Let me start by giving my parents the grace they deserve. My mother was only sixteen when she had me, and the only thing I know about my parents’ relationship is that they loved each other, and I was wanted. They always told me that they made me in love. I guess it’s true what they say about love not being enough. The time that I spent with my mother raising me and my siblings was challenging. She was so mentally unstable and devoted to toxic relationships that she allowed me to be abused and then lost myself, my sister, and younger brother to DYFS. My sister and I went to my maternal grandmother, and my brother was given to his father to be raised by his paternal grandmother.
As the years passed, the lack of my mother’s presence and PTSD from my abuse, combined with the regular stressors of an eleven-year-old girl, led me to break a few kids’ noses and get expelled from the sixth grade. My grandmother, unsure of what to do with me, sent my sister and me back to live with my mother. Three weeks after I moved in, traveling along the dirt path walking home, I was jumped and sexually assaulted by middle school boys that attended my school. I remember every detail of the attack, every punch, every penetration, every tear. I remember wanting my grandma. I came to some time in the wee hours of the morning, bloody and tear-stained, walking funny, and dirty. I let myself into the house, and there was a swift and immediate blow to the side of my face. My mother slapped me and then walked to her room.
I heard her on the phone:
“Hell yea she just crawled in, looking like she let someone run a train on her all night. Shandy, you have to take her. I can’t deal with no fast little girl.”
I was sent to live with my Auntie Shandy, and it was okay for a while. Then her boyfriend moved in. He had a nephew, Calvin, who is the epitome of all my dreams of what a man should be to this day. I was twelve and he was fourteen, but it was love at first sight. This is a romance that would have Auntie Shandy send me to live with my father within a few years, when Calvin moved in with his uncle permanently. Apparently, he had no other options, and one of us had to go because the love between us was so obvious that everyone feared I would get pregnant.
They sent me away.
First, to live with my Aunt Diamond, because my dad didn’t have his own place at the time, then to my Aunt TT’s house with my dad, because Aunt D said I couldn’t stay with her anymore. And finally, into a two-bedroom with my dad, his crackhead girlfriend (I literally caught her shooting up) and her son, one of my favorite brothers.
On my sixteenth birthday, my father, a rigid, small-minded, hulk of a Black man, told me that I could stay out with friends until eleven. This was a feat because outside of school activities, my father did not allow me to leave the front porch. One step would result in severe consequences, the most recent one being that I could no longer have a room. I had to sleep on the couch and move all of my things into the living room closet. He always made me feel like a visitor in his life and in his house.
Regardless, I was thrilled to have the time allowed out and had a damned blast getting drunk with my cousin and some guys off of cheap wine, laughing most of the night away riding in cars with boys. When I arrived home at 11:07pm, my stuff was on the porch. I tried the key. When I walked in, my father was sitting at the dining room table.
“You can’t live here if you will blatantly disobey me.”
I didn’t argue. I left. I took what I could carry and walked the two miles to my Auntie Shandy’s house. This was complicated. Calvin still lived with her. While we are family, his uncle had custody at the time, and under the guise of We don’t want you pregnant, they told me I could stay for a few days but nothing more.
When I left, I went to a friend’s house, but it was the same thing. Always some story as to why the sixteen-year-old couldn’t stay.
I got tired of it.
One day, after about a month of this, I walked over to the Burger King where my friends and I hung out at lunch. I spoke to Carlos, the manager who always gave us free fries, and told him that I didn’t have anywhere to live but wanted to finish school and needed a job. He gave me one. I forged my father’s signature and got to work.
When I received my first paycheck, I decided that the adults in my life didn’t care enough, and I wasn’t going back. I rented a storage unit next to my school, stored my things, and set about finishing my junior year of high school. The first night was the hardest. I’d stayed at school and participated in every activity I could, then went to work until ten. I didn’t know what was next.
I started to sleep in my storage unit, but the codes didn’t work at night, so I got on the all-night campus bus. The driver’s name was John. He stopped at every single stop looking for me to get off until I finally fell asleep on the back seat. In the morning, when the first college students got on, I got off at my storage unit. I pulled clothes and walked over to the school with them.
Bzzz. I rang the bell of the front lobby security. It was only 6:30 am. Q answered the door.
“What are you doing here so early mama?” he asked.
“Q, I really need a shower.”
He looked me over, told me to go to the gym door and let me into the locker room, avoiding the cameras. As he walked me across the smell of pine sol and floor wax, he said quietly, “If you need this ever again, be here by this time. I will always let you in.”
And so I did. After a few days, he caught on the same way that the all-campus bus driver did. John the Driver began leaving a small basket with pillows, a blanket, and snacks underneath the back seat. Similarly, Q left a breakfast sandwich and tea at the door, which he’d begun to leave cracked at exactly 6:30 am.
