How My Runaway Daughter Unearthed My Mother’s Secret Shame
"There are things you don’t know about your grandmother. One day, one day I’ll tell you." An essay from What My Mother and I Don't Talk About.
The first time I ran away from home was because your husband, my father, slapped me. He was drunk and I was fifteen years old. The blow was so hard; it sent me reeling into the closet. I remember cradling my stinging cheek with one hand, and using the other to shelter myself from the rain of clothing and metal hangers.
After I recovered from the shock, I crawled out of the closet, packed my suitcase, and left.
Outside, you rounded the corner, just home from a long day of work, and were stunned to see me lugging my suitcase toward a waiting taxi. You asked what was wrong, even though it was evident from the tears in my eyes and the angry red blotch on my cheek.
“I hate him,” I screamed as the driver set my suitcase in the trunk of the car.
I climbed into the back seat and slammed the door, leaving you standing on the sidewalk wringing your hands.
I don’t know what happened in the apartment that evening. I’m sure the two of you argued. I’m sure he called me disrespectful, accused me of talking back, of behaving as if I were better than him because I attended private school and my classmates were privileged white girls who spoke to their parents any old kind of way, and he wasn’t going to tolerate that type of insolence from his black daughter.
I stayed with my best friend for three days and three nights. I did not call to let you know where I was or that I was safe.
My plan was to spend the next few weeks there and then head back to boarding school at the end of the summer. How exactly I was going to do that — sans money — I did not know.
On the morning of the fourth day, just as the night sky flaked away, the apartment bell buzzed. And then buzzed again — long and hard and angry. I knew before my friend’s mother peered through the peephole that he was on the other side of that door.
In the back seat of his car I bawled the entire ride home.
Over the years, I ran away again. He was still a drunk, and you still left and went back, left and went back. Whenever I asked why we didn’t just stay gone, why we didn’t just move in permanently with Grandma and Granddaddy? You always looked wounded by my question; you’d adjust your eyeglasses, shift your sad eyes from my probing ones, and mumble:
There are things you don’t know about your grandmother. One day, one day I’ll tell you.
By the time I gave up waiting for you to leave him and waiting for you to tell me what I didn’t know about my grandmother, I was nineteen years old, with a full-time job, a steady boyfriend, and my very own telephone line, which I paid for. Yes, I still lived under his roof, but I was no longer a child, muted by my age and dependency. I saw myself as a grown-ass woman. Now, when he barked, I barked back.
I saw myself as a grown-ass woman. Now, when he barked, I barked back.
I was twenty-two years old when he was fired from the job he’d secured the year I was born. Three months later, I gave birth to a daughter of my very own. I had brought her into this world, but we would raise her together — she belonged to both of us — me and you, Mommy — she was my daughter, but she was our girl.
In 2001, our girl and I moved into my very own home. I felt safe leaving you there with him because the power structure had changed. You were now the head of the house, the breadwinner. All decisions began and ended with you. He had been reduced to a guest with squatter’s rights.
I had been an obedient, respectful child and an obedient and respectful teenager. Our girl was different; she was outspoken and brazen in a way I never dared to be. She was more like you than me.
When she declared interest in a young man at her high school, I told her what you had told me at fifteen: You can date at sixteen and not before.
Had I not been sequestered away at an all-female boarding school, I might have defied that order, but she wasn’t away; she was attending school right there in Brooklyn and took to lying about her whereabouts and cutting classes in order to spend time with the boy.
When I discovered this, I was angry, of course. I asked her if she was having sex and she vehemently denied it and then continued to defy me.
I threatened expulsion from my house. On the phone, I loudly berated her to friends and family, hoping to shame her into submission.
Look at the life she has; look at the home I’ve made for her.
I’ve taken her around the world and this is how she repays me? Selfish, what a selfish child she is. If I had what she has when I was growing up, I never would have given my parents a lick of trouble. In fact, I didn’t have it and I still followed my parents’ rules.
That boy don’t care about her. She thinks she’s in love. Sex ain’t love; it just feels like love.
