Marlon James: One Day I Will Write About My Mother

"My mother, who spent most of her life building work and family, never built a room of her own."

By  Marlon James

My father’s doctors discovered too late in 2011 that they had missed his colon cancer spreading, despite operations and chemo. By the time they shifted blame for metastasis slipping right past them, he was dead. But it wasn’t the cancer that killed him. A blood clot, launched from his left leg or right, took easy passage through his veins, struck the lung, and shut his heart down before my mother could park her car to see him for the second time that weekend. I heard of his death from my sister, a quick phone call where the only way she could keep herself together was to resort to doctor jargon, Daddy didn’t make it. The language threw me off despite her repeating it twice and it wasn’t until I heard my mother scream, off in his room, that I knew.

The thing is, this is not a story about my father. I always write about him, but never about my mother. Even before my friends and I found ourselves in the burying years, my father took up a curious space in my life; there but not always present when I was growing up. Present, but not always there when he got sick. Always ready to talk Shakespeare, Coleridge, or Kahlil Gibran, but only once asking if I had a girlfriend. Between us was always distance and static—the only kid who could talk to him about poetry was the kid he could never figure out. All of which makes for two paragraphs of prose where the act of trying to map a man becomes the point of the prose itself. It is as if that man-sized void that fathers leave is perfect for waxing poetic, but for the ever-present mother, I’ve got nothing.

She was the one always there, and yet the one harder to write about. It’s easy to spin a clever fiction about my father. Not so easy to string words about my mom, the person who applied bandages and bought schoolbooks, but also the adult often around during long stretches of holiday boredom. Even on a purely linguistic level, “the man who wasn’t there” sounds sexier than “the woman who was always present.” That might be because writers and readers place longing at a high value.

But there goes my daddy again, hijacking a story about my mother.

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Things I remember. The first time I saw my mother cry was in 1978, when news came from England that my sister-in-law had died. I was eight years old and adults didn’t cry. Adults were never weak. Adults knew the answer to everything. Adults whipped the living shit out of me while simultaneously convincing me that this was hurting them far more than it was hurting me. Or this: if big people did cry, it was because of being in physical pain. But this was different. She was crying over something that I couldn’t see, hear or touch. Actually sobbing. But then she stopped and within an hour it was as if it never happened. She did the same when my father died, my sister told me. The sound I heard over the phone, long, loud and out of breath, like a gasp, a shout and a cry all at once. On the way back home, with my sister driving, she sat there silent. Done.

My mother, who spent most of her life building work and family, never built a room of her own.

My mother has lost her temper more than once. Early 80s when she found out my older brother was smoking weed. She slapped him, not like a mother disciplining her son, but like a woman enraged that a man had disappointed her again. The time she snapped at me in the car despite being angry with someone else. Neither of us apologized or brought it up again.

Also this: my mother is a liar. A grand, elaborate liar with a stunning ability to convince, possibly the most hilarious thing about her. Somehow she managed to convince each of us at six that she was a hundred years old, enough that we would relay the same information in class with such a straight face that even the teacher started to wonder. That time when she told us we were moving to a big house uptown, and sat there on the couch while we started to decide what to take and what to leave, and which friends to stop talking to, now that we were going to be posh.

My mother thinks the hospital killed my father. She never had much use for bullshitting or pussyfooting, sometimes crossing the line from honest to tactless. Hard to say if it’s true, of course, but all bets are off in a Jamaican hospital, and the most they did to prevent deep vein thrombosis was to tell the patient to get up and walk. A sick man, killed by the hospital that expected him to be Lazarus; she has called them murderers more than once to my sister and me. And while I say, Mummy, you can’t walk around with such things in your head, I know it’s true.

*

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She was born in Linstead, St. Catherine, in 1936. Her sisters still say she was the most beautiful of the Dillon girls, which is saying something since everybody in Linstead knew the beauty of the Dillon girls, but the old pictures back them up. There is one of her, hair curled and pressed close like Billie Holiday’s, and all dolled up like in a 50s film. There is another of her and three other women, dressed mod in miniskirts and beehive hair and leaning up against a sports car. They look as if they’re at the beach. They look like soul sisters more than real sisters, but I have no idea who these women were.

The photo makes me think about who she was before marriage and motherhood. My mother having fun. My mother rolling deep with her chick posse, and maybe even getting into a little trouble. My mother, a woman hanging with woman friends. It haunts me because the mother I know had friends mostly from work, and by the late 80s they were all gone. She said to me back when I was 18, Well you know I don’t have anybody to talk to. And that statement, tossed off like an afterthought, may be the reason why marriage always seemed like purgatory to me.

