Saturday, January 1, 2011
There Can Only Be One (Mom)
My mother, Mary Ellen Graham Shortt, passed from this material realm to the ‘Abha Kingdom on December 31, 2008 at approximately 4:50 pm. In the intervening two years, I’ve felt relieved that her physical and emotional pain has finally ended, and humbled that the Supreme Being has granted me peace and acceptance concerning her ascendancy. Last year, I remembered the day while recovering from hip surgery. I wanted to write something about her, but doing the zombie shuffle to the bathroom was all I could handle at the time. Making my way to my computer was a surprisingly painful amount of exertion, and the 2 tablets of 500 mg paracetamol and 5 mg hydrocodone (Vicodin) three times a day insured that I didn’t have mental clarity to handwrite anything.
This year, I’m recovering from foot surgery, a kidney infection and pneumonia, but I promised myself that the holiday season would not pass without writing a tribute to the woman who was my very first teacher, and whose words (and hands) of guidance has formed the solid granite foundation for my life. This is the very least I can do, while the most would be to become the woman she knew I could be. After all, I wasn’t a very easy child to handle. A hard-headed, rough and tumble Aries daughter born to a cultured, harmony-loving Libra mother is a guaranteed bundle of frustration and heartache.
I’ve asked my three adult children, Clarissa, Marc and Chenelle, to write and post their memories of their grandmother. I’m hoping this will be an annual event on Facebook, but one can never predict the outcome of these things. My offspring lead very busy lives while I don’t have much else to do except keep my doctor appointments and take my meds. I might as well start writing again, especially since I no longer have to take the heavy duty, mind-altering pain killers.
The memories of my earliest years are not my own, of course. They are stories Mom would tell me and anyone else within earshot. To my dismay and embarrassment, she loved to tell these stories during social gatherings: “Angela was such a beautiful baby!” (Translation: “Look at my child now! What happened to my sweet little baby doll?”) She looked like the angels had placed in an oven and took her out just as she turned a perfect golden brown!” (Inwardly, I shuddered as I visualized a group of slightly demented beings putting a big lump of manna on a countertop, rolling it out like cookie dough and using a one-use-only Angela-shaped cookie cutter to make my body.)
That wasn’t all. Apparently, I was the perfect baby, too. I only cried when wet, sleepy or hungry. Otherwise, I smiled, laughed, cooed and clapped my hands a lot. (My opinion is that I was a prodigious people-pleaser.) This joyful behavior delighted my mother and her friends so much that they talked about it sixteen years later as I tried to escape their fur-coat wearing, tightly hugging arms and red lacquered, cheek-kissing lips. By the time I reached my teens, I had begun to regard these stories as a source of anguish, an unspoken reminder of how beautifully angelic I was as an infant, and how disappointingly imperfect I had become as I ballooned into an overweight adolescent.
So when did I make the transition from a sweet little crowd pleasing cherub to a sweaty, football-playing, chubby tomboy-terror? Well, I was four years old, and our family, which consisted of Mom, Dad, me and my sister Tam at the time, lived on 8th Avenue in the Oak Park area of Sacramento, California. It was spring, and I know this because Tam and I received new tricycles for our birthday presents. No, we are not twins—Tam was born March 21, 1959 and I was born March 27, 1958. But our parents insisted on conjoined birthday parties and presents until we hit puberty.
There were a lot of African American families with kids living there on 8th Avenue at that time, and one family of those families had a son named Raymond. I don’t remember much about him except that he was around my age. His specific physical features may have passed from memory, but his actions remain vivid in my mind to this day. I was standing across the street from our house, and Tam was riding her tricycle on the sidewalk in front of our yard. Raymond had been asking Tam to let him ride her tricycle, but he was out of luck. Mom told us that she better not see a single scratch or dent on our birthday presents, so no one was getting a test ride.
But Raymond must have thought he was the exception to my mother’s dictates. He ran up to Tam, shoved her off the tricycle, and tried to wheel off. My sister slammed face-first into the sidewalk, knocking out her maxillary central incisors (two front teeth). I heard her scream as blood gushed from her mouth. After that, I heard nothing but the wind shrieking in my ears. The entire block looked like it was painted red. Suddenly, I felt myself running into something and hitting it very hard. It fell to the ground and I sat on top of it. My hands were balled into tight fists that seemed to have an intelligence of their own. My right fist swung effortlessly and landed soundly on some pliable tissue with a loud smack, and then the left fist repeated the action. Frankly, I was amazed that my hands seemed to know what to do so well. As if it was in a slow motion video, my brain began to emerge from its red-stained haze, and I saw that I had been pounding on Raymond’s face. I was breathing heavily and making these horribly primal grunts with every punch. Someone grabbed me from behind, and I screamed in rage until I was gasping for air.
There is a block of time that is missing from my memory. Somehow I moved from the sidewalk to our family’s living room, and I have no recollection of climbing up the stairs or walking through the front door. I do, however, remember staring at the carpet while listening to my mother’s stern voice.
“Angela Denise, I’m talking to you. You better tell me the truth because you know I’ll find out if you’re lying. Did you throw the first punch?”
Uh, oh. I was in BIG trouble. One of my mother’s cardinal rules was that we could not start a fight. If someone brought one to us, we had to finish it. Mom approved of self-defense, but she could not abide “heathen, uncouth” activities, especially from her girls. Starting a fight was at the top of her list of forbidden heathenish behavior. I had broken that rule by throwing the first punch. My throat began to constrict as I fought off the urge to cry.
There was a loud knock at the door, and I could hear the voices of neighborhood kids. While my mother went outside to talk to the kids, I thought about my sister. I wasn’t sure where she was. Maybe she was lying down in her bed with an ice bag over her mouth. Or Dad had taken her to the hospital. I was certain of only two facts—Tam was hurt, and I was about to get a spanking. I thought about hiding in the backyard, but that would only make the situation worse. Miserably, I stood there and waited for my punishment.
It seemed like hours later, but Mom finally came back and announced that there would be no punishment. The kids uniformly answered her questions to her satisfaction, and she ascertained that Raymond essentially threw the first punch. Tam was unable to defend herself, so it was understandable that I would leap to her defense. In Mom’s mind, the scales of justice were balanced, and her oldest daughter hadn’t earned the title of neighborhood heathen. Harmony had been restored. My legs almost gave way when I realized that there would be no spanking.
“Now go get in the tub,” Mom told me. “You got filthy dirty out there tussling with that boy.” She had her priorities, and cleanliness in body and home was essential.
That was fine with me. I preferred Mr. Bubble to a spanking any day. But a problem emerged from that day forward, one that Mom hadn’t anticipated. I had felt the thrill of adrenaline coursing through my body; the power was indescribably fantastical. How could I ever go back to being seen (not heard), speaking softly like a proper little lady when spoken to, and wearing those awful, scratchy crinoline petticoats under stiffly starched dresses?
A problem had emerged….