What an ungrateful child.
That only made things worse.
At my wits’ end, I did something I vowed to never do. I read her journal, and in those pages, I discovered (as I had suspected) that she was having sex. I also learned that her teenage disdain for me had escalated to hatred. When she came home from school, I confronted her, waving the journal in her face. I remember how the pages flapped, loud and ominous like the wings of so many blackbirds. When her normally stoic and unbothered facade crumbled into tears, I felt vindicated.
We went to our separate bedrooms and remained there, smoldering. When I woke the next morning, she was gone.
She’d left a letter, accusing me of intrusion and lacking of love and devotion.
I called her father and calmly told him that our daughter had run away. His response was a very weary breath.
I knew the boy’s first and last name and had his telephone number. The website ReversePhoneLookup.com gave me his address.
I called to tell you what was happening. And you were as upset about our girl running away as I remember you being whenever my father hit you.
While you traveled to my house by taxi, her father, a veteran NYC police officer, was banging on the door of the rooming house in which the boy lived.
Don’t put her in jail, you said.
Later, when my daughter was a woman and could speak freely about that time, she said that she and the boy were petrified, frightened mute by her raging father pounding the door so hard they thought it would collapse in on itself.
You arrived, followed by my sister and sister-in-law. We all gathered in the living room to worry over yet another splinter in an already fractured family.
The ordeal went on for hours. After her father left, the boy spirited our girl from one safe house to the next until finally some wary mother convinced her to go home and work things out with me.
Through much of the chaos, you had been particularly quiet and then when word came that she was on the way home, you turned to me and I saw that the expression of your face had changed from worry to alarm.
Don’t put her in jail, you said.
What? I bleated. What are you saying? Why would I put her in jail?
You don’t know what your grandmother did... One day. One day I’ll tell you.
That day had finally arrived.
I knew that you were born in 1943, just a few months before your mother turned sixteen. Not too long after you were born, she left for Chicago, escaping the racism and poverty of the South. But also to get away from the men in that house who believed they had as much right to the females that lived there as they did to the land they farmed.
When your mother was twenty-five and you were nine, she finally sent for you, because you were a big girl, already growing breasts.
You got to know her then, and from the beginning, you saw that she was a pathological liar and a thief.
The stealing and the lying started when she was a child. Her sister had stories about Thelma, about her light-fingered ways that followed her from childhood into adulthood. She’d stolen cherished photographs from family members and jewelry from her employers.
When I was in middle school, she supervised a team of custodians in a building that housed the corporate offices of a major financial institution. She gave me a ring that I wear to this day. A ring that she swiped from a safe left open in the office of an investment banker.
You told me about the time she discovered you were seeing an older boy. He’d given you two cashmere sweaters, which you’d hid in the bottom of your trunk. You came home from school and there she was, standing at the stove wearing those sweaters — both of them. You were shocked but didn’t say a word and neither did she. She placed the food on the plates and brought it to the table. Over dinner you spoke about everything but those sweaters. Afterward, you washed the dishes, went into the bedroom, and cried. You never saw those sweaters again.
When you and my father were planning your wedding, he telephoned you demanding why you’d lied about being in love with him, why you’d told him that the baby you were carrying belonged to him when it was seeded by another man, and why hadn’t you been woman enough to tell the truth to his face instead sending it in a letter like a coward.
You had received a letter too.
A letter from him declaring his love for another woman, a woman who was pregnant with his child, a woman he intended to marry instead of you.
Neither of you had sent the other a letter. When you compared the handwriting, they matched. The postmark was stamped on the same day in the same zip code, 11420. The zip code in which you and my grandmother lived. She had sent those letters and denies it to this day.
The first time you shared these stories with me, I was too young to understand. But as I grew older, I saw the truth.
In Chicago, my grandmother left you before dawn to travel to her job as a domestic in a home in an affluent suburb. You were expected to get yourself up, dressed, fed, and off to school. Back at home, you finished your homework and started dinner. You were nine years old.