This is a bargain that I still see women make, including friends who are not friends anymore. Now that I am a married woman, my life is husband and family. Friends fade. This was something that women of her time were told to buy into, that friendship was something to bide the time until you found your true purpose as wife and mother. Happiness was something you provided for your children, not yourself. My mother was the first person to make a contradiction real to me. Something I saw in two of my friends who had fucked around on their wives, and one who probably would. Men and women, in the midst of ever-expanding family, who were still the loneliest people on the planet.

Also this: she is an epic farter. I tell her all the time that one day she’ll blast herself into orbit.

*

My cousins are amazed by her infinite capacity for sweetness. To them she is that aunt. Somebody who can hug you soft and sweet with just words, even words as simple as Happy Holidays. Around her sisters and brothers, she becomes big sis, the one who stayed in Jamaica, the last of her sisters to marry and the last to think she should marry my father. At her mother’s funeral in 1976, she held two of her sisters tight as they lost it. Tired herself, her arms wrapped around my aunts, her eyes hidden in the shadow of her black, wide-brimmed hat. A single tear rolling down her right cheek. She’s the one they lean on, even now.

And this: she still calls me baby in public. And she does it like this, Bye bayyybeeeee. It used to annoy the crap out of me when I was 21 and a man, but now, whenever we part, at home, or the airport, I hang there suspended, waiting for her to say it.

*

There was this time, a slow Sunday afternoon back when I was either 15 or 16, when my daddy was in the kitchen teaching me how to cook lobster and I caught him stealing glances out the window, which looked out to the garden. He beckoned me over with his left hand, his right jabbing lobsters with a giant fork, dunking them deep in popping fat. Out in the garden knelt my mother and inside were the two of us, looking at her planting flowers as if she were a stranger about to walk out of the frame. You see her? The smartest woman I ever know. But she too proud. She fail just one of her general exams and never took it again. We have any more garlic? Years later, at Christmas dinner when everybody was raving about my father’s lobster, roast pork and curried goat, she said to no one, again in that tossed-off way she communicated disappointment, Nobody ever say anything when I cook.

She has never said a swear word. Ever. Not even shit.

My mother thinks the hospital killed my father. She never had much use for bullshitting or pussyfooting, sometimes crossing the line from honest to tactless.

Flannery O’Connor once said great stories resist paraphrase. I have a feeling that my mother’s story resists story. Or that maybe I can only recall, not reconfigure or rearrange into anything like narrative. That at best, I might hit something like Michael Ondaatje’s “7 or 8 Things I Know About Her.” I have a feeling it’s something simpler, the fact that I might not even know my mother. I know she loves cream soda and still calls it aerated water. She still calls umbrellas parasols. But put a boxing match on TV and she shrieks frenetic, like Norman Mailer watching black men beat each other.

*

One late morning years ago we were alone in the house. I still lived there, so I was probably 24 or 25. I can’t remember why we were alone, but I do remember her knocking on my room door, walking in jittery and anxious.

“Get up,” she said, “quick.”

I did what twentysomethings did and asked why. I lay on the bed, trying to decide between Jane’s Addiction and Mother Love Bone CDs.

“Just get up,” she said. “Dance with me.”

I didn’t know what to do. Worse, this looked like a serious request, not a joke. She stood there waiting, in the same sundress she always wore, her hair rolled up.

“I don’t dance,” I said.

She didn’t hear me but started singing, and it was only when she got to the chorus that I realized it was “Tennessee Waltz,” by Patti Page. She said it was her favorite song but had never heard it on the radio. She had probably not heard it in 40 years. She was still by the door waiting. I was still on the bed waiting for her to leave and the awkwardness between us grew thick. As she walked away I wondered if that was her last shot at being who she was 40 years ago, and my last shot at seeing her when she was younger than me.

*

The morning of my exorcism I came with a list of grievances against my father. I had gone to a church in uptown Kingston, because I didn’t want anyone from my own church to know. And because that demon in me, the one who wanted to see Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman naked, was taking over my life, meaning taking over my computer. And the church pamphlet that I kept for years to remind me that men I thought I wanted to fuck were really men I wanted to be, was wearing out. Sin—guilt—confession—forgiveness—rinse—repeat.

I just wanted to be normal. That’s not true. I didn’t want to be normal at all. I wanted to want it. I didn’t want a wife and children, I wanted to want them. I didn’t want a house and two cars in the suburbs and a normal job with a normal Tuesday morning breakfast scene watching TV and sending children off to school. I wanted to want it. I didn’t say any of that when the deliverers, a man and a woman, walked into the twelve-by-twelve beige room with three chairs and two vomit bags on the floor. They asked me why I was there. I shot off all the reasons why my father pissed me off, disappointed me, offended me and earned my disfavor, because all faggots are looking for their fathers.

