My mother had many appellatives. Mamapapa, also Mapa, and Mama Bookworm were the two that stuck hardest. The name Mamapapa is said to have begun with my eldest sister, who as an infant, had identified my mother as both her mother and father when she was asked to identify each parent, even though she lived in a home with both her mother and father present. Perhaps my sister knew something then that the adults were unwilling to admit. Mama Bookworm came later.
My mother was an avid reader and strong believer in education; she had opened a bookstore slash stationery store in the 1960s named “The Bookworm” and so the name stuck.She was undoubtedly a complex woman. Even though I spent all my growing years with her, I feel that I knew her only in part. An older cousin of mine had once described my mother as a difficult woman. It had annoyed me then because I thought that description of my mother most unfair. I still consider that remark that was perhaps not intended to harm, carelessly made, inappropriate and unfair.
When people have vastly different values, it is easy to confuse being principled with being difficult. My mother was a highly principled person. She often saw things as clearly right or clearly wrong, in a country where poverty and greed had made both concepts one and the same. She struggled with the concept of the gray areas in between. The harder the society she lived in pushed her to accept more of what she considered unacceptable as acceptable, the harder she strove to stand by what she believed to be right. Some people had trouble with her insistence on doing the right thing because they correctly knew that the society at large would not support the right thing. For reasons best known to her, my mother chose to adhere to her principles.
Swaying with the tides is sometimes an effective tool for self-preservation, but my mother chose to stick with the facts as she knew them even when doing so did not favor her. She would be more appropriately labeled an idealist by those who thought her to be a difficult person. My mother’s difficulty was in accepting the unfairness of the world she lived in and her inability to effect change that she considered meaningful. My mother was not always right. However, I am grateful for her ability to help me develop a sense of fair play and a conscience.
I don’t know that anyone, including myself, ever took enough of the necessary time to understand my mother in any great depth. Some of my siblings and I have taken pot shots at unraveling the person who was our mother over the years. I have frequently left those sessions feeling that we had had a good exercise in expressive language skills but we were none the closer to our intended goal. She undoubtedly loved her children fiercely but she often expressed great disappointed in them; sometimes rightfully so but more times than she ever realized incorrectly so.
Looking back, much of the misunderstandings that arose between my mother and her children over the years were precipitated by misinformation, miscommunication and less frequently, on a lack of communication.There were times when it was purely a matter of the inability to bridge the generation gap between mother and children or because too many people sought to interpret the conversations between mother and children usually for their own benefit and not our family’s.
One cannot speak of my mother without speaking of her children because it seemed that she lived solely for them once she became a mother. Living ones life solely for ones children is a risky investment because there is no guarantee of how things will turn out. As Forest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” My mother took the greatest gamble; she placed all her hopes in her children – those creatures that came from her flesh, perhaps because her hopes had been dashed too often everywhere else and they were a source of new hope. She often spoke of her children as the houses that she built, but she was often too busy masking hurt that had mounted over the years with feet firmly planted in the soil of a society that took from her immensely more than it ever gave to her or could ever give to her, to relish her children’s successes as she much as she could have.
Pain like fire can refine a person, but excessive pain can kill. It can kill one’s dreams and aspirations. It can kill hope. Dreams deferred can die an agonizing death or simply form a cloudy film over our inner eyes; blinding us slowly but surely to whatever joy is left for life to bring. My mother knew much pain, both in the physical and emotionally sense. She knew what it was to be violated. She knew the helplessness one feels sitting face to face with armed robbers in ones own home while they take things that one had worked many years to obtain. The scars on her body were constant reminders of the floggings she had suffered as a child.
She knew what it was to live in a society where the law does not uphold justice for the downtrodden but rather supports the cause of the wealthiest and the most conniving. However, it was the death of two sons that devastated her and brought her the most anguish. She never did recover from the death of her eldest son. She had been strong through the loss of her youngest son who had died in boyhood, but she fell apart with the death of a grown man who treated her with unbridled compassion; such as she had never known from any other man. She could no longer tolerate jokes about death and took great offence when her father dismissed her son’s death lightly. Death had become much more than a fact of life to her.
I wondered why my mother wavered between being disappointed in her children and being so proud of them, but now I understand that life can be like that. Our children’s seeming imperfections are not always our fault. We cannot take responsibility for anyone else’s shortcomings. We also can not expect every child to turn out as we wish. Perhaps, in addition, some of the disappointment she sometimes expressed in her children was precipitated by the expectation that the children she loved so completely would all reciprocate her love and devotion with equal fervor. Only an idealist like my mother would expect this and dwell on it as she did. It is impossible for all children to show love the same way. Individual lives and personality dictate how and how much devotion, care and concern each person wishes to or chooses to dispense to another.
Beyond the children, I now understand that my mother craved a life of her own but didn’t know how to reclaim it. That yearning for things lost was what ignited her anger over seemingly inconsequential things. Perhaps some of the disappointment she expressed was not so much in her children as in her own inability to wrestle control of her life from a culture that had bound her with lies disguised sometimes as duty to family and heritage while successfully limiting her ability to fully develop herself as a person.
My mother had idolized her grandmother; the woman who served as mother in the absence of her own and who served as complimentary mother even when hers was available. My mother prayed to live to a ripe old age and to die in the arms of those she loved. She did live into her early eighties and she did die at home literarily in her eldest child’s arms. However, she was not beyond the travails of the elderly before she died. My elderly mother was confounded by the fact that she was not as strong and not as quick. She could not garden as she had just a few years before.
She sometimes got confused as it had become more difficult to know whom to believe or trust. Years of living, hard work, childrearing and personal challenges had taken their toll on her. Individuals that she thought that she had helped to move beyond circumstances of deprivation and deceit were no better off than when she had first encountered them. Liars were still liars and thieves were still thieves. In fact the nation was worse off in terms of morals and values. Except for particular individuals, she often found her generous nature had become a magnet that attracted those who wanted what she had more than one for those who cared about her.
The day my mother declared that she was happy, was not different than any other. The sun was no brighter. There were no portents. I just so happened to be visiting with her at her house. She was wearing a pair of amethyst earrings, dressed in a pink flowered skirt and plain tee shirt. She was sitting in her living room in a chair with its back to a framed photograph of her grandmother which was hanging on the wall. Although we were aware of each other, we were both wrapped up in our own individual thoughts. We were not having a conversation.My thoughts focused on her hands and how much older they looked. The skin on her hands was no longer supple but was more like wrinkled old leather. For a moment, she looked up at me as if to assess my state of mind. Then abruptly, she casually announced that she was happy. “I am very happy. I am the happiest I have ever been.” Since this was not her typical way of communicating, I recall looking at her quizzically. I do not know what precipitated those words and she did not care to explain.