Lou-Ann Wattley Belk: The Lady

by Kate on May 11, 2017

We are so incredibly proud of this year’s show! And we’d love to share it with everyone who couldn’t be there with us. We’ll be sharing the pieces that were read here (in show order) – which is about as close as we could get!  Our ninth reader was Lou-Ann Wattley Belk…

The Lady

“Jay-sun? Could you ahhsk deh lay-dee to give me sum juice?” I had just arrived in Brooklyn. I was about 3 years old. My older brother was the only familiar face in this new place and he was visibly frustrated by his failed attempts to explain that “deh lay-dee” was our mother. But he had the benefit of memory and age. This lady’s face, her voice, her smile and even her scent likely connected him to a mother he’d already bonded with by the time he was my age. For him it was a reunion. For me it was an introduction to a benevolent stranger. I didn’t know this woman. So his reasoning fell on deaf, toddler-sized ears.

He played the unwilling liaison for a while and my mother observed with patience, assuring herself that I’d understand one day. My antics didn’t last long though. Consistent affection and the more than occasional Happy Meal eventually won me over. My brother was relieved of his duties and “deh lay-dee” eventually became “mum-mee.”

Of course I can’t remember not remembering my mother. She would lovingly relay these stories throughout my childhood and I’d come to recall them as my own. But time and understanding revealed why my mother summoned a generous dose of levity with each re-telling. The baby girl she’d reluctantly parted with almost 2 years prior didn’t know her. She called her “the lady.” The pain hit her fresh each time. But life goes on, and so did my mother.

When I was about 9 months old, my mother moved to New York from Trinidad & Tobago. When economic problems wreaked havoc on the lives of working class Trinidadians during the late 80’s, her capable salary as a nurse became laughable. So my mother pushed her innate risk aversion aside. She turned downed my father’s marriage proposal—again. She put my brother and I in the temporary care of her mother and sister, then left the island for a home health aide job and basement apartment in my great aunt’s Brooklyn home. She found the consistent work and stability she was searching for. Soon my brother and I followed. And in her own time, she said yes to my father’s proposal, and a blended family of 6 was formed.

There is more to say about any of us than a story can ever tell. But I would often (and still do) throw myself into fact-finding missions about my mother, unearthing details and nuggets of information, piecing together stories and events that I’d witnessed or heard from relatives. Trying to understand what kind of girl she was, what kind of woman she is and how she hopes to be remembered when she’s gone. I wondered how much conviction it took to turn down an offer of marriage—more than once—with a new baby and bad economy in your lap. I’d ask why America of all the countries in the world. I probed about whether marriage and children were always a part of her plan. And why couldn’t she find more time to paint her nails?

Growing up in a city with plenty of Caribbean immigrants, I paid close attention to similarities between my mother and her peers. I would “strategically overhear” conversations in local bakeries and laundromats. I exchanged stories between my friends of similar lineage. Were their mothers slow to praise them too, only to loudly sing their graces to anyone that would listen? Was refusing anyone a hot meal—even their worst enemy—a cardinal sin in their mother’s eyes? And did they delay the “period talk” with their daughters until the moment was upon them, only to arm them with the necessary products and a 30-second speech that boys were now mysteriously and especially off-limits?

Yet absolutely nothing could compare to the stories I got from the source. When she was 3 years old, my mother bravely parroted her mother in an attempt to back her up during a verbal argument, sassily telling one of my grandmother’s peers with the fiercest voice she could summon at 3, to “hush her damn mouth”. During her 2 years in London for nursing school, she’d dated & dumped a British man who looked like Jim Kelly from “Enter the Dragon.” She would dance in colorful and elaborate mass costumes during Carnival. She loved soccer matches and Carib beer and Soca music parties. And occasionally, if tested, she could physically turn someone’s world upside down, then quietly walk away, as quick as she’d come—a hurricane-like defense mechanism inherited from my grandmother. It would apparently skip my generation.

I can see now that these stories weren’t earth shattering, but they astounded me. The mother I knew always took the road more traveled. And if the road less traveled were the only route, she’d teach me to develop a plan B, C and D for good measure. She never particularly encouraged me to go off and explore the world. Even now, I listen for nervousness in her voice when I share plans about trips outside of the Western Hemisphere.

She demands Christian music only in her car, prefers Manischewitz wine to beer and often puts other’s peace above her own, quieting her inner hurricane. Who was this lady? And why was it so hard for me to understand, finally, that this was indeed my mother?

I’ll never get to every corner of my mother’s heart, or solve every one of her idiosyncrasies. Such a journey is fruitless anyway. Most times, she is my mother. Sometimes, she is still the lady I once hesitated to ask for juice. But in every moment, she was and is enough.

It’s a lesson she didn’t need to teach me. It would be there for me to see when the time was right. I see now that she knew this. She knew it the moment she simply smiled at my antics when I was 3. She knew I’d get there.

When I would understand the level of bravery it took for her to say, “no, I’m not ready to marry you,” with a new baby and failing economy in her back seat.

When I would one day look at my husband, best friends, my children and life in this country, and realize exactly why she didn’t settle on another.

When I would turn the radio station from music I once loved, that my spirit no longer tolerated, only to notice my own unpainted nails.

When I would understand how blessed I am that my children might always know my voice, my smile and my scent. When I would acknowledge that I too, would always be enough.

When I would realize that thanks in great part to my mother—formerly “the lady”—I’m just “mommy,” and only a lady of my own choosing.

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