If you said you remembered her packed suitcase or her kiss on your forehead before she left you, you’d be lying. If you said you remembered her whispers or the muffled cries, if you said you heard the dog’s bark followed by the engine of your grandfather’s car, then the crunch of the gravel as they headed out of the holler carrying her away from you, you’d be lying. But somehow all of this is true. You’ve carried versions of your mother, versions of her leaving, with you your entire life. Inventing and then re-inventing your mother’s story. Turning your mother over and holding her up to the light like a stone.
You were six weeks old when she brought you to Indian Creek, Kentucky to live with her parents and you were a year old when she left the creek for Lexington to go off and have another nervous breakdown at Eastern State Hospital. This was her second one. The first one had happened two years before you were born.
You imagine birds chirping then stopping to take a look at your mother being settled into the back seat of your grandfather’s Ford Mercury. Or in one story they’ll tell you it was the sheriff’s car that carried her away. In any case you write of how the birds paused in the branches that morning to look at your wild-eyed mother before they rustled the leaves of the hickory tree and flew away. Then you delete that passage. You imagine it, like a black and white film, the car kicking up dust along the gravel road until it disappeared beyond the horizon, the car fading where the dirt road met the sky. And the baby, Oh as a mother you can’t help but try to see the baby--you--nestled in the curve of your grandmother’s arm. Maybe you were asleep. Maybe you sat up, cocked your head and cried a little sad cry until your grandmother offered you a sup of milk. Your mind’s eye follows the car from the womb of the hills all the way to the county line and eventually to the city, where your country-girl mother looks up at the red brick buildings and then looks back at your grandfather standing stoic in his bib overalls. She is dressed in a flowered dress, strands of her long hair hanging loose from a ponytail. The orderlies escort her away and a steel door shuts, lacerating something between your mother and your grandfather that will never heal. Or maybe she was frightened in the presence of the law. Maybe she was dragged along a sidewalk by deputies screaming, “Let me alone. I want to see my baby!” You can’t help but to believe that you were her obsession even at the peak of her madness. She’s always told you this.
You imagine yourself and your grandmother back home on the hill—the sounds of beans being snapped for supper, your grandmother’s soft cries into the dishpan, your chubby legs chasing a spider across the linoleum you saying, “Mommy? Mommy? Where’s Mommy?” But this is all a lie.
Your first real memories are filled with how shiny and black your patent leather shoes were against your white lacy socks because your head was always down, your eyes on the floor. You remember the whispers passed through the cupped hands of the women you love (aunties, your grandmother, your great aunt). When they speak of your mother’s illness, it always sounds as if she had just taken a vacation, that she was simply off somewhere doing something restorative. You catch them shaking their heads in pity in your direction. This is how they’ll look at you until they die (at funerals and family reunions and church dinners and at Christmas). You will always be the crazy woman’s daughter no matter what fruit your imagination bears. There will always be a woman in your family with her hands on her hips stretching her long neck to see what has become of you.
Nestled in the western rural corridor of Casey County, Indian Creek is cradled by droves of trees on hills. You remember in your 5th grade Kentucky history class learning that your county was the only county completely in the Knobs Region. Long after your mother is taken from you that first time, it becomes your habit to go to the back yard and climb up to the top of the knobs and imagine that if you tried hard enough you could dream her there four counties away, in the city, looking out the window of Ward 6 at the mental institution, thinking of you. She comes to you a 1960s-era vision of mother, in a sleek, blue dress and red lipstick, puffing elegantly on a cigarette, a melancholy look on her face, her legs crossed, the buildings rising up around her, her heart aching for you and the land she knows back down home.
