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Honoring the Women in My Maternal Battalion

Technically, my godmother is some white lady.

Those three words are literally all I know about her: some, white, lady. And it took some digging for me to even get that little bit of information from my parents.

At first, I sent my mom a text message that simply asked, “Who is my godmother?” Her reply: “I can’t remember. Curtis will remember.”

So, I called my dad (Curtis) and he said, “I don’t think you have one. I don’t think your mother believed in godmothers.”

Then, of course, I called my mom to verify my dad’s theory. And, of course, she disagreed. “That’s not true,” she said. “You have a godmother. Your godmother is some white lady who your father knew when we lived in Baltimore.”

[pullquote]Just because we grown-ups don’t need legal guardians doesn’t mean we don’t still need support from people who are more grown-up than we are and who can step in when our parents cannot be there.[/pullquote]

I considered calling my father back with the new “some white lady” clue to see if it triggered his memory. Instead, I decided to be okay with having a nameless and faceless godmother. (But, hey, at least I knew her race.) I mentally declared bygones and gave up the investigation. Besides, what was the point? If I didn’t know who my godmother was when I was a kid, why should her identity matter now? It’s not like people track down long lost godparents the way they do biological parents.

After a certain point, “Who is my godmother?” is a moot question. A godparent is the person whom your parents appoint to take care of you as a child in the event of their demise. I’m almost 40 years old, so my time for needing a substitute guardian has long since expired.

Or, has it?

Having a good mother has taught me that a mother’s work is never done. So if a mother’s work is endlessly vital, then it stands to reason that a godmother’s work as proxy is continually relevant, too.

To say it plainly: Just because we grown-ups don’t need legal guardians doesn’t mean we don’t still need support from people who are more grown-up than we are and who can step in when our parents cannot be there.

I haven’t lived in the same city as my mother since I was 18 years old. I’ve lived in New York City for nearly 15 years. My mom has been living in Oklahoma City for almost 10 years. Although she is 1,500 miles away, she is a daily presence in my life. (Her phone number accounts for 80% of my calls and text messages.) But I only see her about once a year when I fly to Oklahoma, where she moved so she could take care of my grandmother (who passed away in September at age 93). The primary role of a caretaker is to always be around for the one being cared for, which meant that my mother couldn’t be away from home for than a few hours at a time. Last summer, when my grandmother’s health was rapidly declining, my mother barely left the house at all.

Last summer was also when I reached a new low in my ongoing struggle with bipolar depression. A suicide attempt in July landed me in a psychiatric facility for about a week. I called my mother from the hospital every morning and sometimes twice a day, but I never once said anything like, “I wish you were here,” because I knew she needed to stay in Oklahoma with Gran.

Did I want to say, Please come? Of course I did. Sometimes a child, no matter how old that child is, just needs her mother. But a child also understands that to request her mother’s presence, when the child knows good and well that her mother can’t be there, would only break her mother’s heart. Although I’m not a mother, I can still imagine how unbearable it must be to not be able to show up whenever and wherever your child needs you.

I knew my mother wanted to be with me. I knew my mother would be with me if she could. I knew she loved me. I knew she constantly prayed for me. (And she taught me that our heavenly prayers do more to support and protect us than anyone’s earthly presence can.) So, I was happy and satisfied at the psych ward just hearing my mother’s voice on the phone everyday.

A part of me still wanted Mommy, yes.

But just when I desperately wanted my mother, a mother showed up.

It was my best friend Atiya’s mother, Ms. Nadine.

On my second day at the hospital, Atiya and Ms. Nadine came during visiting hours to bring me chicken and rice from a Dominican restaurant. I greeted them in the hallway by the dining area where all the visitors sat. I hugged Atiya, then I hugged Ms. Nadine, who pulled me into her chest and held on to me more tightly than I’d been held since the last time I’d hugged my mother. As I stood in her arms, I could tell that she was crying. Her shoulders gently shook and she said, “I can’t lose you. I can’t lose you…” over and over.

