My mother’s a piece of work. She’s an avant-garde throwback to prehistoric times. She’s a ruthless diva of danger. I love her and fear her in nearly equal measure. She has taught me valuable and obscure lessons. The following teachings standout at this point in my life.
I remember her saying more than once that we should not spend a bunch of time looking at the evil in others because we might miss the darkness in ourselves.
I think one of her meanings with this adage is that evil is in us all and we better keep a closer eye on our own propensity for wicked works than worry about what others are doing. However, every time I apply her words to my current situations, I find a new interpretation.
When I was thirteen, and our world turned upside down, my mother scorched me with her words. I was helping her hang out laundry to dry. I was feeling good about sharing work with her as an equal. Mama said, “Marigold, you can drop your drawers and spread your legs as much as you want. I can’t stop you. But, girl, don’t be bringin’ no babies in here. You ain’t got but about an ounce of motherhood in you. Children deserve better than that.”
Those words scalded me. Stuck to me like hot tar. At that very moment, I had been thinking of letting Rodney Doolittle, the eighteen-year-old boy next door, stick more than his fingers up my vagina. I knew that I didn’t especially like children. I was the oldest girl and the second oldest of six children. I had a lot of childcare responsibilities, and I resented it mightily. Mama was right about me not having motherhood inclinations or skills. But she said it so matter of fact and the implications to me were that I was not a real woman unless I was a good mother. I thought she was saying that I was fatally flawed.
I said to myself. You stupid old black crow you don’t know shit about me. I made up my mind right then and there to prove her wrong. I would be a mother and a damn good one at that.
Mama had six children by four different men in Mississippi. Three white men and one Chinese fathered her children. Mama said, “Good black men are rarer than hen’s teeth. The most work these niggers around here want to do is to wear your pussy out.”
Mama’s kids, Handsome, me, Rogue, Essie, Erma and Ida are stair steps, a year apart. Except for the last two that were identical twin girls. When the Twins were born, Mama said, “Oh, hell no! Double trouble. Twins are blind to the evil in them. Born under a bad sign. They gonna bring us down, down, down for sure.”
My mother’s black and shiny as a piece of Anthracite coal. She can fix a tractor or any other internal combustion engine, plow a field, build a house or grade a road. She can crack a walnut in her fist. Still, she was no great shakes at being a mother herself. However, I was and am way too wise to confront her on that.
I’m now forty-one, and I have thirteen-year-old twins I’m beginning to understand her reasoning about twins.
The same September day Mama scarred me with her words our world came apart. Moss Ellsworth, a worthless piece of poor white trash, and the father of Mama’s oldest child, Handsome, came banging on our door. It was evening and Mama, Handsome, and Rogue were off down the road fixing a tractor.
I answered the door.
“Marigold, Marigold, you lookin’ good girl. How old you now? Fifteen? You got titties and everything.”
I shook my head in disgust. “Ellsworth, you smell like a brewery. You need to get back where you came from. Ain’t nothing here for you.”
“Mr. Ellsworth. It’s Mr. to you. You little yellow nigger bitch. I need to teach you some goddamn manners. This is Mississippi—”
He started to push his way in and Essie, my younger sister, was by my side quick as lightning with two kitchen knives. She handed me one and faced Ellsworth with the other one. “Cracker or is it Mr. Cracker? Get your ass off our property. Now!”
“Oh, shit! Essie, you want some of me too? I never did like you. But I’ll fuck you.”
That was when Rodney, our across the road neighbor, stepped off his porch with his pa’s 12-gauge shotgun in his hand. “Get out of here Ellsworth. Leave them girls alone.”
Ellsworth whipped around to face Rodney screaming, “Nigger, you dead. You dead as a doornail. This is fuckin’ Mississippi nigger.”
Rodney lifted the shotgun to his shoulder and took dead aim at Ellsworth.
Ellsworth was sweating. His eyes got all big. He started backing off the porch. He tripped, fell on his back, rolled over and got up staggering and running and falling.
I sent Essie flying down the road to fetch Mama and the boys.
My family left Mississippi that night for Chicago.
I don’t know what happened to Rodney. I pray he got away too.
Eventually, we ended up in Stockton, California, and it was the best move of our lives. I thank Moss Ellsworth from the bottom of my heart for getting us out of Mississippi.