You will be nearly grown, a mother too, before you realize that your mother’s illness was not just a case of the blues, not just her going off someplace to convalesce, to get herself together. You will be horrified to know that during those early years while you toddled behind your grandmother captivated by the magic of earthworms and butterflies and penniwinkles in the creek, that your mother was enduring a battery of treatments for her paranoid schizophrenia. That she didn’t have anything familiar to look at. No hills. No creeks. No garden full of back-yard bounty. No trees. No gravel road. No baby. That most days she was confined behind brick walls like a prisoner. The view out her window: buildings, sidewalk, buildings. You will cry when you learn that your mother, who can’t stand to be cold and wears a sweater even in summer, was subjected to ice baths when she was disruptive to calm her nerves. You will learn that she underwent electric shock therapy which left huge gouges in her long-term memory. She still can’t remember important milestones in her early years. This worries you. You wonder sometimes if she even remembers you. Sometimes you feel guilty for testing her. “What time of day was I born?” you ask her. You feel wicked, caught in the cog of betrayal, when she sadly says she doesn’t know. Beyond those testing moments, silence is the easiest form of communication between the two of you. You spend lots of moments in silence, an occasional glance at each other, a smile but at those times even with a lifetime of words to say, you are both mutes. Black women don’t speak their pain. Black women don’t speak of madness. The Wilkinson women don’t talk about it. Wilkinson women don’t talk about anything but the children and meals that need to be prepared, the cleaning, the shirts to be starched and ironed. You were bold once and asked her what was it like being there at Eastern State. She looked past you into the air, as though she was searching for an answer, and finally said “I don’t know. Not anything good for sure.”
Now, more than fifty years of psychotropic drugs have left her body ravaged with kidney failure and hypertension and she walks with the help of a walker. Her waist-long hair is gray and she twists it up with her arthritic hands to make a bun. Her shoulders are stooped. She runs her thumb over the fingers of her right hand constantly as if she’s strumming something invisible. All your mother’s ailments are exacerbated by the drugs that have kept her sane.
What kind of mother would she have been, had she been able to really mother you? You wonder this even as you slide into your fifties and should be rid of those romantic notions of what a mother is. You still compare yourself to her and wonder if your children are the crazy woman’s children too.
Though you have always felt abandoned by her as a child, you still remember your mother as a regal vision in her black high heels, form fitting dresses, her hair pulled elegantly back from her face and her lips dark red when she would return to the country to visit you for holidays dressed to the nines. She was fancy and no longer belonged next to your grandmother. Even the house with its wood stove, the tin white pot to pee in that sat in the bedroom corner, and the buckets of well water near the doorway in the kitchen seemed to not welcome her any more. The dog barked in the yard as though she were a stranger and you wondered if the birds, the squirrels, the branch, the oak and the hickory had forgotten her too. She kissed you on the lips and hugged you so tightly that sometimes you feared her. She always looked as if she was about to cry when she saw you. You, somehow, always knew she loved you ,though ,and you knew it was a mighty love.
Your grandmother watched your mother as though she was afraid that something awful might happen. And back then you didn’t know the dangers of her disease. That she once pulled a butcher knife on your grandfather. That one time she threw an iron at your grandmother’s head for saying, “You smoke too much.” They say she whipped you harder than she should have when she was off her medication. But you still don’t believe that. She loves you so much that even as a grown woman you can’t bring your mouth to say the word abuse. There is not a word that comes to your mind for it but it was not abuse, this you know for sure.
To you she was somebody out of Jet magazine or straight off the television set. To you she was a strange beautiful black woman who was your beautiful strange black mother. And by then you could see yourself beginning to show in the shape of her nose, her smile, the discoloration under her eyes, like little half moons. You were steadily becoming her beautiful, strange black daughter.
Sometimes you felt as though your real mother was dead or lost, that she had been replaced with this woman who was whispered about, a woman whom you barely knew. But even as she was the woman who sometimes saw things that no one else could see, sometimes said things that made others uncomfortable, your mother played piano by ear and produced beautiful art with pencil and paint. Later you will boast that all of your imaginative leanings came straight from her. You heard things and saw things too. You became a writer.
