My Mother, My Road Dog

My Mama moved among the days like a dreamwalker in a field; seemed like what she touched was hers; seemed like what touched her couldn’t hold.”
— Lucille Clifton

Most women I know have a complex and tenuous relationship with their mother. They love Mom but just can’t stand her sometimes. They acknowledge her strength — for many, she was head of the household – but complain about her bossiness, her need to control every aspect of their lives like some silver-haired tyrant in a house dress and slippers.

I love my mother, Lola, but it seems that we are always locked in a battle of the wills. I bear a strong resemblance to her — people often ask if we’re sisters, much to my chagrin — but that’s where the similarity ends. I’m shy and soft-spoken, but Lola’s fierce tongue and pugnacious wit are legendary. She has been known to curse out incompetent cashiers in that cigarette-worn voice of hers, make the most hardened bill collectors cower, and sit insensitive teachers in time-out. Since I thought my mother viewed timidity as a personal defect, I could only get so close to her in spirit. Growing up, I didn’t think she liked me because I was so needy and idealistic. I wanted to have the “Sweet Valley High” relationship where the mother and daughter laugh over lunch at the mall, share secrets, and the girl gushes, “Mom, you’re my best friend!” But my mother was often undemonstrative. If I tried to climb in her lap for a kiss or a hug, Lola wasn’t having it. She would wearily oblige me with a quick peck or gruffly tell me to stop acting like a baby. Naturally, she’s the ideal person to accompany me on a 6,000-plus mile road trip.

In August, I’m embarking on a cross-country tour from Los Angeles to Atlanta to get the word out about my book Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage. Lola has so graciously agreed to ride shotgun in the Beckyville Bookmobile. This is not our first road trip. We traveled to Indio, a two and a half hour drive from L.A., to see Al Green and Mary J. Blige in concert. We’ve also driven to Santa Barbara, Vegas and San Francisco, hitting the highway with our mix tapes and our lunch money. I wanted those journeys to serve as mobile bonding sessions, where Lola would share her secrets and I would share mine, or she would regale me with some fascinating piece of family history. But the ride was punctuated by her complaints about my dirty car or my driving and my defensive retorts. Often, silence was our third companion. Mom is a talker, just not to me.

In spite of our sometimes rocky relationship, Lola is my biggest fan and an ardent supporter of my dreams. Years ago, when I told her I was quitting my job and hopping a Greyhound Bus from Pennsylvania to California to “make it” as a screenwriter, she didn’t tell me I was crazy or try to talk me out of it. Instead, she helped pack the two suitcases I took with me. Last month, when I told her I was walking away from another job to follow my heart and be a full-time writer, she said, “I have your back.” I hesitated to tell her at first, because I had a career at a top-rated talk show. The job had become my identity and, it seemed, hers as well. Growing up, we never had much money, so it seemed extremely risky and irrational to walk away from a steady paycheck, the vocation lottery. But playing it safe has never appealed to me, and it’s an attribute I learned from the woman who raised me.

My mother instilled in me a love of adventure. Even though she was born in a Pennsylvania steel and iron mill town, daughter of a bricklayer and a cleaning lady, the shackles of her small town couldn’t hold her. Ten years ago, before I even owned a passport, she was living in Amsterdam. She had never been abroad before, but jumped at the chance to assist with a global software conversion for the computer company she worked for. The project was only supposed to last six weeks, but she ended up living in Holland for ten months. While in Europe, she traveled to England, Belgium, Germany, Monaco, Italy and France. Lola was a big hit with the natives, and she still maintains close relationships with her former coworkers to this day. She loves to joke, drink and sample international cuisines. She organized a monthly Girls’ Night Out for her coworkers, restaurant-hopping all over Amsterdam, even though she was new to the city and the only Dutch word she knew was “Doei!” Naturally, when I ventured to foreign shores for the first time, my mother was my road dog. We sipped sangria in Barcelona while watching flamenco dancers, people watched at Les Deux Magots café in Paris, following in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Richard Wright, and sucked cannabis lollipops while touring the Red Light District in Amsterdam. My mother taught me not to fear difference, but to celebrate it. “Embrace the unknown,” she says.

I’ll be doing just that in a few weeks as I travel from indie book store to community center to private residences across the southern and eastern parts of the nation spreading the word about Escape from Beckyville. Even though I’m nervous about the journey and worry if it will be successful, I can’t wait to embark on this adventure, and I’ll be tweeting and blogging every step of the way. I’m looking forward to meeting new people and seeing new scenery, but I’m especially excited about the chance to bond with my mother. It still feels like I’m getting to know her, my testy but loveable road dog. I don’t know what bumps or potholes will mar the route ahead, but I’m grateful that we’ll be traveling it together.

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