She wanted to be a mom.
When I was in elementary school, Mama went to James Sprunt Community College for a little while. She wanted to learn secretarial skills, and I pored over her textbooks, fascinated by typing and Gregg shorthand. I sat in front of the old Royal typewriter and learned how to use the little correction slips that came in a tiny, flat box, and she taught me how to tell when I was getting to the edge of a page and when to push the return lever back to the other side. I typed stories and nonsense words and pushed the return lever again and again. Nothing has felt more satisfying. I also filled up school notebooks with attempts at shorthand, and tried to figure out why anyone would want to learn to write in a new way when the old way worked just fine.
Before she finished, she quit going. No one said anything about it; just one day, she wasn't going to school anymore.
When I was in middle school, she went back to James Sprunt for more updated office skills. She'd started working in the office of StevcoKnit, the local textile mill, and she wanted to love her job, she wanted to move up.
"You would really like this," she told me, handing me the latest textbook, this one on BASIC programming. "It's so neat. I wonder if they'd let you come take the class, too."
We didn't have a computer at home, just a typewriter, upgraded to an electric one that had built-in correction tape. It wasn't as much fun as the old one, and I didn't type my stories on it. Instead, I filled up journals longhand, hiding them in my room, or tearing pages out and storing the pages in books I knew no one would ever accidentally pick up and flip through.
Mama tried to enroll me in the BASIC class she'd taken, but the college had rules -- no one under the age of 16 could take a class. Mama was more disappointed than I was.
And then, again, she just stopped going.
It was one of our late-night talks. Daddy was working, my brothers were in bed, and it was just Mama and me in her room. All of those conversations are the same in my memory. The content is different, but the setting is the same. I sit on her floor, looking up at her, the cigarette smoke swirling around her face. The pain in her voice. The beauty and love in her blue eyes, so much like mine, even then.
"I want to leave Daddy," she confessed in the dark.
My heart sped up. I wasn't sure if it was fear or elation that I felt.
"I can't yet," she confessed softly, in the dark. "We need a better income. That's why I tried to go back to school. I don't know how I can support ya'll without a better job."
I don't remember what I said. Maybe nothing. Maybe a confession of my own: "Please, Mama, please get rid of him." Maybe I reached for her, offering comfort, lending her what little strength my teenaged self had to give. Maybe a bit of brash and unrealistic optimism: "We can manage. No matter what, we can manage." Maybe all of those things.
When I was 17 and Mama was 37, Daddy packed up his Oldsmobile with his clothes, his Craftsman tools he'd had since he'd worked as a mechanic when I was 5, and he left. Mama was, by then, working in the factory part of the textile mill, and we were only barely scraping by, even with his income.
"We'll be fine," she told us, and then, in private, with me sitting on the floor of her dark bedroom, she fell apart, again and again.
When she was 38 and I was 18, she started college again, and it stuck.
When she was 37, she found out that her mother's breast cancer had returned. Grandmama had been diagnosed with breast cancer when I was about 10, and after a mastectomy and chemotherapy, it stayed gone well past the time when everyone thought she was cured. Except for the times when it was the middle of summer and too hot for her prosthesis, we never even thought about the cancer she'd gone through. At least, I didn't.
When the cancer came back, it was worse, metastasized through her organs. More chemotherapy, more radiation, but this time, no cure. When she was 38 and her mother was 67, Mama decided she wanted to be a nurse, and she threw herself into her schooling with a passion that I had never seen. That first year, she told me, she wouldn't be taking nursing classes. She wanted to get the distribution requirements out of the way first, before she applied to nursing school. It was too much to finish in just two years, she explained, especially since she still had to work and take care of my brothers and Grandmama.
I started college the same year. I was an arrogant 18-year-old who thought she had college figured out from the moment she stepped on campus. I went to freshman orientation by myself, borrowing Grandmama's car to drive the 35 miles to campus for the weekend, and I found the dorm where I'd be staying and shed my old, shy self from high school and talked to the other nervous kids in the dorm.
