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Feb
25
2024
Editorial

The Briar Patch | Banging on pots

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My mom — or was it my aunt Annie? — told me that my Grandma Ira used to cry while banging on pots and singing hymns when she was in despair. I always wondered what hymns she sang; no one could recall.

Why the distinction matters to me is because my mother was adopted by Elsie D., Grandma Ira’s younger sister, but not in any legal form that this country’s adoption laws would recognize. As I write this, I also realize I have no idea what the “D” stands for in my grandma’s name. It didn’t even occur to me to ask.

I never knew either one of my grandmothers — they were long gone by the time I was born. I don’t know that my mother ever really knew her biological mother very well; that was a time when grown folks didn’t really discuss such matters with children.

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It’s been almost five years since my mother made transition — Dec. 18, 2018, at the age of 90. I was a late-in-life baby, my siblings had her for more years than me. This is the time when my thoughts and memories of her ramp up the most. Anyone who has experienced losing a loved one to a lengthy illness may tell you that the end is its own intense mix of harrowing emotions. It’s agonizing to want the process to be over, but to not lose your mom or loved one at the same time; to want them released from suffering, but to want to lay your head in their lap for just a few more moments.

I used to think it went without saying that I loved my mother deeply — that is, until I realized I was really privileged in that way. Others have very complicated relationships with their moms; my mom did with hers. And I am warming to the understanding that I did, too.

In the time since she passed away, I am seeing Mom in new ways, probably more as a woman, than as “Mom.” I still don’t understand some things, and perhaps never will. I’m just going for acceptance at this point. With my mom, there was always something not quite accessible that made me not always feel emotionally safe as a child. I couldn’t climb the wall behind which her emotions lived. As time moves on, I’m really grappling with this, because I’m recognizing I have also built walls for myself — that I’d rather weren’t there anymore — as a way of self-protection, centered around collective and generational grief.

The story goes something like this, with different variations depending on which aunt was asked over the years. My mother was born in Pennsylvania, the youngest girl of 14, at a time when my grandmother was experiencing severe mental health challenges. My Grandma Ira, a single mom raising four little girls ranging in age from 2–9, grieving a twin toddler lost to illness, and having just given birth to my mom, had a breakdown, took her children to a river, and was going to drown them and herself. I don’t know about her husband, my aunt’s father, other than something tragic happened to him, or my mom’s dad, but he was in her life in some fashion. It’s all rather murky. But someone saw her and intervened, called her sister, Elsie D., and the girls were sent down south to Georgia to live with their aunt.

But there was a caveat. Elsie D. would continue to raise my mom as her daughter.

Elsie D. was married but couldn’t have children of her own. She, along with her husband — whose name I don’t recall, took in all of the girls. My aunties quickly and easily called her “Mama.” My mom was just a few days old. Meanwhile, my aunt Annie in particular, at age seven, embraced my mother as her own child after a nurse showed my aunt how to bottle feed her, and told my aunt to protect my mom like “she was your baby.” To my mother’s annoyance, “Baby” stuck as her nickname for much of her life.

Like others who are undertaking a healing journey, looking back, I see an opportunity to recognize that things that seemed funny at the time were, in actuality, not funny at all.

My mom was five or six at the time, and not allowed to let strangers in the house when Elsie D. wasn’t around. A woman who my mother thought was white — fair skin, hazel eyes (passed down to my uncle and nephew), long red hair, well-dressed — knocked on the door. When my mother told her she wasn’t allowed to let her in, the woman told her, “Girl let me in, I’m your mother.”

Well, from the red hair, I guess I can surmise where the Viking blood is in our family’s DNA. We used to laugh along with my mother when she told the story. Now, I wonder how we saw any humor in it at all. What a traumatic way to find out the person raising you wasn’t your birth mother.

Ira and Elsie D. had the same mother apparently, “Mat,” but Ira’s mother said she was her aunt. In the grown folks’ talk there were whispers. “Ma Mat got that gal by some white man.” Raised by an aunt who was really her mother, so it goes. Ira was born in the late 1800s in the South. We don’t know her full name, either.

During the 1930s, my aunts remember a white man used to drop food by Elsie D.’s house for “Ira’s chillun.” We suspect some type of connection.

My aunts always said they felt loved and protected living with Elsie D. Then the sky fell for them all when her husband died, and my mother’s four sisters were sent back to Pennsylvania to live with their mother Ira, who by then had given birth to her youngest child, a son.

My aunt Annie, distraught at having to leave my mom, ran away from the train station the day the sisters were leaving to be with my mom. That was, after all, her baby. And I don’t think my mom ever really got over being separated from her sisters.

My mother, I’m convinced, held back emotionally at times, because the grief would have been too overwhelming to allow it countenance in her life. I often think of the contrast between my mother and her biological mother Ira, who banged on pots when hurting, and wonder where I fall along the spectrum.

What I do understand is just how miraculous my mother’s life truly was, and by default, my own.

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