By Jueseppi B. Reposted from Ms. Elayne EK Keratsis & her blog, One Year Without Mum.
Mom’s Politics, part 1: The Militant Negro, Social Media & Jiffy Pop
November 2013 Florida Hospital
“THAT is a very bad word!” Mom wags a finger at me. “You should not call him that!”
I am sitting by Mom’s bed in her room at Florida Hospital in Tampa and reading the daily Twitter news. Mom struggled with both Facebook and Twitter. Determined to learn social media, she dove into Facebook with a vengeance. Twitter is still a mystery to her, but she follows posters through me.
“Mum, ‘Negro’ is not a swear word…”
She shakes her head. “Shame on you! Don’t tell me, I know about bad words! That is the number two N word!”
My parents have their own interpretations of what words, names and phrases mean. My father doesn’t understand all the fuss about the name of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. “I live in a family of very loud women. I get it.”
Back in 2000, we all encouraged Mom to use the computer for more than just email and news. That suggestion created a firestorm. It started off slow with her learning the basics of what my ex told her was called “The IntraNeck.” In 2009, one of my nieces set her up with a Facebook account and things were never the same in our family.
Vengeance is a nice way of putting it. Mom discovered almost immediately that she could not only monitor our liberal views, but also our very liberal behavior and extremely liberal use of the F word.
“I don’t need anyone to show me, I’ll figure it out!”
Like so many parents of my adult friends, she didn’t even attempt to learn the basics of online etiquette as it related to her tribe and instead posted comments better served in a private phone conversation.
“Your hair looks terrible!” might be a comment you’d find one morning under a photo you yourself had posted because you felt you looked extra fancy.
“That Mary needs to watch her weight! She’s starting to look like a sausage!” could very well show up on Mary’s page instead of the person Mom thought she was addressing.
Mom also friended everyone. “I am a friendly person! It’s rude to not respond.”
These friends included relatives from the distant past, Nigerian princes, strangers with exotic names, everyone’s ex-boyfriends AND ex-friends. She had no problems discussing what may have gone on during these once-current relationships and Facebook became like the dinner table when Dad talked as if you weren’t there.
When my step-brother Chuck was diagnosed with cancer, Dad often utilized the evening meal to give us all an update about Chuck’s condition.
“Chuck looks great, doesn’t he? He really looks good.”
From the other end of the table Chuck waved a fork in the air and pronounced, “Hello! Dad! It’s me! Still here! Not dead yet!”
Everyone burst into laughter and Dad slammed his chair back. “You think that’s funny? That’s not funny!”
Chuck laughed the loudest, holding his sides, “It’s funny! Oh my God, IT’S FUNNY!”
Dad grabbed his plate, “I will not eat with YOU PEOPLE!” and stomped off to his chair – a mere ten feet from the table. Then he turned the TV volume up to drown out the rollicking table behavior.
Mom was like that on Facebook.
“I don’t know why she doesn’t want to talk to you,” Mom typed. “Why don’t you just call her up?” I spend an inordinate amount of time removing posts that included my phone number, embarrassing details, or both. Then came the presidential election of 2000 and things sped downhill fast.
“Please don’t call him that. It didn’t used to be a bad word, but I’m sure it is now. Why not call him Mr. Militant Black Man? It’s much nicer.”
Mom’s referring to a Twitter accounts she enjoys. Mr. Militant Negro is the handle of a well-written guy who tweets eloquently about a wide spectrum of issues close to her heart as well – social injustice, racial equality, political shenanigans and Trayvon Martin. I find it interesting that although Mom me wants to change Mr. Militant Negro’s name, the “Militant” part is perfectly acceptable. Because that’s how she is herself. Mom is a political militant.
Mom is so angry about the death of Trayvon, she’s brought it up almost every day since I have been visiting, despite the fact it has been a year since the murder. She always links him with Medgar Evers, the young civil rights activist murdered in 1963.
“Mom, Travyon was just a kid walking down the street.”
It doesn’t matter to her. “SOME PEOPLE just want to kill other kinds of people. And you don’t know who Trayvon could have grown up to be.” She’s right and this time I love her for it. Mom is mystified that George Zimmerman is a free man. “Stand your ground doesn’t mean all the ground all over the neighborhood! It means your own house!”
She often asks me to read from Trayvon’s mother’s account.
“I wonder how she’s doing. A year is the blink of an eye. That’s all. I must write to her again when I get out of here.”
Mom writes to everyone.
She also loves playing a game where she calls out a celebrity and I look them up on Twitter to see what they might be saying. Especially Roseanne Barr.
“What the hell is wrong with her today” Mom would ask. “She’s so mad all the time!” And Cher. “She’s a terrible speller but I love her!” And every subject on the front page of the newspaper. Not The Enquirer that Yaya called the newspaper – the other papers. Mom wants everybody’s take on every single thing across the planet.
I am trying to explain to her that I personally have not named every Twitter user in cyberspace, that folks choose their own handles, but she’s not having any of it.
“Mum, that’s the name he chose. I didn’t pick it. Everyone gets to name themselves. He’s making a point!”
