What child understands his parents? I liked to watch mine dressed up and leaving for parties. I knew they made a handsome couple. Both had shapely hands and wide, bright smiles; my father's hair was inky black then and my mother's complexion, now much paler, was more the color called butterscotch. I took in, intoxicated, the, different and specific smells they left on their respective pillows. My knowledge of my parents was sensual, as objects.onto which my attention sometimes lighted. This was also the way I knew myself, as, a material body down upon which I gazed, as a face I met in mirrors, as a voice that did not sound like my own on tape recordings. In other words, acquaintance with my parents and myself being a sensual thing of sight, sound, and smell, it can be said that I hardly knew us at all. Only later was I able to appreciate mood and motivation, how individual personality and cultural convention, and perhaps even something like biological predisposition, combined to make my parents and me what we were. My father was, I think, unusual in that he did not swear or drink or gamble. He liked to maintain control. If I now understand that my father loved me in a way that was actually quite tender and that he had deep affections, I know also that he learned well how to hide &mdash if not deny &mdash his feelings.
My mother was better at the yin-yang of emotional relationships. An outgoing woman, she expressed naturally the softer sentiments of affection and caring. As an African-American wife and mother, she found resources needed to support her man and keep her family safe and intact. I cannot remember my mother ever saying that she loved me, but (unlike with my father) I knew that she did. I'd made for her a necklace of navy beans that I'd softened with boiling, strung together with needle and thread, then dipped into red paint and left in the sun to dry. The next morning, Mother's Day, she wore my necklace to church. The day was bright and hot and the enamel paint ran, ruining the blouse and staining red her flesh, but she spoke only of how beautiful people said her necklace was. It was my mother who nursed me through a case of the mumps. When the swelling descended from my throat to my chest, Dr. Jackson, the family physician, worried that if the swelling continued to descend I might be rendered sterile. I was too young to understand the word, but when he left, Murr looked at me with a fierceness that tore through the fog of my fever. "The doctor says you must get well," she said. "The swelling must stop." I remember how odd this order felt, my mother talking to me but throwing her voice like a ventriloquist into my future. Perhaps it was from there that the healing came, for the next day the swelling had stopped and the fever was broken. That was my mother. She knew me before I knew myself and spoke to a future for which I as yet had no name. She was down on her hands and knees, altogether engaged with me in the mess of my life. She was strict and beat me, and when I got too big for that, she'd ground me; yet when my father tried to teach me how to drive and we both were absolutely nuts after just ten minutes, she got in, the car, spoke soothingly, and easily put me through maneuvers so that I got my license in time for the senior prom. She was stricter than my father, but she was also farseeing and chose to support me when I wanted to go away to college. She made mistakes but said the important thing between people was to always be able
talk, "just talk about it," she said. She was an exceptional woman who cooked and cleaned and shopped and bathed and watched over the sick, yet I regarded both her tasks and her concerns for me as unexceptional, as just what a mother always did. My thoughts reflect the assumptions of a society in which it is the good opinion of the man &mdash the male gaze &mdash that counts.
My mother was a jazz fan. Her mother, Florence Hawkins, sang onstage (her signature piece was "My Man Bill"), and her showgirl aunt, Caroline Snowden, was a name star in the earliest moments of black cinema. Murr never performed onstage, but she had an excellent ear and distinct tastes, and like so much else in her life, she domesticated her musical gifts to fit circumstances. For example on Saturdays the day we cut the lawns at the apartments and worked around the house, my father liked to wake my brothers and me by yelling out a hearty" All right! Hit the deck!" This kind of wake-up call was like being drenched in cold water,and we left our beds with an attitude. My mother played it differently. When she got up, and on her way into the kitchen to make our breakfast, she'd set a long-play 33 on the stereo set. It might be Oscar Peterson or Ahmad Jamal on the piano, perhaps Stuff Smith with his fiddle, Andre Previn or Cal Tjader; she even had Dave Brubeck playing his now-classic "Take Five." Ten or fifteen minutes of cool jazz as a backdrop to the sounds of a newly forming day, and by the time she came into our rooms to quietly announce that it was time to get up, we were ready.
But mothers generally get short shrift. Burdened with unrealistic expectations, even in a pro-feminist age, they are held responsible for their children's happiness and for the social and emotional well-being of their family. Mothers are idealized like the Virgin Mary and bashed like the Philip Roth character in Portnoy's Complaint. According to Freud, when we reflect on our mothers we are reduced to primary process thinking &mdash the thinking of young children. I admit to being baffled when I imagine my mother as a 16-year-old, the age at which she met my father (and only a little older when she married him). It is easier to think of him as a man (he was 21 years old and had already served years in the service), but she was just a girl at a time in which it was not unusual for a young woman to go directly from her father's house to her husband's, from daughter to wife and mother without a break. This was the rapid transit of many young women of the Greatest Generation.