Cali was a revelation. I had never met Mexican, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Filipino, or Southeast Asian people before. It made my head spin for a minute.
I never saw oranges growing on trees before. You could just pick them – for free!
And best of all, we had a free library with more books than I had ever seen. The library became my second home.
Mama gave us strict orders when we first arrived in Cali. “You half-breed little bastards ain’t gonna fuck this up. You do what I tell you when I tell you. If I ain’t around, do what Marigold tell you. We got a chance here to do better.”
Handsome was at the bottom of the chain of command. Before we got ran out of Clarksdale, the green-eyed charmer had tried to stick his dick up my ass when I was sleeping. The boy is as dumb as he is cute. I popped him a good one. He begged me not to tell Mama. Unfortunately for Handsome, Mama appeared right there in the doorway looking as solemn as doomsday.
Essie was sleeping with me. Mama woke her up. Told her what had happened. Mama said, “Be like boxers. Protect yourself at all times.” After that, Essie and I slept with knives under our pillows. Handsome got demoted. I was the Chief Overseer after that. My word was law. My voice was my whip.
And that’s the way it was in Cali too.
Mama did the impossible. She got a County job as a mechanic – the first and only female, black mechanic in the history of San Joaquin County. How she accomplished this was classic Mama. It involved oral sex, threats, blackmail, and a stabbing. Mama was not the injured party. I can tell you that much. Mama made that story a family legend.
We had a house of our own with fenced front and back yards. Each of us had our own bed!
We kids thought we had died and gone to heaven.
We love you, Cali!
And it worked out like I never even dreamed.
Essie and I eventually went to Delta Community College. I transferred to UC Berkley. Essie went down south – to UCLA. We both graduated from law schools at our universities.
Rogue, the smart one, went from high school to Stanford on a full academic ride straight to a Ph.D. in physics.
The twins, Erma and Ida, dropped out of high school, moved to the Bay Area for nearly four years. The twins worked low wage jobs until they figured out the sex trade. Their passion was writing and performing their songs and music. They were exceptional at their profession and advocations.
They moved to LA and gave Essie fits until she kicked their parasitic, Bohemian asses out.
They jumped to Austin, Texas, wrote three back-to-back hit country and western songs. They parlayed that into doing movie scores and lyrics and music for a Broadway musical.
They had homes in LA, Austin, and Manhattan.
They despised Mama. Mama never relented in her antipathy toward twins. The twins are estranged from Essie, and Rogue.
Erma once asked me, “Marigold, why Mama hate us just because we twins? That don’t make no sense at all.”
I tried to clean it up for Mama. “Mama just old and superstitious. She don’t hate you—”
Ida cut me off. “She do! You know she do, Marigold. You the closest thing to a mother we got.”
Ida was right. Unfortunately, in me, they had an abysmal example of motherhood. I wish I had done better by them.
But for reasons, I don’t understand, they invite me to their significant events and call me a couple times a year.
They have never married, but never lack for sex partners.
They still share a bed and operate like a unit rather than individuals.
They scare me a little with their single-minded intensity and their unadulterated and unwavering hatred for Mama.
Handsome. Handsome was a disaster story for the women around him. He hated women in general and me, Mama and Essie in particular.
He bonded with the twins thriving in their mutual loathing of Mama.
Handsome loved Rogue. I think Rogue is the only person he ever loved.
Women, in turn, loved his brown skin, dreamy green eyes, curly brown hair, his athletic body, and his sparkling charm and quick wit.
Handsome was no dummy in school, but he had girls doing his schoolwork in high school and at Delta. He had a lazy mind.
He has married three times – for money. He got rich through fraud, blackmail, inheritance and divorce. He took great joy in crushing the souls of his wives before he divorced them or drove them to suicide.
Handsome kept in touch with the twins but not with me, Essie, and Mama.
That made me very nervous. That’s the main reason I kept in contact with the twins – to keep an eye on the three of them.
My thirteen-year-old twins – a light-skinned boy, Martin, after Martin Luther King, Jr., and a brown-skinned girl, Mary, after Mary McLeod Bethune are testing my limited parental talents.
Martin and Mary preferred their father, Dusty, to me. And I was okay with that. He loved his children and loved being with them. Dusty was a good husband and an excellent parent.
