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Keep Up With Your Stuff

When my twelve-year-old daughter, Adelia, lost her wallet on the public city bus, I was actually pretty proud of her. For several weeks, she had been taking two trains in the morning (with a transfer at one of the busiest central transit stations in the country) to get to her new middle school and then two buses to get back home, and not a water bottle nor a notebook had been left behind. Her father and I marveled at her punctuality, and an attentiveness so attuned that she had recently found time to grab a donut while waiting for the second train.

But Adelia was distraught when I picked her up that afternoon, her voice edged with tears as she recounted leaving the wallet on the seat next to her.  I listened to her wail and then gently hushed her, saying “Honey, it’s fine! It’s just a wallet.” It was a plain brown wallet that used to belong to her dad, and it only contained her school identification, her trans-pass, and $12, all items that we could thankfully replace with ease. But still, she was so disappointed in herself. 

Three weeks later, she called me from school, this time her voice full of delight. “Mom! They found my wallet- can you believe it?!” When I picked her up from school, we were both giddy with joy as we drove to the regional bus depot address that the school administrator had written on a yellow sticky note. The building was a massive and imposing industrial brick structure with faded lettering and square stone steps. So, we were surprised when we stepped inside to find a break room paradise for bus drivers, replete with a flat-screen television showing an Eddie Murphy movie, tables where people were eating lunch or drawing or reading the newspaper, an exercise bike, and even a pool table. It was a driver waiting for his turn at the table who, upon catching us slack-jawed and gawking, smiled and gestured to a glass partitioned area with office cubicles behind it. 

Behind the partition sat a Black woman in her 50’s, her auburn-colored bun perfectly centered atop her head, her bangs framing deep eyes that were unreadable. 

“Hi!” I exclaimed, a little too eager. “We are here to pick up a lost wallet.”

My daughter and I exchanged glances of glee as we slid the yellow sticky note with the information on it under the glass. It was as if we were on a long-lost adventure, complete with a dazzling break room of wonders, and we were about to hit where x marks the spot. The woman looked at us, unsmiling. Thinking she couldn’t hear me through the glass and over the high volume of the movie, I started to repeat why we were standing before her when she got up, walked behind some shelving, and after a few minutes returned with the wallet. The woman removed a 3×5 manila tag that had been attached to the wallet and slid the wallet, the tag, and a pen under the glass. 

“Fill this out,” she said and motioned to the lines and spaces on the tag.

We were so excited that we picked up the wallet first and opened it and yes, Adelia’s identification was still there and so was the $12.

We couldn’t believe it! What good luck!

I looked up at the woman to see if our enthusiasm was penetrating through the thick glass and the woman’s indifferent eyes. It was not. I grabbed the pen and began to fill out the name and date lines when I was interrupted. The woman began speaking, her stare now sharp, and her voice commandingly clear. 

“I like to make them do it themselves.” 

Her gaze was sharp and locked on Adelia’s face.

“She lost it, so she needs to do it.”

The woman slowly looked back at me, her eyes in a slight squint, asking if I understood her directive.

“Oh,” I responded, “Sure, OK.”

Suddenly everything felt quite serious. 

I handed the pen over to Adelia, and she began filling out the tag. As the tag seemed to be produced before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, I quietly pointed out how she should fill out the date in the tiny lines provided, keeping my movements small in case I got admonished. Adelia slid the tag back under the glass, and before I could finish saying “Thank you,” the woman turned on her heel and left. 

***

The coldness of the woman behind the glass and my desperate desire to connect with her reminded me of the time I lost my wallet. I was about the same age as Adelia, and I loved that wallet. It was made of yellow nylon with a rainbow across it and it had a Velcro closure. I had one crisp $20 bill in it which was all of my Christmas and birthday money, and a few quarters in the zippered section. While my mom shopped, I ran to the back of the store to the mini arcade to play Centipede. When I ran out of quarters, I found my mom in line paying for her items and we left the store. 

My mom was driving out of the parking lot when I remembered I left my wallet on the game console, leaned up against the screen. My mom braked hard, turned the car around, parked, and we both jumped out of the car, with me way ahead of her, flying through the aisles to the back of the store. I got to the video game, but my rainbow wallet was gone. The crisp bill I was so proud of was gone. I looked at my mom, tears streaming down my face, full of apologies and fear. Her face was hard as she shook her head. She was beyond disgusted with me and we silently walked out of the store. 