In retrospect, these men risked their jobs to help me. I will forever be grateful.
It is only fitting that the difference between surviving and thriving began with a love note.
On weekends, when the school was closed, I would go to my mother’s house. She had relocated to Sanefield when her felon ex-husband came home, and to keep her housing subsidy, she had to move to a district that allowed felons to be a part of it. Please note that this justification is an unverified hypothesis based on a history of behavior.
Sanefield, it was. The house was big enough. It had a huge blue, wooden, front porch with openings underneath that we could crawl in for extra dope games of Hide and Seek. Right around the corner was Calvin’s Aunt Jocelyn and her daughter Tish, my best friend. I would catch the bus from my hometown to Sanefield on Friday nights and stay until Sunday afternoon when I’d have to go to work. It is during this time that I met Malik, short and a little pudgy, dark-skinned with light brown eyes. He had such a gentle face. He broke up with me after a while of my being super guarded about my home life, and that was fine because even now, I’m glad I held my tongue.
One Saturday night, my sister and I were hanging at Tish’s house and he and his friends came walking over. Tish had just gotten us wine coolers, and I was a little tipsy, so when he asked if I wanted to meet his favorite cousin, I initially said no. She lived across the street so I couldn’t stop it from happening.
Ronda came downstairs. Malik introduced us and said, “Y’all would really like each other,” talked for a while and walked away. We spoke briefly. I didn’t like her vibe, so I left and didn’t hear from or see her until I knocked on her door two weeks later with a love note.
Malik hadn’t been speaking to me. I knocked on the door and said, “I know you don’t like me that much, but I really love your cousin and I was just hoping you could give this to him. Read it first. If I sound too beat, burn it. Can I trust you with this?”
She said, “Sure,” and I walked away.
The next Friday, she stopped by my mom’s house on her way home from drill team practice.
“Can we talk?”
So we did. We walked and talked for hours. When we circled back, she asked me if I wanted to stay for dinner.
That’s when I met my Mama.
Ronda’s mother is barely over five feet tall, though she carries herself like she’s Shaq. A hairdresser by trade, I personally think her gift to the world is nurturing the hearts of the neglected. I watched her cook for her girls (Ronda, her sister, and their younger cousin) with such love. I can still smell the fresh vegetables in the kitchen.
One day, she was making a salad with dinner. I couldn’t recall having a salad with dinner in the recent past. I liked it and made up a song to show my appreciation.
Salad is my favorite food.
Salad is my favorite thing.
Salad is my favorite food.
I like everything that’s green.
If you feed me, you keep me. Mama never begrudged that mindset, so I kept coming to eat. As my friendship with Ronda grew, so did my sense of safety, stability, and love. I spent every weekend there instead of at my mother’s. When my mother’s house was raided because the felon was a felon and loved drugs, Mama’s house became the staple. I went to church on Sundays, willingly, and fell in love with God.
I learned how to separate my clothes for the wash and which ones to hang. I learned that a curfew is about love, not control, and that kids are your kids forever, not just until they turn eighteen. The way she handled her kids, her life, her business, was God’s gift to the next chapter in my life. She taught me how to be a woman.
Flashback to a discussion with Ronda.
We were in her room on the bed, pillows surrounding us, writing notes back and forth, “Stop Falling” by Pink playing in the background.
Ronda: You should just tell my mom what’s going on, she will let you stay. Or just bring the rest of your stuff here, it will shake out the way it’s supposed to.
Me: I can’t just move in here. You know how many times that didn’t work out for me?
Ronda: It’s different now. My mom won’t let you live on the bus.
Me: Whatever, just don’t say anything.
One day, Mama sat me down and asked what my plan was. She’d seen my mom’s house boarded up and wanted to know where I stayed when I wasn’t there. I didn’t really say.
She walked toward the kitchen to start cooking. On her way, she said, “Well you always here anyway, may as well bring your stuff.”
There was a brief time when the Spanish teacher from my school would meet me at the corner and let me ride to school with her because she lived nearby. For the most part though, after that conversation, Mama drove me from Sanefield to my high school three towns over so I wouldn’t have to transfer my senior year. She was a woman about the business of handling business. She didn’t just let me do anything I wanted, but allowed me the space to create and find myself.
She looked over my essays and college applications, drove Ronda and me all over Central Jersey to attend poetry events, recording it all, supporting it all. When my aunts and maternal grandmother pitched in for me to go to the Senior prom, Mama did my hair. When I went off to college, Mama helped me prepare. Mama moved me in.
In college, I didn’t realize that the men I was choosing were recreations of my childhood traumas. I gravitated toward men that I either couldn’t have, shouldn’t have subjected myself to, or didn’t really want. A dean, a preacher, a thug, a Garrett.
My mama tried to encourage me to stay steadfast in my morals and personal code of conduct. If you just remember not to sacrifice your core for a relationship, the man for you will come to you.
