I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it couldn’t have been more than a nanosecond after “fucking bitch” that my face exploded and blood gushed everywhere. We were grocery shopping at C-Town supermarket and I wanted the real ‘Fruity Pebbles’, with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble on the front of the box. I was tired of eating the same old bootleg version of Captain Crunch: ‘King Vitamin’.
“No,” my mother snapped in my face with her thumb, index and middle finger, followed by a distorted vocal tone. I obviously had become too accustomed to cursing while playing in the stairwells of my ghetto project. Way too accustomed to cursing while running the streets with my friends; loving the ways they’d ogle and fawn around me as if I was speaking a foreign language. And just like that it came out “FUCKING BITCH.” So on the 1st of the month, welfare check day, in broad day light at the overcrowded neighborhood C-Town supermarket, she sucker punched me square in the face. I still faintly recall being stunned as flickers of white dots swarmed my vision and for a moment my leg buckled, almost giving out.
Despite all the ass whippings and more than thirty years in passing, I cannot seem to erase the supermarket incident; it has somehow consumed any memories of affection. Possibly because it was my first direct confrontation with an explosive and unpredictable act of violence. I mean, it was virtually impossible to be naive to violence growing up during the crack-era in New York City’s Harlem: gangland shootouts, roof top overdoses, strong arm robberies and five dollar pussy. Still, I had never expected for my first direct experience with such a spontaneous and immediate act of violence to be perpetuated by my mother; the woman who I looked to for nurturing, to teach me what love looked like, to guide and protect me as a child.
I can vividly feel the gawking stares of spectators on the long embarrassing walk home. It was mid-August hot and had to be close to 100° degrees; a little after 2-o’clock in the afternoon when the sun peaks. I couldn’t have been more than eight years old; I had on red short-shorts (the ones that kids nowadays would point and laugh at), a plain white T-shirt and my favorite white and black Converse Skippys. I clearly remember struggling to keep up with her fast paced walk down Fifth Avenue between the long blocks of 112th and 115th streets — three concrete paved blocks that are combined into one; bordering two infamous project complexes in Manhattan’s Harlem: Foster and Taft.
I can still feel the blood crusting on my face. Ruining my milk white T-shirt with dark purple splotches — scabs on a wound; while I stumbled under the baking sun, shooing away hungry mosquitoes. Theresa never said anything afterward. Nothing — no sorry, no pep-talk, she didn’t even clean the blood off my face. There was just a cold frigid silence. I remember countlessly climbing onto the bathtub’s ledge, tip-toeing to look into the mirror; watching in awe and horror as both my eyes magically swelled into small balloons, and at the apparent crookedness of my nose.
Till this day, the incident has never been mentioned. I sometimes wonder what a confrontation would look and sound like? I rationalize that her actions were prompted by life’s hard and cruel sense of balance, that she was bitter because she was deaf and mute; alone and challenged. Did she see my father in me? Punished me for his transgressions against her heart? Of course as a child I could not begin to comprehend the depth of these moral and emotional implications; as a child what I did feel was the indifference to my needs; as a child all I felt was a mother who hated her son; as a child, there existed this inability to understand why my mother despised me, pushing me onto a ledge of mutual hatred and blind rage.
Theresa, my mother, cannot talk and cannot hear; she is a deaf mute, but reads lips like a professional spy in some antiquated World War II movie. A skill that most people, including me, underestimated. Theresa seemed to love music and she always played it really loud while placing her hand on the nearest table or wall to absorb the vibrations. I imagine that she had dreams of being a singer. In fact, I recall a few occasions where I caught her lip-synching, when she thought no one was watching: silently reliving dreams that had been shattered by an inability to talk or hear. A symbolic reminder of her incapacities.
In many ways I pity her. Perhaps, I am making excuses for a woman who was just mean and scorned; but, a woman who had every right to be angry at fate and circumstance. I try to imagine what it feels like to see people talk, yet never hear a sound; to be robbed of your own voice; to scramble daily to remember what a voice, any voice sounded like. I envision myself drowning in an eerie dark space-less silence; infinitely tortured with the inability to voice what I think, what I feel, into the harmony of syllables — language.
As a child I envied most of the relationships my friends had with their mothers. Sadly, I don’t recall the presence of many fathers, just single mothers. I loved to spend the night at my friend Nicholas’ house. His mother worked at the post office and his father drove a bus. Nicholas had everything: the newest video games (at this time, Atari & Coleco Vision), nice clothes, a Beta-Max (the equivalent of a VCR); a shelf full of movies and wall-to-wall carpeting. Their bathroom had a flowery shower curtain, a pretty ivory toothbrush holder attached to the wall; the toilet seat even had cushioning.
The kitchen cabinet was always filled with cookies, chips and stuff I couldn’t pronounce. Before we went to bed, his mother would ask us if we were still hungry, then helped us wash our faces and brush our teeth. It was at Nicholas’ house that I first learned to floss my teeth, a habit that I have carried till this day. She even kissed our foreheads and tucked us into Nicholas’ big bed with the soft-silky comforter — wishing us sweet dreams.
I find myself struggling to access random memories of good night kisses, or hearing “I love you,” but all I seem to draw are blanks. Just a lot of screaming and yelling. My mother screamed a lot. I contemplate that she was self-obsessed with trying to hear her voice; suffering from the anxieties of not being able to hear and speak; thus, every opportunity to voice her objections, small or large, were met with a scream or holler; and those not voiced were dramatized with excessive aggressive finger pointing to make a point or blame someone for something.
Of course I can see how she had every right to be angry enough to hate the world from which she was temporally disconnected — a world where she had to constantly depend on other people to find her own voice – and angry enough to beat me for being a bad kid. I don’t hate her, but I can no longer pretend that we share any real sacred, emotional connection. I have found myself hoping that someday, one day, she’ll send me a letter and tell me how sorry she is; how much she misses and loves me; that she doesn’t hate me; that she never hated me; how she knows she wasn’t the best mom and give me a plausible excuse that I can grasp onto in order to find forgiveness — FORGIVENESS. A concept that I have swished around the palate of my mind for a long time. Perhaps, it is too late for forgiveness. It has taken me over thirty years to let go of who I thought my mother should have been to her son. To find balance in the trauma, to find solace in a cauldron of rage, to repair the damage.
I haven’t heard from Theresa in twelve long years. I was hoping she would attend my Cornell graduation. But I have come to accept that she’ll probably be on her death bed before I am reminded that she’s still alive. I wonder how I’ll respond when they tell me she has died. Will I experience the normal stages of grief? Denial, anger, acceptance? No, I believe I’ll be more disappointed, in that we never had the opportunity to have a mother-son relationship. Maybe we did, but my ideology of what a mother is supposed to represent is distorted by too many white privileged sitcoms along the lines of “Silver Spoon,” and “Different Strokes.”
At the moment, I cannot seem to imagine the grief that a son is supposed to feel when his mother dies. Just an emotional distance that can never be crossed, an abysmal silence of futile space and wasted time; and everyday thereafter, like everyday before it, I’ll look into the mirror and relive the infinite crookedness of my nose. A nose that glasses never seem to properly sit on; a nose that has a protruding bone; a nose that was never reset to heal.
Sheldon Johnson is serving 50 years in New York for 1st and 2nd degree robbery.
Sheldon P. Johnson #99A3011
Sing Sing C. F.
354 Hunter Street
Ossining, NY 10562