I am the blood of my mother
The knife severed and I became an Other
I don’t know how to be
I don’t know what to be
How am I to be me?
“My children take care of me,” said my birth mom, whom I’ll call Flora. I had called to wish her a happy Mother’s Day. It was the second time we’d spoken since we reconnected sixteen years ago.
Why did she say, ‘My children take care of me?’ I wondered as Flora continued talking, the lilt of her voice now an echo behind my thoughts. She didn’t open with ‘Happy Mother’s Day’—I’m a mother too—or ‘How are you’ or ‘Nice to hear your voice’. How am I to take care of her when I live in Whitehorse and she in Toronto? Do I want to?
I tuned back in to realize Flora was talking about the Evangelical church her parents founded. Flora’s parents had moved to Toronto from Trinidad when she was twenty-one. Their culture was such that Flora was expected to live with them until she married. They told her if she gave birth to me at the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers, she would be welcome back home again. I became her “forty-year-old secret.”
“Our church is different than other churches,” her voice effervesced. “It’s full of my family and friends, and we laugh together, oh we laugh and laugh and laugh.”
My family. I want to meet your family, I thought. Isn’t your family my family? I want to gaze at their faces with blood links to mine and laugh and laugh and laugh.
“My son Jacob asked what I wanted to eat and said he’d order it,” her voice continued. “I told him I’ll have pizza and coffee.” Her laugh rolled in like waves and then stopped.
I could taste the salt. “Pizza is one of my favourite meals,” I slurred, then repeated. My tongue seemed to be stuck to the roof of my mouth. I didn’t say ‘I also love coffee,’ not wanting to appear like I was trying too hard.
I also didn’t say at age nine, as a brown child living with a white family in predominantly white towns, I got tired of being asked where I was from “originally” instead of just being accepted as a Canadian-born person of colour. I didn’t say it made me feel I didn’t belong. I didn’t say her decision had made me an other. Since I regularly drank copious amounts of coffee, I’d say, “It was the coffee. It turned my skin brown,” only to have people laugh, then pause, suddenly wondering if it were true.
Flora’s words seemed to contain haste, as if our conversation were a duty to be crossed off a list. The call had been my idea. I was tired of our superficial emails and texts, her I hope you are wells and I’m praying for yous. She never asked questions about my adoptive parents and upbringing, or about my current hopes and dreams. I felt frustrated that after all these years we hadn’t moved past initial introductions. I could understand the past might be painful but to avoid talking about who I became, who I am now, stung.
Flora had texted recently of a painful leg and possible blood clots, and I remembered the blackening around one of her ankles when I had last seen her. Naïve to the way of brown skin, I had thought it normal—like the gathering of melanin around nails. Worried we wouldn’t have much time left, I planned a trip to Toronto to visit. But due to rising travel costs, I opted for a phone call instead.
“We are so alike,” she continued. “You can’t seem to stop yourself from writing. That’s all you seem to want to do,” she stated, as if she knew me.
We had met for the first time sixteen years ago at a place of her choosing—a Toronto mall only two subway stops from her apartment. The same mall where, at a year-and-a-half, my Children’s Aid social worker had taken me to meet my future adoptive parents who didn’t want to drive all the way into Toronto. Since then, Flora and I had only seen each other three times and always with other members of my immediate family.
“I . . . I’m not sure where it . . . my writing came from. It just appeared out of nowhere,” I stammered, not knowing how to convey the burn writing inflicted on me. Writing allowed me to know myself, my real self.
“It came from visiting me.” She added, “You saw my poems and books and then you went home and joined a writing group and started writing.”
I don’t remember it that way. But I was glad she attributed something of mine to something of hers. Flora has a poem published in a Canadian anthology and her church covered the expense of her self-published chapbook filled with poems about her faith.
For as long as I remember, I have had stories in my head and instead of writing them down, I had imaginary conversations with people. I have lots of conversations in my head with Flora. I share my hopes and dreams and fears. She listens attentively.
“My son Jacob helps me with my writing,” she continued. “He tells me to improve my punctuation, that I should write of other things. So I wrote a story about fears, but he told me he meant other types of fears.”
Do I ask if she thought Jacob was hinting at larger fears? The fear that her friends, family and church community would find out about me? And the tide could wash her carefully constructed world away?
“How is Jacob?” I ask instead.
“Jacob? He’s got a girlfriend now, but he still lives with me and takes care of me. Nadine too. Her kids, you know, my grandkids, are big now, but she’s still busy.”
Nadine is also a half sibling. Jacob and Nadine know about me but the rest of the extended family are still unaware.
“Finn’s doing well,” I say, when it becomes clear Flora will not ask about my son, her other grandchild, whom she’s met twice. Do I ask if she wants his cell number, I wonder. What if she says no?
“Good, good, what a handsome boy.”
I want to say how much he looks like her. How he has her nose. How in summer the sun bakes his olive skin brown, and if she were to walk with him, people would see the resemblance. I want to say he’s also a writer.
But I say nothing, knowing our semblance of a relationship is like the sand beneath the tide—here one moment, vanishing with the ocean’s ebb the next. Sometimes months will pass before I receive an email saying she hasn’t heard from me in a while, signed I’m praying for you. I’m never sure if I’m supposed to thank her.
Grabbing my graying curls to untangle them from the phone, I thought about Flora’s sparse black curls and the curious gaps on her scalp where the black dye lingered. I decided to avoid mention of the eightieth birthday party she’d texted me about earlier. I wondered if I’d receive an invitation, as her extended family and friends were so numerous they needed to rent a hall. If Flora said “come,” I’d pay any amount of money to fly to Toronto to attend.
“Jacob is so helpful. He stays with me even though he has his own life. Nadine will pick me up and take me wherever I want to go. My children take care of me.”
I want to say that they take care of you because you first took care of them.
“I better let you go because I’ve done all the talking,” she said.
She must be tired, I thought. It can’t be easy talking to a secret daughter.
I feel snarled like dislodged seaweed left to drift aimlessly in the current. My toes stretch for the sandy bottom.
In the deepest part of me, I’m still the child you gave away.
I am the blood of my mother
I don’t know how to be
I don’t know what to be
I’ll be like no other
I’ll be Charm.
Rumpus original artwork by Iris L.