Some of the hardest conversations my sister and I have are about our mom.
I’m aware that my relationship with our mother was very different from hers, even though we grew up together in the same house with the same parents. Mine was of a parent who protected me, fought for me, cried over me, worried constantly, and loved me fearlessly. For my sister, it was a loving relationship marred by fighting and misunderstandings, and my mom’s inability to show the same charity she sometimes showed to strangers towards a child she didn’t always understand. I had these same issues, but they were balanced by her kindness and devotion, so I tend not to focus as much on the times she was, to be frank, difficult.
But my mother was a beautifully complex person. Personable and lovable. Charming and funny. Controlling and unknowable. Distant, yet so close. Fighting with you for fun (even if you didn’t think it was all that fun). I think the only people who really knew her were my father and, maybe, a few of her numerous siblings. But everyone was fiercely protective of her, so even their critiques were always tempered with...“but she was so loving, so funny, so charming, and so kind.”
Let’s just ignore that one time she locked teenage me in the laundry room because she couldn’t verbally win the fight.
Her pressing her weight against the door and me screaming, “You’re crazy!”
What can I say? She was the perfect mother until she wasn’t.
I still want her when I get sick. I still want her when I get sad. She was the only person, even when she didn’t know what the hell she was talking about, who could convince me “everything would be fine.”
She was the last person who could do that.
Now nobody can do that.
My mother is dead.
I got sad over her the other day and called my dad. I told him I missed her so I put up a Christmas tree and decorated my apartment for the holiday. My mom loved Christmas. It was her favorite and I knew she would be proud. But as much as the lighted tree delighted me, it also hit me like a punch in the gut.
My dad, who is not my mom, gave typical “my dad” responses.
“That’s where you messed up,” he said. “I don’t put that stuff up anymore.”
Lesson N0. 1,997: Your dad is not your mom. Your dad is not your mom. Your dad is not your mom.
He was trying to make a joke when I wanted earnestness. He was trying to make me laugh to keep me from crying. Hell, he might have been making a joke to keep himself from crying for all I know.
I plowed ahead. “I just miss her,” I said.
There was no telling me that everything would be OK because my dad is not someone who believes everything will be OK. My dad lives in reality. My dad will not lie to you. My dad loved Christmas because his wife—and before that, his mom—loved Christmas. He was a tool to get to Christmas, putting up lights. Putting up trees. Putting up dollhouses for his daughters. Now, with both mother and wife long gone, there was no one to badger him, pester him, demand of him to deliver Christmas.
But I wanted Christmas. I wanted her. So I put up this damn tree.
He thought that was fine.
But I did not feel any better after talking to him.
Because my father is not my mother and my mother is dead.
Growing up, every weekend my mother took my two sisters and me to the mall—whether we wanted to go or not.
Not going typically was not an option, as she loved parading through the now dead, but once vibrant North St. Louis, Mo. County shopping centers, like Jamestown Mall. We used to beg her to take us to the “cooler” malls, like the St. Louis Galleria in Clayton, Mo. or, at least, the teen-friendly Northwest Plaza in Hazelwood, with no real avail. She was a creature of fashionable habit, preferring her old haunts even if the malls were demonstrably horrible and on their deathbed during the American mall heyday, like the now long-gone River Roads and Northland shopping centers in an even older part of St. Louis’ North County.
For a long time, my mom shopped. At Marshalls (which she loved) and T.J. Maxx (which she hated even though they’re essentially the same damn store). At Target. At Walmart. Just like department stores, my mom would decorate our home for the holidays, pestering my father to get the Christmas tree up immediately after Thanksgiving ended. The only thing my mother loved more than her home at Christmastime was a mall or department store. For years after it closed, she would remark about the dead St. Louis Centre Mall downtown and its holiday decor.
Today, all the places my mom liked to shop in North County are gone or diminished. Dillard’s, her favorite department store, isn’t even in the area; you have to go to St. Charles. Her most favorite St. Louis shop, Coats & Things, went out of business before I even went off to college. Her least favorite department store, Famous-Barr, got shut down by Macy’s in 2006. And now, North County, my homeland of churches and shitty chain restaurants, doesn’t have any kind of mall, with the last outlet mall “experiment” dying in the flood plains of Hazelwood—the St. Louis Mills.
As my mom’s middle child and the one most like her, I do love to shop, albeit not in person. I don’t take long strolls through airplane hangar-sized buildings looking at wares. Everything I get is online, where some other poor body is tasked with walking that airplane hangar-sized warehouse to find my Cole Haans and mail them to me, sans pee breaks.
