“You find the black tube inside her beauty case where she keeps your father’s old prison letters. You desperately want to look like her. You look nothing like your mother. You look everything like your mother. Film star beauty. How to wear your mother’s lipstick. You go to the bathroom to apply your mother’s lipstick. Somewhere no one can find you.
You must wear it like she wears disappointment on her face. Your mother is a woman and women like her can not be contained. Mother dearest, let me inherent the earth. Teach me how to make him beg” – Beyonce, Lemonade.
My mom had a CB radio in her Dodge Charger and her handle was “Soft Spoken Lady”. She was proud of that car. I wonder if she sold it. She drove off in it when I was little, and she didn’t come back, not for a long long time. I don’t know if my Dad threw away her stuff or maybe some girlfriend. But it wasn’t all gone. There were little artifacts of my mother in the home I grew up in. Her plants all died except the cactus, but we had pots full of dirt. Our spice rack was hers. We didn’t cook. But I traced her writing on the bottles for years, “cloves” “nutmeg” “coriander”. I spent my childhood with these bright flashes, wondering what she was like or what had happened that made her not take me with her. I imagined her somewhere pining over me, wishing I was there, and when I was little I always thought she must be sad without me. I always imagined wherever she was must be so much better than the crummy place we lived. I wanted her to say that she missed me and her life sucked without me.
It’s a weird thing that I mostly remember being ashamed around my mother. The only clear memory I have of one of our phone conversations was talking on the blue rotary old-school type phone in my dad’s room. I was play-acting something and telling my mom all about this imaginary thing. I was spilling words and bits of songs and sort of rambling on, smiling and dancing with the phone, and out of nowhere she snapped. She was really mad and irritated and I felt stupid. What had I been doing or talking about? What an idiot I felt like. Here I was wasting her time with my bullshit. I remember I couldn’t breathe. There was silence on the phone after she yelled and it went on for a bit until I suddenly panicked that maybe she’d hung up. My brother hadn’t talked to her yet. He was downstairs until it was his turn to talk to mama and here I’d driven her away, I thought. She hadn’t hung up and I ran quickly to get my brother and hoped she wouldn’t tell him what a little jerk I was.
Sometimes I have a memory like that, something I haven’t thought about in years and it just sorta bubbles up from the murk down below. I thought this and felt this for just a second, in the pause after Beyonce’s words and before she got into her song. And I was so sad for that little girl. It’s like she’s not even me, that girl from so long ago. I wish I could hug her or tell her she’s okay. I can picture her and feel that little bright flash that she felt. I actually feel myself flush again for her. And then I’m so sad for her. It will take her so goddamn long to unravel some of that stuff. There were times I remember wishing my mother had drowned my brother and I in the bathtub like a litter of unwanted kittens instead of leaving us like that.
But with enough time and work, I think the little girl found her way. I’d figure it out. My mom was a really damaged person. A lot had happened to her. She had her own really difficult past. She had a hysterectomy maybe a year before this. She had my brother really young and marrying my dad hadn’t answered the stuff she thought it would, maybe. She wasn’t really into being a mother, and I bet she felt trapped. I wasn’t a shitty kid and that’s not why she left. What she did was fucked up and wrong and it hurt me in ways that some of it I think I’ll never work out totally. I’ve learned enough about psychology to get that. But she was hurt too. I think you know you grew up when you can see that your parents were people.
But Beyonce’s words and her visual album stirred that, the old pain and the old admiration. I remember my mother purring her soft womanly voice into that CB and loving all the truckers losing their minds imagining her. She’d wink at me in the passenger seat and I’d hope that someday I’d be as beautiful as my mother. I wanted to wear her perfume and smoke Winstons with her lipstick and I wrote my letters as close as I could get them to the letters on her spice jars that nobody noticed on our kitchen wall. I wanted so badly to be a soft spoken lady.