Tuesday, August 30, 2011

100 Days of Gratitude - Day 1: Lee Whittle

Mom and me, 1979.
The only plan I had for this series was to save the best for last.  I did not expect my mom to die suddenly a few days after I wrote the prelude.  All of us were stunned, since her doctor had seen her a few days before she died and said she was doing better than any time during the last decade.  At least my mom got to spend a lot of time with her kids and grandkids this summer.   She was overjoyed to meet her latest grandchild - my son - and watch him play with his cousins.

To say my mom was an iconoclast would be an understatement.  She came from a hard-scrabble immigrant family that did not know how to provide warmth to children.  For some reason, my mom decided that she would be different, and she set out to create for herself and her kids a life of love and affection.  Sometimes she drove us crazy with her compliments and encouragement, especially since it was never offset with any criticism.  It was only later in life that I realized how rare it is to grow up with such a mother.  Last week my sister found my mom's calendar, and on it was an entry for the following week that said "Wednesday: make sure to compliment [one of my siblings] on her photographs." That pretty much summed up my mom.

Let there be no mistake.  Mom could be irascible and stubborn.  One thing that drove me crazy earlier in life was her almost pathological inability (or unwillingness) to acknowledge the downsides of life.  But one dark day a few years back, when I was struggling with a setback, my mom called me on the phone and read me the following poem by Langston Hughes.  She knew the score.  And I will miss her something fierce.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

Source: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage Books, 1994