My mom likes to think she was born from a star. When she fell to the earth, she likes to think she became a cocooned butterfly. She said it helps her explain why she feels so separate from a family her birth certificate says is hers. She spent her childhood and a good part of her young adulthood trapped in an iridescent chrysalis, terrified to come out, to speak, to have an opinion.
She loved books though, the way all kids do before they are told what to read. She was first told what to read when her mom and dad snatched her from the classroom and dropped her into a school of their own machinations. Attendance was optional, since they didn’t register with any official homeschooling organizations. Lunch was occasional. Sometimes it was just candy, which is why she never really rewarded my siblings and me with candy growing up.
Her dad taught from his own history books, twisting African traditions and civil rights activist doctrine to serve his own agenda; essentially, women were subservient, i.e. his wife and daughters. English was considered the language of the white devil, so she and her siblings were taught Swahili, at least whenever he was sober enough not to slur the words—so, not that often. They were not to argue that 2 + 2 was actually 4 and not 6. If they did not speak to agree, they did not speak at all.
My mom used to write, used to love writing, painting, creating. Now, she likes numbers. She likes the control, the linear problem solving. She played bank when she was a kid, not with manufactured toy money that came with the cheap plastic cash register; no, she drew and cut out her own bills. She doesn’t draw anymore. But she colors with her children, inside and outside the lines.
She had me, the first of five, when she was nineteen. My dad tried to propose. Her dad forbade the marriage, feeling his position of control was being threatened. It’s amazing how much control her father held, despite his being blind.
Still, she was a kid with a kid, living with her parents, a cocooned butterfly in a nest full of agoraphobic birds. Once the birds tired of doling out their false doctrine, they made her go to school for art, a harmless degree that wouldn’t take her away from them, wouldn’t give her power, autonomy. Then she went to school for hair; she had a little more say in this decision, since we had moved out by then. Finally, she went to college for herself.
She told me she started wanting better because of me. She said after coming home from a late night out clubbing, I, three years old at the time, was still awake. I apparently asked her why she was never there when I needed her. I don’t believe her. I think she’s strong enough to have wanted to change all on her own.
My mom and I kind of attended school together. We compared our math classes, even though her math dealt with money, side by side, struggling together. She let me do all the things she couldn’t do: band, volleyball, chess competitions, debutante programs, and plays. Whenever things would get too hard, whenever I thought I couldn’t balance it all, she’d say, “Always finish what you started.” It made me think longer before I started anything after that. So abundant and free was her support, I actually cried before telling her I didn’t want to play the flute anymore.
The presentations were the worst. For her, not me. I was never afraid to speak in front of people. I never will be. My mom made sure of that. Although my young tongue was too small for my big thoughts, my misspoken musings were never brushed off as childish babbling. Sentences were like nonsensical alphabet blocks stacked by eager hands. Knock them down and build again. She never lashed out at me for the mess.
Her parents weren’t so patient. Her thoughts were treated as nothing more than refuse, washed up on a shore of paternalistic dismissal. She chose not to waste her breath, until she eventually forgot how to breathe. Her lungs felt too large, her tongue too foreign. College asked her what she thought and waited for her to answer; the silence, too great to fill, swallowed her whole. The stones of her youth, tied to her ankles, dragged her down down down back to childhood habits, where she didn’t have to speak, didn’t have to risk being wrong.
But she always finished what she started, so, like everything else in her life, she pushed through it. We later discovered “it” was actually anxiety. We only found out because my own diagnosis reminded her of her own experiences.
Slowly, so slowly, she peeked out of her cocoon, whispering thoughts that used to live and die in her head. Quick little deaths with no eulogies, buried in unmarked graves. These thoughts were different—solid, tangible, loud. She was living her own life now in the big wide world that didn’t fit in the box her dad built. She was learning more than could be held in her head, excess spilling past her nervous lips.
My mom knows what she’s talking about. No one can tell her otherwise now. They can try. I dare them. When I graduated high school, she graduated college, for the fourth time, this time with her masters. She’s put in her 10,000 hours. No one can tell her otherwise now.
I am the product of her labor, her lifelong thesis. I am the river formed from her demolition of mental dams. We are not without flaws. We struggle to rely on others because others have been unreliable. We are strong, black women in the most destructive way possible. But we are not without a drive to be better, she better than her parents, me better than mine. I stand on her shoulders, supported. She’s since laid her burden by my river. I hope I’m enough for her.
Without it, her wings flutter and flex and gain their own strength. It’s a wonder to see. Most grow up thinking their parents are fully formed human beings, incapable of changing, growing, learning, because they’ve already done so. They’ve completed their adult training and reached the plateau, upon which they will spend the rest of their lives. I have the privilege of giving her what she’s given me: comfort, support, and self-confidence.
My mom, my dad, my younger brother, my three younger sisters, we’re all we got. We’re learning together, jumping the hurdles, evolving, defining and redefining who we want to be, what we want to do, together.
There was a particularly stressful time, when mom and dad were both attending school at night and the four of us kids had to be everywhere all at once and extended family reared their ugly heads as they do during times like these just to make things worse. We all came down for breakfast one morning and Mom slapped a printed piece of paper on the fridge, tacked it up with a magnet. It read: “I will give no negativity any energy. —Dhatnubia Family Motto.” I live by that motto to this day. Mom’s got a thing for mottos and so do I.
If my mom likes to think she was born from a star, I like to think she didn’t fall from the sky. I like to think she’s a supernova. What once was a quiet twinkle is now too bright to ignore, too colorful to comprehend, too powerful to control.
While all of this is true, inside, she is still that same shy, curious butterfly that’s learned to color outside the lines, create her own money, and read her own books again. And all this talk of butterflies and stars helps define how much of a process it is to become who we are.
Having won scholarships based on academic merit, Ka’Dia Dhatnubia completes a BFA in writing at the Savannah College of Art and Design. She also writes regularly for the school’s online fashion publication, Manor, and serves as Manor’s head copy editor and associate editor, advancing her expertise in professional editing and project management.