On my mother’s humor
My Mother’s Humor
Lately, it’s been hard to remember the last time I’ve really laughed. Like gut-twisting laughter. The type of laughter that shocks your breath, to the point when you’re gasping for air. It was about two weeks ago, on the way home from having dinner at IHOP with my mom and older brother. She was poking fun at how he was scurrying to sweep up his living room floor as we were walking through the door. “Nah, don’t sweep when you got people over here. Sweep EVERY DAY—sh*t!” Now it wasn’t just what she said—a comment that any homeowner or a typical “Monica Geller” could relate to—but it’s how she said it. This was performed in one of the many voices I’ve assigned to her over the years: The Reese Witherspoon, Jamaican Soul Sister, The Street-Smart Bronx Girl, and the Guy’s Guy. Picture your drunk uncle at any social event. Her vernacular wasn’t necessarily sluggish, but had a tinge of if this persona worked as a southern church pastor. This was the voice she used and it was hilarious. My laughter, mixed in with the aftertaste of butter pecan syrup, brought an intoxicating experience, one I really needed. That night was one of few where my mom went for the comical jugular. That’s what she did when faced with the annoyances and strains of life.
Whenever there’s trouble, a voice is born. As a small child, my mother learned how to deal with “hard times” when she was forced to live with her stepfather in New York. My grandmother thought it would be less of a hassle to move into the U.S. with her children, instead of bringing everybody at once. They were separated for “a few years.” The distance between her and my grandmother would become painfully apparent later, once she moved in after getting citizenship. My mom has told me from time to time that my grandmother verbally and physically assaulted her. “She would call me all these names . . . ‘you’re ugly,’ ‘no one’s ever going to love you’ . . . ” It was very much a Mommie Dearest-type of nightmare. She internalized those words until she met my brother’s father, Elliot the First, when she was fifteen and he was 12. “Yo . . . you’re so beautiful,” she recited, mimicking some smooth-talking, northern-accented playboy. She couldn’t believe her eyes and ears, because the kid looked like he was twenty. “That’s what the streets will do to you.” So she was courted, they got close, did the “thing,” then whoop! There he was. My brother, named after his father: Elliott the Second.
All the roses of romances started to wilt as time went on. “He started acting crazy. I don’t know why,” she says, still confused to this day. Instead of being a playboy, he was a drug dealer. He was into the scene so much, it’s certain that he started taking what he sold. There was one instance when after she broke up with him, he would stalk her. “hmm . . . I think, yeah, he called me up on the phone and was like ‘I’m gonna kill you’ or something. Maybe I’m over-exaggerating. But he did say he carried a knife or . . . maybe I’m just getting old.” But the love was still there, I could tell. It was only a few months ago when she detailed the events concerning Elliot the First’s death. “He got shot. Probably while dealing,” she says innocently, looking skyward towards a potential storm, rolling past a distant but still potent memory. While in the hospital, his family decided to take him off life support. “I wouldn’t leave. But then they did it.” He barely reached his 20th birthday. This was the part where she kind of broke down a bit, so I’ll tell the rest of the story. My mom never left the hospital room. She wouldn’t until one of his aunts convinced her to and that’s when they cut him off, most likely knowing she would barricade herself between his resting place and those staying with him. He was brain-dead at that point.
At the funeral, one of his family members told my older brother, who was five at the time, that “his father was inside of him.” This, of course, supplemented the five year-old with an unfathomable amount of trauma and confusion. “He’s inside of me!” my mom says in what she considers to be a little boy’s voice—obnoxiously squeaky. It was just them for a while, my mom and my brother, until she met my father. They actually met while she was still with Elliott the First, in a barbershop. “Aye but let me get your number, though. Who’d you come here wit?” she mimicked. These male voices she does so effortlessly that I always tell her she should be a voice actor. It was done in a similar fashion as the “northern-accented playboy,” but much deeper. This playboy has grown up a bit and is probably a junior in college. “And I was like ‘nuh-uh, yea I’m with somebody.’” This voice isn’t necessarily the “Bronx Girl” one but very much the tonal trends of “Jersey Shore.”
The Reese Witherspoon voice sprang up not too long after we all moved to North Carolina. At this point, I was four years old and my mom got a good position as a social worker. My dad was still cutting hair. “I remember when he moved in, all he had was three trash bags.” He was young and basically “grew up without any parents.” His mom died of some mysterious disease (we still don’t know) and his father is still nowhere to be found. “But he wanted a family.” He sure did get one . . . after they got married. There’s not much about those years I remember except my dad making Coca-Cola and potato chip sundaes, cheese grits in the morning, cutting random men’s hair in our garage, and walking me down to our neighborhood court to play some basketball. “It was that and cutting hair.” she says in a slightly pissed-off Reese Witherspoon voice. “Your father got on my nerves . . . and he cheated on me, so it is what it is.” She ends this with the “drunk uncle” voice and I’m left wondering what my life would have been if he stayed.
Here we are, talking in the kitchen of the new house her current husband, my stepfather, bought “for the family.” My mother hasn’t had the best luck with men, but she still carried on with her social work, stayed focused on her two kids, and impersonated her way through it all. It’s the sudden emergence of all these different voices that reveal bits of her (very peculiar) life that make her comic style endearing and purely entertaining. Unconditional comedy, in any medium, is the style I’m most drawn to, and it could be because of her. All these life events are recited as flukes gone tragically wrong. It’s humility fused with a comforting dose of amusing realness. Her sense of humor is unfaltering, especially in the hardest of times. It embodies the willingness to move past adversity with a smile on your face. This has supported my growth as a young woman always anticipating a new beginning, turning new pages while reminiscing on old ones.
