Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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The following column is the fourth installment in a series. In the three previous installments, Day . . . Break, Free at Last, and Letting Go, the author chronicled the final months of her mother's fight against breast cancer. In this installment, the author leaves her hometown in the wake of her mother's passing, and returns to her life and family in Pittsburgh.

Late August 2005

Home: I think this is the place. But ever since my mother died, I keep saying "Jacksonville" when I mean "Pittsburgh" (though, interestingly, never the other way around). At any rate, I am back to where my children call "home" and where all my books are.

This is disconcerting. I go to the store buy things I already have, like batteries and stamps, because I have forgotten where I keep them in my house. I go to the laundromat for the first time since college; there is so much laundry, it would take six months to do it one load at a time. Once cleaned, the laundry is folded and sorted into piles to be put away: my clothes, Peyton and Taylor's clothes that still fit them, and the clothes from the summer that no longer fit them. I feel sad and not a little guilty, as through willful neglect, and not my mother's death, I've missed a crucial transition in their lives.

The first day of school, first grade, comes, and I try to make it a celebration for Taylor. We take pictures, and I wonder if she'll be in second grade before I get around to printing them. Which leads me to recall that Peyton still doesn't have a baby book, and I feel guilty all over again.

It's time to talk to local friends who wish to express their condolences regarding my mother. I've got my script down pat: "She was peaceful and unafraid. She passed with dignity, and her strength encouraged me." This is always true in fact, but I'm not always as encouraged as that little speech makes me out to be. But it's easier to recite those words than to sit in awkward silence, or to receive an unwanted hug because I burst into tears instead. To be sure: I love hugs, but sometimes, lately, I just want to be left alone. But I don't want to appear ungrateful.

Sept. 7, 2005

Happy birthday to me. At the stroke of midnight, three things happen simultaneously:

I check my e-mail and find a birthday greeting from my friend Felix. It contains a beautiful, vivid purple flower. It makes me smile and wish I knew the names of flowers without having to look them up. It looks like a purple carnation, but heartier and less commonplace.

A friend calls from the West Coast to sing "Happy Birthday" to me. As he's serenading me, another friend is leaving the same gift on my voicemail.

Neither friend knows that for every year of my life, I have awakened on my birthday to my mother or my grandmother, or both, singing "Happy Birthday" to me, live or by phone.

Mid-September 2005

Two weeks after the first day of school, here's a typical day:

Wooing prospective clients for my custom writing business; talking to my Pittsburgh-based divorce attorney; calling my Jacksonville-based attorney for a referral to a real estate agent to sell my mother and grandmother's houses; sending e-mails to room parents from me, the Lower School parent coordinator; realizing Taylor has outgrown her karate gi and needs a new one; fielding calls from concerned friends and loved ones in Jacksonville; scheduling dentist and doctors appointments, for myself and the girls; looking for a new babysitter; letting Peyton taste-test my Crest Extreme Clean toothpaste versus her Dora the Explorer toothpaste, for about 15 minutes; designing a flyer when Taylor decides she needs a job and pitches a business plan to me for a combination mother's helper/homemade Rice Krispy treat delivery service.


Vegas feels like a sacrilege, Sin City and all that. But when I decide that I want -- need -- to have some fun before this miserable year ends, Vegas (to which I've never been) is the first place that comes to mind, and it sticks. Guaranteed fun, even though I don't gamble. I choose Thanksgiving because I'm just not ready to do a big family "thing" and be reminded every second of an entire day of the family I have lost, to be reminded that I will never taste my grandmother's green beans again, nor my mother's cornbread dressing.

Still, despite all the exotic options available to me in Vegas, I eat a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at one of the hotel's many restaurants. Nothing about that meal feels like my mother or my grandmother. Nothing about it feels like home, and that is a good thing because home, as I first knew it, was wherever my mother and my grandmother were. And right now I don't want to long for a place that doesn't exist.

Deesha Philyaw’s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight and elsewhere. The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, her collection of short stories about Black women, sex, and the Black church, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in fall 2020.

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