Thursday, November 4, 2010


Happy Birthday, Mother,

It’s your 88th birthday. You left us 15 years ago. You didn’t have many happy birthdays, but I want to apologize to you with this letter, and maybe say some things you never knew. Today is also Mama’s birthday, your mother, and my beloved grandmother.

I spent most of my life trying to make up to you what you lost because of my birth: your youth, a bright future, and a loving husband. You got none of that. You were not quite 15 when I was born, so your mother took over my upbringing. She and I lived in one room in a rooming house. I can remember how happy I was in that one room with Mama. We each had a rocking chair and Mama smoked her pipe. I never understood why Mama could not help me print or to learn the alphabet. I didn’t know that she had not gone to school and could not read or write.

Mama wanted me to get a good education because nobody in our family had gone to high school; some didn’t finish grade school. After kindergarten, Mama enrolled me in St. Bridget’s Catholic School at the other end of our block. Life could not have been better. I loved the nuns and loved the Masses and I wanted to be a Catholic. On Sundays I attended Mass, and then went with Mama to her Baptist church across the street where folks shouted and “got happy.” It scared me. I never complained because I knew that the next morning I would be back at my Catholic Church where incense rose, and the dimly lit Church echoed with beautiful sounding chants and soft music.

Mother, when you came home on weekends from Chicago, you treated me like a little princess. We went to the Automat where I put in quarters and the food selections went around and around and then I chose what I wanted. We always went to a Betty Davis or Joan Crawford movie. Sometimes we went to the bowling alley and I watched you bowl. I was so happy.

When I was nine Mama died and life as I knew it came to a crashing end, and so did yours, Mother. You gave up your job in Chicago to move back home to take care of Mama in her last weeks of life. We moved into the home of Aunt Bess and Uncle Frank. After Mama died, you and I were adrift. We didn’t have anywhere to go. Uncle Frank introduced you to Walter Parks. I heard Aunt Bess urging you to marry him because he could give us a home. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted you to marry Willie who was my heart. He would have been a wonderful father to me. I already loved him because he was funny, and he liked to do fun things with us. He drove us to Kentucky to bury Mama and when Uncle Honey handed that little fur ball to me, it was Willie who urged you to let me keep him. I named the fur ball “Sweetmeat” because he was so sweet.

Suddenly you were married to a man named Walter Parks and we moved into a large house in an affluent part of the city where few blacks lived. Mr. Walt had never said one word to me. Suddenly we were all living together. I didn’t know how to address him, so I began calling him “Mr. Walt.” It was a lonely life for me. I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood. You said I was too young to take public transportation to get to St. Bridget’s School. I would be going to a public school and I would be bused because I could not attend the all-white school a few blocks from our house.

Mother, I know how hard you worked to help pay for that house. I know that some days you went without lunch at work so that I could have lunch at school. There was no love in that house. I kept silent and spent most time in my bedroom with Sweetmeat. I cried in his fur because I missed Mama; I missed my school; I missed my Catholic Church; I missed my friends, and I felt that I was an albatross around your neck. I knew that you didn’t know anything about raising children. I tried not to cause problems for you. I never missed school where I was a good student. I did well in school. I loved school. Mr. Parks ignored me, but his eyes never left my developing body. When I began menstruating he kept tabs on my periods. I found that strange. He told you when he thought I should begin wearing a bra. I cringed whenever I had to walk in front of him. You took an all night job at RCA because it paid more. I didn’t like being alone with him, but I had no say.

And then came that night when I woke up with a gun to my head and Mr. Walt in my bed. He raped me, Mother. He said that when he finished raping me, we were going to the basement and he was going to kill both of us. At 11 years old I was not afraid of death. My only thought was of you coming home in the morning, and finding us dead. I did not want that to happen. I knew you would never get over it. At first I said nothing to him, but then I said I would not tell anyone, and I didn’t. I never said a word because I knew that Uncle Charlie and Uncle Rabbit would kill him and go to prison. I did not want that to happen. Your two brothers were the best uncles a girl could ever have. They loved me and they would have given their lives to protect me. I loved them too, and I chose to protect them. But I began sleeping with a butcher knife under my pillow. I had decided that that beast would never rape me again. As for people who say they didn’t remember being raped for 40 or 50 years, I say bull! There is no way one can ever forget any second of that horrendous act!