Back in the car and out of earshot of the white people who might think ill of us, my mom let me have it all the way home. 

“I told you not to keep all that money in your wallet! You are so irresponsible. That’s why you shouldn’t have had it with you in the first place. You don’t keep up with your things. You never keep up with your things.” 

And on and on it went. I had made a mistake. I let my mother down. And because my mother was my world, it felt like I had let the whole world down. There was nothing I could say or do to make any of it better. Only the reappearance of the wallet would prove what I so desperately wanted to be.

Someone who could keep up with her stuff, who was worthy of having things.

Losing a wallet should not be a value judgment of one’s character, but this world can make Black women feel that we cannot afford to lose anything. To have something of one’s own means you are no longer just a middle child wearing your brother’s shirts in the segregated south. You are not just a little girl riding an overcrowded bus to an under-resourced school. You are someone and you matter. You count. To lose that wallet, to not keep up with your stuff, can feel like validation that you are unworthy or undeserving. 

When I look back at my sad and sobbing twelve-year-old self, I see a young girl who made a mistake, nothing more than that. Though it has been a lifelong journey to be patient with my own mistakes, I can freely give that grace to my twelve-year-old daughter. And while I recall my angry mother ranting while driving me home, I also see a resolute Black woman doing her best to navigate a life that she fears will be as unkind/unforgiving to her daughter as it has been to her. 

Adelia and I caught each other’s eyes and after waiting for a few moments, realized the woman behind the glass partition was not coming back. We had been dismissed. We both took a deep breath and turned back to the break room of delights and the joy crept back upon us as we laughed that the money was still in the wallet and how lucky it was that she wouldn’t have to replace her school id and should we get some custard at Rita’s to celebrate. We stepped outside when our revelry was then interrupted by a woman’s alto voice. 

“You ARE lucky.”

Behind us, also leaving the depot was a Black woman, in her 50’s. She was wearing her driver uniform, but with a bedazzled cardigan around her shoulders, and a shimmering wine lip color. We held the door for her, and she continued.

“That bus driver was the one who found it and turned it in, that’s why you have it.   You need to keep up with your stuff because it’s not always gonna end like that.”

“Yes,” I responded, wanting to seem like her obedient daughter. “You are absolutely correct. She will keep up with her stuff from here on out. Thank you.”

Once buckled up in the car, I turned to Adelia. “You know those women were just trying to help, right?”

“Right,” she grinned. “So can we still go to Rita’s?”


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Detention

There is no training for holding your dead father’s hand. There is no training for how warm the hand first feels in your own, and how 40 minutes later when you finally stop keening, his hand has grown cold in yours. The horror of that moment threatened my ability to stay present, which as a Buddhist I had been trained to do. There is no training for turning back one last time as you walk through the doors of that room to see your daddy, the hero, lying there. Helpless. Still.

Gone.

The intercom buzzes and I slowly get up to let in the delivery person. Standing there, I instantly recall all of the times I’d stood in that doorway waiting for him to come walking through the fire doors and down the hallway to my apartment. There was never a time that he came walking down that hallway empty-handed. Whether a gift for me, a toy for Theo, or coffee and donuts, he didn’t know how to stop giving. Supporting. Showing love.

Tipping the delivery person generously as the old man taught me, I sit at the breakfast table and slowly eat my food. It’s slow-going business because of the pounding in my skull, but between the omelet and the dulcet tones of the British accents on my TV behind me, my head begins to feel marginally better. I look at the clock. Only 4 more hours until I pick Theo up from school. So much to do and not enough time to do it.

Wait, what do I have to do again?

Oh, yeah.

  1. Funeral home for death certificates
  2. Down to the courts for estate EIN
  3. Bank to submit death certificate and open estate account

I feel the moisture on my hands begin to accumulate. My jaw clenches.

“What is wrong with you?” I say aloud as I sigh and shake my head.

I knew what was wrong with me. I knew that the more tasks I performed concerning his death, the more it was a constant reopening of the wound. They were like tiny paper cuts being drawn across the edges of an open wound. There were so many duties, decisions, and responsibilities. What I wanted most was to lie very, very still for a very, very long time. Because when I was still, my head stopped hurting so much, and so did my heart.