“Hmmm,” Mom flips through The National Enquirer. ”Then I bet you call yourself Miss Fancy Pants!” she says slyly.
“I do not, Mum!” Although I do make my iPhone’s Siri call me that. How does Mom know all of this stuff?
“Ecch, take this one away about Oprah. They should leave her alone! All she does is try to help people and if she is a lesbian, I say good for her! Would you look at Bill Clinton?” she points at another story. “He is losing too much weight. He should see his doctor.” Pages flip. “Do you think he’s a Black Panther? I’ve always been interested in the Panthers, I wonder if I should write to him?”
The conversation has derailed. I cautiously say the name of “He Who Should Not Be Named Because He Cheated On His Wife And Do Not Say Anything Bad About Jack Kennedy Because That Was Different.”
Mom was a lifelong Democrat. Until the day came that she broke up with William Jefferson Clinton. It was a painful time in our Democratic tribe.
Mom makes a disgusted sound. “Not HIM! I mean Mr. Militant Black Man! You need to keep up. Also ask him if he knows anything about the Weather Underground. THAT is a very interesting story…”
As Mom launches into the details of Dr. Timothy Leary’s jailbreak, I make a mental note to remind myself we will not be asking about the Black Panthers on Twitter. I also notice she seems to have softened toward Bill Clinton and his health issues. It must the painkillers.
The late 1960′s
Boston has struggled to overcome its sad history of inequality, steeped in the racism of Yawkey’s Fenway Park and paraded forth to Whitey Bulger’s Irish assault on interracial bussing. Decades ago the neighborhoods surrounding Beantown had powerful invisible lines of demarcation respected by all races and religions. You did not go enter any area where your “people” did not reside. It was a specific kind of racism that my grandfather believed was the result of immigrants attempting to recreate their home countries in the small pockets where they now resided. If mixing of these backgrounds occurred through “unfortunate” marriages, the lines shifted to separate the Catholics from everyone else. This created such confusion in some families that many newly married couples moved to New Hampshire.
My mother was a young single mother when she moved Sissy and I to a duplex just above a housing project in Worcester. We attended an experimental elementary school – the forerunner to the Magnet Program – and therefore our classmates came in every race and religion. Isolated from the fear and suspicion of Boston, we never had to learn that people are all the same. We already knew it. Mom was smart, she moved us there – against her parents’ wishes – to take advantage of what she realized could be the best educational opportunity she could offer us.
The schoolyard housed a little pony that all the kids clamored to feed and brush. We learned to read a new way, a technique that eventually became known as “speed reading.” Even kindergarteners were taught to use their peripheral vision to read books a line at a time instead of the traditional “word by word” routine. Yaya, Nana and Mom were all voracious readers-for-pleasure and this only enhanced our lifelong love of books.
Nana kept up with the news. Mom loved literature. Yaya loved the lurid true detective magazines she hid from her daughter but freely allowed her granddaughter – Mom – to enjoy. She also had a library of the early tabloids like Movie Screen so she could keep up with sagas like the marriages of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton and refer back to them for “research material” as new scandals unfolded.
Yaya also harbored a secret crush on Senator Edward Brooks. She had to hide her one-sided romance from her daughter. Not because Brooks was an African American. Because he was aRepublican. My grandparents were unique in their working class neighborhood because they truly didn’t care what color anybody was – as long as they were a Democrat.
“MOTHER!” Nana scolded when she found a pile of True Confessions hidden in Yaya’s laundry basket under her white nursing home uniforms. “Those are awful magazines! When you buy them, the store clerk probably tells the other customers that you’re Shanty Irish!”
Shanty Irish was a terrible insult and indicated that the recipient of such a comment was trashy. Yaya shrugged and waved her daughter off. “Better to be Shanty Irish that reads than Lace Curtain Irish that pretends they don’t!”
She was referring to Nana’s hidden stash of scandalous potboilers like Peyton Place and Valley Of The Dolls.
Lace Curtain Irish basically meant “Miss Fancy Pants.” Nana was known to put on a few airs now and again. It wasn’t until she was way into her seventies that she donned that red latex teddy. I was storing wardrobe in the bathroom closet for reshoots on a Burt Reynolds movie called Big City Blues. While visiting on Thanksgiving, Nana dug around and the cherry color caught her eye. She tried it on and pranced into the living room with a dramatic “TAH DAH!” All the guests screamed with delight.
Our childhood neighborhood on St. Nicholas Ave was a hill of small duplexes inhabited by single mothers. Weekends we’d tear down the street to collect any friends that were on “off weekends.” Off weekends meant this wasn’t your father’s visitation week. During the summer months, there was no need to knock on any doors. If you passed by a friend’s and the windows were open, the sound of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin loudly spilling into the street was a sign to keep going. That friend was gone until Monday and the resident mother was housecleaning while Dino and Frankie crooned notes of encouragement about a better future.