But on Wednesday, Nov. 20, the night before The Root’s annual Root 100 gala, I bucked my usual hatred of in-person shopping and went to the Nordstrom flagship in Manhattan on a mission to find a pair of appropriate dress shoes for the event.
There, I met Taite, an excellent salesperson, who helped me find the perfect pair of Ted Baker sandals to go with my custom gown by NYC-based designer (and personal friend) Aisha McShaw. The overall shopping experience was beyond my expectations (I normally loathe shopping in real life), as the sales rep was both helpful and knowledgeable and the NYC Nordstrom flagship has a bar serving mixed drinks in it, aptly named “the Shoe Bar.” It’s a whole scene, with a not-too-expensive happy hour.
Taite was so great, she even scheduled a pedicure for me upstairs on the second floor, where for $50 my feet became presentable. I had such a good time at Nordstrom, I literally told everyone about it (now including you) and vowed to return soon.
My return would happen quite quickly—on Saturday, Nov. 23, less than three days later, to find a pair of black booties that would be dressy enough for work but casual enough to be comfy. Taite, again, was my salesperson and she was awesome, helping me select a pair of pointy Vince Camutos. Again, I enjoyed a spirit from the Shoe Bar and rocked out to some Lizzo a DJ was playing in-store. As I came up the escalator to head out, I saw the perfect clutch and immediately thought, “My mother would like this!” and wanted to buy it for her. Then I thought, “Wow, my mother would LOVE this Nordstrom,” considering how much my mom enjoyed shopping and bemoaned the death of malls. Then it hit me, like a slap across the face.
My mother is dead.
My mother died one year ago today, Dec. 5, after a five-year battle with Alzheimer’s. I have not really dealt with it; mostly because I haven’t had to. I don’t live in my hometown of St. Louis anymore, where she spent her entire adult life, including her years in cognitive decline. So I didn’t see her every day, like my father, or several times a week, like my sisters.
My mother and I had been close—extremely so. I told her all my secrets. She was my greatest champion and supporter. So when she first started to forget me, I did not take it well. (Not that anyone takes this well.) I dealt with it mostly by hiding from it and only dealing with it when I went home to visit. The rest of the time, once I got “used” to not talking to her on the phone every other day, I just spent pretending that she was on a long trip to Dillard’s, where she simply never came back. I still missed her. Loved her. Was sad about her; depressed even, if I’m honest. When she finally died last December, I rushed home the next day to be with my family to plan the funeral. I stayed in St. Louis for about a month, keeping my dad company whether he wanted my company or not and trying to be present for my sisters. It was the holidays and my mother loved the holidays, making everything all the more somber.
Then, something strange happened after I returned to New York City. My mother’s death lit a fire under me where I realized I needed to make some life changes. I went on a diet. Got a trainer. Moved from Midtown to Harlem. Started traveling. Went to Paris for a friend’s birthday. Lost 30 pounds. Fell out with two of my friends. Gained some new friends. Redefined some relationships. Blew up some relationships. 2019 was definitely a transformative year for me. But while I went to L.A. four times this year for various reasons (mostly work), and while I threw dinner parties and brunches at my new apartment in Harlem, and while I wrote 220 pages of a novel I would later trash and start over, I did not do the thing I needed to do.
Mourn my mother.
Sure, I would miss her from time to time or get sad, but I mostly pushed the negative thoughts out of my head in my dogged pursuit of a more purpose-driven life. I didn’t want a repeat of 2014, when my best friend Toya Watts died from colon cancer and I was severely depressed and in mourning, you could argue, right up until my mother’s death.
Toya and my mother were very similar people with similar personalities. They were both fiery Aries who were beloved by all their friends—charming, fashionable and talkative (and in Toya’s case, especially, flirty. Toya flirted with everyone. Babies. Dogs. Strangers on the street...) They also never got sick of me, no matter how much of me they got. I’m a fairly intense person and I try to not burden any one of my friends with all of my issues. I spread myself out, so to speak. But if it had been up to my mom, she could have talked to me every day. Toya was no different. From the moment I got laid off at my job with nonprofit Win Without War in 2010, we were inseparable. I hung out in her condo almost every day. Much like with my mother, we did everything together—from Target runs to Congressional Black Caucus galas.
To lose them both, and around the same time, was hard—Toya was diagnosed with stage four cancer in December 2013 and was dead by that following August, while my mother was diagnosed with dementia in 2013 and would completely forget me by around 2015-2016. I did not take either situation well and was pretty much waiting for my life to end until January 2019, when I realized how short life is and it seemed premature to give up on it. Especially while I’m still relatively young and healthy. My mother and Toya would want me to be out there, living life to the fullest, even if it meant we couldn’t do it together.