Eventually, you and she moved to Detroit and, finally, Brooklyn. By then, you were a teenager.
The two of you had your battles. Battles that mothers and daughters have. But your mother never knew when to let things go. You said she never hit you, but you wished she had — because you would have preferred a slap to the nagging. You said sometimes the nagging went on for days. She’d rail on and on about the tiniest infractions: the tub wasn’t clean enough, the carpet hadn’t been swept properly. It seemed to you she just enjoyed making you miserable.
It was that badgering that drove you to run away in the summer of 1958. You were fifteen years old.
You tell me that back then, people in your community rarely finished high school. College was a place white people went. It was cause for celebration if a child graduated from middle school. Your own mother only went up to the fourth grade.
The mind is as wonderful as it is wicked; it can choose to save us from our memories or bludgeon us with them.
That was your plan. You were going to drop out of high school, find a job, rent a room, and never have to deal with her niggling ever again. The day your life changed, you were in a bar with friends — back then, teenagers went to bars and were served if they looked eighteen. You were mature for your fifteen years. Two men dressed in suits approached you, showed you gold badges, identified themselves as NYC detectives, and asked your name. You gave it, and they told you that you were being arrested for larceny. They handcuffed you, read you your Miranda rights, and hauled you away in the back of an unmarked police car.
As the story spills from your mouth, your brown eyes turn black, and I know you are back in 1958, in the dark back seat of that police car, frightened and fifteen.
The mind is as wonderful as it is wicked; it can choose to save us from our memories or bludgeon us with them. You were shuddering.
Your mother stood up in court and accused you of stealing money and jewelry from her. Your mother stood up in court and lied.
You were sentenced to a year in Westfield Farm, a women’s detention facility in Bedford Hills, New York.
Your mother came to visit you every weekend. She came to visit you as if you were away at summer camp. The two of you never once talked about what she had done, or why she had done it. Till that day and since, you two have never discussed it. It was like the cashmere sweaters all over again.
You knew our family was swimming in secrets, terrible secrets, that were too painful and shameful to discuss, and so they didn’t. They kept silent about the uncle who’d raped and impregnated at least two of his nieces, the brother who’d fondled his sister, and that aunt that tried and failed to drown her child in bathwater.
So, when Grandma went to visit you in prison, she brought you cigarettes, candy, sanitary napkins, and magazines but not an explanation, and you didn’t ask for one, because you knew the rules.
In May of 1959, Gay Talese, the veteran journalist, visited the prison and wrote an article for the New York Times about the Westfield prisoners’ exercise routine.
Twenty-five barefoot girls in shorts sat Buddha-style on the
floor, their fingers snapping slowly, their heads and torsos
swaying to the jungle beat of an African drum.
Years later, I would wonder if you were one of those barefoot girls.
The performing prisoners spent almost an hour leaping
through the air, crawling on the ground and swinging their
hips to a number of tunes, including a Les Baxter version of
“Ritual of the Savage.”
At the end of your sentence, you returned home. Your mother had a new man in her life — a man that she would marry. You never went back to school. You met my father, became pregnant, married him, and then I was born. You went on with your life with that secret lodged in your heart like an ice pick. And then our girl ran away, and the ice pick slipped out, and finally you told me that thing you had been holding for 45 years.
Promise me you won’t send her to jail. Promise me?
Last time I’d heard that pleading in your voice I was seventeen years old and my father had a gun to your head. Hearing it then nearly broke me. Thinking about it now breaks me. But you don’t like tears, so I held them until our girl came back and you went home, and then I cried for all us. ●
Excerpted from What My Mother and I Don't Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence, edited by Michele Filgate (Simon & Schuster).
Bernice L. McFadden is the author of ten critically acclaimed novels including Praise Song for the Butterflies (Long listed for the 2019 Women's Prize in Fiction), The Book of Harlan (winner of a 2017 American Book Award and the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction), Sugar, Loving Donovan, Nowhere Is a Place, The Warmest December, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors' Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012) and Glorious. She is a four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of four awards from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA).