For the last seven years the first two weeks of January have belonged to my mother. She went into hospice just after New Year’s Day 2016 and died on January 15, three days after her eighty-fourth birthday. I got to spend all of those days with her.
Tonight, this story came back to find me.
In the summer of 1971, we came back to Fort Worth, Texas on leave from Africa. I was going into the tenth grade. My ninth grade year had been my favorite year of school to date because of the friends I had made and also because of the “folk group,” as we called it–a bunch of us who got together to play guitars and sing. That fall, I went to Paschal High School (Go, Panthers!) and became a part of the youth group at University Baptist Church. The group was welcoming and vibrant and pulled me in like I had been there the whole time. I loved being a part of it because I felt kind of lost.
Once I learned to name my depression, I look back to that year and can see it was with me then. For all of the good things happening, I can remember sitting on the edge of my bed and looking in the mirror and wishing I was anyone else but me.
That October they had a Halloween party at church, which meant costumes. My mother went all in on things like parties and costumes. She said she’d help me figure out a great costume. She had the sewing chops to make it, too. I decided I wanted to be a clown. We found some fabric to make a good outfit, a nose, and some makeup as well, but we couldn’t find a wig. Since I was a teenaged boy in 1971, I had long hair. Mom said, “We’ll just curl yours.”
And so we did.
Early that Saturday afternoon, she took a whole bunch of little rollers and put them all over my head. I couldn’t really go anywhere, so I sat on the couch to watch football with my dad, as we had done most Saturdays that fall. Dad was fidgety and kind of grumpy. It was weird–and I took it personally. I got up and went into the kitchen, where Mom usually was. I was visually upset. When she asked what was wrong, I said, “I don’t think this is masculine enough for Dad.”
I knew it wasn’t. We already were at odds over my hair. Now I was wearing curlers and already carried my own sense that I was enough, period.
Mom rolled her eyes. “Listen,” she said. “You don’t have to be masculine enough for him. This is a great costume. You’re going to be great. Ignore him and go have fun.”
I made it through the afternoon, got dressed and went to the party. My hair looked like a clown wig. The makeup completely disguised me. Mom dropped me off around the corner so no would recognize the car, and I decided not to speak and see how long it was before anyone recognized me. Nobody did. I finally spoke up after a half hour or so, excited because I had pulled it off. When I got home and told Mom, she was elated.
None of us ever revisited that afternoon because that was not our family way. As I have often said, we talked about our feelings every fifteen years or so, whether we needed to or not. The sense that I wasn’t the man Dad wanted me to be didn’t begin that afternoon. Over time I learned to see at as different perspectives on what masculinity meant. At different times I was also aware of expectations that my mother had that I didn’t fulfill, but the woman who taught me to cook and curled my hair one October afternoon helped to give me a sense of myself that I have not forgotten.