It is early May and already the pollened haze is ambering the seats of every pair of riding breeches in town. The mallets at the Whitney Polo Field whack throughout the morning, and by lunch the Carolinian humidity is so heavy it threatens to bend all the Lacoste collars at the Green Boundary Club.
“Oh, sure, Aiken’s a gracious town for the haves,” Mother used to say, “but the have-nots get the pleasure of being looked down on by horse portraits at the McDonald’s. This town makes me fucking sick.”
After equestrian events, the old-money set and Yankee parvenues pile into the grand lobby of the Willcox, which, as every article about the hotel is compelled to mention, “is known to locals as Aiken’s living room”—although Mother said she’d “never heard that shit before in my entire life.”
From the late ‘60s to the mid-’80s, the Willcox was a shuttered ruin, and for curious kids of lesser means, the subject of endless fascination. We’d ride our bikes up to the porch and peek through the broken windows into the crumbling lobby that had seen FDR rendezvousing with “that Rutherfurd woman” and even the bent neck of a socialite’s mutt weighed down by the 45-carat Hope Diamond. The inn was reborn to her former splendor in 1985, its roaring fireplaces again reflecting on the baby grand and ice clinking in highballs. Five years later, when I was just 25, I returned to Aiken to host Thanksgiving dinner in its wood-paneled dining room. I sat at the head of the table, flanked by grandparents and aunts and uncles who barely batted an eye when they learned that I had recently finished my final surgery. With Mother by my side, they didn’t dare act otherwise. “Christina is my daughter now, and that is that,” she told my great-grandmother, “pass the biscuits, please.”
And now, decades later, my friend Angela and I have flown down from New York on an evening in May and checked in for three days.
The sun is dipping behind the centuries-old magnolias as the valet whisks us up to our rambling suite, where the staff is setting up for tomorrow’s gathering in our private dining room with floral arrangements and champagne buckets.
It’s not the event I expected to come back to South Carolina for. Instead of celebrating her birthday over styrofoam cups full of peach cobbler at Dukes Bar-B-Que, Mother was being wheeled into an oven at a crematorium in North Augusta on the day she should have turned 69.
At sunrise I take the tray of toast and coffee into the powder room, place it on the vanity, brace myself against the basin, and exhale: I don’t know how to do this. How do I eulogize the five decades I had with my mother in only two anecdotes? There are plenty of options, though few are fit for public consumption.
The world hums like a radio under a pillow; a kaleidoscopic cache of the best and worst of her clicks, shifts, blurs. The third grade, when the first stepfather threw her in the fireplace. The tenth grade, when the second stepfather threw me against the wall, and she watched as I ran away from home. My fifth-grade recital, frantically scanning the auditorium while I sang “The Wells Fargo Wagon”; she never showed up. The time at the Aiken pool hall when she said, “Why do you have to walk like Cher?”
Blur, click, shift. My twenties, when she drove for hours to watch me lip sync, cheering the entire time, “That’s my daughter!” The prank calls we made together in my first apartment; the cookies we baked after September 11. In Paris at Cafe Beaubourg, when she said, “My favorite part of this trip was at that bakery when the owner remembered you, and y’all were speaking French, and I thought how proud I was of you. You’ve come a long way away from Aiken, honey.”
And now I’m back. My hair and makeup are done, and somehow I got dressed. I turn the knob, and Angela and I are welcoming the guests.
It’s only twelve people. Mother didn’t have many close friends, just a smattering of short-lived acquaintances and a couple advantageous friendships with fawning women named Montana and “Butch.” Throughout her life she was cared for by a series of four husbands, and a cavalcade of tangential companions: a polo player; a pocket-sized Filipino named Napoleon, who was two years my junior; an unctuous, mop-headed drummer from an Elvis impersonator band; and finally, her last matrimonial partner, the winner of the pack by a country mile, a Black Republican cop from the South Side of Chicago. Though they’d been divorced for years, he’s the first to arrive.
Mother’s sister and brother arrive next, followed by some nieces, and Mother’s neighbors from the Vintage Gardens senior complex, including a woman I’ve lovingly nicknamed “Christian Connie,” who’ll read a brief Bible passage. “Very brief,” I remind her.
The final guest, and the most anticipated, is my nonagenarian great Aunt Mavis in a white suit, looking not unlike Chita Rivera in Kiss of the Spider Woman. She’s the last of that generation, the toughest of us all, and the one whose arms I ran to when I fled from home. She sits beside me throughout the day, holding my hand and “whispering” in an accent as sweet and vinegary as a jar of pickled peaches.
Now we start. Mother’s siblings share anecdotes, and the neighbor ladies tell how Mother would win every costume contest in the apartment complex. They laugh about inappropriate things she’d say and how she would go all-out for any event. When I comment how grateful I am for them sharing their stories, the tall lady starts crying. “You sound exactly like your mother and that makes me miss her so much.”
Angela talks about how Mother would always say, “There’s no such thing as Southern hospitality—half the people I knew in South Carolina were assholes. Give me Chicagoans any day!” The laughs are hesitant and Christian Connie looks askance at the empty bottles on the table. We work our way around the room with stories and pause for pecan cookies and cheese grits casserole.
My stepfather refills my glass and pats me on the shoulder. “You can do it, baby girl.”
I’ve decided what stories I’ll tell, but I haven’t rehearsed them and don’t know how they’ll come out. My heart is in my ears. I scan the room, take a deep breath. “OK, y’all. Thank you for being here and please bear with me. I’m going to try to get through this,” I begin. And now words are flowing out.
So it was the early ‘90s and Mother had just moved to Chicago to be near me after divorcing Joao, the two-time Vietnam Vet—he was husband number three for all y’all keeping score. Mother’s new therapist was around the corner from my apartment, and she asked if I’d like to join her for the latter half of her session.
