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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Happy [M]other's Day

Last year I posted some of my favorite poems about mothers,

but this year I'd like to post a poem about a mother/son relationship. I've got two sons, and my 12-year-old (older) son has suddenly become a teenager. I told him in the past few weeks to stand up straight, and when he did, it turns out he is now taller than me. He's started junior high (in April, due to Japanese school year calendars) and really come into his own. So I want to share this poem by Sharon Olds, which was featured here on Ted Kooser's American Life in Poetry blog.

My Son the Man    by Sharon Olds

Suddenly his shoulders get a lot wider,
the way Houdini would expand his body
while people were putting him in chains. It seems
no time since I would help him to put on his sleeper,
guide his calves into the gold interior,
zip him up and toss him up and
catch his weight. I cannot imagine him
no longer a child, and I know I must get ready,
get over my fear of men now my son
is going to be one. This was not
what I had in mind when he pressed up through me like a
sealed trunk through the ice of the Hudson,
snapped the padlock, unsnaked the chains,
and appeared in my arms. Now he looks at me
the way Houdini studied a box
to learn the way out, then smiled and let himself be manacled.
The otherness of mothering sons has been on mind for a few years, as has another otherness that situates itself between me and my sons, as it does between the sons of the poets Erika Meitner and Joy Katz and their mothers, as discussed this week on the Poetry Foundation's podcast Poetry Off the Shelf, and that is when the racial composition of mother and son (or child) are different.

While my sons and I talk easily about the difference between me as a woman and them as burgeoning men, talking about our races is more complicated. I ask them all the time if my whiteness is an issue for them, and they insist it is not, but I cannot ever know if this is the truth or if this is what they tell me because they love me. I tell them that it would be perfectly normal for them to be uncomfortable with my race at certain transitional times in their lives, but they insist that they are not. And I don't entirely believe them.

At the elementary school, their white mother was a constant fixture from the start, and while we had to do a little bit of educating of classmates, it all became old hat for everyone quite quickly. And our elementary school has children with family members from 72 different countries, so we are by no means unique (which is why we moved into this school district).

However, at the junior high, which my son has only been attending for six weeks, we have yet to see another Caucasian parent (what I mean to say is that there are reportedly other Asian parents who blend in with the crowd, but as far as parents who stand out as racially different, so far there's me....). At the entrance ceremony, you can bet every eye was on me as parents reunited with their kids afterwards; everybody was dying to know which boy had the white mother. I asked my son if it bothered him and he said no. But when I ask if, despite having to take beginner's English with his entire class, he has mentioned the fact that he's already fluent in English, he says no. When a brand new friend of his (from another grade, as yet unaware of the Caucasian mother) told him that he had published a book, my son did not mention that he has a mother who has published two books in English. He doesn't mention his family in America. Is this about race? Is this about 12-year-old boys not talking about their mothers and family members to peers in general? I can't know. I don't know if I will ever know.

On the other hand, last year I colored my red hair back to its natural brown, thinking to make life easier on me (timewise) and on them (culturally), but my sons vetoed the move and wanted it back red. Because my overall coloring and its ostentatious difference from the norm doesn't matter to them? Or because they've only known me with red hair and blue eyes and are comfortable with it? Or because they don't really care and were trying to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear?

When my twelve-year-old son was in the first grade, his teacher asked me to identify which of the 35 fish pictures hanging on the wall was my son's. I scanned them as quickly as I could, but as they were all modelled on the same storybook fish, I was having a hard time finding any that stood out as my son's. "It's that one," the teacher beamed at me,"the only one with blue eyes. Your son said he made the eyes blue because his mother has blue eyes." And both she and I wept as we contemplated the wall of black-eyed fish and solitary blue-eyed one.

I am definitely these days feeling the otherness of motherhood. Of mothering sons. Of mothering (almost) teenagers. Of mother biracial bicultural children in an environment which favors the race and culture I am not part of.

Here's a poem from my book The Insomniac's Weather Report. This poem is about the otherness of mothering sons; I wrote it some years ago when it was the biggest other in my mind. But these days my [m]otherness seems even more vast.

What You Dampen If You Use Water as a Boomerang

Between mother and son
the body as fact comes
sooner than between
mother and daughter.

I had not counted on this:
the polygon of bearing
sons, I did not know you
would hold it against me,

the body, for its lack
of edges, its fluidity.
I did not know you
could not move beyond a thing

without calling it [m]other. The sea
is not a boomerang, returning
unchanged--who boldly inked this
edge of continent on map? As if

blue roofs of ocean
shift and slap in maneuvers--
familiar and chaotic--the body
and its households recognize.


Chris said...

Interesting comments about your experience as the only "white" face in your son's junior high class. Zen (my eight-year old) and I have been dealing with that since kindergarten. And as his father, perhaps my presence is doubly odd because I attend almost all school functions and I often will see only one or two other fathers in a class of 30 kids. Zen is also having trouble dealing with my "otherness". Maybe it will be easier for him by the time her reaches junior high. I hope so, for both our sakes.

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Chris,

We actually have more Caucasian fathers than mothers at our elementary school. You'd maybe feel more at home on this side of Hyogo...But there are of course more mothers than fathers at school functions, so I can understand your point well.

I too hope things get easier for you and Zen. As our kids get older and more independent and define themselves as other than us, both because that's a step towards growing up and because of race, it's hard to disentangle the two. And maybe that muddying of the reasons will be useful, or a relief. It's too early for me to tell....

Mari said...

Jessica, I hope you and your family will be able to catch a screening of this documentary in Japan. The filmmakers are both based in Tokyo. I saw it in L.A. in early April and really enjoyed it...

Take care and sending you warm wishes...

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Mari,

I've heard about thsi project, but haven't seen the film yet. We will definitely try to see it. Thanks for the heads-up.