If you ask my mother, my godmother is some white lady. But if you ask me, my godmother is Nadine Thomas. She is a woman whom my mother has never met, yet who has been informally pinch-hitting for Mommy for years.

Whenever I say, “Ms. Nadine,” however, I know that I’m calling the name of a generous volunteer in the maternal battalion.

To be clear: My mother has no equal. No replacement. No substitute. My mother is my mother is MY mother is Mommy. I have one Mommy. Mommy is my favorite living organism on the planet. She is the most important person in my life. She is my everything.

I needed to say all that, you see, because I can already hear my mom saying, “You’ve got a mother! What do you need another mother for?” And she’d be right. I absolutely do not need another mother. So, think of Ms. Nadine as neither my other mother nor my backup mother.

Maybe you think it’s inaccurate for me to call Ms. Nadine my godmother in the first place. What I see as “godmother,” you might see as an intergenerational friendship or a spiritual mentor. Let’s not haggle over semantics, though.

Whenever I say, “Ms. Nadine,” however, I know that I’m calling the name of a generous volunteer in the maternal battalion.

Make no mistake, my mother is the one and only leader of that mighty unit. Furthermore, she comprises a separate, more important and more powerful one-person army of her own. Still, I’m grateful for all the brave soldiers (Ms. Nadine, my stepmother, my Aunt Patsy, my other aunts and many other womenfolk) who take up my mother’s charge without taking over her post. The women in the maternal battalion may not know my mother in any way. But their strong presence in my life lets me know they’ve joined her fight to see me through.

It probably would be easier for me to just think of Ms. Nadine as my friend, which she is. But I like think of her as my godmother, too. I think of Ms. Nadine as my godmother, because she’s been a motherly friend to me in the motherless city of New York.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting at a diner with Atiya and her mom, and I declared, “Ms. Nadine, I’ve decided that you’re my godmother. Because, you know, there should be such a thing as ‘godmothers for adults’ whom you appoint as such in your late 30s.”

Ms. Nadine has shown up, at my best and worst times, whether I’ve asked her to or not, just the way a mother would. I have lived at various times in Ms. Nadine’s apartment when I had to illegally sublet my own because I couldn’t afford the rent. (And I am not vainglorious bout this fact. Surely, I see nothing glorious about freeloading.) She has slipped me covert (and not so covert) messages about how I need to pray more, read the Bible more and go to church more often. She has exclaimed, “That’s wonderful!” when I’ve done something that I didn’t even realize was worthy of an exclamatory response. She has fussed at me when I didn’t do something that I said I would. She has volunteered me for good deeds that I didn’t really want to do, but that were ultimately worth doing. And Ms. Nadine has done all this without trying to be my mother. At one point, in fact, she was the loudest voice encouraging me to reconnect with both my parents when I’d distanced myself from them for months.

See, she has her own adult children to mother. Her two brilliant and beautiful daughters, Atiya and Shani, are her world. They are who she worships and cherishes and celebrates daily. So, I am not in Ms. Nadine’s daughters’ league any more than she is in my mother’s league.

I’d love nothing more than to lessen the miles between my mother and me (and I do plan to live closer to her one day). For now, however, I’m firmly planted in New York with all the “I’m not leaving here until I make it” delusional stubbornness of a dreamer. And while I’m stubbornly and foolishly here, still trying to “make it” in New York, I’m grateful that Ms. Nadine is here, too.

I just turned 38 on April 30. That morning, I got a “happy birthday” text from my mother at 5:39 a.m. About an hour later, at 6:33, I received my second “happy birthday” text of the day. It was from Ms. Nadine.

(Illustration: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)

Filed under: Family, Love+

by

Penny Wrenn

Penny Wrenn is a Harlem-based writer who was raised in Lancaster, PA. (Right? Can't you just see the From Amish Country to the Apollo memoir now?) Penny's work has appeared in Esquire; Essence; Glamour; Marie Claire; O, The Oprah Magazine and Redbook, among other publications. She writes a weekly (or twice weekly or, sometimes, thrice weekly column, "Penny For Your Thoughts" for MadameNoire). And, by the way, she doesn't usually use the word "thrice" in conversation.

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