I sit back down on the sofa and watch the television without hearing what they’re saying. After a few minutes, I go from sitting to lying down again. I scroll through Facebook, watch more episodes of the show, and before I know it, it’s time to get Theo. I’ve done nothing. Every time I thought of what needed to get done, I felt paralysis in both body and courage. So, I did nothing. It was all I could do today. It was all I could do yesterday, too. I have hope that tomorrow will be different. It is a hobbled, limping hope. I don’t entirely trust it, but I want to.

Wishing I was the kind of person who wore hats, I pull my hair up into a messy ponytail, thank all the gods that it was Friday, and throw a light jacket over my stained T-shirt. Walking the five blocks to Theo’s school I pray that he’s had a good day today. I’m starting to wonder if I’ve made a mistake in putting him back in school. I think of the immensity of homeschooling him again after everything that just happened in our lives and I can’t imagine it would be a good idea for either of us. The lesser of two evils at this point was for him to be in a brick-and-mortar school. At least in school, he’s able to build socio-emotional skills with peers, I rationalized. It would have to do for now.

Coming up to the block of his school, I see the crossing guard, a woman I’ve known since we were both students at this very same school. She hasn’t noticed me yet, so I have time to slip into my social face, which I’ll need for the school staff, other parents, and myriad kids. Some days I’m actually grateful for these brief moments of relief. While talking to fellow parents, chatting it up with school staff, and just generally being present to what was in front of me, I was able to escape the intensity of the heartbreak.

Buddhist teachings are so effective as a way to mitigate suffering. Becoming a Buddhist had given me so many years of relief during times I was in deep pain, and sometimes it was through something as simple as, “Just be present. Just be right here, right now. Let everything go but this very moment you are in.” Being present, deeply present, is often the answer to many things. In those moments of true presence, engaging with others, listening, and sharing laughs in that schoolyard, my father was not dead. That thought, “My father is dead,” preceded every thought when I sat too long in my head, but at least I was not there in that emergency room. I was in a schoolyard picking up my third grader. I was no longer swimming through shards of glass.

“Happy Friday!” I shout to my crossing guard friend as I approach the corner.

“Happy Friday!” She smiles. “Any plans for the weekend?”

Me, in my head, “I’m going to sip mimosas all day and get just tipsy enough that it dulls the pain a little but not so much that I’m a danger to my kid. What about you?”

Out loud, “No, nothing major. Just gonna hang out at home and watch too much TV. What about you?”

The exchange lasts a few seconds, a good warm-up for game time. I round the corner and walk over to the opening in the gate, where all of the parents, caregivers, and after-school counselors from the nearby after-school programs have begun to slowly flood the schoolyard. I see a parent from Theo’s class and smile. She waves at me, and just as I start to walk over to her, one of the school’s guidance counselors walks over to me and pulls me aside. I love both of the guidance counselors at his new school, but this one is my favorite.

“What did he do?” I defeatedly ask.

She’s already laughing before she can start talking.

“You know I love this boy, right?”

Me, in my head, “Lord Buddha, help me.”

Me, out loud, “That bad, huh?”

She covers her mouth but the laughter spills through the spaces in between her fingers.

“He got detention today…”

A sigh escapes from the sadness that lives in my solar plexus.

“But let me tell you why. A boy kept calling another boy a ‘faggot’ and Theo wasn’t having it. He told the boy to stop being a bully and the boy wouldn’t. He told him to stop and the boy not only told him that he wouldn’t but then asked Theo what he was going to do about it.”

My head drops and I cover my eyes. “Oh, God.”

“So, Theo slapped the crap out of him, turned around, got an adult, and told them his friend was being bullied. When the yard attendant got there, the bully was crying, saying that Theo hit him and knocked him to the ground. When Theo was asked if he did that, he looked at them square in the eyes and said, “Yep.”

At this point, I’m shaking my head and laughing as well.

“Then he gets taken to the Principal’s office, who then tells him that he has to get detention for hitting. That he understands why Theo did it but that it isn’t okay to hit people. He then asks Theo if he understands and Theo says, ‘Yes.’ He then asks Theo to tell him what he will do next time if there’s an issue with a bully, and this child says, ‘I’m not gonna lie to you. I’m probably going to hit him again.’  The assistant principal and I had to walk out backward right then and there because we were laughing so hard that we were afraid he would see us.”

