Everyone reacts to milestone birthdays differently. For the most part, I had acknowledged that day each year with indifference: better to have a birthday than the alternative, right? But 50 was different for me. I had, for the better part of a year, been keenly aware of That Day‘s coming. The day when I would achieve something neither of my parents had: turning 50 years old.
My parents both died in their 49th year. I was 11 at the time. It was a complex situation: because my mother was mentally ill, my paternal grandmother had raised me from the time I was six months old. My father came home about once a month, but I always found his visits more disruptive than anything else. So my parents’ deaths were simultaneously events and non-events for me.
I clearly remember meeting my mother when I was 5 years old. My two sisters, my grandmother, and I were going to D.C. to spend the summer with Daddy. He showed up with this strange woman in tow. I asked my grandmother (I called her “Mama”) “Who’s that lady?” She told me to go ask Daddy. When I did; he told me to go ask The Lady. So I did (yeah: I’ve been a piece of work from way back). She said “I’m your mama.” I recall clearly looking her in the eye, pointing at my grandmother and saying “No, you’re not. That’s my mama.” Negotiation followed, and we finally agreed she would be relegated to the (lesser) status of “Mommy.”
I don’t recall how long Mommy was around that summer, or the next one. I remember going to visit her for what was probably no more than a couple of hours but seemed like an eternity in a mental hospital when I was 8 or 9. There were the obligatory letters over the years: “How are you? Fine I hope. I am fine.” That was pretty much the extent of that relationship.
Truth is, my father’s family didn’t care for my mother. They were an old-fashioned family who believed in, if not arranged, at least approved marriages. This thing between my mother and father fell into neither category. They made no secret of their displeasure, so much so that, probably around 9 or 10, I had told my beloved – nay, worshiped – Mama that I didn’t want to hear anything else negative about Mommy. Because she equally worshiped me, she obliged.
When my oldest sister came home that night in November and told us Mommy had died, I wasn’t sure what to feel. My gut reaction was indifference: this woman had never been a true part of my life: she was a letter I had been forced to write every two weeks since forever; this overbearing stranger who always wanted to hug and kiss me when I would have preferred…not. But that night, I knew that this was something bigger than my 11-year-old self could handle.
I think that is when Seyyal was born. I remember going to the Post Office and buying stacks of post cards. At first they were for information on summer camps. By the end of middle school, they were to boarding schools up and down the East Coast. I had stood up to my father’s family and defended my mother. Even though no one actually said it, that had drawn a line in the sand. I had put my father’s family at arm’s length in order to defend my mother (who, according to them, had caused his death). Who created that distance I do not know: did they reject me as disloyal, or did I push them away for constantly telling me that half of me was bad…very bad?
All I know is that – from that day to this – I have not felt truly at home anywhere. While I still consider the house I grew up in as “home,” as my “permanent address”, my connection to it is tenuous and my desire to return there on any long-term basis non-existent. It is where I am from; not where I am destined to be. I decided I am most likely more my mother’s daughter than I had ever been willing to imagine.
And so, as my 50th approached, I decided that the only way I would ever find any peace or ever find my place in this world is if I found my mother. Good, bad, or indifferent, I needed to find out who that woman was if I was ever going to find out who this woman is.