Monday, May 30, 2011

day 10


River Girls Studio Spring Custom Soap
When my mother called me to her bedroom that night, I knew it was serious. There were six children in our home. My parents had the upstairs master bedroom with a private bath off it. No child ever entered either without permission.

I had been at school all day-- a girls Catholic institution across town. At 3:00, I had traveled back to a job answering the switchboard at a neighborhood seminary.  By the time I had arrived home, all I wanted was to eat the dinner my mother had left wrapped in the oven, and to study for my French exam. Then I heard  my name, and I went up.

My mother who I always recall as lovely and put together, sat in the corner Queen Anne chair. The room was dimly lit; she was smoking a cigarette and holding the catalog.

"Are you sure about this school?"

I had just been accepted early decision to Bowdoin College in Brunswick Maine. The conversation went like this. "I don't want you to be lonely. I don't want you to be left out. If you're going that far, I think Amherst would be better. That's where Harold went."

Harold was the high school boyfriend of my mother's only sister and one of the first African-Americans in the 20th century to integrate the northern liberal arts schools. He was brilliant and handsome. My mother would attend Howard University--then known as the "Black Harvard." Her sister would go to American University. And Harold would go to Amherst--far away, up north in Massachusetts.

But it was too late, logistically and emotionally. I was in love with Bowdoin. I had pictured myself studying in the library as the snow fell. And I had accepted the early contract to go. Christmas had yet to arrive, and I was done.

Nonetheless, my mother's fears were legitimate. I was a city girl. Bowdoin was in a small rural Maine town. They received snow from as early as October until as late as April.  The school had a history of churning out successful male leaders but had only been coed for a few years. I would be one of roughly eight black students in a class of 335 to matriculate.

Years later, after I graduated with high honors, my mother would deny recollection of our conversation. I think she wished she had not expressed those doubts. But I would tell her--so adamantly now-- I am glad she did.  Two vital things happened that year. I mustered the will to go away to a place where I and my family knew no one, and my mother mustered the courage to let me go.  

Sometimes I wonder about gumption and chutzpah and temerity and courage --where "it" all comes from-- why it breaks free.  I think about my son Phillip sitting in a conference room at NIH, barely 18, surrounded by physicians and specialists examining patient case studies. He is giddy to be there--never once thinking, "I don't belong."

Gumption. These are our sky diving moments. We all must take them. Close your eyes. Let go.

Good night,


Cate said...

Loved your story, Wanda. The gumption to let go, as a mother, is ever unfolding, no? Part of "allowing."

CARLA said...

Wanda, excellent read and right on target! As you know,being a mother to two young boys who are always testing the waters and pushing the envelope with me. I do allow them much more freedom to explore, make some decisions and challenges than I had as a child. In some ways I feel its a good thing it teaches them to take a chance, be creative, try out something new and if you fail its ok at least you tried doing something YOU wanted to do on your own. Glad you made the right school choice for you!

Vicki said...

Love the purity of your writing...
I can see it all unfolding in my mind because you stage it so well in perfectly choosen words. Syl was a dynamic person first and an incredible mom second. She had six young children to help guide safely and independently into adulthood with as few wounds as possible. I think she did a darn good job. Letting you fly and soar to the heights you did speaks volume to her trust and belief in you Wanda. She would be proud of you as I know I am...

Wanda Fleming said...

Cate..Yes and to me, in the formative years, the "allowing" part is knowing when to allow, what to allow. Ultimately when it is all over, you are no longer and rightfully so--in the position to "allow" anything at all. You slip back and watch. You hold your breath that decisions made are sound and not too many irreparable missteps are made.

Wanda Fleming said...

Carla...yes! And you want to remove fear from the equation. I think too much guidance and heavy handedness makes for children who grow up into adults who are tentative about life's every step, who take few chances..who continue to ride their bike on life's sidewalks....I am glad Syl gave in. I am glad I was and continue in some ways to fly by the seat of my pants. I would have missed everything otherwise--Bowdoin, Stockholm, Santa Cruz, Harvard..River Girls...writing. She "did good" letting me go...

Wanda Fleming said...

Thanks Vixen...I still am amazed at what she did and how she did it with 6. For one thing to see everyone graduate from college and in Martin's case--live overseas and serve this was remarkable. When you realize that less than a quarter of US citizens were graduating college then...well it's inspiring. I also have deep respect for her encouraging us all to go off to these various places with seeming faith that we would and could manage. That's a great deal of faith, good wishes and yes gumption. ;-)