I'M LIVING IN SHAME
Old pictures of my mother and father to me look like photos of Dorothy Dandridge with Smokey Robinson. I used to imagine I was the child of a fabulously famous and beautiful couple. In reality, my father was a hot-headed, hot-blooded, well-traveled navy man with a child in every port. My mother was an uneducated farm girl who made her children the center of her life.
Born the seventh daughter on September 7th and with only a seventh grade education, Lovelean Smith, daughter of a tobacco farmer in Farmville, Virginia, seemed like an odd match for the street savvy Baltimorean, Wilton Richard Madison. Nevertheless, they made a striking couple. Bill was a light skinned, freckled-faced man of the world, and Love was a brown-skinned beauty with the sweet sexiness of the girl next door.
Although she only had a seventh grade education, my mother always made sure we did our homework, even when she herself could not understand it. She saved every penny of her monthly allotment check so that we could get the latest encyclopedias, and she kept the house filled with books. She exposed me to the classics, like Edgar Allan Poe, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Homer. I became familiar with the Greek mythologies, such as Antigone, Hercules, and Medea, and was excited to see the nude paintings that accompanied them. Lovelean would frequently take us to the library, and we’d spend hours just browsing the stacks.
Everyone always thinks his or her own mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. I am no different. Lovelean had a natural beauty, achieved without a lot of makeup. And she knew how to dress. When she stepped out of the house for church, couldn’t nobody touch her in the entire congregation! I thought she had the sexiest legs! She also loved her high heel shoes and her fragrances. Every Mother’s Day, Ricky, Gee and I would give her a gift of Jean Nate body splash. She used it every time she took a bath and the house would smell of its sensual aroma. After I became a teenager, I refused to go to church; my mother would take my brother and sister to service and leave me alone in the house, at which time I would sneak into her closets to put on her high heels and play with her jewelry. As I looked at myself in the mirror, I felt sexy and pretty, just like my mother was.
Since my brother was not much into his appearance and since my sister was such a tomboy, I felt it was up to me to impress my mom. I loved it when she complimented me on dressing nicely; I shared her love of clothes and I liked to make her proud of me. Having children is a weird hybrid experience. When I look at my brother’s physical features, I can see my father. When I look at my sister’s physical features, I can see my mother. When I look at myself, I can see the best of both my mother and father -- his smooth voice and her knockout legs!
After my parents’ divorce, it was just the four of us living in a single household. We always ate dinner together as a television played in the background. Lovelean wasn’t a good cook; she fried a lot, whether it was chicken, hamburgers, or hotdogs. Miss Love could boil the hell out of some canned foods, which usually meant they would be overcooked! Her turkeys fell apart and her cakes always collapsed. When I first had a cake that did not fall, I couldn’t quite appreciate the taste because I was so used to the heavy thickness of her fallen bakery attempts. However, what she lacked in cooking she made up for with her housekeeping. I remember many days of her dusting Venetian blinds and ironing clothes. Somehow, I was the first of the three children to learn how to wash dishes. On Friday nights, she had a ritual of lining the three of us up to receive a tablespoon of milk of magnesia. I hated the chalky taste, though Lovelean emphasized the importance of a good bowel movement. As a kid, in my head her words always sounded like “bower move.” It took me years to figure out what she was saying.
Lovelean did not have close girlfriends. She was pleasant to the women in the neighborhood but kept a safe distance. She made us her friends. She was close to her sisters, but they lived in other cities. At night, we would talk across our rooms to each other, like the Waltons. One night she had a nightmare and I ran into her bedroom and shook her awake. She thanked me and I remembered feeling as if I had really done something important. I felt like I had saved her life.
Our favorite family pastime was watching soap operas. I remember the series that were on at that time, like Love of Life, The Edge of Night, and The Secret Storm. I was watching television with my mom when we saw the live broadcast of Joan Crawford replacing her real life daughter, Christina, on The Secret Storm. I recall how Crawford could not remember her lines; she looked so foolish, trying to play a young wife in a mini dress, when it was apparent that she was old enough to be somebody’s grandmother. To this day, the favorite family soap opera is The Young and the Restless. It is a common bond that unites us.
