Photo: To be a mother of boys means to make room for big jumps, loud noises and much mess. Right now, it means making time for legos and building. Thank goodness their Father has a ridiculous collection of creations new and old. That, of course, is a space ship built in the mighty Maryland color scheme, reverently played with by Major.
I sat on the bleachers at swim lessons on Tuesday, and looked up from my Kindle just as a woman and her daughter floated into the room. I believe that they were Chinese, but I’m not quite certain, and that detail will be important in a moment. But I must describe them:
They came in wearing not-quite-matching, but certainly chosen together, summer dresses. The mother, maybe in her 40s, was tall and graceful, her hair in an elegant and yet messy bun at the back of her head. She wore minimal make-up, wrinkles embraced and unhidden, just a few strands of silver in her hair. Her daughter, younger than ten, probably around eight, wore a pretty braid that went down her back, her little sundress coming down just past her knees. She had a book with her, the title and wording on it written in Chinese characters, that she clutched lovingly but did not get the chance to read during the lesson.
They sat closely together, both of their gaze on the swimming pool, until they were looking at each other and sharing a thought or a joke. Sometimes mom had her fingers in her daughter’s hair. Other times, daughter clutched her mother’s hand. They sort of pushed and bumped each other from time to time.
What I noticed, most of all, was the careful cultivation of this daughter by her mother. The similar gestures, the exact same posture, the way they tilted their heads just so as they watched the younger child in the pool. When the girl slouched, Mother simply straightened her back a little bit, and child mimicked instinctively.
It took me right back to my own childhood. My daughterhood, and my own mother’s lessons. It made my heart ache just a little bit. I didn’t realize just how envious I was of my husband until I watched those two for those few minutes.
My father taught me about being a “lady,” which I can now, fully grown, interpret as “how to behave ‘appropriately’ in the eyes of men.” There is a way to be, a way to speak, a way to sound, a way to listen. These were important lessons, and have been incredibly helpful. Those lessons were less a matter of grace than they were about function and presence. There was sexism in those lessons, as my Father is a sexist dude (“I should never hear you as you are walking… a lady should be able to carry her weight evenly and not make a lot of noise.” No seriously, that was a thing). Having that insider information is helpful, though. When you know the expectations you can meet them, bend them, and break them. Oh… it’s so fun to break them.
The intimacy of Motherhood when connected to Daughterhood is the beautiful passing down of the secrets that ultimately result in Womanhood. My mother taught me how to be a woman, which is a wholly different, far more powerful (albeit inevitable) lesson and result. And in many ways, this lesson is ongoing and, in my mother’s presence, even as a functioning adult, I feel inadequate. Can I, will I, ever meet her expectations? Am I, when with other women, reflecting my mother’s careful lessons well? (My mother-in-law would probably scream a resounding hell no. lol). What endures in my relationship with my mother, even after the philosophical parting and the continued (and necessary) distance, is the warmth and gravitas of all of those little lessons, now ingrained in my very bones.
But the biggest reason why I ached just a little as I watched that pair at the pool goes back to their ethnicity, and that little book the girl had in her hands. For women of color, there is just a little bit more that has to be taught. I wasn’t just taught womanhood by my mother. She taught me Black Womanhood. There were extra secrets, extra urgency, extra special powers that needed to be bestowed by lecture, by fire, by watching… by magic… that book, written in a different language, that the little girl carried was an important book of secrets. Not to her mother, not to her family, but the world outside of the two of them. It’s a book that many of her classmates won’t be able to read, full of lessons and stories unique to a culture that she gets to learn in a different sort of way… and in so doing, her mother is teaching her a different kind of womanhood, not just womanhood. That is a special sort of honor, in my opinion.
And that’s why my heart ached a little. It’s a magical honor, privilege and responsibility to cultivate a Black Woman in this sort of world. My mother got to do it, and her mother before, and her mother and her mother… and here I am… two boys to my name.
They are wonderful boys. The lessons that I will teach them will be important lessons. And yes, cultivating two Black Men in this sort of world is its own special honor, privilege and responsibility. But I will teach them what it means to be a “gentleman,” a Black gentleman… and yeah, there is probably some inherent sexism embedded in those lessons (Opening doors, closing doors, puttin’ down that damn seat…). Teaching them to be “gentlemen” means that I’ll really be teaching them “how to behave appropriately in the eyes of women.” While The Husband is the sole person who will be able to teach them what it means to be a Man. He can’t teach them Black Manhood… that’s a thing that the grandpas on my side will have to help with, but Manhood comes under the purview of their father.
We get what we are given, and I’ve been given two gifts. We also always want what we don’t have. I didn’t say can’t, because I believe that I could have a third child if they circumstances were right. But they aren’t. Parenting two in the place where we are is hard enough and expensive enough. We’re right on the edge of what’s possible as it is. I wrote last week that my grass is mighty green, and it is.
But I recognize the heartache and I see, with clarity, what I have and what I don’t have. I congratulate the mothers with their daughters, and recognize that cultivating daughterhood isn’t an easy task (I certainly didn’t make it easy for my mother). I’m sure that woman and her daughter have their struggles. What I saw, however, was one of the beautiful moments. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.
You are the beautiful result of someone’s careful cultivation, Dear Reader. Maybe you should give them a call this weekend? I wish you a little time to speak to an influential person in your life, to be given yet another lesson or to be entertained with a funny story, or even to be reminded that you are your own person, empowered with the ability to respectfully disagree. I wish you a time to people-watch just as I’ve been able to do, seeing a little snapshot of humanity and, hopefully, remembering how beautiful it is. I wish you cool breezes and sunshine, but maybe a little less humidity. I wish you birdsong, or the crash of ocean waves, crisp white wine and a few grapes to snack on. I wish you a kiss on the cheek, a squeeze of a hand, and a soft whisper in your ear, a powerfully intimate moment and a remind that you, Dear Reader, are loved. Just as brightly as the blue full moon on a clear summer night, just as richly as the bounty your local farmer’s market and just as fiercely as the sun’s rays on these high summer days.
Until Monday, Dear Reader, take care.