You remember you took me to the doctor the next month when my period did not begin on time. I was traumatized I suppose. And then every day thereafter that Parks called me to the basement and yelled over and over who did I have sex with, who was the father if I was pregnant, and if I was pregnant I would find myself on the street. I kept my mouth shut and just looked at him with as much hate as I could. I don’t know how I got through my classes while worrying about being pregnant. I didn’t know what I would do. I had no one to talk to. I wanted to run away, but I knew that I could not take care of Sweetmeat and myself on the streets. I was far from the Catholic Church that I loved, but I knew how to pray and I never stopped praying. My period finally started, and soon thereafter Aunt Annie came to live with us. The happiest day in my life was when I turned 16 years old because four years earlier I had asked you if I could be baptized a Catholic. You said if I still felt that way at 16, then I could. I never said another word about it during those four years, but I never forgot. The day after my 16th birthday I reminded you of your promise. Thereafter, everybody in the family always said if they promised me anything, they had to live up to it. I was the only Catholic in the family, but they all seemed very proud of that fact. Whenever I was introduced to somebody, my aunts or uncles said proudly, “This is my niece, Charlene. She’s Catholic.” I thought it odd, but we were an odd family.

When I went to New York to “visit” Aunt Alma, I knew I would never return to that house. I got a wonderful job as receptionist with a Wall St. law firm and then came the Peace Corps and the United Nations and the world. When I returned after two wonderful years in the Andes Mountains of Peru, we went directly from the airport to Aunt Bess’ home. You told me that Mr. Walt said he did not want me in the house. I didn’t ask why. I knew that he hated me for being successful. Also his conscience was kicking him in the butt. You said you were going to divorce him. I said nothing, just bowed my head, and began making plans to move back to New York as quickly as possible.

Mother, I guess I blamed you for my miserable life after Mama died. I tried not to, but the hurt and the anger were there. I had buried the anger in my heart for so many years, and each time I was with you, the anger seemed to come out. That man tried to turn you against me, and sometimes I thought he was successful. Remember the time you asked me if I was having sex with my dog?? I remember looking at you and wondering if you were losing your mind. And then you said Parks suggested that. What a wicked man. He told you lie after lie about me. I was taught to respect adults and all I could say was, “No, Mother, I didn’t do that.” You didn’t believe me, and that hurt most of all.

And so, Mother, as a child, I could not talk back to you, but as an adult, I took out my anger, hurt and fear on you. I know you sometimes flinched at my harsh words. You didn’t understand why I seemed to be so angry with you. Sometimes I didn’t even know, I just knew that I was angry. But, as you know, God has been good to me. He allowed me to show you some of the world that I lived in, the world of diplomacy. I know you worried about me in some countries – most countries I served in had serious problems – but you knew that I loved my career, and I loved living abroad. I hated leaving you alone, but I wanted to live my life and I did. When I retired in ’95 I thought we could travel the US so that I could see some of my country. But God had other plans. Four months after I returned, you died.

Today I remember your birthday, Mother, with great sadness. I remember your life and hard times. You were tiny, but had the heart of a lion. You had so many tragedies in your life, but each one just made you stronger. As an adult, I marveled at your bravery. You were stronger than any of us knew. Life was not kind to you, yet you always had a smile on your face. You lost your mother when you were very young, and you were thrust into being a mother and a new wife at the same time. I felt sorry for you. You lived in pain, and I know you died in pain because your little fist was clinched. At the viewing I tried to straighten it, but the funeral director told me it couldn’t be straightened after the embalming fluid was inserted. I wanted to scream, “Then why didn’t you unclench her fist before using the embalming fluid.” You were born in pain, and you died in pain.

I am sorry, Mother. Sorry for all the sorrow that I caused you. Sorry that your marriage didn’t work out. Sorry that the world was so unforgiving. Sorry that I never got to show you more of the world. Sorry that I spoke harshly to you. Sorry that you felt inferior to others. Remember how angry I got and I said to you, “DON’T YOU EVER FEEL INFERIOR TO ANYONE! IF ANYTHING YOU ARE SUPERIOR TO MOST!” I hope you never forgot that.

On your last Mother’s Day you were happy as a lark – as you always was – when I treated you as you thought mothers should be treated – and we dined at a cafeteria-style eatery because I had not thought to make reservations at a decent restaurant. You sat eating and smiling, and you handed me a Mother’s Day card. In it you wrote, “Thank you for teaching me.” I wanted to ask what I taught you, but I didn’t. I concluded that you were thanking me for teaching you that you had a lot to offer the world, that everyone loved you, and you had no need to feel inferior to anyone. Happy birthday, Mother. May you rest in peace.

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