Our family laughed a lot during our TV watching sessions. Lovelean would pass a fart while we were all gathered together and then blame it on one of us, which always cracked us up. Watching soaps is what first made me realize I wanted to be an actor. I used to practice crying in the mirror so that I could cry on cue like the soap actors did.
When we were very young, Lovelean would smoke cigarettes. She kept a carton of Salems all the way up in a kitchen cabinet, but she only smoked after breakfast or during her morning constitutional. (She would crack the bathroom door and enjoy her cigarette as she watched us play up and down the hall.) I never remembered her smoking at any other time, unless she was having a cocktail with her sisters. By the time I became a teenager, she stopped the habit. Ironically, I picked it up. I started smoking Salems.
We did not have a lot of money coming up, but Lovelean always scrapped and saved to do special things for us. We would see a movie together as a family once a year. The very first movie I remember her taking us to see was Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine, starring Vincent Price. I don’t remember much about the movie, except that the Supremes sang the theme song. My mother was very progressive, now that I think about it. We also saw the films The Graduate, which dealt with adultery, and Something for Everyone, which dealt with bisexuality. She was protective of us but did not shield us from the realities of life.
Mother was very relaxed about her body. We seldom locked the doors in our home and, as children, we would see her naked. It was never an issue. I took after her in that I was more comfortable being without clothes, more so than Ricky or Gee, and I wore as little as I could during the hot summer months in Portsmouth, Virginia. When Georgette started growing breasts, however, we all became a little more discrete.
Once, Lovelean found some nude drawings I had hidden and she spanked me. For a minute, I resented her for this. In order to appease her, I drew bathing suits on the male and female body parts. Years later, as we watched porn together as adults, I forgave her for the incident. When you get older and look back over your childhood, you realize that parenting has never come with a guidebook. Lovelean had done what she thought best for the moment.
Of course, there were things she did that really irked me. I used to hate the fact that she never allowed us to accept food from other kids’ moms. I was curious to taste other people’s cooking. I did not taste broccoli until I was seventeen. God forbid we eat anything another kid would offer us at school! Even when we traveled and visited relatives, she was particular about whose food we could eat. My brother was extremely allergic to seafood, so she had the rest of us avoid it too, probably out of convenience. Other than her mother and a few of her sisters, we simply did not eat from other people’s kitchens. It was as if she thought somebody was going to poison us. It was so instilled in me that I could hear her voice in my head saying, “Don’t you dare eat that food!” even when she wasn’t around. As a result, we ended up being very picky about our food. Our cousins referred to us as “spoiled,” and we did not eat southern delicacies like chitlins, pig feet, or black-eyed peas.
Lovelean came from the south and had odd ways, in my opinion. She came from that generation of blacks who believed that being dark skinned was not a good thing. She married my dad, a very light-skinned man, and my brother had turned out in his complexion. I was a shade darker and my sister was the darkest. She always shielded my sister from going out in the sun to play. I used to laugh at this because my sister was so rebellious; she would venture out into the sun anyway. If Lovelean looked out the window and caught Gee basking in the sunlight, we would hear, “Stay out of that sun before you turn black!”
When my mother and father divorced, they said that they had separated. I did not quite know the difference between divorce and separation because my father had spent most of his time away in the Navy. Many of the kids in Cavalier Manor also had fathers in the service. For the most part, it was a naval town. What I thought odd was the fact that my siblings and I were not allowed to use the word “divorce.”
When I was in my teens, Lovelean began to date a man in the neighborhood. He was a nice guy. He used to cut our hair and I liked when he would “edge a part” on the right side of my head. (His haircuts were always so much better than my mom’s soup bowl efforts.)
One afternoon, my mother’s boyfriend came over and saw me playing with my Captain Action figure. I really loved that doll. He had two changes of clothes and could change into Superman or Batman. I used to make fashion clothes for him out of old socks and scraps of fabric that my grandmother had given me. My favorite outfit was a furry vest similar to the one that Sonny Bono wore back in the heyday of Sonny and Cher.