In your other life, the one you imagined for the two of you back then, she held your hand everywhere you went, took you to the city for swim lessons, taught you to play the piano like her, and told you of the days after she was released from the hospital and moved to Louisville to become a beautician. She told you stories. You wrote stories. You imagine yourself at her feet, your head in her lap, the awe of her washing over you.
In reality you spent most of your youth thinking of your mother as a sister of sorts. Your grandmother was the one you who held you when you were sick and dressed you for school. Your grandmother was steady, sturdy as barbed wire and could solve any problem, had a balm ready for the bee sting, the bicycle wreck, skinned knees and elbows, the fishbone that got stuck in your hand. Your mother was lovely and fragile and was not to be counted on. There was always that story about the time she almost let you drown in the creek. Your mother bought you tea sets and clothes that were too small. She straightened your hair with her beautician tools and put bows around your plaits. Your mother laughed sometimes at people and things that no one could see but her. There was always that look in her eye that you couldn’t quite identify. Something wild always beneath the surface of her corneas threatening to show itself. She told you she loved you constantly, sometimes dozens of times within fifteen or twenty minutes. You came to think that she loved you too much. At one point you decided that perhaps it was her love for you that had driven her crazy. Can anyone stand to be loved this much? You are both fascinated by this kind of love and fearful that such excess exists.
When you were in your late teens and had left the creek for college, you drove thirty minutes from Richmond to Lexington to visit your mother’s little apartment on the Northside. The apartment was on the second floor and the bright orange door stood out from the lime green doors of the other apartments. You thought that even this was a sign of her strangeness. Inside, the apartment was clean but always reeked of cigarettes and the smell of fried meat. Your mother wore an Afro sometimes back then and worked in a hotel. She always invited you to look through her costume jewelry for a trinket to take back to college with you. Sometimes she had boyfriends who would either leave when you arrived or slip up and down the hall like ghosts until you left. You would learn later that they were Army vets, hotel barkeeps, dock loaders, insurance salesmen and occasionally roustabouts. You always felt as though your mother was still trying to coax some greater love from you than you were capable of giving. She would pull out the picture albums and you would both reminisce of the old days on the creek. You would run your finger across the plastic images of you and your grandparents, the gray tar-papered house that you and your mother grew up in, the rusted glider in the backyard, the smokehouse, Mt. Salem Baptist Church. You would take something small from the yellow velvet jewelry box to make her happy. A smiley face pin, a mood ring, earrings, a bangle—things you kept but rarely wore. You taught yourself to always thank her.
These visits were awkward and often the two of you sat in her living room or at her kitchen table just staring at each other, then at the walls or the floor. Sometimes she would fix you something to eat but she didn’t know any of your favorites the way you thought a real mother should. At these times you’d think of your visits back to the creek where your grandmother welcomed you with a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and spoonful of homemade relish on the side because she knew what you liked. Once, your mother made salmon croquettes. She was embarrassed when you said, “Oh Mommy, I’m allergic to fish.” By this time, her illness was controlled with the medication but still you felt as though the both of you were learning the ways of strangers. But during those college years your mother and you grew fond of one another. You began to forge some hybrid relationship--sister/friend/mother/daughter. Your mother was the first person you called when you became pregnant as a second semester freshman instead of your grandmother. You told her your secret as though she was a girlfriend. You were frightened to tell your grandmother. You didn’t want her to be disappointed in you.
Your mother saw your son shortly after he was born, days before your grandmother saw him. Your mother came to stay with you in your apartment in Richmond for a few days. You recall an image of your mother holding him, her shaking hand under his little head. She held your son as if she had never held a baby before but you remember wishing you had a camera to freeze the moment. If there had been a photograph it would have looked like any grandmother holding any grandchild anywhere in the world. That would have been a nice heirloom to pass on to your son. You remember taking him back into your arms, whispering in his tiny ear, promising to be a better mother to him than she had been to you. When you looked up from him, she was there standing in your tiny kitchen stirring canned soup and staring at you holding your son. You were not sure if she’d heard you so you smiled and rose with the baby nestled in the crook of your arm and hugged her. She cried (with joy you think now). You cried and felt guilty and lonely and wished your grandmother was there to smooth that moment away like a wrinkle in sheet. You called your grandmother later and she barely said anything. “You needed a baby like a hole in the head,” she said to you then asked about your new son and his father before she asked if you were eating enough and hurried you off the phone.