The office was all beiges and brass; exactly what you’d expect. When I was buzzed in, Mother leapt to greet me with jarring grandiloquence. “Dr. Ho, this is my lovely daughter Christina, whom you’ve heard so many wonderful things about over the past few weeks.” It was awkward seeing Mother sweeping across a room like this to impress her doctor. What’s worse is that I was honest in that room, and she wasn’t expecting the truth.
Dr. Ho asked me a few very typical, presumably hot-button questions. Regular stuff like how did I feel when my parents divorced? I was 4 years old and one of my earliest memories is of him kicking our cat under the dinner table and pushing Mother in the public pool. When he went to work one day, we moved away with her new boyfriend, Architect John, to Virginia. We moved around a lot for some reason; I went to first grade in three different states. In the fourth grade, after Architect John headed to the office one morning, my grandparents surreptitiously pulled up in a moving van and we escaped back to Aiken. He used to call us at my grandparents’ house late at night threatening to kill us. Was I scared he’d actually come and get us? Of course. Sometimes it felt like when we weren’t running away from a man, we were hooking up with a new one. A worse one.
Mother said, “Yep, and I got us away from him because he was beating the living hell out of me and I was scared you were next.” She stilled the room, spread her arms, took a deep breath, and slowly nodded. I could tell she was going back to those days and the beatings, and the times when she’d cover her bruises with makeup. Then she sort of pulled herself up and breezily asked, “But I’d say I was a good mother overall, right? I mean, I was a pretty good mother when you were growing up and I took good care of you.”
“Well, no,” I said. “But you were a child then yourself. Mother, you sat on the sofa after Joao flung me against the dining room wall in the tenth grade. Let’s not forget why I ran away from home, and even after I packed my bags and walked through that living room for the last time, you just sat there and watched. You did nothing. I felt as though my very existence back then was a hindrance to your ‘gettin’ some strange,’ as you say.
“But. But when I needed you the most, when I began becoming me, you were the only one there. When I was really down, you finally stepped up.”
Y’all, I mean, come on: She was a beautiful, 18-year-old high school dropout from South Carolina who married a guy—my father—who went to prep schools and yacht and supper clubs in Savannah when she had me. She didn’t have the emotional or social skills to deal with her own life, much less an uppity kid who made Brooke Shields collages from Vogue Italia and called it art. I mean, seriously, y’all, what the hell are you supposed to do with that?
So I told Mother, “Who cares about all that? You even helped rename me, for chrissakes. The past is the past—it really doesn’t matter anymore.”
After I ran away from home and moved across town with Aunt Mavis, and by the time I was in the twelfth grade, Mother had proved her mettle and made up for lost time. She would clench her jaw and say, “You are my child, I love you, and that’s that.” She didn’t need to understand; she accepted me, and woe to those who didn’t.
Mother would reference that day in the therapist’s office, jokingly yet pointedly, for years. There was a pain that rumbled through the bittersweet ribbings. “Well, I’m just a shitty mother, what the hell do I know?” she’d laugh. But the truth stung.
There’s another story I want to tell y’all, about why it’s easy to forgive feeling like I was just busted baggage she’d drag around between relationships.
Flash back to a couple years before that visit to the therapist.
When I was 24, I checked into New York’s Montefiore Hospital for a week. On the second day, I was laid up in the bed hooked to a morphine drip. I heard some commotion outside my door and a nurse saying, “But this can’t be the right floor. The maternity ward is downstairs.” I could hear the rubbing of mylar and latex scraping the ceiling.
A few moments later, the nurse cracked my door open while taming a festival of pink and silver balloons. “You’re Christina, right? I think these are for you for some reason.”
She yanked and pulled them through the door jam. Printed on the balloons was “It’s A Girl.”
The nurse handed me the little card: “Finally,” it said. “My beautiful daughter. I love you, Mother.”
I didn’t know how to do it, but I did it. Gasping, wiping tears, and done.
For so much of our lives together, Mother and I swanned past our pain. She pretended she’d been a good mother until she became one. I pretended to be her daughter until I became her daughter.
Years ago on that Thanksgiving afternoon, when I strode into the lobby of the Willcox, everything had changed: I was finally in the room. A “sex change,” to use the crude parlance of the day, was not thought of so much as an advancement in science; it was practically a polymorphic enchantment; surgical sorcery. There was little need to discuss it further—we moved on. Mother barely even mentioned my past to her friends or neighbors. And I, in turn, rarely mentioned her past either. I was, after all, my mother’s daughter and that, as Mother said, was that.
I thank everyone for coming to the memorial. Aunt Mavis grips my hand and kisses my cheek. “She sure loved you, honey; she was so proud of you and so am I.”
My uncle finally cries as he heads to the terrace to smoke, my Aunt Heidi hugs her daughters and starts boxing up the refreshments, and the Vintage Gardens ladies gravitate back over to Aunt Mavis. Angela and I are refilling our flutes when I hear the tall lady mumbling, “I’m kinda confused about those balloons—so Christina lost her baby or something?”
“Oh, my lord in heaven!” Aunt Mavis bellows. “No, no,” Christian Connie tells the tall lady, “I’ll explain more in the car home.” Connie tucks her chin down and smiles my way. I wink back and raise my glass.
Christina D’Angelo is an art director and graphic designer working in advertising in New York City. She is featured in her husband’s new memoir Uneducated (published by Little, Brown and Company) for which she also designed the cover. She dedicates this essay to all the mothers out there who deserve a second chance at redemption, and to all the mothers who fight for their children’s lives even when they don’t know how to do it. Happy Mother’s Day.