When my mom’s boyfriend saw me with the action figure, he made a nice comment about it. However, later I heard him say to my mother, “Don’t no boy supposed to be running around playing with no dolls.”
When I came home from school the next day, my Captain Action was gone. I was crushed. I vowed to get my doll back one day. Twenty-five years later, I found a Captain Action doll at a collector’s show and paid over one hundred dollars for him. Then I started collecting more rare action figures, like O.J. Simpson, Mr. T, M.C. Hammer, Dennis Rodman, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Jackson, and any black G.I. Joe or Ken doll. I usually only purchased black dolls, but on one occasion I ran across a white doll made in the 70’s called “Gay Bob” that I had to have. He had a blonde Afro and was anatomically correct. By the 90’s, there emerged a collection of male dolls with penises called “Billy.” The dicks on those dolls were a bit more pronounced in comparison to those on the Gay Bob dolls. From the Billy collection I added “Tyson” (black) and “Carlos” (Latin) to my stable. (See what your boyfriend made me do, mother? If I had just been allowed to keep my doll, I wouldn’t be collecting action figures as a grown man!)
When I would sleep walk as a child, Lovelean would never wake me up. She would just turn my head around and guide me back to bed. One time I woke up in the middle of the night and heard her with her boyfriend. I walked out to the kitchen where they were standing naked together, having a drink. I had seen my mother’s breasts before, that was no surprise, but I had never seen a grown man with a hard-on. I was fascinated. When he turned and saw me standing there, he almost dropped his glass of Johnnie Walker Red.
“Love,” he said, “Look who just wandered out here.”
“Sometimes he sleepwalks,” she responded. “Just turn him around and he will walk back to his room.”
Her boyfriend’s huge hands turned me around and walked me back to the bedroom. I pretended to be asleep and did not say anything.
“You sure he’s sleep?” he asked my mother, walking back to the kitchen.
“He’s done it before,” she assured. “His eyes will be open and he’ll be dead asleep. He won’t remember a thing in the morning.”
I tried to get a peek at that erect, grown male body one more time, but they closed my bedroom door and went back to her room.
The next day, I could not even look her in the eyes. I hated her. My doll was gone and there she was having sex with this man who seemed to be able to get her to do whatever he wanted. She behaved as if nothing had even happened the night before. I went to the breakfast table in silence. I spoke to my brother and sister, but did not say a word to my mother. I had decided that I was never going to speak to her again; I didn’t even care if we lived in the same house. Later, I told my brother what I had seen. Ricky was always the levelheaded person of the house, never making decisions based on emotion. He thought logically like the character Mr. Spock on his favorite TV show, Star Trek.
“Ricky,” I told him, “I saw ma and Mr. B. naked in the kitchen last night.”
“And?” Ricky sounded like he did not care.
“And I am not ever gonna speak to ma again.”
“Why? It’s not like we didn’t know what was going on. You finally saw it.”
“Well, she shouldn’t be doing stuff.”
“Why? Because she is your mother? Because she is trying to live her life? You know daddy is living his own life the way he wants. Let it go, it ain’t your business.”
He was right. Funny thing is, I don’t think she even noticed I was not speaking to her.
When I turned sixteen, I started visiting my dad in Baltimore, who by then had retired from the Navy. It was around this time that we learned he had remarried. Whenever Lovelean had to reach him, she would always make one of us call in case his new wife answered the phone. Lovelean would tell us to ask for “our father,” and then she would get on after he picked up. She hated to hear his new wife’s voice, as if it was some awful reminder that she was no longer married to him.
During the summer months before school started, I was elected to go shopping with my dad to get my school clothes and to get the money for my brother and sister’s clothes. We never traveled as a trio to visit him. I don’t know whether it was because my mother did not want to be left alone or because he could not afford to send for all three of us at one time. Either way, I visited him multiple times but my brother never went. I believe my sister went once.
