The best advice I’ve ever been given was told to me reluctantly.
At the time, I was about fifteen and my mama and I weren’t very good at having good days or good conversations. There was no one we loved more than each other, but that was why it hurt so much to be around one another. Occasionally, our personal wishes for one another’s lives obscured the love we felt. We both wanted each other to be different. Better. Stronger. Kinder. It hurt when the other didn’t want the same. It felt like rejection. As a result, our words meant too much to be said without extreme consequence. Even things said with love in mind felt like attacks. So the very best days I had with my mother were spent talking about frivolous, detached things or otherwise spent in silence.
On our special days out, away from the rest of the family — my absolute favorite days, mama and I would go to the movies, or out to eat, or, other times, shopping. We realized we couldn’t stare at each other the entire outing so we structured our interactions. For conversation, we’d give our opinions on the most obviously annoying things: how hopeless the acting was in the movie, how terrible the waiter’s service had been at this restaurant, or how hideous the dresses were at Macy’s. We were expert critics with years of experience gained from trying to improve each other. So, when we went out, we’d laugh and laugh and laugh at the hilarity of our joint negativity because, conjunctively, it was directed elsewhere.
One early Saturday morning, while my daddy and little brothers were asleep, my mama woke me up excitedly and asked if I wanted to go shopping. I didn’t really like shopping. I still don’t (I never really know what I want and the clerk’s constant inquiries make me question how put together my life is). But, my mama and I had argued the day before and by then I’d learned how difficult it was for parents to say “I’m sorry”. Instead of using words, Mama sat at the edge of my bed, hopeful and apologetic, still learning her way in the world, and trying to make it up to me. So I said, “Okay, Mama,” with a smile that mimed “I accept.” I needed some new shirts anyway.
My mama, beautiful, mocha-tinted, and battered from years of childbearing paired with under appreciation, let out an excited shriek, grin reaching her hazel, tired eyed, and kissed me emphatically all over my face.
“Hurry up and get dressed then!” She smiled, jumping up and down on my bed with her knees, the force of which almost rocked me out of it. I laughed and she hurried away exuberant.
We sang songs on our way there like we usually did during car rides (singing didn’t require conversation). It took an hour to drive to any mall worth perusing, so we drove through various playlists I’d burned onto CDs. While my mama sang, I organized her wallet, annoyed at the way she never could keep it orderly, but secretly looking forward to the mild, scattered times in which she’d comment, “Oh… you really do do that beautifully…”
When we finally arrived at the teenaged section in Macy’s, we poured our attention into searching for pretty things. My mama would bring me shirts or dresses she liked and I vetoed the things I didn’t (usually frills and flowers), but if she begged me long enough I’d roll my eyes and try on the pieces from the vetoed pile anyway. If I wasn’t looking for items myself or running back and forth from the dressing room, I was scanning the room for sales clerks to avoid, ready to flee to another section if any one got too close. Mama knew how much I didn’t like it, but still had a tendency to call those poor souls over. They’d ask me questions I had no answer to, like “what are you looking for?” or “what do you generally like?” and I’d stare at them in genuine confusion, hoping to God they’d make both our lives easier by giving up and turning around. Occasionally, they got the hint quickly and left with a “just call me over again when you decide!” Other times we’d be roaming around awkwardly for a good twenty minutes. It never felt kind or helpful when Mama asked for their assistance. She did it against my pleas, so, by insisting, she was telling me to “get over it,” like I wasn’t a person yet and my distastes were just phases to “grow out” of. Whenever she did, parts of the day’s positive intentions were canceled out, despite the silence attempting to keep it intact, but that day, luckily, I was able to evade it.
After a few hours of avoiding sales people and modeling for my mother, we found a good stack of clothes that we both agreed on. We checked out, bought some of that chocolate that stores always tempt you with after you’ve already pulled out your wallet, and that was that. We were done.
Now, there was nothing left to do but leave (no frivolous things left to fill the empty silences with), so we headed back to the car quietly, chocolate in hand. My mama led the way and I trailed behind her with all of my bags swinging side to side across my hips because buyers never carry merchandise.
Unfortunately, the store was very busy by that time and it was difficult to maneuver through the crowd. I tried my best not to hit things and people, but I was the clumsiest person I knew and always had been. At the time, all my parts didn’t really feel mine yet, so much so, I could hardly keep track of them. The days I’d managed not to trip over my own feet were deemed very successful.
Attempting to take responsibility for myself and young enough to be overly used to being wrong, I whispered apologies to the people I lightly smacked and occasionally even to the rolling make-up carts that created mazes across the bottom-most floor.
One. Two. Three — rolling carts were apologized to and reset in their places.
One. Two. Three. Four — people smiled politely and apologized back to me (they’d been in the way too). As I was turning away from my fourth “sorry,” another one slammed into me.
My left arm swung behind me, taken aback quite literally, and I nearly dropped half of my load.
“I’m so sorry!” I announced preemptively, before I’d set eyes on my assailed or even recovered my footing.
Looking up, repentance still hanging off my lips, I saw a tight-nosed, blonde woman briefly look up from her phone, clearly annoyed to have run into someone despite her own distractions. An old looking 35-ish, skin baked from over tanning, the woman gave a brief stoic nod of acceptance before stalking off again on noisy, gold high heels.
I re-aligned myself to continue walking behind Mama, mildly affronted, but an ever faithful duckling. However, my mama had also stopped when she’d heard the altercation and was now staring at me discernibly.
My mama had twenty-something years on me and therefore had probably dealt with that many years more of high-heeled entitlement. I’m sure the extra time accounted for the extra amount of annoyance on her face. Maybe even for the glares she gave the woman’s bare back when she’d barely acknowledged my presence. Now eyeing me, Mama’s face was a mixture of annoyance, disbelief, and confusion. It looked like I had personally offended her and she was momentarily trying to decide if it was worth breaking our tacit agreement to confront me about it. She squinted her eyes just enough to show she’d made a decision and, for the first time all day, spoke directly to me about something other than music and clothes.
“Don’t apologize for taking up space,” she said, almost wearily and moderately toned, with a tinge of disbelief still stuck in the corner of her eye. “You have the same right to exist in your space as everyone else does. You’re not here to be other people’s doormats. Everyone is allowed space to breathe in.”
As she shook her head, almost pityingly, I felt oddly defensive. I squirmed in my skin as she looked at me, unsure of where to place my own gaze. Somehow being told I was being a doormat felt even worse than getting my bags dismissively knocked out of my hand. It wasn’t hurtful. It was just highly uncomfortable.
“But I’d knocked into her,” I insisted lamely. Needing to say something. “It was polite to apologize.”
She replied simply, “My children are not doormats,” but now felt awkward herself. She never knew what to do when I responded and didn’t want our day to turn sour, so, eyeing the ground, she quickly turned her back to me again and continued our walk.
In the car, once more we submitted to the agreement of the day. Acting as if we’d never spoken a word, we made our way home, eating the rest of our chocolate, blasting our ears away with tunes we both knew well enough to sing to, and laughing at whatever lyrics were confidently sung wrong.
We pretended otherwise, but Mama had indeed broken our tacit agreement. She’d told me something directly that had the potential to amass great consequence. But there was something about the intention. Something about the delivery: hesitant, yet deliberate, said with concern rather than in critique. Something there that remained with me, even though so many other moments have melted away in forgiveness. Something there… that made it a lasting memory of love.