Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
More Than a Boy

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What a bad idea: a middle-aged woman in the praying position on the kitchen floor, a big young guy hovering over her. Still, the big guy, my fourteen-year-old son David, pressed down on my shoulder trying to get me to my knees. "No," I blurted out, jerking away.
"Mom!" David yelped, throwing his big hands in the air. "I'm trying to show you something."

Every day of his high-school freshman year, David came home to show me something. That winter, David was showing me wrestling. I wanted him to have a good time, but I sure didn't want him to wrestle. I only knew one black wrestler in my whole life. My college professor had wrestled in prep school until he got his neck snapped like it was a branch on my neighbor's spindly magnolia tree. After that he was a paraplegic in a wheelchair.

If I got to my knees for David, he might think I wanted to be his wrestling partner. Prep wrestling involved serious training. It was more than tussling on the beat-down brown sofa in the family room, tumbling off it onto the floor, not that we ever did that. We had got to our knees together in church. He had protested that much less than I protested wrestling.

Still, speaking as a mother of two black boys, this scenario was not altogether a bad thing. David's just a regular boy who needs to play and be a boy, just a boy. David showing me something he had learned that day was simply a part of our after-school routine.

But, why would David want to show his mother something that might involve pain? Because boys will be boys.

I have two sons. David has an older brother. His name is Diallo. He's the child of my youth, a 1970s child who has one of those 1970s names, like Sunshine. But we are African-American so his name is African, and it means warrior. One day, a long time ago, when Diallo was seven years old, I lay on the sofa nursing a hurt finger. We got into some kind of beef--as mothers and their oldest sons sometimes do. In his anger, Diallo grabbed my hurt finger in his little fingers and he bent my finger, my hurt finger.

"Diallo!" I screamed at the flash of pain. "That's my hurt finger."

Diallo slunk away, his little boy body defiant. I felt betrayed. My little boy had turned into some kind of brute.

Since then, I have been as rough and tumble with my sons as I need to be. By the time David, my third child and younger son, came along, it was necessary. David was a real little boy who liked physical sensation. He didn't cry when doctors stitched his forehead back together. He took it. As a teenager, David wrestled. How could he? That's not what I wanted, but it was what the football coach wanted. Wrestling built strength.

Wrestling terrified me, but because five of my brothers played high school football, I understood football. So it was because of football I got to my knees in the kitchen where dinner should have been cooking. My head came up to David's waist.

At fourteen, David was just about the same height as I, a grown woman. We were both five foot six inches tall. David though seemed shorter. He was wide at the shoulders and dense muscled like a Staffordshire terrier. That was the original Buster Brown children's shoe mascot which is now feared as the dangerous pit bull. Just the opposite, I am so thin-limbed that when I was growing up my father called me "Sticks." So there we were: the pit bull and the twig.

David closed in on me, circling with plodding flat-footed wrestler's steps. The purse strings of the kitchen space pulled tighter around me. My eyes darted far into their corners tracking him as far as they could. Oh, if only I truly had eyes in the back of my head.

At the edge of my glasses, I lost sight of David. My spine stiffened. The move he was showing me was called "man-on-the-bottom." Was it too late for me to just get up? Could I just say, "Wait 'til your father gets home"?

David crouched behind me. He encircled my body with his thick arms. I could feel his heat. Not since he was a wee boy creeping into my bed at night had we been this close. I caught my breath. The energy crackled between our bodies. We live in a society that considers being that close the turf of lovers, where electricity fuels sex.

My ears strained toward David's words. I could hear him, but it was like he spoke in a foreign tongue. "A wrestler," David rasped, "must be careful not to touch his opponent until he is ready to wrestle ."

Was this my baby, his blunt-tipped fingers writhing through the air in front of me like octopus tentacles? He acted like he couldn't wait to get his hands on me.

However, there was no tenderness in David's voice. "When contact is made ," he said, "the round starts, and Bam!" His voice clapped. "It's on."

I crashed over onto the floor, sprawling, all arms and legs. Though it might not have looked it, my collapse was choreographed and it came with sound effects.

"Knave!" I shrieked at Dave, rhyming his nickname with the lowly class of folk we had read about in The Big Book of Castles.

David reached out his square tan hand to help me up. I looked up to see his eyes, the ones that reminded me of the chocolate in s'mores, twinkling. His grin was almost like a friendly Jack-a-lantern. It showed a slanted front tooth chipped from an earlier rough boy activity. I couldn't fool David.

"Mom," he chided. "You did that."

I did. I did do that. David never touched me. I just fell over. That was easier than waiting to see if mom as 'man-on-the-bottom' was going to work out for me. Don't you know, I have enough stuff to wrestle with raising my boy without have to wrestle with? him.


Dedria H. Barker, the mother of three and professor of writing in Michigan, is at work on a memoir about moms, sons, and sports.


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