I used to be embarrassed by my mother. She had a way of stopping all activity on Nostrand Avenue by simply sticking her head out of our third-story apartment window and calling my name.
I’d be so caught up in a game of Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3 or Freeze Tag, that I’d completely miss the “when the streetlight comes on” curfew she imposed. Snatching up my little brother, Nate – only one year younger, yet never held responsible, I’d haul ass up the block with the taunts of my neighborhood friends at my back.
No. No, I couldn’t hang and I hated it. And as I made sure to cross the threshold to our cramped two bedroom before she called my name again – God help me if she did – I hated her.
“Why do we always have to come inside so early? There ain’t even school tomorrow.”
“There isn’t any school tomorrow,” she’d correct.
“There isn’t any school tomorrow. Besides, LaShawn and them can stay outside till ten. Eleven, some nights.”
“Girl, I don’t give a good gotdamn what LaShawn is allowed to do. She ain’t my responsibility, you are. And you are thirteen with no business being outside after dark. Now, go wash up. You smell like outside.”
Proper English was something that fell under the “do as I say, not as I do” umbrella. This was never more evident than when Nate and I managed to really piss her off. She would read us the act with plenty of “gotdamns,” “aints,” and double negatives.
It didn’t matter if the humiliation was intentional – like the time she whupped Nate in front of his whole class for cutting up in school, or by accident – when she’d take the trash out in her bright green housecoat and hair curlers, the sting was the same. Many times Nate and I would ask, “Why she gotta be like that?”
Nothing about my mother’s ways embarrassed me more than matters of money. From the cheap sneakers she’d buy us because it was all she could afford to the no-name brand cereal we’d have to eat while watching Saturday cartoons. While the smiling kids in the commercials mocked me, slurping down spoonfuls of Lucky Charms and Frosted Flakes, I’d eat Marshmallow Treasures and Frosted Bits.
“It’s the same damn thing, Renee. Just cheaper. You want name brand, get a job.”
Sunday mornings were the worst because that was laundry day. We’d walk three blocks to the nearest Laundromat , pushing the rickety shopping cart with the squeaky wheel. Piled high inside of it were black trash bags filled with our dirty clothes. Nate and I were charged with carrying the generic bleach and soap powder.
The Laundromat got crowded pretty quickly so my mother liked to get there early. If we were lucky, we’d snatch four machines right off the bat and could be done with all of our washing in one go ‘round. If we weren’t, we’d have to wait for washers to become available which meant we could be there up to five hours instead of two or three.
On the lucky days we’d move quickly, tossing our pre-separated clothes into machines to claim them. Nate provided the distraction so our mother could do her thing with the quarters. Each coin-operated washer cost one dollar – quarters only. My mother had figured out a way to beat the system, or as she called it, “save money,” by folding a string of dental floss around the body of a quarter and holding it in place with clear tape. She’d leave a piece of the string dangling like a tail.
While Nate would get the Korean lady who ran the Laundromat to turn her back making change for a dollar, my mother would quickly place a quarter in each of the four holes on the payment tray. Careful to hold on to the four tails, she’d push the tray forward into the machine and then pull it back out. The quarters, attached to the string, would still be there, but the machine didn’t know that. It had registered the one dollar payment and had already begun to fill with sudsy water.
I was always terrified that someone would see. Not because I worried my mother might go to jail, but because then people would know we were poor. Never mind the fact that almost everyone in the neighborhood knew the trick, and would continue to use it until the Laundromat was under new management years later and outfitted with updated, smarter, machines. I didn’t care that everyone was poor. It didn’t make me feel any better to have company.
What I wanted was to not be poor at all. And I wanted my mother to be sorry, to feel some shame. An apology would have been nice.
“I’m sorry that you have to wear Kangaroos when other kids are wearing Nikes.”
“Mommy hates that you have to use a reduced-price lunch ticket at school. I’m sorry.”
I wanted anything but the almost defiant way she seemed to deny us things. Like, we were the ones being punished because she didn’t have more money.
It wasn’t until many years later, as I wondered if it were appropriate to explain to my own daughter that we had spaghetti twice a week because ground beef was nine dollars a package and could be stretched to two meals, at a time when her father was laid off and it was important to make nine dollars stretch, that I knew my mother understood all too well. It wasn’t defiance and she took no joy in telling us no. It was pride in the fact that she’d found ways to keep food on the table, shoes on our feet and clean clothes on our back.