After spending time with my father, I grew to blame my mother for their divorce. During one of our visits, I asked him why he left. He explained that things had changed during the course of their marriage. She was beautiful when he was a young man and their families had known each other when they were children. He knew from the moment he saw her that he would marry her. But as he grew up in the world, traveling all over, my mother did not “grow” with him. He told me that she made her children the center of her world, the same way her mother had done before her. She was never an independent person. Whenever dad would leave for a tour of duty, my mom would have my grandmother come live with us. He said he never felt like he was in his own home, because when he would return he would find his mother-in-law living in his space. He never got a chance to feel like he and his wife were having their own marriage because somebody else was always there.
I was determined not to let my mother influence my life. I was in the ninth grade, already two grades further than she had gotten in her life. What did she know? I was so ashamed of her, viewing her as uneducated and ill equipped to teach me what I needed to know about being a man. In my mind, I began to plot a way to get out from under her. My efforts were successful, and I eventually moved to Baltimore to live with my father.
I am sure my behavior also influenced my sister after I left home. I believe she rushed into a marriage so that she could get away from my mother too. Around 1980, Gee was given the family home and it was decided that our mother would move to Baltimore to live with Ricky and me. Ricky had just left MIT and was looking for work in the Baltimore / D.C. area. I was living on my own and had been out of my father’s house for about four years.
Lovelean proved up for the challenge. She surprised us all by going back to school and getting her GED. She also got a part-time job at a local bakery in the heart of the gay community where my brother and I also worked, part-time. “Miss Love,” as she was called, became the darling of all our gay friends. Lovelean put all my fears to rest as she proved that she was an independent woman, determined not to become a burden to her children as her mother had done. What I learned in that moment and in the years to come was this -- my mother may not have read a physics book or discussed Plato, but she had good common sense. She also had an open ear and an open heart that allowed her to see people for who they truly were, accept differences, and learn from those around her. I felt so ashamed for having allowed my father’s fears to run my life.
In 2004, I was at work in Los Angeles and got a call that my mother was in the hospital. It was the first time in my life that I ever thought I would lose my mother. Gee told me that she had been in the hospital for two days and, since she did not have any of our phone numbers on her at the time, she could not notify us. I felt so helpless being three thousand miles away. The doctors had found a blood clot in her lungs. Fear took hold of me as I remembered all the stupid things I had done as a child, and I prayed really hard that she knew how much I loved and appreciated her. Fortunately, in time, they treated the blood clot that was causing her problems. She would be fine.
As I sat on a plane headed off to see her, I remembered that Dorothy Dandridge had died from a blood clot. I thought about how beautiful my mother had been in her youth and how much she reminded me of Dorothy Dandridge. I thought about the countless times I had not kept in touch and how I failed to include her in much of my life.
I then vowed to God to call her every Sunday, wherever I might be. Whenever we speak on the phone, she always ends our conversations with “I love you.” Sometimes the only thing we may talk about is what happened on The Young and the Restless that week. It has become such a Sunday ritual that if I don’t call, she worries.
One weekend she asked me, “Have you seen that show Brothers & Sisters?”
“No,” I said. “I usually change the channel after Desperate Housewives.”
“When I watch that show, it reminds me of us as a family,” she mused.
“Why is that?” I asked.
She responded, “I see so much of myself in that Sally Fields character.”
Well, she got me hooked. I started watching the show and recorded all the past episodes on TiVo. I could see her point. The show was about a father who cheats on his wife and the family learns about the other brothers and sisters. Factor in a gay son, a strong willed daughter, and a son who abuses drugs, and it all adds up to various moments in the Madison history. I called her the night after I saw an episode about a family therapy session.
“Hello, Sally Fields,” I teased.
“Don’t say anything, Dale. I know what you’re thinking!”
We burst out laughing. We were both thinking that a scene from the episode had closely resembled my own experience with psychotherapy, a dark time we had not spoken of in over twenty years. During that conversation, I thanked her again for loving me unconditionally. I thanked her for teaching me the true lessons of being a man. I thanked her for never giving up on me. I asked her to forgive me for having been such a selfish asshole. “Forgive who?” she said. “For what?”
I have a mother named Love who has taught me more about love and life than I could have ever imagined.
“Lessons aren’t always taught by schoolteachers.”