I still have two of your voicemails.
Those voicemails riled me up when you left them. Marry that sweet man of yours! you told me. You loved Anthony the moment you met him. And why wouldn’t you? He exudes loving patience, something you had so little opportunity to experience in your life.
Just drive to Vegas and marry him! you followed up, in your living room, on the phone, in your voicemails. It’s really not that far, and you’ll be glad you did! Even if he’s bad at finances. What couple doesn’t argue over money?
I grumbled that I’d stop taking your calls if you kept trying to push marriage on me. You knew that wasn’t what I wanted. I’d hid under the table as your own husband beat you black and blue. I’d heard your screams as you tried to keep him from hurting my siblings and me, too. I’d absorbed every single word of blame others spoke not only when you tried to leave, but afterward, too:
You should’ve left sooner!
You should never have left!
He wouldn’t have beat you if you’d been a better wife!
I never wanted that. Never. And isn’t abstinence the best protection? Never marry and there’s no need for escape.
That was the idea. But then, the idea crumbled little by little in the face of my reality: that I had a partner who sometimes felt like another child, but more often was my rock. My sounding board. My comfort.
I had to say “yes” when he asked the second time. I wasn’t saying “yes” to your marriage, or your husband, but “yes” to a lifetime with a man who guides by partnership, not force. I wasn’t saying “yes” to your pushing, but to him. All of him, for the rest of my life.
And yet, when I got married, my “yes” to him felt a little like a “yes” to you, too. I chose your best friend to give me away. I felt you with us as I stood in the sunshine and prepared to say yes, yes, yes. I wept, but they were tears of yes. Wholehearted, unabashed yes.
As I celebrated my first anniversary earlier this month, I paused to look at your voicemails. I didn’t listen to them. I didn’t need to. But I did wish I could return them. I wished I could call you back and tell you, “I did it, Mom. I married him. You were right all along.” I wanted to tell you everything I’ve learned over the last year, and ask you about everything I still don’t understand. I knew I couldn’t. You don’t have a phone or a phone number anymore.
I also knew I’d be writing you a letter soon. What I’d say, I didn’t know, but I knew I had to tell you whatever was in my heart when I sat down to write it.
I didn’t know what I’d write until opened the package Madeline sent me this morning. One small box was a birthday present for me; the other, a belated birthday present for Li’l D.
Madeline sent me a tape. Specifically, she sent me a compilation tape I’d made in August 1995. I quickly tried to calculate where I would have been when I made it. I would have been sixteen, newly graduated from high school, and living–briefly–back at your house. You’d have sung certain songs with me and shaken your head at others. “Is this music?” you’d have asked, not meanly, nor judgingly, just trying to keep me close with open conversation as I tried to pull away further. Faster.
Li’l D opened his present as I remembered sixteen. Madeline had sent him a Little Golden Book. You loved those books more than any of the countless others you brought home in my childhood, telling me and my siblings that knowledge would bring us freedom. It would be our key out of poverty.
“Read it to me, Mama!” Li’l D shouted. “Read it, please!” I told him I would, but that I wanted to start my tape first.
“How do you play it?” he asked. I showed him. We paused, then gazed at the tape player in mutual anticipation.
Tracy Chapman’s “She’s Got Her Ticket” filled the room, and you were in its notes, its wistfulness, its dream of something better on the other side of a plane ride. I stood with my son and felt you in its notes, but also with you in your own living room, where Tracy Chapman once played incessantly.
Two months ago, Li’l D heard her for the first time. Sure, we’d played her before, but it was never more than background noise to Li’l D. This time, Li’l D loved her. He asked Anthony all kinds of questions about her, starting with one you often fielded from me: “Is this really a girl? No, really?”
For days he only wanted to listen to her. “More Tracy Chapman, please!” he’d chant. “More, more, more!” And, oh! I could feel you smiling at the goodness of my child, your grandchild, requesting this music you’d have lovingly shared with him.
Back in today, I’d promised Li’l D a book. After I’d settled onto our new rug, he nestled himself into my lap and helped me hoist his little brother into his lap. We read his new book nestled together just like that, with Tracy crooning in the background.
I read through tears. Like on my wedding day, they were tears of yes. Yes, you found your ticket. Yes, you flew away. Yes, I feel you here anyway, in every tear, every laugh, every snuggle with my children. I feel you especially profoundly today, our shared birthday. I am now 36. You would have turned 57 today, if only you hadn’t stopped breathing at 52.
I wasn’t sold on kids. I wasn’t dead set against them the way I was against marriage, but didn’t really see a place for them in my life. There on the rug today, reading a Little Golden Book to my two little boys, I thanked my lucky stars for the millionth time that God laughs when people plan.
These boys, this husband, this life, none of it was what I envisioned for myself. You‘d envisioned it for me and it irritated me.
But it’s better than anything–everything–I’d envisioned. Better than money, better than power, better than fame.
I hold these boys in my arms every day. I feel your arms around me when I hold them.
I feel your heart, your smile, your love. I say thanks for Thunder Thighs, my favorite superhero.
You always begged me not to write about you. You thought I’d write about how you beat my siblings and me, how you yelled at us, how you could barely feed us and only kept us in a home by selling other people’s trash. I do write about these things, because they’re part of you. But they’re a small part, so enormously insignificant compared to your laughter, your love, your lessons in forgiveness, our birthday trips to Farrell’s and Pietro’s. I wish I’d written more about you in your life, so you could have seen how greatly your loving acts overshadowed your lost and tired ones. I wish I could’ve started writing sooner, or that you could’ve lived longer to see your love through my eyes.
I wish you could’ve heard that sweet man of mine talking Tracy Chapman with Li’l D. But, you know, it kinda feels okay that you couldn’t hear with your own ears, because you are in my heart, in my footsteps, in my snuggles with my sons every day, and I am happy to keep listening for you. To keep loving for you.
To keep reading Little Golden Books. To try forgiving. To listen to Tracy Chapman and be thankful, so thankful, for the gift of taking you with me.
Happy birthday, Mom.
On our birthday and always,
I am alit by–and with–your love.