“I didn’t want you to grow up to be a loose woman,” my mother said not long before she died. “But I see I have failed miserably.”
She was methodically stacking her books, history over here, psychology up there, romance in that basket. The sound of the hard covers sliding against each other was soothing. I sat down on the floor to help.
I handed her a poetry collection by Gwendolyn Brooks. “Poetry or Black History?” I asked.
“You love Brooks,” she said. “You keep it.” Without opening the book, I took a deep breath and launched into my favorite Brooks poem:
I’ve been in the front yard all my life
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended
And hungry weed grows
A girl gets sick of a rose*
Despite herself, Mother began to smile. “I should never have let you read so much. That was my mistake.”
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too.*
My daughter toddled over and plopped down on the pile, a child of divorce, thanks to me. Further proof of my loose morals — if my wild teenage years and my clubbing 20’s hadn’t been proof enough.
“Story! Story! Story!” she chanted, her chubby little arms scooping up Freud and Angelou and Steele.
“I have a little shadow,” my mother sang.
“Go in go out wid me!” my daughter giggled.
“And what can be the use of him?” my mother tickled her cheeks.
“More I see! More I see!” she tumbled into Mother’s lap, clapping.**
They carried on, mauling Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic poem, passing down the love of words from one woman-child to another. Another little girl learning to see the world as an exciting, magical place.
Another woman who would stand on her own decisions, and live her life unafraid. Another woman on the loose.
Mother shielded my virginity as best she could in the ‘70s, as the bra-burners, pro-choice marchers, and birth-control-pill devotees were rushing the world stage. A girl in our neighborhood got pregnant, and I was forbidden to speak to her again. Mother caught me sneaking over to her house and grounded me for a week. “Do you want everyone to think you’re a slut, too?” she demanded.
I was barricaded in my room, in mortal fear of missing the entire sexual revolution. But the barricade was made of books, and the revolution found its way to me, just the same. She was relentless about vetting my friends, phone calls and social activities — and completely unconcerned about what I read.
Once when I was 12, the Book of the Month Club selection arrived early and I got to it first: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask. My mother got home from work and saw me reading it. I could see the struggle on her face — the horror of the subject matter, measured against her worship of books and knowledge.
Books won. I kept reading. “There’s a lot of stuff in there you’re not going to understand,” she said finally.
She was right, of course. I took copious notes.
My mother hugged my daughter after dinner and we headed home. “I’m not going to let you grow up to be a loose woman,” she said emphatically.
She didn’t know, of course, that her shortness of breath at 2am was a cardiac event. She didn’t know she was pale and confused and scaring the hell out of my father. She didn’t know she was dying, so how could I? Her last words to me, just as the ambulance pulled up, were this is so silly.
A few days after the funeral, I sat in her reading chair and eyed the stacks of still unsorted stories. I lifted them one by one, and dusted the spines with a soft, clean cloth, far gentler with her books than I ever was with her.