I don’t get those single women who say they’ve had to be ”the mother and the father” to their kids. Nobody can be two people. Not even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could pull it off, and they had mad science on their side. Thing is you’re either someone’s mother or father, the two roles are mutually exclusive for a reason.
What’s not totally certain, however, is whether having one without the other marks you as damaged goods. Fortunately, I lucked out and got a mother who knew her role. In her memoir, Baby Love, Rebecca Walker, the only child of famed feminist Alice Walker, writes that her mother was ”no longer interested” in the job. My mother, who fed me Alice Walker’s prose for dinner, is so fiercely engaged in her job that her love at times can be overwhelming, even frightening. The woman who calls me her ”first and last” in a voice filled with awe rather than disdain.
See Frances was at every recital (most times sewing patches on tutus and pounding nails into fake trees), she bought every black Barbie sold, she sobbed uncontrollably after every deserved spanking, sold my Girl Scout cookies in a matter of days, checked all my spelling (despite being a horrendous speller herself) and indulged all of my wild fantasies.
I am a journalist because she was/is a writer, and there is no better way to tell our story–triumphant, tragic and ongoing, than with words. As a child, I was commanded to keep a journal. And if we ever fought, I was promptly told to ”go write it down,” when my throat swelled past speaking and my teenaged protests came out laced with incomprehensible hiccups. ”I can-heehuh-believe-heehuh-you’re-heehuh-ruining-heehuh-my-heehuh-life!”
Ever since Rosie O’Donnell started collecting kids, the private debates about morality, gay marriage, civil unions, adoption and homosexuality in general have leapt onto the national stage. But who asks the children? What do you think of all this? Do you care that you have two mommies, two daddies or two transgendered mommy/daddies who do drag on the weekend?
I certainly didn’t care. I cared only that Frances was ferociously mine. She is a woman who loves women–and knows how to raise a woman child. My father’s decision to remain in the wings was his own. She didn’t lie for him or complain about his absence. I gave Frances handwritten cards and hideous ”You’re the Best Mom in the World!” mugs for Mother’s Day. Father’s Day she didn’t get anything besides a ”what’s for breakfast?” Because she is a mother, not a father.
In 2002, she made me go to church the Sunday after I graduated from college. I hate church. She knows that. But on that Mother’s Day, as we sat on worn, wooden pews and listened to a female preacher sing about ”going on,” I bawled with such pitch that Frances asked the woman next to us for a tissue–and then another, and another. I thanked this woman and pressed them against my eyes, which seemed as if they’d never stop leaking. I cried that day because my mom was leaving me for good this time. I’d have to do this whole adult thing alone. Then she squeezed my hand–now filled with used tissues–and I figured maybe I could do it.
When she was 3 years old, my mother was hit by a car while running across the street to get a jump rope her sister had taken from her. Since then, she was treated like the weak one–plus she was cross-eyed and spent most of the school year sick. I could never imagine this. Frances, my mother, whom I’d never seen stumble, was the type of sickly child that gets the most attention and not enough.
In elementary school, my mother had one great friend, her name was Libby or something. From the stories she tells, it’s obvious that the two of them loved each other in the way most little girls do and in ways most little girls don’t. They did all the regular things–hopping on one foot from one chalk-drawn square to the next, lacing their fingers together when they walked, sharing secrets at a time when the word itself is most important, and then pressing their 7-year-old bodies up against each other in stolen moments against schoolyard trees and handball walls.