You drove those thirty minutes to visit your mother often and when you graduated from college you moved to Lexington to be close to her. In the years that followed she and you and your children traveled back to the creek to see your grandparents as a fully-realized family. You think now that by then both you and your mother had become city women and you wonder now what your grandmother thought about the two of you there together after all those years apart. Those were good times, for the most part, and you felt greedy then for always wanting more, feeling as if those good days with your mother weren’t enough. It’s true you wanted more from her back then than your mother was capable of giving. Sometimes you still do. You imagine and re-imagine a new mother for yourself. You summon your dream mother, your dream mother with outstretched arms and plates of cookies and sound advice.
Your real, flesh and blood mother leans on you for her own salvation, depending on you as much as your children do. You were her caretaker before you reached your thirties. You continue to remind yourself that she is your mother, your mother, your mother. You felt horrible when each of your grandparents died because you didn’t want to have loved them more than you loved your mother but you did.
She loves you.
She loves you.
You remind yourself of this constantly. Sometimes when she talks of your childhood as if she was the greatest part of it she tries to reassure you “Your grandmother wouldn’t let me have you,” she says “because…” And she can never get beyond saying “because I was sick.” And that is when she wants to hug you tightly, as if you might disappear again and she kisses you so hard that you fear your cheek will bruise. You want to push her away but you don’t because she is your mother.
She’s your mother.
She’s your mother.
And you hold your own self up to the light and turn yourself around like a stone. You are a mother too. You know what mother is from the inside out. So you let her kiss you so hard that you feel the scrape of her chapped lips and the outlines of her teeth through her mouth bear into your cheekbone. And you feel that smothering mother love that she has for you. You see it rising up in her, even before she kisses you, a powerful kind of love that is cloaked in fear and pain. You flinch as if you are about to be slapped. There is nothing you want to do more than push her aside and run away, but you, you hold steady as she showers you with all the love that a mother can muster for a child. It is in these moments that you try not to overreact, try not to cry, try not to recreate yourself a girlhood with her as some other mother. She is your mother and you allow her to love you with as thick a love as you both can stand. It’s her job to love you and it’s your job to not replace her with anyone else. She is your mother, the only mother you will ever have, and it’s your job to brace yourself for her overwhelming love and to just keep on finding ways to love her back.
A version of this appeared in Walk Till the Dogs Get Mean: Meditations on the Forbidden in Contemporary Appalachia, edited by Adrian Blevins and Karen Salyer McElmurry, 2015.
Crystal Wilkinson is an award-winning feminist poet, novelist, memoirist, and professor from Kentucky. She’s a born and raised country girl and literary force of nature. Her structural innovations start from the ground up with sentences that read like poetry and characters that live and breathe on the page. A founding member of the Affrilachian Poets Collective, she is the current Appalachian Writer-in-Residence at Berea College.
Wilkinson’s first book, Blackberries, Blackberries won the Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature; her second book, Water Street, was a finalist for both the Orange Prize and the Hurston-Wright Legacy Award; her third book, The Birds of Opulence, won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, The Judy Young Gaines Prize for Fiction, and the Weatherford Award. Her work—fiction, poetry, memoir—has been widely anthologized and published in countless journals. She and her partner, Ron Davis, founded Mythium: A Journal of Contemporary Literature (for writers of color—and an inspiration for Kweli) and now co-own and run the beloved independent bookstore, Wild Fig Books and Coffee in Lexington, Kentucky.