I was surprised at how many of their parents came. I didn't even realize that there were events for parents – I hadn't read whatever materials had been about parents when the brochures came – and when my roommate for the weekend said she was going out to dinner with her parents, I just shrugged and felt superior. I didn't need my mommy to come to college with me. I knew everything I needed to know, and I could rely on myself. This college thing? It was just more school. School I could do. And as long as I was in school, the only person I had to take care of was myself, and that in itself felt like more freedom than I deserved.
Mama approached college differently. She was the shy new student, struggling to find her footing. She hesitantly told me about the friends she was making, and I could tell that she struggled with the idea that she was now, finally, after so many years of blue collar work, of struggling to feed her family, finding connections with people who had lived the life she'd always believed she would have, way back in those days when Daddy made promises she'd believed. When she'd optimistically built a house on Stevens Street for her growing family. When she'd sent me to private kindergarten and thought that her parents had been wrong about her needing an education.
I went home every weekend during my freshman year of college. "My grandmother is dying," I told my roommate, over the endless soundtrack of Pearl Jam and Nirvana and Thurn & Taxis. She smoked a cigarette and nodded empathetically. "I just want to spend as much time with her as I can." It was a good excuse, though in my heart, I didn't really believe that Grandmama was dying, even though they'd found that the cancer had spread to her brain. I couldn't imagine my life without her, and therefore, she wouldn't die. She couldn't.
I really went home every weekend so I could give Mama a break. So I could hang out with my brothers and do my laundry and help Mama with her homework and do all of those things I thought were essential to keeping my family together. I flipped through her textbooks, not so I could figure out what magical things Mama was learning, but so I could make cracks about the poor quality of the education she was getting at a community college versus the amazing things I was getting from my small state school.
In truth, it probably wasn't so different, but I was learning that, regardless of what my high school English teacher was saying, I was a good writer, at least for UNC-Wilmington, at least in the classes I was taking. I aced my English classes, and basked in the praise of professors who I thought were all-knowing gods. Mama struggled with her classes, with figuring out what her teachers wanted. She was a good writer, too, but she was struggling to get B's on her papers.
"These comments don't even make sense!" she complained to me, handing me the latest in a series of essays she'd written. "I do not like this woman, Mrs. Pridgen."
I scanned it quickly. "No, they don't make sense. You would've gotten an A in my class," I said. "Mrs. Pridgen is an idiot."
"I bet even you couldn't get an A in her class," Mama said, her eyes gleaming just like Grandmama's did when she teased me.
"I bet I could!" I said, aggrieved.
"Prove it," she said.
"Okay," I said. "What's your next assignment?"
I tossed off a three page paper on the nature of reality and how we can never know if something is real or not. "It's utter bullshit," I told Mama, handing it to her. "Utter, utter bullshit. But it'll get an A."
The next weekend when I got home, Mama said, "I have something for you, smarty-pants." She handed me the essay. It had gotten a 100. Even I was astonished.
"She wrote all over it, though," Mama said. "She didn't think it made any more sense than I did."
"Of course it didn't make sense. It was bullshit, I told you. But you still got 100 on it." I grinned at her. "Now maybe you can help me with my math homework," I said.
"I doubt it," she said. I doubted it, too, because I was 18 and thought I knew everything, but I wanted so badly to show her that we were the same, both college students, both figuring what the fuck the game was and how to twist the rules to our liking.
When Grandmama and Granddaddy drove me back to school Monday morning before Grandmama's chemo appointment, I sat in the back seat and leaned my head against the window, wondering what it would be like if Mama and I were in the same classes, what it would be like to show her my world, to let her learn from my textbooks. We were the same.
Twenty years later, here I am, at what feels like the pinnacle. I'll stay in the same job. I'll finish my book and start working on a second one. I'll ride my bike and walk my dogs and bitch about the weather and watch my nieces and nephews grow up through pictures on facebook. And I'll wonder if I'll ever share that kind of moment of discovery with anyone again, that step into the unknown, into shared dreams.
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