I didn’t listen.
She tried to warn me about my daughter’s father, who came into my life in a whirlwind romance during my freshman year and turned me upside down. I had never tried so hard to get someone to love me and see me as I did with Garrett.
He was a charming, handsome, motivated, dickhead that cheated on me every chance he got. I would go home to Mama, defeated and crying, not understanding why he didn’t love me back the same. She told me that some men just aren’t going to be all they can be at our age. If he really cared about me, I would know it.
I counteracted her words by telling myself that he was the best man that I could get, the only one who would want me. The story of my biological mother’s psyche superimposed on my sense of self-worth.
When Garrett and I ended with a bouncing and bubbly baby girl, I tried to go home to my mother and live with her while I got on my feet; a small room, no job, and school was suspended in mid-air.
My mother told me that I needed to pay rent; I initially agreed. Then I realized how much formula cost. I couldn’t afford it and she wouldn’t let me stay without it. When I could not pay, she started to make me feel uncomfortable; the bile of our past stumbling into the spotlight. It hurt more than it helped to be there.
My daughter was not even three months before my mama was picking us up to move back home. She told me that I needed to work and figure out how to take care of the baby, but I didn’t have to pay rent, just raise my Princess and put food in the fridge.
It was during this time that I solidified my identity as a mother. I got to take my time and get good footing working at the daycare center my Princess attended. My only consideration for my career choice being able to look out the window of my classroom and see my baby. I gained clarity regarding my ex, got support and visitation orders with my mama not judging me or leading me, just being there when I needed her. After a while, I got an apartment about ten minutes away.
Then I met Simon. My Princess was only one at the time. By the time my son came along two and a half years later, I thought Simon and I would be it.
My mama warned me that the hardest jump was from one kid to two, especially when your relationship is new; not everyone sees eye to eye on raising kids. I underestimated this and the fact that I barely knew enough about him to have a child. We were only together for about six months before we started trying.
Flashback to my mother staring in the mirror, curling her hair, her eyes catching my five-year-old gaze in the glass.
Her: How would you feel if I married him?
Me: I don’t think you should. I don’t know him. Do you know him? (Out of the mouths of babes.)
A week later, she walked out of a David’s Bridal catalog, picked us up from school and announced that she sold her soul to the devil and gave her hand in marriage to his son.
I made a baby anyway. My biological family liked Simon, especially my dad. They thought he was a great guy, and everyone could see how much he loved me. Mama, on the other hand, found that some of his behavior came across as controlling.
I came home less and less for holidays, started missing church, lost my job, apartment, and car. Everything that I had gained, I eventually had to funnel through him. He guilted me into staying despite his temper and my unhappiness, usually reminding me that I must have wanted to be like my mother and raise kids in a broken family.
I allowed the mental, spiritual, and sometimes physical abuse to go on for years, and when my life fell apart, I ran back to my mama.
Together, we grabbed the toolbox, and she walked me through the process of rebuilding a spiritual connection with God, forgiving myself for all I’d been condemned for, and most of all, refocusing on what was important: the kids.
I’m looking at her in the rearview mirror in tears. It’s Mother’s Day 2018 and Rhonda, Mama, Rhonda’s younger sister and I have decided to go out to eat:
Me: Yesterday, I drove to the George Washington Bridge Ma, and parked on the shoulder. I stood at the railing. I waited for the courage to jump Mama, but all I got was a police officer who told me that whatever was hurting wasn’t worth the hurt I would leave behind.
They cried with me as I spilled my guts, my confusion, my pain, and didn’t dismiss me, ignore me, or ask what I did to make him say those things, behave the way he did. Mama told me stories about PopPop, Rhonda’s father, and explained that finding your way out of something that meant so much, could leave you confused and in pain. And that there is a life after heartbreak.
Eventually, I began to consider that the way Simon conducted himself and handled stressors, had nothing to do with me.
If a man has the capacity to abuse you, he will, I recall my Auntie Jennifer saying.
I decided to put my big girl panties on and live, like my mama taught me.
She’s been “Me-ma” to my kids, shown up in case of emergency. To this day, my relationship with this woman is one that I value the most. She continues to support, nurture, and love me, even now, and I’m a grown woman with kids of my own.
She’s walked with me and helped groom me into the woman and mother that I am. She taught me to strive for excellence no matter the circumstances; that if you press and trust God, you will always be okay.
It is through knowing her that I am always able to always remember how strong I am. And that there are always rainbows throughout and at the end of even the most severe storms.
Words cannot express the gratitude that overwhelms me when I think about all that she did when she didn’t have to. She did it because she loved me. She does it because she loves me. I will spend the rest of my life striving to move toward the woman my mama believes I can be.
I hope that the impact of my life on the world expresses my thanks.
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