Again, the Reese Witherspoon voice evolved through all the conversations with my teachers about “my work ethic” in Parent-Teacher conferences. Basically when she’s either in-person, virtual, or on the phone with somebody from the Carolinian climate, this soccer-mom southern belle leaps into existence. It happens mostly when she’s at work. Since quarantine began, when I hopped on a plane back home, I’ve heard the well-formulated, clearly enunciated vernacular expressed repeatedly in practice. In the Hulu series Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon is one of our favorite characters—a nosy, upper-middle-class housewife who’s overwhelmingly concerned with her and her family’s image. Recently we were talking about our love of the show with other family members at one of my uncle’s birthday parties. “I LOVE her,” my mom states matter-of-factly. Almost in a way a coupon-crazed middle-aged woman would say about a hard bargain.
The Jamaican Soul-Sister voice comes out when talking to family members, typically ones who . . . live in Jamaica, or in New York, since most of them have migrated along with her own close relatives. Half of the time, I don’t quite understand the accented jargon of words my mom seems to speak so fluently. When I ask her about her current complicated relationship with her mother, my grandmother, her response is unbothered. “She pretends she doesn’t remember what happened, but I can’t do anything about it, so.” It’s clear that she’s accepted her mother’s stance on the abuse, and I don’t press any further. Talking in this voice is clearly a way of metaphorically saying “I see you and I hear you. I haven’t been Americanized, I promise.” Reese Witherspoon would beg to differ. There’s not much in my life that I can complain about, especially abuse, so it’s hard to judge from my position. It’s easy to say things like, “Well, I’d never speak to her again,” but that’s just not the person my mom is. After she moved away with her new family, she still talked to my grandmother like they sailed the world together. A captain never may get along with his or her crewmates. Relationships aren’t only hard to start, but to maintain as well, especially after you’ve been stirred into a downpour of waves.
The Street-Smart Bronx girl is a special one. There’s no clear indicator of when this comes up. It’s purely showcased by depending on how she feels. Recently, she hasn’t been able to stop playfully chanting the chorus of Cardi B’s “Up” while also attempting to master the Tik Tok dance. “If it’s UH, then it’s UH, and it’s UH, and it’s Uh.” she says in the familiar Jersey-Shore tone all the while twerking like a perky sorority girl would. Interestingly enough, it also comes up when she thinks I haven’t cleaned up enough. “I can’t imagine the dorm.” with emphasis on the “DWAM.” After saying, “Okay, I get it.” she responds with, “No, you don’t because if you did ‘get ih’ you would CLEAN UUPP!” There’s also a theatrical flair at the end of this declaration. It’s very much like Scar’s ensemble, “Be Prepared,” from the iconic Disney animated film The Lion King, which is one where we could both recite the entire script. This along with the musical Annie. “I’ve always wanted to perform. We would’ve been bawlin’ right now,” she reminisces.
The Guy’s Guy has always kind of been there. It didn’t grow into a more established alter ego. The voice usually makes an appearance when, you guessed it, talking with men. Any man really, as long as she’s comfortable around them. The N-word also is used, which brings up a whole other dynamic. Most of the people she knows aren’t white, but of course that hasn’t played out intentionally. My mother is head of a “Racial Equity” committee at her social services department. The topic of race, racial representation, stereotypes, colorism, and all of that are constant topics of conversation both at work, but a little professionally toned down, as well as with friends and family. On that night ride back from IHOP, we were talking about the time we both had to watch my brother’s dog, Casanova. He’s the quintessential gentle giant, but once he took a glimpse at a pitbull in some aisle of Petco. “That dog was like—he went WHOOOOO!” The bellow at the end following that drunken, southern drawl basically encapsulates what the Guy’s Guy is. A haphazard but weirdly inviting form of storytelling that you can’t turn away from.
After a few hours, we’re both tired of talking to each other for the day. That’s how it is for us. We run on so much fuel and relish in both of our memories so much that we forget the demanding ticks of our digital clocks. School, work, everything dissolves in all the fun we bring to each other. When people tell me what they first thought of when they first met me, they often say, “Oh, well, I thought you were very serious . . . and kind of intimidating. But after a while, you became one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.” My mom concurs,“Yeah, you don’t take any . . . crap from anybody but you’re a weirdo, just like your mothah,” waltzing over to the living room to watch another episode of Love and Hip-Hop: Atlanta. At times, I’d hate to admit it. My optimistic side is hesitant to acknowledge that I’ve grown out of some dysfunction.
Like my mom, I like to leap out of the burdening waves of life with open arms, ready to make anyone (at least, anyone I get comfortable with) feel like there will be endless days of sunshine. That’s what my mom has been for me, especially since the world decided to burst into flame. If I ever get singed or if my mother sinks below the surface a little too low, we’ll recover with another laugh, another impression, and more satirized moments of practicality. One to very few voices have always whispered to themselves when I was younger. Thanks to my mother’s comical perseverance, they’re fueled by courage and ignited by new experiences.