“Tell me about your mother,” the man said.

I opened my mouth and a scream came out.

*

Since my father died, my mother has been wearing pants again. She hasn’t since the 70s. Now she wears jeans, a brand-new thing for her. My youngest sister, who now lives with her, has been introducing her to the practice of glamming up, so now she has foundation on her face. But my father’s death also stripped her of man-pleasing bullshit, so her hair is now cut super-short with tight, shiny curls. She tells her daughter things she would never tell her sons, including her terrible fear of being alone. Her sons live abroad and she travels every year. But not to my house—I’m terrified of how much work it would take to de-gay it.

I just wanted to be normal. That’s not true. I didn’t want to be normal at all. I wanted to want it. I didn’t want a wife and children, I wanted to want them.

The week her last child left her house, Aunt Elise took up pottery. My mother, who spent most of her life building work and family, never built a room of her own. And other than for church, she doesn’t know how to make room for anything else, despite a surplus of space. She is never going to take up pottery, or anything new for that matter, that old fear of failure stopping her from trying. But this woman still walks a mile to church, cooks all her own meals, drives like a total boss and holds her brothers and sisters together. My best friend’s mother took to retirement by sitting in the armchair beside the TV, and waiting for the death that came seven years later.

I don’t think my mother has given up, no woman who just discovered jeans has given up, but I wonder about the limbo she seems to be in. A limbo where she does find-a-word puzzles and emails her nephews, nieces and grandchildren. We are all shuddering over that moment when she discovers Facebook. I don’t have the nerve to ask if she’s happy, though I think she is. Well, she is whenever she thinks of her children, grandchildren and church.

And even when she thinks of my father. They were best friends who should never have gotten married. But they did, produced four children and near the end of his life, when there was nothing left to be bitter about, went back to being best friends. It was something to see, the rhythm of late-term man-woman friendship and companionship, with none of the complicated bullshit that comes from marriage. She doesn’t miss a husband—that man was never really there, but she misses her friend, and she still grieves for him.

There was once a man who invited me to Paris for Christmas. It was 2005, and I didn’t find him attractive but that wasn’t why I didn’t go. All I could think of was what my mother would think if she found out I was gay. That she would just throw herself more into church with a mission to pray my gay away, or worse, atone for her failure as a mother. I think the reason I screamed in the exorcism room was that I realized right then that I had built my terrible life around not disappointing my mother, though she had never asked for that. And even after realizing that I was gay anyway, that meant coming to terms with being cool with her no longer being in my life. There again was me reading my mother not as a person, but as a concept that I could project my fear and desire onto and then react. How could she not know? I’ve never had a girlfriend. How could she know, we never speak about such things, in fact we’re a family that doesn’t talk, something that nearly devastated my sister.

March 15, 2015, I came out in the New York Times Magazine. It didn’t feel like a coming out to me but was treated as such and the article went viral. I had finally gotten to the point where I didn’t care what people thought, and reaction, positive or negative, didn’t interest me. The weekend before, I had lunch with my older brother. I honestly thought this would be the last time we were in the same room together, while he thought he was just getting lunch with his little bro. It was a strange week of kiss-offs, my acting as if I was going through the funeral rites of my relationships. So it was funny that I got the anticlimax I spent 30 years hoping for, in which friends and family would be in my corner post-coming out, and instantly over it.

But even my brothers wondered if I had heard from my mother. They said I should call her and explain, since she would be hearing it the same time as a few million other people, and who knows how she would react to not being told. And I agreed with this until it hit me that I was done explaining myself. And then I won the Booker Prize, and every news story led with “openly gay Jamaican author.” My mother followed my Google alerts—surely she would know now. I wasn’t going to tell her. Maurice Sendak never came out to his mother either.

All this openly gay business made me wonder if I would ever hear from my mother again. That’s too dramatic, of course I knew I would hear from her, but I wondered if she would say anything other than family business. How the hedge needs cutting and who no longer comes to church. Also this: my mother has sung me “Happy Birthday” every November 24 since I was one year old. She even called me in Nigeria two years earlier. I had resigned myself to never getting that call again. Not out of malice or bitterness, but because our family disease of non-talk would spread even to her singing.

But at 9 am on my birthday, when I was hungover and waking up in London, my cell phone rang. It was her number. She did not say hello or anything, just took a small breath and sang.

The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.

Marlon James
Marlon James
Marlon James was born in Jamaica in 1970. His most recent novel is A Brief History of Seven Killings, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature for fiction, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction, and the Minnesota Book Award. He is also the author of The Book of Night Women and John Crow’s Devil. He lives in Minneapolis.





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