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September 2012

July 2012

Lovely Mother-Son Story



A Final Message From My Mother

Published: July 20, 2012
The first note I ever wrote for my mother wasn’t very special, but she seemed to think it was. It said: “Hi Mom! Have a nice day! Love Skip!” (her nickname for me). My message was scribbled on a scrap of paper and tucked discreetly into her change purse. At the time I wrote it, I was 12. My mother worked as a key-punch operator — a profession now obsolete — at the Piscataway, N.J., offices of Phillips Van Heusen, the clothing company.
When my mom was working, she ate her lunch while smoking her unfiltered Pall Malls in the Van Heusen cafeteria. I knew that when she purchased her meal, she would have to rifle through her purse for change, so that’s where I placed my note. I didn’t know that she would keep that note, laminate it and always carry it with her.

From the day that I first tucked that sliver of paper into my mother’s change purse, she and I wrote each other clandestine notes. They would be placed in the refrigerator or freezer, under a lamp, by the TV remote controls, or would peek out from under an ashtray. I even found one stuffed in my shoe. From the outside, our notes may have been banal summations of our days, thoughts, wishes or observations. But to my mother and me, they were a lifeline — a communication with each other that no one else shared.

My mom’s name was Gail Ann Blackmer. She was an unwed mother. I am her only child. The challenges we faced together, first in New York City and then in New Jersey, were, as it turned out, largely a result of the difference in our skin colors, a fact that meant little to me. My mother told me that once when I was very young, she asked if I noticed that she and I were different colors. My response was delivered with flat, round-eyed authority: “Mothers don’t come in colors.”

But they do. And my mother’s being white and my being black presented many challenges. She didn’t often speak about our early years together (or her experience of them), but whatever she revealed was indelibly stamped in my mind. The indignities stand out: once while entering a bus, a white man spied us and snarled, “What’s the matter, couldn’t you get a white one?” On another occasion she rented an apartment and then, when she showed up with a black child, was turned away. I often wonder about my mom’s unconventional (pre-Civil Rights) life choices, and I wonder how she came to make them. It was a topic that she never discussed.

My mother died on Oct. 20, 2009, at age 71. I was by her side, holding her hand. Her living will made clear her wish not to be kept alive if she were unable to breathe on her own, so she wasn’t.

As my mother was dying, I looked out the hospital window to see two children playing in the front yard of their home. On the television above my mother’s head, Oprah was interviewing women who discovered they had slept with someone who knowingly infected them with H.I.V. Life was continuing, even though my mother’s life wasn’t.

I didn’t cry the day my mom died, and I didn’t cry on the day, just a week later, when I went to the funeral home to collect her cremated remains; my mother, all parts of a family to me, reduced to a five-pound collection of ashes housed in a plastic box. The ashes weren’t my mother. Neither was the broken, shut-down body that I held in the hospital room and that I was so thankful no longer had to suffer.

Recently I found a note that my mom left me, one that had remained hidden for years. It was scrawled on a piece of yellow, lined legal paper, and it was tucked away in the pages of “Charlotte’s Web,” one of my favorite childhood books and one of the few books I kept from her effects. It read: “Dear Skip. I love you always. Miss you a lot. Don’t forget me. Be happy! Love, Mom. xxxxx.” That day, I cried.

Josiah Howard writes on popular culture. His fourth book, “Cher: Strong Enough,” will be published in November by Plexus Books.

Life Goes On

Heading out to Long Island today, where I have a speaking engagement at the library in Southampton. But my mind is on My Son, who starts his first day of work today. He will be teaching second grade in New Orleans this fall. The next few weeks are for orientation and staff development. He and The Weatherman did a father-son road trip down South, and kept sending photos of the incredible food they were eating. (Shrimp and grits....yum.) Now My Son is now moved into his own apartment and starting this next chapter of his life. Needless to say, I'm a proud Mama.

Henry V and ADD

ImagesI just came across this column written by the NYT's David Brooks earlier this month. In it he speculates about how Henry V would have suffered in today's school system, because the "official school culture is for wimps and softies." There would be no place for a "rambunctious" boy who might get bored easily, wrestle Falstaff and jump off the jungle gym. He would soon be disengaged, and ultimately rebellious, joining the ranks of boys who are underperforming in school. And here is Brook's most damning assertion:

"The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encourages a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious."

Oh, man - where to start?  First - codewords. He is saying that schools favor girls, and doing so, rearguing the old 90's "boy crisis" literature. Second - why do men always have to go to ancient and often fictional characters to make their points? Most use Greek mythology, but pulling someone from the 15th century and sticking him a 21st century school is also ridiculous. (Of course those were the good old days, when women didn't get educations.) Third, schools were once far LESS tolerant of any kind of disobedience and "rambunctious" behavior, and boys thrived.

Boys suffer far more from a culture that encourages them to be tough, fight and that celebrates slackers than they do from any kind of nurturing environment in school. Brooks points to a problem we've known about for decades, but basically comes up with the same old explanation: the problem with boys is....girls.