Mom’s divorce was very difficult. Shunned by both sides of the family, we were her one link to even speaking to her parents. As much as Nana and Poppy were horrified she’d married a Greek, they became apocalyptic when she was “ex-communicated” – as Poppy called – from returning to the Catholic Church because she was now divorced. The bonds she’d made with our biological father’s family were in tatters. As usual, the one person who refused to take sides was Yaya. I can remember my short round great-grandmother coming to our snowy neighborhood in a cab, bearing groceries and treats, shoving small bills into Mom’s purse when her back was turned. This was after her own daughter forbade her to do so. “She made her bed, now she’s got to lie in it.”
But Yaya was a militant.
It was during this time of freedom that Mom flourished more than suffered. She read what she wanted, said what she thought and began a quest that lasted her entire life – learning as much as she could about the world, how it worked and everyone who lived in it. From rock and roll to human rights, Mom was delighted to create her own society. How grateful we are to her.
November 2013 Florida Hospital
“…because regular ties were used to strangle black men in the South.”
I look up from Twitter. “What the hell are you talking about, Mum?”
She sighed. “I was telling you that I met a gentleman who is a Black Muslim and I asked him why he wears a bow tie and he told me. I find that interesting and very sad at the same time. Don’t you?”
Seriously. Mom. “Where did you meet a Black Muslim?” I asked. “At the grocery store?”
Mom considers this. “No, my store is mostly old people. I met him at that vigil, remember? For Terri Schiavo’s parents? When I made that lasagna for them and Jesse Jackson? Because they had been there so long and you just can’t cook big meals in a motor home…”
Mom sure gets around.
Terri Schiavo was the young St. Petersburg wife who suffered a cardiac arrest in 1990 and lapsed into a lengthy coma. Her husband and his experts insisted she was in a vegetative state and would never recover. He fought in the courts to have her life support removed. Terri’s parents felt their daughter was still there and would someday fully awaken. The battle waged on until 2005 when federal court allowed the removal of the feeding tube. Terri survived for thirteen days. During that time Mom drove down to the parking lot of the hospice facility where the Schiavos were staying, waiting, as did scores of others including the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
“Why doesn’t he just divorce her?” Mom fumed as she prodded the lasagna in the oven, pulled it out and covered it with Reynolds Wrap.
“Why don’t YOU just mind your own business?” Dad rattled the newspaper for emphasis. ”
“He just wants the insurance money! I saw it on The Intraneck…”
‘I CAN CALL IT WHAT I WANT!” Mom stomped her foot. She did not like to be corrected. “Why can’t he just give her back to her parents? I’m going down there!”
Dad slammed the paper down. “Oh no you are not! There’s probably gonna be a big riot. You could get hurt or you’ll get arrested!” What Dad meant was “You’ll get arrested!” but he threw the safety thing in so no one thought he was bitching he might have to leave the house and miss the ball game.
“Fine!” she fumed. She went into the bedroom and put on her good walking sneakers. She grabbed her keys, purse and the heavy pan.
“I’m going to the library!” she called on her way out the front door.
“WHY ARE YOU TAKING THE LASAGNA TO THE LIBRARY???”
Mom did meet the Schiavos and Reverend Jesse Jackson. I wish I could relate the intimate details of their conversations, but I don’t know them. Mom said it was private. I do know Mom’s People told her that Terri was ready to move on, but was waiting for her parents to get to the same place. What Mom wanted was for Terri’s parents to have the time they needed. As for Reverend Jesse? No idea what they talked about. I can say that when Mom broke up with Bill Clinton, she never broke up with Jesse. So it must have been something pretty good.
November 2013 Florida Hospital
“He’s a good news friend for us,” Mom says of Mr. Militant Negro. “I like how he thinks.”
She put down The Enquirer and looked at me. “Don’t get on there telling him crazy things about that Al Gore inventing The Intraneck! He’ll think you’re a nut and block you!”
Mom now knows a thing or to about getting blocked. At least from Facebook. And I know enough not to correct her.
“OK Mum.” I read to her and think about Hillary and Mom and how she went from campaigning for Ted Kennedy to listening to Rush and then eventually rounding back to the creation of her own personal militant party. Because once a liberal, always a liberal.
Author’s Note: As children, Sissy and I didn’t want for much. Mom was an only child (or so she thought) and Nana and Poppy, as well as our Greek relatives, made sure there were always toys and trips. Mom saved all summer for school clothes. Even our dog Ziggy had a new collar every Christmas. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized it was Mom who often went without. As I write, I remember an “off weekend.” Mom shaking Jiffy Pop on the stove. The thin tinfoil balloon rising. Our duplex filled with the irresistible aroma of the coming evening, watching Creature Feature. Suddenly, the tinfoil exploded and popcorn flew all over the kitchen. Mom just laughed. Then she tossed the burnt tin in the sink and brought down a second Jiffy Pop from the top of the fridge. “I was afraid this might happen! I can’t have my girls go popcorn-less!” I wonder what she didn’t buy for herself when decided instead to purchase that kernel insurance for us. You can still get those flat pie tins with the wire handle now and again at the Dollar Store and on the occasion when I see them, I always buy two. Thank you, Mom. Everybody needs an extra Jiffy Pop. Just in case.
This Is Mum. January 19, 1937 to December 24, 2013. Our Year Without Mum