My Mother, The Ex-Con (And More Mysteries of Frances Andrews)

Frances is the best kind of mystery, one who reveals her secrets sparingly. I think I have her down and then boom! She marries a gay African guy so he can get a green card.

Sep 21, 2011 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

"Ph~Hm~HD…" Do you know what this means? No? That’s because you don’t speak Frances. I, on the other hand, do. Thirty years of hard living have earned me a master’s degree in “crazy emails from my mother."

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For whatever reason, Frances thinks email another form of communication entirely. That is to say, the normal rules of grammar and speech simply do not apply. Periods are rare. Ellipses run amok. If she doesn’t tap the space bar a bonus three times between words, I worry. Tildes squeeze into each available crevice. Then she signs every cipher off with the aptly misspelled “Mom~me :)”

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That squiggly line is like an electronic umbilical cord. It is my single mother’s attempt to preserve us. I am her only child, after all. Her “first and last.” And no matter how far away from one another we are it will always be “Mom~me.”

I’ll try to remember that when she leaves. See, very soon Frances will stretch our cord by some 1,600 miles since the hard work of raising an adult daughter is apparently over. Or at least that’s how I put it when I’m being dramatic. My mom is retiring to the U.S. Virgin Islands and I’m throwing a temper tantrum.

“Retire? On what?” I asked when Frances told me her plan three summers ago after she got back from a trip to the USVI that we were supposed to go on together. I, of course, got too busy with my life. She, of course, got on with hers. 

“On a little house in St. Croix with a garden and clay fire pit so I can sell pottery and fresh salad that teenagers would throw in my handmade bowls.”

“What in the—“

They'd raise the vegetables! It'll be a community garden. Good green and yellow vegetables. They'd serve it to you -- dressing intact. And then we'd find natural clay on the island, fire it, put your salad in it, and you’d pick it up near your local supermarket. Or you could just call it in. We'll ride it out to you on our bikes!”

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Frances is the best kind of mystery, one who reveals her secrets sparingly. I think I have her down and then boom! She marries a gay African guy so he can get a green card. And no, I didn't get an invitation. My mom's sudden revelations keep our relationship spicy; they put the “other” back in mother.

Like the time I went to visit her in Atlanta, where she moved to be “closer” to me after I graduated college in New York, and found out she’s sorta an ex-con. So we’re coming off the highway and I spot a scary-looking building. “What the heck is that? It looks like a prison.” Her response? "Oh, that place? That is a prison. Wanna know how I know?”

Turns out Frances voluntarily spent a weekend in jail in lieu of paying her parking tickets. She’s almost 60. And if a former librarian spending two days with hardened prostitutes doesn't shock you, then there's the time Frances told me and my boyfriend of just two weeks why she knew a lot more about prostitutes then the average AARP member. In 1978 Bogotá, when Frances was in the Peace Corps, she routinely pretended to be a prostitute so that the Colombian street gang she was running with could highjack her potential “Johns.” Exactly.

If we’re lucky, as we get older our mothers become more like older sisters. They become the women who make you feel grounded but don’t weigh you down with authority. You tell each other your secrets and hope for sound advice, which is why my mother has been putting off St. Croix for so long.

She asked me what I thought and I told Frances it was too soon. Ostensibly for her, but really too soon for me.

“I mean what’s your plan? Not the salad plan, woman. A solid plan.”

“I don’t know. I just want to get there and see. There’s abundance everywhere. I can make money anywhere. I just need to go.”

That reminded me of the time Frances made me go to church the Sunday after my college graduation. I hate church. She knows this.

On that Mother’s Day we sat on the worn wooden pews of a Harlem storefront church and listened to a woman sing, “Although there are trials on every, ev-ver-ry ha-an-and, sometimes I just feel like going on.” I started bawling with such force the lady next to us gave me a tissue -- and then another, and another. I thanked this stranger and pressed those perfumed tissues up against eyes I thought would never stop leaking.

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I cried that day because Frances was leaving me for good this time. This was not like when she dropped me off somewhere and picked me back up at the end of the day. When my independence was only practiced from 8 till 4. Now I was an Ivy League graduate, whatever that was worth in a post-9/11 job market. I had one-third of an apartment and 100 percent of a life to lead. Frances was leaving on the next plane.

Ten years later and I’m still shaky on the whole adult thing. Most days I guess I’m doing it right. Frances says she’s proud and I believe her--most days. So it’s my turn now to see her off into the next phase of our adventure.

Mom~me, according to my mother, also means that she isn’t “just your mom.” “I’m also and always gonna be me,” Frances explained. “Ph~Hm~HD” means “phone home, Helena Darreen.” Home is wherever she is.