By Meta Commerse
Ode to Billie Joe played on the radio the other day as I pulled into my garage, and the deep, familiar sound and feel of it immediately carried me back to 1968, to Mama Adilisha dancing and singing that haunting story along with Bobbie Gentry… Not having planned such an abrupt return, I shut off my radio right after the phrase, “pass the biscuits please.” Magical music brought us together… relatable, big as a woman’s plight. How quickly we forget. Relief, in Roe v. Wade and the pill came just a few years later. Maybe it’s me, but, I remember no soundtrack for them.
That same summer, Linda Frye, who lived two doors down, flaunted her engorged, free-wheeling breasts, rolling side to side like little watermelons under her blouse, proudly pregnant as a high school graduate, holding her head high, waving her body as she walked, every step a “hello,” her whole body a smile, declared, answered our neighbors’ disbelief and chagrin. “I got the proof I need,” the deodorant slogan of the day, now borrowed by the pregnant girls, their joyous claim spoken over their pouting bodies, proof positive that they were loved, knew love, carried love.
Proud, happy, defiant, it’s true, but, headed where, to do what? To the single mom’s struggle, to a “career” of sacrifice, then, college after retirement? So it was in this conflicted hotbed of late ‘60’s revolution/women’s liberation, that I, too, would conceive. One Saturday afternoon – on the first day of that next summer – despite numerous chances to do otherwise, I embarked this path DETERMINED not to be just another Billie Joe or Linda, by any means, NOT just another statistic, another poor black girl pregnant and abandoned. No, I was DETERMINED to be more, be better, do a better job. Beat these odds. DETERMINED. I took it on, all of it, jumped blindly into the deepest waters, pinching my nose. Jumped blindly, DETERMINED not to drown.
(for Aunt Dolores)
without spot or blemish
white as snow
perfection her modus
protects strong men and children
letting them pass and go
through her body
and careful dance moves
through scripted syllables
she parcels her sounds,
drops her smooth Christian
stones into that purple gunny sack
holds everything together
tightly, perfectly, powerfully
so much so
that her memory takes over after she’s gone.
she admits no limits, acknowledges no gap
between what she really knows
and what she professes
she runs and runs and runs and runs
for she’s still got it!
She can still move refrigerators
repair broken window panes,
change a lock at a moment’s notice,
produce enough milk
to run a butter factory!
Equally well slinging briefcase and skillet
changing diapers and the world blindfolded
dropping wisdom bombs on schedule
healing the sick
typing a hundred words a minute
any specialty jargon —
what you got? she can do it!
She cooks, irons, cleans, sews
does her own hair and make-up —
until the final act
when the clock strikes twelve,
and on that day
her dance steps
and will to entertain exhausted,
when she can deny her outdated ways and songs
she tells the time, nods her head
takes her bow, and
leaves the stage
cleaner, oh so much cleaner
than she found it.
In the Midst
This particular brand of gift bringing, not linear or circular, is, instead a chaotic smattering of hilarious, imperfect moments, curious cycles and opportunities to learn, to create, and experiment, all on the basis of unending sacrifice. In it, your body becomes this expanding storehouse of surprises, patience, miracles, support, and food manufacturing, where you remember that trouble don’t last always, that forgiveness is essential to sanity, and that you get blessed road signs to help you see where one chapter ends and the next begins. Where you finally learn that the word “post-partum” is really shorthand for the rest of your life, and, that the myth of a chaste, adoring and selfless motherhood is just that. That the day you finally run out of milk is the day you get to return to and reclaim your body as your very own, as your dear and most loyal friend.
From this eldering place, this two-fisted continuum of womanly life, wisdom feels ripe, and beauty – once your gold nugget – starts to morph and move everywhere now like mercury beads, as, on the one hand you watch your mother prepare to leave here by letting life go piece by piece, and where on the other hand, your Only Daughter, in a silent fantasy she crafts for herself, flirts fiercely with notions of perfection taking her everywhere away from you, everywhere that her mother isn’t.
Vibrant color splashed and faded with every birth, every childhood, every hope chest handed down from the ancestors through these convergent lineages and all the dreams and expectations that you have mothered from. Your learning, your healing from giving life in this place is endless, infinite, divine. If mothering is all things, it is crashing pain, breaking ocean waves, long labor, and an eventual, triumphant dawning of out-breaths and exhausted welcome. It is bliss, bright lights and a truckload of midnight regret. It is tears, toil, tearing, mother-fathering, awakening, homemaking, providing, punishing, teaching, coaching, stretching, nurturing, nursing, protecting, defending, loving, adapting, and yes, thanksgiving that the beastly machine out there didn’t get to devour your black sons. It is sighs of relief for the children you didn’t have. It is gradual mending and making peace with the power of your life as you look into the faces of your nearly grown grandsons and wonder who they will love. It is precious daughters-in-law who are kind and loving, and who gladly pick up the slack.
Alice Walker said “Mothering can be intuitive or learned,” pointing to the Great Mother whose ceaseless love is unconditional, and who makes no secret of her emotional truth. Alice also suggested that we reserve a whole decade to heal the world before we bring more babies into it. Now that’s a piece of elder wisdom to embrace. It conjures images of us sober and working diligently to resolve the crises in our homes and communities, finally making them safe for children to occupy. It makes us mindful of mothering, making the most of the choices we now have to be well and whole before giving more life. In Alice’s vision, we are worthwhile enough to be better, to take something for ourselves, worthwhile enough to put on the oxygen mask and learn to breathe fully before trying to teach our helpless, trusting babies how to sing. Ase’
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