At this point, we’re both wiping tears.

“What am I going to do with him?”

“I don’t know, woman. I do NOT know.”

I want to call my dad so bad at that moment, my hand flies to cover my heart as if to keep it from breaking. Through 42 years of ceaseless love and support (and so many fights and misunderstandings), the one thing he and I could always count on was an immediate need to call each other when something funny happened. In the past 8 years, my son had been alive, many of those calls ended up being about something hilarious he did. Something my dad and I were supposed to chastise him about but usually laughed. Wanting to call him now pulled me into an abyss that was growing familiar. I needed to pull myself back into the present.

Once Theo comes out, the three of us have the customary conversation about not hitting, about how important it is to stand up to bullies and stand up for our friends, but that you should always get help to resolve the issue, not resort to violence. We leave the schoolyard, and he seems appropriately chastened, but in that instance, I feel like a hypocrite. There was very little in me that didn’t see Theo as a hero in this situation, and I needed to make sure that I expressed that.

“What I said in there I meant. Resorting to violence is not the answer.”

“I know.”

“And also, what you did in there makes you a hero. It’s not always easy to stand up to bullies. I’m proud of you for protecting your friend.”

His eyes grow wide, the skin on his forehead creasing.

“You are?!”

“I am. And you know what else? Grandpa would be really proud of you, too. He couldn’t stand bullies. It’s why he became a police officer. He wanted to protect people from bullies because bullies often become the bad guys of this world. And to grandpa, he was put here to protect people from adult versions of guys like that kid. So, yeah. He’d be super proud of you today.”

“Thanks.”

“Should we pick up some ice cream as a hero’s treat for dessert?”

“YES!!!”

“Mmm-hmm. I thought so,” I smile.

The smile doesn’t reach my eyes. My eyes fight back tears at the thought that I won’t get to call my dad later and share any of this with him. He would’ve laughed so hard at this. My god, how he would’ve laughed and laughed.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion
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Allowing Our Children to See Us

My daughter and son are running around the house in their usual post-meal frenzy, throwing toys in the air and jumping off our couch. They run to their room, grab a scarf from my daughter’s drawer while yelling lâches at each other, a term they learned from their French father, which means to let go. They like to play this game to see who lets go first before falling to the floor.

My instinct is to stop them. Some days I’ll notice the smiles on their faces, hear their mouths full of glee that break into laughter rolling from the depths of their bellies. But today, my initial reaction is one of anger. Today I haven’t had a chance to write. Today I haven’t finished my cup of coffee or showered. Today I am running on 4 hours of sleep and the noise is a clock tower bell ringing over my head. I feel the warmth emanating from the end of my throat, the clenching of my jaw as I form fists with my hands and I yell – “STOP! STOP! STOP!”

Their joy dissipates into sadness. I try hard not to yell most days, so they both stand there in shock. It becomes very quiet, as I am immediately filled with guilt for exploding. 

*****

I was a happy, hyper kid, always moving and excited about everything. Mischievous, but alert and aware. Once, Mami found me on the windowsill of our apartment and, halfway to a heart attack, snatched me off of it while I beamed proudly. Thankfully, the window was closed. I broke my arm while jumping on a bed with my cousins when I was two, the how of which is still a little murky. Many times I hung outside of our apartment in Queens with friends and came home with bruises and cuts, to the distress of my parents. 

As a child, my parents tried to curb my mischief, and my younger sister’s, by threatening us with the belt. Dad would grab his leather belt, loop it around his hands and snap it open and closed in front of us. I imagined an alligator snapping its mouth shut, the sound of which was enough to get us to calm down and behave. Other times they resorted to yelling at us and at each other. Both our parents are from Peru, raised in religious environments where respect was absolute and children were to be seen, not heard. But even so, they were often at odds on raising us. Mami was more tender and lenient, letting us get away with things, whereas Dad was more stoic and strict.

During my teenage years, we relocated to a house on Long Island and still, I remained the more challenging daughter. I was studious yet stayed out late, engaging with people and in acts much more mature than I was at the time. Often, they resorted to what they knew best, Mami praying, Daddy silent, and closed off. 

