My mom will tell you I never write about her. I’ve got poems, plays and stories about other family members, but nothing like that about her.
We’ve had difficulties in our relationship, mostly because we are too much alike, stubborn, opinionated, fire-in-belly, and not too shy to show it. Putting us together at times is like rubbing two sheets of sandpaper. Through my childhood she could be tough on me. When I got older, she was even tougher. No coddling at all, there was a lot of love, but also a lot of discipline. When I decided to be a poet/playwright/actor/whatever else that came to mind, she looked at me like I was crazy. Fair enough. She’s from a generation that went to work for a company, stayed there twenty years, and got a pension. And here I am talking about making a living in the arts: With a family? Crazy.
I get it now, but at the time, it hurt, it felt like I was failing because I couldn’t live up to my father’s example. I was never going to be a Baptist preacher. I was never going to be able to live in the 9 to 5 world. All I could do is be me, and me wasn’t enough for her. For years I held this idea in my heart that one day, I would show her. Show her that I am somebody. That my art has value. That I have something to say. That in some ways I am like my dad, we just are talking to different congregations.
Over the years we’ve had some nasty blowups; from minor squabbles to going almost a year without speaking. When we finally did talk to each other again the road was still rocky. After one particularly bad argument I went to a good friend’s house because I needed to vent. My friend, close to twenty years older than me, has become somewhat of an uncle figure. We were sitting on his porch in Riverside on a beautiful fall day, and as cars drove by he patiently listened. He looked down at the floor and said, “Sounds like you’re right on this one.” But before I could pat myself on the back he said, “You know what I’d give to talk to my mother?” His mother had passed years ago, and his gentle reminder was enough to shift my whole thinking on the matter.
Over the years we settled into an uneasy truce for the sake of my kids. I want her to be in their lives, and she seemed to enjoy being a grandparent way more then she liked parenting me. I figured out a way to keep us centered: I don’t argue with her about things that I know we will disagree about, namely politics and social issues. I want to argue with her, because she’s wrong; but sometimes the best thing you can do is to just shut up. I guess that was the problem when I was younger. I always wanted to be heard, I needed to be right (yes, I inherited that from my mother). But now, for the sake of our relationship, I was just letting it all pass by me. Maintaining so I didn’t lose. But maintaining isn’t a relationship, at least not the type you want with your mother.
And then I saw Passing Strange on Broadway, and it all made sense. I was in New York for business: I’d just inked a deal for a TV pilot, and I was feeling proud of myself. Going to see the play was my way of rewarding myself for getting the pilot. I remember thinking now that the deal was inked, I was going to call my mother and tell her I was right, that I was somebody! That she was wrong not to believe in me. When the play started, like all good theatre it took me to another place, until it brought me right back home. Passing Strange is the story of a young African American artist trying to find himself in Europe, while turning away from America and his mother. The protagonist is trying to find the “real” but the “real” he finds never lasts. In the midst of that search, his mother dies and he realizes everything he was looking for he already had. Maybe it was a combination of my friend’s words from years previous and watching the play, but that night, something inside me broke. The dam that I’d built up, that stopped the flow of our relationship, crumbled and as soon as the play was over I ran outside and called my mother.
All the things I wanted to tell her before the play started just felt foolish. Walking through crowded Times Square with tears flowing, all I felt was the overwhelming desire to ask her forgiveness. For all those stupid things I thought, the dumb things I’ve said, the heartbreak I put her through. I want to thank her, because life as an artist hasn’t been easy, but she was the one who prepared me for all the obstacles I had to face. She never did it in spite, she did it because that’s what a parent does for a child. All the times I thought she wasn’t supporting me, she was making me strong so I could support myself. But I couldn’t see it, until I saw it on stage. That night changed everything for us. For my mom, it must have been a weird experience to have her “distant” child call her in the middle of the night, sobbing while telling her he was sorry and how much he loved her. She’s not half as touchy-feely as I am, so I’m not sure how she took it, except to say that in the middle of my sobbing, she said she was proud of me, and maybe for the first time, I believed it, I felt it.
It’s been years since that conversation and we don’t talk politics, or social issues. I still bite my tongue a lot and sometimes we drive each other crazy. But that’s okay, because that is the “real.” My mother will tell you I never write about her. But that’s not true – she’s behind every word. She just never took the credit.
Article written by Al Letson