Rosa Mae Washington gave birth to me when she was 18 and freshly married. She loved a semi-professional boxer who became my father. It was the late 1950s and they were two young negroes—that’s what we were called at the time—who didn’t always have all of the parts to hold it together in a country that was at odds with itself given the fact that Negroes were struggling to be treated as humans and were lynched and under attack in so many ways.
Some ten years later, my father started to not come home. During the revolving door of his visits while still married, one day my mother was in the kitchen and said to me “Would you like to have a little sister?” Up until that time, I was alone with my mother and I never thought I would ever have a sibling. I greeted her news with great happiness. Just the thought of having another personality in the house was great news.
On one of my father’s sporadic visits, I—an inquisitive 10-year-old—asked him, “Why did you leave me?” His answer was “because you’re a man now.” Possibly the most ignorant answer I ever received from another human being and probably why any level of adult stupidity irritates me to no end. Especially the stupidity that derives from an adult giving a child a bullshit answer.
My father permanently left before my sister was born and my mother struggled to care for us in the projects in New York City in the 1970s in an area known as Fort Apache, South Bronx. In a place that is much like Syria is today, just near the burnt-out, smokey hulls of tenement buildings that surrounded every block. Buildings burnt down in a community where the owners never lived but wanted the insurance money and the rents for the roof over your head. The conditions some of my friends lived in were sub-par, not fit for humans.
In retrospect, my father leaving was one of the best things that ever happened to us. He was physically abusive to both my mother and me until I grabbed my Louisville Slugger and cracked him on the back of his leg near his left anterior cruciate ligament, intentionally causing so much pain that the semi-professional boxer thought it best to stop hitting the woman that loved him before he had to kill us both.
My mother and I certainly do not see eye-to-eye—I don’t want to talk about her in the past tense; As I write this my Mom is laying in a bed in New York City at the place where she gave birth to me. Rosa Mae Madison has made about 10 hospital visits since her first stroke several years ago and she is also battling endometrial cancer. The gremlins in her head chipping away at her memories and intellect causing dementia occasionally rob her of her whereabouts and effects her mood. The strokes caused her to lose the ability to control her own future, it’s made her dependent, something I know we Madison’s have great difficulty with. But she is still with us.
The incredible amount of love she showed to me as best she could (they didn’t have Oprah then)—given her battles with depression, institutional racism, and single parenthood—taught me lessons about life that no two people ever could have taught me. She taught me how to be a better man than my father ever could.
She taught me everyone has a history.
The history of a person should be part of the context of understanding someone or showing empathy. Sometimes people do things that hurt us. Before passing judgment (face it: we all judge one way or another), understand who that person is. I didn’t truly understand my Mom or her pain until I realized she had serious difficulty with her mom, my grandmother, who walked on water next to Jesus, as far as I was concerned. But that same woman left my Mom in the care of a relative that sexually assaulted her and made my mother feel worthless.
My mother was in a girl gang in the 1950s that did some bad-ass things by 1950s standards. I had no freaking clue about any of this until I asked, and it was one of the few times she shared very honestly. Black folks at that time had historically dealt with pain very privately; some still do.
She taught me about strength.
When my Mom was about to give birth to my sister when I was 10 years old, she shipped me off to my Grandmother’s house for a weekend trip to Peg Leg Bates Country Club. The Club was in Kerhonkson, NY, the only Catskill resort where blacks were allowed for day trips or weekend stays at the time. Mr. Bates was a wealthy black vaudevillian who owned this resort and positioned it so that blacks had someplace in the country to go and be welcomed. Many black churches planned annual excursions there.
Prior to getting onto the bus to leave from in front of the church, my grandmother, a tiny woman about 5’2”, jumped onto the bus and screamed, “She had a girl!” I was thrilled my mom was OK and life resumed. Only years later when talking to my Mom, I learned that when her labor pains began, she called a cab, picked up her maternity bag, and went to the hospital . . . alone. She had no man, no lover, no grateful individual by her side saying “thank you for bringing our child into the world.” She gave birth among strangers. In the midst of all of that, she was thrilled and gave my sister one name (no middle name) just “Joy” short and simple, as Mom would say. And Joy was the happiest baby, I ever saw.
She taught me about friendship.
Mom had a very close friend who was just as financially impoverished as we were and yet she gave so much love and was such an incredibly kind and funny person no matter what she faced. One day, it was discovered that this friend had a heart problem and she needed an operation. The day she had the operation, we were advised that the operation was a success, however, she died on the operating table (never rationalized that one). What I didn’t know was that my mother was named the executor of her estate (there was no money), which meant that she had to care for her son who had cerebral palsy. My mother, given her personal responsibilities, involved me in his care. It taught me more about loving the disabled and keeping your word to the people you love because Evelyn Mack was my mother’s best friend. My Mom, true to her word, cared for Evelyn’s son, until the day he died. He committed suicide because he was in love with another disabled person and, at that time in NYC, the disabled were not allowed to marry.
She taught me about pain.
My Mother suffered from depression all of her life, and it was at a time when the medications were very harsh on the body. So harsh, she swore to never take them again. She suffered through not having enough money to give us the life she felt we deserved but like most children we were deeply insulated. As I grew I saw the difficulty.
I started working at age 15 to help my Mother. I watched her struggle through hard, demanding jobs. I watched her go to work sick. I felt her pain when she was required to go to the welfare office and present her financials, none of which she had in order to keep us fed and a roof over our head, but so that the City of New York would continue supporting us. I watched her speak to my father about the child support he owed but never paid at all. I also watched her rise. I watched her work and go to school in a program in Harlem where she learned secretarial skills and then became employed by Manufacturers Hanover Trust Bank. When they merged with J.P. Morgan Chase, I watched her rise through the ranks within the bank so that she could take better care of herself and my sister. I saw her, despite everything, rise.
She taught me to fend for self.
Prior to the growth of my sister, it was just my Mother and me. I was a latchkey kid and came home from school . . . alone. My sister was at the babysitter. I cooked, cleaned, picked up my sister, sewed when I needed to (on my Mom’s Singer or by hand). I iron better than most people. I can perform my own menial tasks without inconveniencing others and if I love you enough, I will do them for you, also.
She taught me unending faith.
The only thing that sustained my Mother was her faith in God. Singularly her faith sustained her in a way that no human could have; her faith never waivered.
The good in that was that there was nothing that would stop her except depression, which caused her to take her pain out on her friends and her children. Like some families, some very hard things were said, “I could have left you like your Father did” but even though I didn’t understand it then and it still hurts now, I understand her.
I forgave her for that because as personal as it sounds, it wasn’t personal. Who was I for her to take it out on me? I am the spitting image of my Father. But her faith gave her purpose, a cause beyond the two children who needed her. Her faith caused both my sister and me to be empathetic, caring, passionate people who, if you’re lucky enough to befriend us, you have a friend you can call to help move. She taught us there are forces of a higher power that we will all answer to one day, whether we believe or not.
My Mom taught me through her example, through dialogue, through faith, how to be a better man. She taught me how to be a good Father. She taught me directly and indirectly that a man understands the necessity to have compassion combined with your physical strength. To love a woman responsibly and with truth. She taught me that life laced with struggle can still be very very happy, fulfilling and of assistance to others in need. She taught me the heroics of the struggle of single Mom’s (I revere every single Mom that goes it alone). She grounded me, and for that, I am forever grateful and I leave her where she should reside, in God’s very capable hands. Thank you, Mommy. Thank you.
Photo courtesy of the author.