Days after George Floyd was murdered, and the temporary establishment of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in a Seattle neighborhood was set up by protesters as a way of implementing change, my mother called. I live a water body away from Seattle, across the Puget Sound, and when not hunkering down during pandemics, I work there. My mom, who lives in Western New York, does not understand the proximity of my little town to Seattle; it’s a fuzzy concept for her, this ferry-taking I embark on daily when not working from home. Her worldview ends at the far wall of her modest home, distorted by Fox News, and perverted more during the daily touch-bases she receives from her Born Again sister on the phone.
“I’m calling to see if you’re okay,” my mother said.
“Well, with the Blacks taking over that area.”
My mom and I don’t talk often, and we have gone for long stretches without any communication. But back in April 2020 when Covid-19 hijacked our nation, and because my mom is old, and because she has survived lung cancer but still has COPD and numerous other conditions that make her ripe for the virus, I grabbed the lever of the old jack-in-the-box of our stilted relationship and called her (surprise!), keeping to the safe topic of the deadly pandemic: Are you staying inside? Do you have a mask? Are you washing your hands? Are you sanitizing your mail? I had sent her groceries. I had sent her money. These were desperate acts propelled by the palpable knowledge that yes, she might die any day. Maybe I was saying, I love you. Maybe I was saying, with tight eyes, Goodbye. Please Know that my silence hasn’t mean’t I don’t care. It’s just . . . hard.
“The BLACKS didn’t take over,” I stated, voice louder than usual. Rarely did we argue because we kept away from not only each other but from difficult topics.
“You don’t have to get upset,” she said.
“I’m on the same side as the protestors,” I said. “You don’t even know what you’re talking about. Law enforcement is the problem.”
“It’s too much, it’s too much!” she squealed, referring to all the protests, everywhere.
“It’s not enough. Police brutality has been going on for years.”
“I disagree,” she said.
“Then I guess we will have to agree to disagree,” I said, fully gutted of original expression because that’s what happens when I speak to my mother.
Weeks went by with silence between us. I started to worry that she was ill. I called but got her voicemail and finally sent a postcard: Are you okay? Call me.
Days later, the phone rang. “I was surprised by all those messages. I figured you just wanted to know if I was dead.”
“Yes, I did want to know that, but I’d also like to hear from you [somewhat true].”
“I thought maybe Allie has a Black boyfriend and that’s why you were angry.”
“No, she doesn’t have a Black boyfriend, and I was not angry. I was stating my opinion. I do that now.”
“You were angry.”
“I was direct.”
“I was just concerned about Allie. I don’t know what she’s doing or who she’s with. I don’t know if she goes to Seattle or what she does.”
“Allie is fine. What are you thinking? We just walk around in chaos? Where are you getting your news? You’re probably voting for Trump.”
“Yes. I am voting for Trump.”
When I was fourteen, my mother discovered (searched for) a box of letters under my bed. They were love letters written by my secret Black boyfriend. She sat at the kitchen table and read every letter while I sat on my bed, arms crossed and powerless as she chewed on this boy’s expressions to me. Why read every single letter? In hindsight, she was probably looking for evidence of sexual activity, which was non-existent. Fed and satisfied, she declared that I couldn’t see him anymore. Obedient daughter I had always been, I didn’t argue, but my subsequent high-school years were a mishmash of drama as I kept our relationship secret only to be rediscovered from time to time, the most memorable episode occurring in my Born Again aunt’s home where she, my cousins and my mother, hair big and makeup heavy, interrogated Tom (I’ll call him Tom) and me. I cannot recall any words except one sentence from my mother: “I’d rather see you in a coma.” At some point after that, I must have said something she didn’t like, or she couldn’t hold her rage back any longer, because she shot up from the couch and clawed at me, grabbing my hair, and I remember vividly — and this part stings almost as much as her sentence — her fists, and how they searched like flashlights for my face through my flailing hair. I escaped out the side door. Tom snuck out at some point and drove us away.
Another noteworthy time point occurred the following year. I walked into the house, and with a close-up glower, my mom asked why my lipstick was faded. Before I could answer, she seethed, “I should smell your underwear.” She continued. “You are going to an all-girl school. You will not wear any makeup.” She walked into her bedroom while I filled a backpack with necessities and crept out the door. I ran down the street, along the bus line, and made my way downtown. My friend’s dad took me in for a night. What a different world, this family: respectable father, a discussion at the table. I could stay there one night. Next day, he drove me to Compass House, a shelter for runaways and street youth where I stayed for night two. For the day I was there, I participated in a group discussion where kids spoke of their own drinking, of their problems at school. As a kid who had lived many childhood days on alert because a mother might binge or a brother might punch, an A student who tried her darndest to keep her mind clear and her personal space organized, who washed dishes and went to bed on time, who found safety in personal order, I didn’t consider myself a “runaway,” and I didn’t consider sharing problems inflicted upon me. My delinquency amounted to seeing a Black guy.
I can’t remember how I made it back home, but I rode this train of secrecy for two more years, arriving at the justice-of-the-peace at eighteen, a separation at nineteen, and a divorce at twenty, a difficult affair that probably wouldn’t have happened if I would have had parental support instead of violence. Having heard of my breakup, my mother called me, willing to communicate with her daughter again.
I’m not sure when my mom found Jesus. Her sister’s Jesus was always around, but I think my mother located him when no other men were there to carry the weight of her loneliness. I believe she tucked Jesus into the crevices of fear that widened as she aged, as holes of osteoporosis carved out her bones, as barstools that once supported her derrière in dim light were replaced by orthopedic recliners, the glow of evangelical grandstanders absorbed into her insulating socks. I never heard “Praise Jesus” from her lips during my childhood, not during the hard times, nor during the good times. We communed over I Love Lucy and Mary Tyler Moore, laughter buoying us on the sofa over the undercurrent of perennial sadness. Jesus was busy elsewhere, sprawled on the sofa in my aunt’s house, eating popcorn as abuse and hypocrisy took the stage with great fanfare, Bible here, Bible there.
I haven’t seen my mother since I visited her in 2014, not because we are feuding but just because. This is our way. Years pass. I live 3000 miles away, making it easier. One evening that year, during my visit, President Obama came on the TV.
“I hate that man,” she said.
“I just hate him.”
That night, she put on her reading glasses, opened her Bible, read some verses, then got on her knees and prayed into her hands with a bowed head.
How does this woman reconcile her hatred with her religion? I’m guessing she wouldn’t be able to put her thoughts into a cogent argument, but she’d probably sign on to ideas such as those presented by Katie Gaddini in a 2019 article in The Conversation, notably citing research that concludes that the white Evangelical woman believes Trump “will return Christians to their rightful place at the centre of American life.”
Yet my mother’s place in American life has been lodged at the near-bottom rung on the socioeconomic ladder. Born in 1945 to a sexually abusive, alcoholic father and a mother who feigned ignorance; raised in near-poverty; abused by the man who assisted in bringing me into existence (it never seems right to attach the word “father” to someone who was around but for a minute); having quit high school; legally prevented from filling out credit applications without the signature of a man; and on and on, I would have expected some empathy for those who have also suffered at the hands of those in charge. And the answer may be there, at least, in part: The plight of Black people in the United States is a reminder of her own powerlessness.
During the weeks of wildfires last summer in the Pacific Northwest, when flames raged to my east and south, when the sky was a smoky sepia out my window, I sent my mom a card, asking her two questions:
- Why are you voting for Trump?
- Are you racist?
Prior to our recent exchange, she would have called to see if I was okay. I haven’t heard from her so far. I may call her. We’ll see.