"She needs to stop making you feel guilty." Amy's eyes hardened and her lips tightened. "And you need to stand up for yourself."
I was right in some ways, I knew. Mama had loved being a mom.
"Why did you quit college?" I'd asked her during one of our late-night talks after the boys – my three brothers – had gone to bed. I was in high school, and these talks made me feel like I was her equal, like a grown-up with all the fears and responsibilities that go along with it.
"Well, I didn't really want to go to college. Grandmama and Granddaddy had told me I had to, so I went to UNCG. While I was there, I met your daddy."
"But he didn't go there," I said. "How did you meet him?" I knew the story from Daddy's point of view. He'd told me, bragged about how he was able to get any woman he wanted into bed, one morning when he invaded my bedroom.
"I met him at the college tennis courts, and we just started dating. I told Grandmama and Granddaddy that we were going to get married, and they were not happy. Eventually, they agreed, but said I'd have to wear Aunt Linda's wedding dress. They weren't going to buy me one." She took a drag on her cigarette, and the tip glowed bright orange in the dark room. "They made me promise I'd stay in school, but I hated it. I tried going to a technical school for graphic arts, but it wasn't what I wanted either. I wanted to have a baby, and so I did."
She was 19 years old when she married my father; 20 when I was born. I'd counted the months so many times, hoping that I'd find out that she'd been pregnant when she got married, that there was some compelling reason for her to marry him. But she wasn't. I was born almost a year exactly after they'd said their vows in the First Baptist Church of Wallace.
"I almost left him," she said quietly. "When you were a baby. Things were bad, and I just couldn't take it, so I packed up our stuff and put you in your carseat and started driving away. I was going to go back home. But then a song by Kenny Rogers came on, and it was so sweet, about all the things he missed, and I turned around and went back."
I thought about what it would've been like. I wondered what had caused her to want to leave, when things had been so bad for so long, and still, when he finally packed his stuff and moved out, she had cried. Had he hit her? Had he made a pass at a woman who was younger and hadn't just had a baby? I'd never know – she wasn't saying. If she'd left, my brothers wouldn't have been born, and I wondered if I'd give them up for the chance to grow up without an alcoholic monster for a father. I wondered what it would have been like, just me and Mama, a team against the world.
When I was little, Mama didn't work outside the home. She threw herself into being a mom instead. We played in the yard of whatever house we were living in, and made up games. We walked to the library once a week to get books. She brought home butcher paper from the grocery store, and taped it to the wall so we could make murals. When we were bad, she'd swat us with her hand, or when we were really bad, with the flyswatter. She showed us how to turn rocks over to play with the roly-polies that lived under them, and made us promise never to play with snakes or spiders. She took us exploring in the woods, and on family bicycling trips, the smallest kids strapped into seats attached to Mama's and Daddy's bikes.
When I remember my childhood, I remember Mama on the periphery, looking down at us, a cigarette in one hand and a glass bottle of Coke in the other. Memories of my father are few, even though he was often out of work, and when he was working, he always came home straight after the factory whistle blew at the end of his shift. If Mama was on the periphery of every memory, he was a looming presence off screen.
After her fourth child was born, Mama had to have a hysterectomy. The four pregnancies, and her return to childcare duties too soon after each one meant that her uterus had dropped and was pressing on her bladder. I learned the word "recuperate" when I was eight, and felt guilty for wishing she could pick me up while she was getting better from her surgery. While she was in the hospital, Daddy bought a used station wagon that we couldn't afford, and I saw the desperation in her eyes as she contemplated car payments on top of rent and utilities and groceries for four small children.
By the time I was in college, Daddy was gone, and Mama was, finally, back in school. She'd had a couple of abortive attempts when I was younger, but, she told me, Daddy never gave her time to do her homework. He wanted the kids fed and played with. He wanted the house cleaned and the laundry done. He did not want his wife to have more education – more earning power – than he had. But when I went to college, Mama started nursing school at James Sprunt Community College. She made friends and worked weekends until she could no longer keep up with her schoolwork and her factory job and caring for three boys, ages 14, 12, and 10. She asked for a lay-off and got it. The textile factory where she was working was laying off people anyway, and they lived off student loans and unemployment until she graduated.
But I was right, when I told my girlfriend that she'd loved being a mom. I wasn't exaggerating when I'd said that we were her world, and that she wasn't quite sure how to keep control over us as we got older. In response, and at Amy's urging, I pushed her away. I didn't need her telling me who to date or how to live my life. She asked when I was going to be taking education courses at school.
"Never," I said. "I'd rather scrub toilets than teach high school."
"What," she asked, "are you planning to do with an English degree if you don't teach?"
"I'm going to get my PhD and teach college," I said. I was confident. I knew that was what my future held. She looked skeptical.
"You ought to think about a back-up plan," she said.
She was right. I did need a back-up plan. But I refused to let her know that, and over the next few years, my conversations with her were fewer and farther apart. When I called her, Amy criticized how I just gave into her. "And why do you always have to call her?" Amy asked. "She ought to be calling you."
I said this to Mama, and she sighed deeply. "I don't want to bother you," she said. "I don't know what your schedule is like, and I don't want to disturb Amy either."
When Amy left me for a woman in my master's program, I called Mama, and even though we hadn't talked much, even though she'd never wanted me to be in a relationship with a woman who cut me off from my family and made me act rude and superior to her, she offered to drive the two hours to Raleigh to pick me up and bring me home.
When I got to the clinic where she was working as a pediatric nurse, she held me and let me cry, and we went out back so she could smoke a cigarette and listen to what had happened. She just let me talk, not interrupting, not telling me that it was for the best or that she knew it would never work out.
And I fell right back into her orbit, with her on the periphery of all my decisions, all my memories, all my dark nights and all my fuck-ups. She was just there. My mom. Always.
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