Mama was right. I only have a minimal amount of maternal ability. My patience was short. I had little interest in the antics of children – even my own. I loved my children in my own way. I hoped that when they were adults, I would appreciate them more and interact with them better. I knew that was a delusional plan, but I had a perfect balance; a black husband, I respected and cared for, with exceptional parenting skills, two almost trouble-free children, and my career. I had it all.
Until I didn’t. A week after the kid’s thirteenth birthday, my rarer than hen’s teeth, outstanding high school and college athlete, husband dropped dead of heart failure jogging three blocks from our home.
The twins turned off. Shut down for several weeks. They’re doing better six months after their father’s death.
They’re distant from me. They’re not cruel to or angry at me – yet. They just don’t have a strong emotional connection with me. The twins obey me robotically without the good-natured backtalk, debate, and banter they had with their father. We all miss that give and take now.
A week ago, I caught them having sex – with each other.
I was not as shocked as I thought I should be.
They were not defensive. They were matter of fact. My children enjoyed having sex with each other. They understood the taboo, and that made their sex even more exciting. They said they loved each other as siblings, but this was just pure lust.
They claimed to understand how this could ruin their lives. They were fatalistic. They could be gone in an instance like their father so they would enjoy their sex as long as it worked for them.
And guess what? I was not horrified. I wasn’t mad at them. This was the best discussion I ever had with them. An adult discussion. I didn’t know how I was going to handle this, but I got a hint in their body language, in the undertones of their voices, in their facial expressions that it would be a mistake to get in the way of their sexual connection.
I remember what Mama said, “Twins are blind to the evil in them.”
That night I started locking my bedroom door. I sharpened the knife I kept under my pillow.
I talked to Mama about them. She refused to discuss it on the phone. I drove up from Palo Alto to Stockton to talk to her in person.
She was rebuilding a 1940 1/2-ton Ford truck in her garage.
She didn’t say I told you so or cast any aspersions. She just listened as we worked on the trucks’ wiring and shared a six-pack.
We talked. I learned for the first time that our Mama was a cold-blooded killer. Before we left Mississippi, she put Moss Ellsworth “to rest.” Mama had absolutely no regrets.
Mama said, “Moss was the best lookin’ boy in town – shit, in the County. He caught my eye. I caught his. I was proud to be with him. Proud to have his baby. Proud and stupid. A boy know he too pretty to be resisted is a dangerous thing. Like a mad dog. Moss would have bit any of us or all of us.”
I was shocked, frozen in place. I had questions, but I was afraid to ask for details. It took me five beers to recover.
I recovered in time to hear Mama say that her one big regret was not putting Handsome “to rest” the night he assaulted me back in Mississippi.
“Mama he’s your own flesh and blood. How could you even think that?”
“That’s the problem, girl. I brought him into this world. I know what he is. I know the harm he causin’ out there. I’m responsible for leavin’ him alive to mess over a lifetime of women. Marigold, that’s my biggest failure as a mother.”
I went into the house and brought back Mama’s Black Label Scotch and two water glasses. I was overwhelmed that my mother was a murderer and blindsided by the idea that she seriously considered killing Handsome, our brother, her own son.
She said Martin and Mary would be fine as long as I let them be. “They not all the way twins.” She suggested I send them to a boarding school and to keep them at arm’s length henceforth. She said that it would be best for my kids and me.
Finally, Mama got around to what she really wanted to talk about. She could “Feel” Handsome, Erma and Ida “building up a head of steam” to come after her sooner rather than later. She wanted my help in doing a preemptive strike against all three. My head felt like it was about to explode. One more revelation would have pushed me over the edge.
I got too drunk to drive. I spent the night. I had a sound sleep. The best in weeks. I didn’t lock my bedroom door. I did have a kitchen knife under my pillow.
I didn’t tell Mama that I would help her, but I didn’t tell her no either.
I’m going to go back up to Stockton this weekend and help her with her Ford.
I think about what else she said those many years ago about the twins, “They gonna bring us down, down, down for sure.”
Now, I’m more worried about the evil in Handsome and my sibling twins than in me. But, I’m my Mama’s child. I’m a little afraid of what I’m capable of still, to be truthful, I’m more curious than afraid. I might get to be a good mother after all.