I ended up calling both my sisters and talking to them about the Nordstrom incident. How realizing my mother could never physically be a part of my life again—how we could never make new memories—was devastating. I cried in the car afterward on my way to dinner that Saturday evening, texting my baby sister, Deidre, about how awful I felt, then called both sisters on Sunday. They were wonderfully supportive, as always. All three of us, after all, are grieving and especially dreading this holiday season, which began with depressing reminders—our parents’ wedding anniversary is on Veteran’s Day, and the holiday season is defined for us by our mother’s devotion to it. Adding an even more depressing pall over it all is the fact that she died in the middle of December. This is our first holiday without her and is now a time of year we dread when for so long, it made us so happy as a family.
My grandmother, my mother’s mom, is still with us. I keep telling myself I should call her, but as much as I love her, as much as I want her to be in my life, it’s just hard. I talk about my grandmother a lot, though, sharing jokes about her toughness, quick wit and temperament with anyone who will listen.
My grandmother literally made my mother. She made her. Molded her in her image. They are similar people—love to talk, love to laugh, love to argue, love to look good, love to shop, etc. But, much like my father is not my mother, neither is my grandmother.
I wanted to call her this week, but I don’t know if I’m mentally tough enough.
I want to call her. But I know what will happen.
I thought: “I’ll just send her flowers!” (My mother and my grandmother love flowers.) So I searched for a floral delivery in Newport, Ark. (since longtime Newport floral delivery Purdy’s Flowers & Gifts finally closed) and fired up the ol’ credit card. I was doing great until I got to the part where I had to write the note.
“Thank you for giving me my mom,” I wrote through tears.
I almost went home for the day after writing it.
What’s the fucking point?
Hoo boy, my mom would not like all this cussing. (She never cursed.) But really, that’s the question I battle on occasion. What is the fucking point? Make a friend. Break up with a friend. Find a lover. Ghost a lover. Go to work with a full beat of makeup. Wear eyeglasses, no beat and nothing but lipstick. Wear glasses, a bare face and no lipstick or jewelry. What does it matter?
The same existential dread, only now it’s tied to Christmas, a holiday I once loved.
My mom and shopping malls are still dead.
Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.
I find myself longing for a present with her in it, but she doesn’t fit anymore. She was gone before she was gone. We adapted to life without her, even when she was still here, thanks to Alzheimer’s. My sister and I joke about how we’d give anything for her to be back, just so we could all still be fighting with her. This is especially so with my younger sister, who has a son my mom would have adored and fought with her over. Because she was a good mom—the best mom—until she wasn’t.
“There’s no way that if mommy had never got sick that you’d have that child. That child would be her child,” I joke, knowing these are not jokes, but truths about our mother. “She’d have a whole separate set of clothes for him at her house that he could only wear there. She’d tell you what to do all the time. She would run your life.”
Instead, my sister gets to raise him as hers without running commentary from the peanut gallery.
My mom, before she was lost in her disappearing memories, wanted my sister’s son, my nephew Alexander, now 7, to call him “Mama.”
After all, he looks just like his mom, who is her daughter, who looks just like her. When he was born, my mom shouted: “Give me my baby” at me, as I tried to soothe him. Because we were all hers, whether we thought that or not. He may have come out of my sister’s uterus, but that was “her” baby.
He even had her almond-shaped eyes.
But thank god for Alexander. I don’t think we could have survived the loss of our mom without him.
Christmas can’t be about my mom anymore. Even though it still is and will, to some extent, always be.
But Christmas belongs to her only grandchild. We go through the motions for him.
My nephew is the reason we haven’t completely given up on the season. We want this holiday for him. And we want him to love Christmas as much as we historically have as a family. Just thinking about what thing I’ll buy him that he’ll break two seconds later brings me joy. The fact that he’s so happy, funny and smart and how my mother, if she were still with us and in her right mind, would have adored him, brings me comfort. It’s our job now to smother him in kisses and shower him with affection to make up for all the hugs and kisses he’s missing out on from our mom.
It’s also our job to show kindness and love towards each other, as we get through our mother’s favorite season without her.
Later this month, I’ll go home to be with them for the holiday, but until we can be together, pray for me and my one tiny fake Christmas tree that lights up my world. Pray that I don’t pass out in the Nordstrom my mom will never get to visit. Pray that I’ll call my grandmother and it won’t kill me.
Pray that we’ll be all right. I know if my mom were here she’d say “you all will be fine,” in that way things always worked out for Deloris Belton in the end.
Everything works out in the end.
I won’t call my dad or grandmother for this. I’ll just tell myself, we’ll be fine.