother as heroic etc and now I realise it was with some rather reckless decisions in my life that I transposed her rectitude. Is it then a matter of perspective only?

"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?"

Yes, we tend to project. Or see her as the 'role', and often the role is assigned by us. I admit that there have been times I have seen my mother as a 'character'...it isn't a negative thing in itself but it says a lot about how we like to imbue even the one who has brought us into this world.

Look forward to the rest of the series...

~F

Comment Bubble Tip

Thank you Farzana

The ability to describe sensitive moments with some intellectual clarity is one I've had to work at because it was basically essential to my peace of mind, and because I felt my mother had earned the right to such considerations. 

 

Aberjhani
Founder of Creative Thinkers International
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

Comment Bubble Tip

This deserves Best Blog exposure

Thank you, thank you, for this post, Aberjhani. If humanity could attain this kind of perspective on race and all the issues that divide people and nations, there would surely be peace on earth.
I myself have an ethnic forebear and my mother was the kind of matriarch you describe, except that, where she herself was the eldest girl of a large family, she gave birth to me only. All her values were African. She never did understand the European culture I represented and pitted herself against it to her dying day. It was hard to bear and, although I strove to do her nothing but good and even to protect her from herself and the world, I don't think I attained your quality of grace. In the end, I resorted to putting physical distance between us in order to salvage my own sanity. The best I've been able to do is to treat it with humour and to believe that somewhere, in the scale of eternity, my prayers and goodwill have not gone amiss for either of us.

Comment Bubble Tip

Some powerful dynamics indeed

 The so-called generational divide is almost like a trick that time plays on us, isn't it, allowing some to see and interact beyond the restrictions of yesteryear while so many of those we love remain mentally or emotionally trapped by the pain of the past. The dynamics of the experience you describe are quite profound and I can see how it would have driven you to a need for self-preserving space. Thanks for sharing.

 

Aberjhani
Founder of Creative Thinkers International
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

Comment Bubble Tip

Glorious!

Simply Glorious, Aberjhani!

Thank you very much for reaching the hearts of All God's Children!

Truly,

Catherine Nagle

Comment Bubble Tip

Likewise Catherine

From my visit to your profile I see that you have penned quite a few heart-illuminating works. I'm looking forward to spending some time with them.

Aberjhani
Founder of Creative Thinkers International
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

Comment Bubble Tip

Return to Savannah is simply

Return to Savannah is simply beautiful.
It´s a complex relationship, that with our parents. I lost my mother when I was 7, and I always thought my stepmother to be very strict, very demanding with me. She was very hard to please. Years later, as an adult I realized that SHE was the one who was trying to be perfect all the time. She was trying to be the perfect mother. It was hard for her to compete against my mother´s memory, and my presence and resemblance to my mother reminded her of that all the time. We get along pretty well now, but like you I´ve learned to look at her as a separate person and I don´t expect her to give any more than she is capable of.

Comment Bubble Tip

Complex is very good word

 "Complex" is probably one of the most accurate words anyone could use to describe most, if not all, parent and offspring relationships. I'm glad you were able to make that leap forward in regard to your stepmother. 

 And I'm glad also that you enjoyed reading Return to Savannah. At this point, it has been anthologized quite a few times, so I'm grateful to my mother for the inspiration to write it.

 Aberjhani 
Founder of Creative Thinkers International  
author of The American Poet Who Went Home Again 
and Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (Facts on File)

Comment Bubble Tip

Golden Hat and Green Wrapping Paper

Aberjhani, 

I appreciate your writing, all the comments everyone made, and the photo of your mother wearing a golden hat.   Even a green wrapping paper on the photo is therapeutic to me.  I belong to this blog.