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Black Family Black Women Coming-of-Age

My Mother and Me

Garfield, graduating from law school, with his mother (far left), aunt, and grandmother.

One of the best parts of my adult life is the camaraderie I’ve developed with my mother. It’s a fruitful and engaging friendship filled with jokes, laughs, and playful pokes by the two of us. If a couple of weeks go by without us speaking, my phone will ring and “Mommy” will flash. The minute I say hello, I’m met with Jamaican-accented sarcasm. “Boy, you don’t know that you have a mother anymore? I could have been dead.” Because I grew up in a tight-knit family, there’s zero possibility that she’d die without my knowledge. She knows this, so I simply laugh at the absurdity.

“Whatever. I love you too.”

It wasn’t always like this.

For most of my life, I saw my mother through the lens of childhood necessity. I thought of her as my mother, the woman responsible for raising me, buying me things I asked for, and comforting me when needed. I thought of her in the same way one thinks of breathing oxygen. I didn’t.

My mother gave birth to me when she was 16 and in all likelihood didn’t have any idea of what it meant to be a parent. During the worst parts of our ever-evolving union, I developed a thick skin because my mother was quick to criticize any wrong action on my part. My mother wasn’t cruel or abusive, she simply had high expectations for me and expressed it strongly when I did not meet them. She saw my potential and refused to let me rest on my laurels, even if she occasionally went overboard with the critiques. In our household, which was a decidedly Jamaican one, there wasn’t a huge difference in how my mother talked to me and how she spoke to adults when it came to anything that offended her sensibilities. By the time I was ten, I probably heard more curse words from her than I’d heard from any rap song to that point, because that was how she communicated. She spoke lovingly, but held nothing back. Not even to her little boy.

By the time I was ten, I probably heard more curse words from her than I’d heard from any rap song to that point, because that was how she communicated. She spoke lovingly, but held nothing back. Not even to her little boy.

Because I didn’t understand the way she talked, it left me feeling conflicted. I loved my mother with every fiber of my being, however, I didn’t understand anything about the way our relationship worked because she had strange ways of showing her love. When I was in 9th grade, I was a band geek on the drumline playing quints. We traveled and competed every week, but I had been fortunate enough to be able to find rides home without needing her to pick me up. One day after a contest, the band director had mistakenly called my mom to come get me. On the way home, my mother told me, “you need to find your own way home. You’re 13 and I have two other kids to raise.” I can still feel the sting of that conversation.

The worst stretch for us came during my senior year in high school. I was working through college applications by myself because my mother (and everyone else in my family for that matter) didn’t go to college. I’d taken the SAT and had not done well. My mother was disappointed and wasted zero time expressing it. Emboldened as I was by the rebelliousness of my teenage years and the fact I was leaving for college soon, our normal war of words had escalated past our normal discourse and my grandmother, who’d been fed up with the way we spoke to each other, implored me to make amends with her. I wasn’t interested.

Our relationship changed for the better once I left for college but we’d still, occasionally, fall into the old routine. I’ve written before about my family’s financial situation while I was growing up. Unlike many other students, college didn’t free me from regular home responsibilities, so every semester when financial aid refunds came, I’d send a portion of the money back home. The reason for this feeling of obligation was primarily because of the guilt trips from my mother. On more than one occasion, I’d been left without money and scrambling for options because I’d given my mother what I had. To say that it was damn stressful sometimes would be an understatement.

One day after a contest, the band director had mistakenly called my mom to come get me. On the way home, my mother told me, “you need to find your own way home. You’re 13 and I have two other kids to raise.”

But since college, I have grown and learned through my own life difficulties just how hard it all must have been for her. As I grew as a person, I was more able to understand and appreciate her as a real person. These days, I see my mother as a person and not solely as my mother, which I credit for the improvement of our relationship.

I took a minute and juxtaposed the trajectory of my mother’s path and my own at our respective stages in life. At 16, my mother was pregnant with her first child. At 16, I was applying to college. At 21, my mother was pregnant with her second child. At 21, I was graduating from Florida State University and applying to go to law school. At 23, my mother was pregnant with her third child. At 23, I was on my way to law school. At 26, I graduated with my law degree and with 30 on the horizon, I’m still excited about the prospect of what’s next in my life. At 33, my mother was pregnant with her fourth child.

As a child, I didn’t understand the context of who she was and what she was going through: a 30-year-old single mother caring for three children, one of which was a smart-mouthed teenager that managed to get himself into all sorts of trouble. With my own “dirty 30s” peeking over the horizon, it’s only now that I’ve begun to unpack and explore the complicated set of circumstances in my mother’s life. It has forced me to consider where she was and where I am at this juncture. Because I’ve gone through my entire life with the privilege of only having to focus on myself, realizing what my mother did has been an eye-opening experience.

Even with the difficulties in life, the successes that my mother has achieved inspire me in my own journey. At 16, she graduated from high school and moved from Jamaica to New York to live with my grandmother. When they moved to Florida in the early 1990s, my mother went to a career institute and was certified to be a medical assistant. She still works in that capacity and, let anyone at the office from the doctors to the nurses tell it, runs the office like it’s her own private practice. Everyone who works with my mother loves her, and when I call to talk to her at work, they spare no words in telling me just how dope of a person she is.

But since college, I have grown and learned through my own life difficulties just how hard it all must have been for her. As I grew as a person, I was more able to understand and appreciate her as a real person.

The inspiration continues in our phone calls. My mother is a constant system of support in my life. If I called her at 2am on Wednesday morning, she’d wake up and talk to me with no problem, completely ignoring the fact her day starts at 5am and she needs to get my three younger brothers and sister ready for school. When I’d gone through a horrible breakup and my friends were fatigued with listening to me, my mother, much to my surprise, stepped in and provided some solid advice on how to move on with my life. I recently needed a new registration for my car, but needed someone in Florida to go get it because I couldn’t do it online. My mother said she’d leave work early to help me and even volunteered to pay for the new tags. My mother is, in a word, awesome.

If I took current social movements like Black Lives Matter into consideration, it’s easy to contextualize my mother’s parenting method and what she might have been trying to teach me with those high expectations and criticism. At the earliest stages of my development, both my mother and grandmother taught me that, as a black man, I was born with two strikes. The world they lived in didn’t look all that different from the one I inhabited, so their primary objective was preparing me to survive through the worst of it. The way my mother treated me as a child, while I might not have always agreed—and still may not—did more good for me than I could have possibly known at that time. In me, she fostered a love for reading and education, taught me the importance of asking questions, and convinced me that I could really have whatever it was I desired in life.

These days, whenever I call her, we laugh and joke like old friends. We’ve grown close enough to where I can hit her up at any time of the day or night and really talk to her about what’s going on in my life. I don’t feel awkward or think, “I’m talking to my mother about this!” It truly feels as if I’m calling up an old friend to shoot the breeze. It’s been an absolute joy getting to know her as a person outside of the confines of being just my “mother,” and our relationship is something I’ll continue to nurture until the Lord calls one of us home.

By Garfield Hylton

Garfield Hylton, J.D., is a dark-humored, self-deprecating misanthropist whose only hope of redemption is turning blank Google Word documents into piles of well-executed thoughts. He likes to add the suffix "J.D." on everything he writes because he understands that everything sounds better when coming from a doctor. You can listen to his podcast here: @NWAPcast.