A Final Message From My Mother
By JOSIAH HOWARD
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.
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.