“Write me something.”
Ever since elementary school, when I first started ignoring homework and writing poems on the back of math tests, my mom’s Mother’s Day request was always the same: she wanted me to write for her.
But not once in my twenty-nine years on this planet have I figured out a way to do it. The Hallmark-card version of mother’s day wants me to thank my mother for her labors. But to thank her for them means to see them, and to acknowledge them, in a way that has escaped me every time I tried. In part, that’s because even if I start by writing something I love and admire about her, the arc of the story inevitably descends over the event horizon, careening toward an infinitely dense singularity of all the troubles and hardships that she’s endured raising five children.
I know that there’s no such thing as easy parenting; I also know that the burden is not distributed equally across all families. My mother was twenty-nine years old when her father was murdered by a Vietnam veteran on a killing spree. That same year she would become pregnant with twins—her fourth and fifth children. She brought us all into the world while our father’s alcoholism eventually drove him from our house and made him a weekend presence in our lives. She navigated motherhood with no college education and little financial support.
I even remember how once, late in the middle of the night, Mom received a phone call from a friend of my oldest sister, who had been hopping trains across the country since she turned sixteen. The friend told my mother that my big sister had overdosed on heroin, and they had put her in the bathtub to try to revive her. My mother was in bed, holding the cordless phone up to her head in the one hand, trying to keep calm so that she wouldn’t wake up her youngest daughter, who was nestled asleep in bed beside her.
My big sister lived. My little sister slept through the night. My mother, once again, pressed forward.
There I go once more over the horizon—I sit down to write a simple Mother’s Day note and get consumed in the yawning abyss of memory. The bittersweet feelings of sadness and joy are inextricable from one another. But I don’t think I can express my appreciation for my mother without pushing through the harsh material in which it was forged. That was what made us who we are. Those were the experiences that guided me as a first-generation college student, and as I moved to New York and found a profession and pursued my passion. It was all of that sadness just over the horizon that taught me to endure.
The home I was raised in was one of piles of dirty laundry and a sink ever flowing over with unwashed dishes. It was a house where there was always a massive tray of enchiladas or a pot of spaghetti to feed her children. It was a rented home of utter chaos with crayon on the wall, bikes strewn about the yard, and a dog named Buster who, like us, was always getting loose and running around the neighborhood. It was a home where my sisters scratched, kicked, bit, punched and pulled each other’s hair, and where the four of them, with the help of the neighborhood kids, had on different occasions hog-tied me in the front yard, handcuffed me to a stop-sign, and locked me out of the house naked.
This is the chaos of kids raising kids in a single-parent home while a mother works multiple jobs to keep the lights on. Mom knew how many days past the due date we could go before So-Cal Edison would actually cut off the lights. When that day came without paying the bill, we had what she called candle-light parties.
She knew how to triage the serious crises of childhood from the everyday slings and arrows. If I called her from school, or from the Boys & Girls Club we went to when school was out, she wouldn’t answer the phone by saying “Hello?” or “What’s wrong?” She just asked, “Are you bleeding?” Then it was on us to prove the severity of our situation.
But the place where the love is derived from is found as much in how she navigated the bedlam as it is from her refusal to ever stop believing in her children—even when we ourselves seemed to have gone past the point of no return. The night that one of my sisters slammed my mother into a glass-faced kitchen cabinet, shattering a shelf-full of China, my mother refused to disown her. When another of my sisters was hauled to the emergency room in a shopping cart and had to get her stomach pumped, my mother was there all night in the waiting room. She has watched her children veer toward the edge of death in the grip of addiction, has lent her support as we have tried to establish lives while often living on a level of subsistence somewhere below paycheck-to-paycheck—and often, we have judged her for it.
When I think about what motherhood is—particularly for single mothers—I think of something less than a thankless job. Because our father was less of a presence in our lives, it was easy to place our blames and our burdens on our primary caregiver. When we saw our father on the weekends, the desire to keep the peace, to avoid inflaming his temper, meant that we would contort ourselves into strange positions to keep him happy. Yet we often chastised our mother for all of the times she might forget to pick us up from school, or if she refused to buy us the shoes we wanted.
I can tell you these struggles of my mother, but in them I don’t think a portrait of her has emerged. Very much like a black hole, I have only managed to describe the accretion disk of emotional matter spiraling rapidly ever closer to the speed of light around her. She is visible, but blurry.
My mother always joked that that when I write about her I should make her tall, blonde and skinny. In truth, my sisters and I called her Five Feet of Fury. If I said that in her presence, I’d catch the back of her hand. “Five foot one!” she’d snap.
She has a head of dark, curly hair. She has brown eyes, like my own, that disappear when she smiles. In all of the little ways that matter, she and I have the same features.
She is a smart woman, a bookkeeper, my brain trust, with verbal quirks that remind any listener that growing up in Southern California and being a little bit country are not mutually exclusive. She didn’t wash our laundry, she warshed it. She knows that the place where the books are kept is called a library, but she usually drops the first r. I do my best not to laugh when she tells me to hand her the symonym while I’m standing beside her in the kitchen.
She told my sisters “You can love a rich man just as well as a poor man.” She is an excellent shot with her own collection of pistols and rifles, but she told us that “you can’t count on a gun to be there when you need it.” She constantly reminded us that she would never bail any of us out of jail. She has kept that promise when it was tested.
She inherited a Harley Davidson three-wheeler from her father after he was killed. It had black leather seats, a ruby red paint job with black pinstripes and black roses stenciled on to either side of the fuel tank. On the first day of school every year when we were little, she would strap on our helmets, set us on the bench seat, and drop us off right out front next to the flag pole.
Mother’s Day is a strange holiday—disowned by the woman who conceived it; commercialized by an industry that exploits it. But it has always made me reflect on the undue burdens: the emotional labor, the physical labor. When I lived under my mother’s roof, I tried to make an effort on Mother’s Day to give my mom a break from the blame, the responsibility, the weight of my problems. I don’t know how successful I was, or if it was noticed. I should have just written her the poem she’d always been asking for.
This isn’t a poem, but it’s the best portrait I could render. What emerges is not the tall, blonde and skinny woman that my mother liked to joke about, but someone far more beautiful and complex. I haven’t found a way to separate the pain and worry of the story — living it and telling it and reading it, too — from my appreciation, my gratitude, and my love.
I don’t know if this is what you were hoping to get from me, Mom. I know it’s long overdue, but this is what I’ve been trying to say for twenty-nine years.
Stewart Sinclair is a writer from Ventura, California, currently living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been featured in Guernica, Avidly, Creative Nonfiction’s “True Story” series, 3 a.m. Magazine, The Millions, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about class, identity and motherhood in a fractured America. Find him on twitter @stewsinclair