Let me tell you about my mother.
She was born on Christmas*, in 1943. She got stiffed for gifts her whole life because of that. Her mother was, frankly, not a woman who should have been raising kids; all the stories Marie-Jeanne told about her were bad, at best.
Her father died when she was young. Later, the man she married would die on their kid’s twelfth birthday. We are not a lucky family, I think.
But she did her best to convert from a housewife to a single mother. Despite me being an ungrateful, difficult ball of grief and misery. She did pretty damn good at that, in fact. I feel like her parenting method boiled down to one thing: what would her mother do in any given situation? Do the opposite. Lots of abused children grow up to pass it on; she chose to break that cycle, and I can’t ever express how grateful I am for that.
She was raised in the ass end of the city. She read voraciously despite a lengthy trip to the library. Her apartment has one room dedicated to her library: a wall of recreational etymology and reference books, a bunch of fiction. A couple shelves full of nothing but riffs on the story of Camelot; if I was at a loss for a gift, I knew that would always work – if I could find the rare one she hadn’t already acquired. It was just a given that fantasy and SF would be part of my reading. A shelf unit full of books on New Orleans. She loved that city; in her early adulthood, she left it for California, but came back and really never left it again for more than a few weeks out of any year, at most. A few shelves filled with video tapes and DVDs of musicals. God, she was a sucker for those things. Old Technicolor spectacles, new contemporary ones. I saw more of them than I could say; she dragged me along to quite a few big Broadway productions that came through town, as well as countless bits of children’s theatre.
In another life, she might have been a dancer. Or an actress. Or something on the stage. She put those dreams aside, in part, to raise me. Perhaps. We never really talked about it while she was alive. All I really know is that she once wanted to be a ballerina, and was a regular face in the crowd of dance and theatre around town, until the heart failure curtailed her mobility. And that the first words I heard were Shakespeare; she was working her way through the complete works when I was born, and shifted to reading it out loud to me. She instilled a love of creativity and narrative, supported my own groping towards that. I wish she’d lived to see more of my adult work.
She never married again after my father died. There was a brief on-and-off thing with a widower, but it never came to much. She got used to being alone. A thing I can sympathize with; we’d come to the agreement that about a week, maybe a week and a half, was about as long as we could stand sharing a space, once I was out on my own.
Our relationship had spikes. Her husband was a snarkbucket. So was I. There was a cruelty there she’d inherited from her mother, I think, but we made a game of it. And she could hold her own – even near the end, she made me grin when the nurses in Intensive Care could recognize me because she’d described my dress sense as “rich bag lady”. Which… I prefer “hot witch” but yeah. I can’t argue with that. Point to MJ. Later that day I said something equally comedically cruel. I forget what. But she grinned at me and made a tally mark in the air: point to Peggy. She was much more graceful in her bitchiness than I can ever hope to be.
She was also incredibly accommodating of her strange, broken child. I was a pain in the ass even before Russell died. It only got worse afterwards. In the past few years she told me that she’d been tempted to change the locks while I was out; I paused, then nodded, and agreed that must have been a hell of a tempting thought sometimes. But she never did.
And when I returned from Los Angeles one day, and she asked why I’d started plucking my eyebrows, I told her I was trans. She just asked questions, not knowing what this meant. She’d figured I was probably at least gay for ages. By my next visit, she’d become a regular at a local support group for trans people and their families, and did her best to not be harsh about my utter lack of fashion sense as of yet.
In the last weeks of her life, she fought hard. She came out of the operation to install a dialysis port with a slur in her voice; the doctors theorize a bit of plaque had been knocked loose, and cut off blood to a part of her brain that had fine motor control over her mouth and throat. By the evening, she was already speaking more clearly: she’d been reciting nursery rhymes to herself, to try and regain control with simple exercises. She asked for a couple books of more complex children’s verses for further practice.
When I was in school, people started urging her to put me on the then-new psychopharmacutuicals that went with the rise of ADD as a diagnosis. She resisted. I was a distractable, smart, easily bored kid, and she didn’t want to see me dulled down to fit in better. She fought for my chance to be whatever the hell I was going to be, and to be that as hard as I could.
One of my boyfriends, after meeting her, described her as “a space alien from the planet Cool”. I feel incredibly lucky to have had her in my life for as long as I did. And I rage that her body failed her long before she was ready to leave.
The day before she died, I went to see “Mad Max:Fury Road”. Near the end of this insane car chase across a wasteland, there’s a gang of incredibly hard-assed old ladies struggling to survive. They hook up with the heros to shepherd them through the outrageous chaos of the final act, and one by one, each of them dies. But they die fighting; they die laughing at the face of Death. I saw my mother in them. I saw the same iron will to survive beneath a sweet exterior. And I hope that she kicked that motherfucker Death in the face before she went on to whatever afterlife there may be. Or maybe punched God when she met that bastard.
I only hope that someday I can be half as awesome as she was.
* It says the 26th on her birth certificate and obituary, but she was always told the 25th. And as a side note: my father was born on All Saint’s Day, and I was born the day after the US’s Independence Day. We were a holiday family.