Dad is the quiet one, but also explosive. If my behavior set him off, it could be attributable to a change in routine, the noise level, a remark from Mami. At times he was a ticking time bomb, leading to many arguments between the two of them. I remember wishing I could tell Dad to stop yelling, to soften his words, but I was always too scared of his reaction. As I got older, I started to identify these outbursts in myself, and it’s this correlation that led me to work on regulating them, to understand my mind in all its vulnerability.

*****

With my fists slowly unfurling and raised eyebrows lowering, I look at my daughter who has a scowl on her face and her arms on her hips. She says, “Stop screaming!” with all the courage I wish I’d had when I was younger. Tears fill my eyes as my body relaxes from fight mode into its natural response when big emotions overtake me and I say, “You’re right.” Vulnerability is allowing my children to see me cry, telling them I’m sorry when I yell. Allowing them to call me out on it without viewing it as an act of disrespect but as a reminder to remain tender.

It takes a few moments before both my daughter and son come to me and we apologize to each other. I tell them I’ve had a hard day, I tell them I’m working on having better days.  It took a long time to feel comfortable with them seeing me exposed in this way, but I decided early on as a parent to change my family’s narrative. When I was pregnant, I armed myself with books on emotional intelligence, on parenting and raising strong-willed children. I watched my husband crack open the first time he held our daughter and later our son, with every emotion overflowing. We might not still hold them in this same way, but I think we both keep in mind that they were once fragile, motivating us to be gentle.

My husband and I want to be guides for our children’s lives. This has meant more open conversations with them, letting them speak their opinions so they know they are heard. It means taking a breath before immediately thinking that we are right and they are wrong. It means contending with other parents, my own included, who tell us to be more firm so that our kids don’t get out of hand and we can control them. 

I want to be clear that being tender does not mean we allow our children to do as they please. We have boundaries that we uphold, expectations and rules they know they have to abide. But we are also aware that they will often stretch and pull those boundaries. If they do step out of line, we want to be able to discuss the situation without the full force of our judgment. They will know right from wrong, but they will also know that we love them no matter what.

*****

Despite it all, Mami somehow always seemed to have the sun in her palms, looking on the positive side of things, even on the bleakest days. I learned tenderness from her first, in the way she nurtured our family, cooking and cleaning and working outside of the home. Energy constantly seeped from her fingertips. Mami has always been eager to lend a hand or an ear, prompting the surliest of us into a good conversation. I have seen her fight and I have seen her break down and cry, unafraid to be vulnerable in front of her children. She has always been overt in the ways she loves us.

When I think of Dad, I can’t help but also remember the ways in which he has allowed himself to be tender. I remember listening to him in his bedroom calmly strumming his guitar, singing a song so softly only he could decipher the words. There were times he attempted to cook spaghetti bolognese while Mami was visiting family in Peru, and how even when we dislike doing something the act of doing it for people we love is a brave undertaking on its own. When we lived with my parents for a year, Dad would spend time drawing colorful pictures with my then-toddler daughter, because he is an artist in his own right and although I don’t remember sharing in this part of him, I cherish that he allows her to see him in this light. I also think about how he is not as soft around my son, which is not to say he loves him any less, but perhaps speaks more to how we allow or don’t allow tenderness to present itself amongst boys and men, which is an important conversation on its own.

My daughter is so like my father and myself in those same explosive ways. She could be having a regular morning and suddenly she won’t like how her pants fit or she’ll break down while playing with a toy she can’t maneuver well. Her fits of anger are almost always unexpected. My son, on the other hand, is more quiet and reserved, although when he does get angry about something, the emotion ensnares him so that he can’t verbalize his need and it takes a while to calm him down. All of this is connected in some way, and I’m trying to make sense of it. The best I can do is try to understand my parents and my past as it relates to my future, try to arm myself with the tools I need to equip my children to try their best in their own lives.

I think we have to be kinder with ourselves, to understand our own needs as parents. I don’t want to explode or yell, and yet, sometimes I do. Some days there are so many little things that set me off, all I can do to keep from completely melting down is shutting myself in my bedroom with the door closed for a few minutes and breathing, rocking back and forth, trying to soothe myself and calm down to an equilibrium so that I don’t unleash on my kids. Explosiveness may very well run in my family and maybe there is a reason for it, which I’m on a journey to discover. Maybe creativity and tenderness also run in my family, and by allowing ourselves to be seen in all our vulnerability, this is how we pass it on.

