My mother passed almost 30-years ago and I still think about her. She was light and darkness; inside her 5-foot 9-inch frame. Pain and love were thrown inside the brown paper bag of my lunch box every morning from the age of four up until early middle school. I know deep inside she loved us immensely yet, sometimes, she tried to break our small black bodies from sticks, wooden spoons, switches, and belts. Some of her discipline tactics seemed to reflect her time in the Marines, isolation and food deprivation. She was no-nonsense, there were no apologies, and she did her discipline with conviction.
We were curious children; we explored places we were told not to, did things outside her strict rules, and had a hard time being truthful. I like to believe we often lied because we were afraid of the consequences. Her discipline was not random, it was deliberate and intentional. The beatings were sometimes numbing as the belt or whatever she had at her fingertips repeated a rhythm against our backsides, legs, and backs. One afternoon I was getting a beating for getting into a fight with a neighborhood girl and decided to grab the belt and try and stop her. I could see her initial shock and then she swung again with the belt buckle hitting me in the eye. I had a black eye for a while and had to tell everyone I fell although they knew she did it. I was about 10, and it was one time where I could see some remorse in her eyes.
She was both light and the darkness.
She was not always beating, she loved us in the way she could. She walked us to the library and would read to us daily in her animated voice. She encouraged me to draw by buying color pencils, papers, and entering me into drawing competitions. At times, we marched across the grass and stared into the sky, counting the clouds and calling out their names. She would smile down at us from her frame and affirm us when we were able to correctly name those cloud formations, cumulus, and stratus. She took us to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday morning and encouraged us to taste and touch everything, gave us Motown music on a Sunday morning and would gather us around in a circle to sing to each other. We cooked meals together, we had rituals of swallowing down cod liver oil and vitamin E every night.
Love and pain ensconced inside a woman I called “my mother.” We would always say to each other, “my mother said…” and each utterance embodied discipline, a hardness that rarely allowed her to be vulnerable in front us. Hugs and kisses did not occur and her touches were more often the twisting of the ear if we dared to embarrass her in stores or the indirect force driving those belts against our bodies. She locked herself in her room from time-to-time, and I could hear her crying, a deep crying. We rarely saw this only heard it from the other side of the wall. I could not understand much of this as a child and struggled more so as an adult as I began to understand those forces that shaped her life.
I hated the abuse and pain she endured in her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood and the abandonment. I hated some of those beatings that happened to me because the world told me they were wrong. The world told me she had beat us. The controversy of “beating” children stemming from a place of cultural misunderstandings and misrepresentation. She hit with force and a deliberate aim to teach us that what we did was wrong.
I acknowledge she could never be somewhere in the middle and it took great strength for her to reach beyond the dark claws of her own childhood and early life experiences to love on us the way she did. Those beatings were discipline, consequences for our actions, and were controlled versus uncontrollable. When we did good she smiled at us. She never told us we were nothing and always told us we were something, a strong race of people, a mighty people. It was just those “beatings” that sometimes countered much of this. She was light and darkness; those walks to the library, reading, and singing were reminders of goodness and gave us memories where we smiled into her eyes and when she gave us love the way she knew how to give it.
I understand it now, and my only regret is I never had a chance to tell her. She inherited much from those who raised her and tried to move away from some of those practices. I inherited some of those practices from her and I tried to move further way from those when I became a parent. I know when she passed, she was able to leave the darkness and finally walk straight into the light. And, I see the light she reached for here was enough to guide my own journey of loving more on myself and my children.