To remain soft in a world that praises ruling with an iron first is revolutionary. This is hard work. This requires examining where our own fears and reactions stem from, our own history, and the hand we have in healing. I feel progress when my four-year-old daughter and I sit and discuss our feelings, or when she takes it upon herself to go to her room after a strong emotion to calm down, saying “Mama, I needed some time for me.” I see it in my son who, at only three years old I can already tell is the type to wear his heart on his sleeve. When he’s happy his whole body shows it from the way he runs excitedly to the huge grin on his face. And when he’s upset, he cries uncontrollably, searching for the comforting arms of his father or me. We are their soft space, where I hope they always know they’re free to feel or say their truth. A tenderness I hope they carry on into their own futures, their own healing.

*****

After a few moments of hugging, I give my kids a kiss each on their head and they move on to play individually with their Legos. I tell myself that this is the last time I will yell, knowing fully well it won’t be. Parents are not infallible, we are human and very fallible. I go to the dining room table where my cup of coffee is still waiting for me, take a sip and a seat, still in view of my kids playing in the living room. I swish the cold coffee in my mouth, let its bitter taste jolt my tongue awake. Every now and then one of my kids runs up to me to show me what they built, and I sit there just watching, leaning both into my body’s need for stillness and my kids’ need for attention. In ten minutes or so they’ll need a snack or beg for TV or run off chasing after each other, but right now there is a calm. We bask in it, smiles nestling on our faces.


Illustration by Cassandra Orion
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Floorboards Hold Memory

The fear of the darkness kept me away from the fuzzy lavender carpet
I harken the spirit in me that rather dance the night away
That keeps the buried grief at bay
That rather explore the unexplained
And dance
Twirling in the tv light in my fear
Ears perked for the footsteps
One-two…one-two… the legato beats boom through the base of the floorboards
The ceiling above creaks, telling me who’s around the corner by analyzing these beats
My dad the offbeat rhythm
But no base beats harder and firmer than the steps of my mother’s
Who empties her anger into the carpet until it pounds the floorboards
Words never spoken, come alive in her walk
The way she washes the dishes as if breaking them would be the better solution
But her voice barely louder than a whisper
so as not to break the eggshells under our feet that linger
In the space deep beneath the floorboards
It’s safer this way to release the pent-up aggression in words unsaid
It’s how I’ve learned to twirl in my temper and escape from my bed
It’s how I dance in tune with the tv until the sun finds me again
Until the legato base pumps in like the South Florida heat
All in a hurry I hear urgent whispers
Surprised for the umpteenth-time at my face
Like “rise and shine!” and we settle into the comfort of the morning
Until she departs and with it I feel a piece of my heart hold its breath
Like how the night suffocates the Sun and the only thing to do is find the rhythm of the drum
Late morning heat sets in and one-two…one-two…followed by the cigarette smoke and calling of my name
The clanking of ice in a shaker cup filled to the brim with water
In some ways I think that it’s his only piece of his father left
Who saw to the bottom of bottles and didn’t bother to ask for help
I watch him sip slowly and tried to understand what I felt
The rhythm now in my chest
Heart racing with panic of the sleepless
I tip toe away on eggshells and nestle into the safety of the sunlight’s rest
Until we meet again
Sweet songs of the night
Dancing in terror was how I found my delight


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Lucky Draw

Not sure what’s more embarrassing, that at fourteen
I still lusted for stuffed animals or that mum’s target
at the claw machine was way better than mine. Precise
as threading a needle, she’d push the steel arm straight
into the heart of the stuffed pit, wait, sipping Pepsi,
hand on hip, sure as a cowboy. Once, her single turn
brought back not one but two animals — a spotted panther
and a long-tailed squirrel. Unlike their real-life avatars,
the two never escaped my sight. But she did.
44 then gone. God plucks some of us away randomly,
the priest said. Walking home that night, her wins tucked
under my arm, I trotted ahead, curious and jealous, asked —
how is your aim so good? She shrugged, caught up, tightening
her grip around my wrist. As if I was the one prize she wanted.


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