It’s pitch black outside.   I’ve been lying on the bed for hours with my legs curled up to my chin.   My whole body is shaking,  my teeth are grinding, my shoulders are hunched up to my ears, every muscle in my whole seven-year-old body is tensed, wiry.   Only when I keep my body tight like this am I able to prevent a sudden, unstoppable flow of tears.  I’ve been hurt.   My body isn’t mine and I know it.   The night I’m remembering,  I had to use the bathroom…. but I was afraid of doing that.  Afraid of seeing more red than yellow in the toilet, on the toilet paper.  So instead, I held it.  And laid there until the eerie stillness of night consumed the house.  Eventually, my seven-year-old eyes couldn’t stay open anymore and, still in my rigid position, I fell into a restless, nightmare-laden sleep.   I have no idea how long I’d been sleeping when I felt myself wrapped in a warm presence and a sweet smell against my face.  I knew my mother was hugging me.  She soothed my hair with one hand.  She came in my room when I was sleeping enough during my childhood that I remember waking up sensing her there.   She always hugged me.  And then, this night in particular, I felt her fingers rub something on my forehead.  She was whispering.  She was praying.  The stuff she rubbed on my forehead was thick and cool.  It was oil.  Anointing mine and my sisters’ heads with oil was my mother’s way of being Jewish.  In fact, not only did she anoint our heads with oil but she would then go to our bedroom doors and anoint the top of the doors with oil, just as children of Israel anointed their doors with blood.  She was a mother, praying and believing for our safety.  As a mother myself, this is now one of the most poignant memories of my childhood.  I don’t know if she knew I was awake when she did this.  I never said a word.  I pretended to still be asleep.  But, after she left, I fell into a sleep graced with protection.  I didn’t struggle against closing my eyes after she left.   And also, my mother loved me.

When I was little, the fairy tale that scared me the most was the story of Hansel and Gretel.  The idea of two young children walking alone at night in the darkened forest only to find someone as evil as the witch that intended on cooking them in the oven was unfathomably horrific.  My stomach would roll into tangled knots and a sense of awful foreboding as the children would come upon the house.  It seemed especially cruel to me that the house was made out of candy.  Clearly, this witch had the whole horrid thing planned out;  it wasn’t a last minute, ‘oh-I-have-some-children-what-should-I-do-with-them’ thing.  She lured them in, created a place designed to put children at ease, and then ensnared hungry, naive children with the thought of fresh bread.  Manipulation at its bone-chilling finest;  a horror story Stephen King probably learned from.   I never dreamed in nightmares of Hansel and Gretel.  My nightmares involved someone real instead.  And the hurt my nightmares caused was greater, and longer lasting, then Hansel and Gretel’s stay in the evil candy house.  But, while I was learning the language of fear, I was always learning something else, something that Hansel and Gretel seemed to know themselves.   In the story,  Gretel is frightened and cries upon being abandoned and then lost.  But Hansel continues to reassure Gretel that they will be alright.  The scary shadows make him nervous, but he never gives in to hopelessness.  When they are captured by the witch, they continue to rely not only on their own ingeniousness but also on each other until, finally, they save themselves and are able to escape.   Somehow, those abused and neglected children believed in hope.   Likewise, even though I didn’t realize it at the time,   I was being taught valuable lessons about faith and optimism that would carry me through the real-life nightmare that left me lying in a fetal position with my muscles clenched.

My mother gave me many gifts growing up.  Among the most precious was the idea that life is good.  Every time she stopped to help me flesh out a character or plot, she taught me that hope was still alive.  Every time she sang Alabama songs or “Young Love,” she  showed me what joy looked like.  Every time she played cards with us instead of complaining about our home-life, she showed us how to choose optimism.  Once, my father was imprisoned.  My mom, sister and I were living in a hotel.  My grandparents offered to let me and my sister come stay with them—but they did not want my mom to come too.  Even though it was unfathomably difficult for her to do, my mother allowed me and my sister to stay with my grandparents for a few weeks until she was able to save enough money to rent a house.  The morning after I told her the truth about my father, she blocked him from calling and went about a divorce.  But she went further than that;  she fought hard to keep him imprisoned so that I, as a new mother myself, would feel safe.   At the cost of her marriage of more than twenty years,  she and my sister were the only immediate family to stand by me.  It was by acts like this that she taught me what selflessness looks like and  that choosing to help others, no matter how high the cost may sometimes be,  is the right thing to do.  When I was being harassed at school, to the point of coming home in tears every day, Mama told me I had a choice.  I could get angry at them and fight, or I could smile and remain quiet.  She said “it’s hard to be mean to someone who is smiling.”   That made sense to me, and I wanted to be like her,  so I didn’t fight.  I stayed quiet and genuinely tried to be kind, even to the girls who hated me.  It never made us best of friends but, once, a bully wrote that I was a “pretty cool chick” in my yearbook.  Mama taught me that taking the high road isn’t always easy but it protects your sense of dignity.

No one supported my writing, or believed in me, like Mama.  She took it seriously enough to buy me paper, even when we were struggling to buy food.  In so doing, she taught me that dreams matter.   In so doing, she taught me to believe in myself.   Mama, and my sister Mandi, are the reason I always knew I was loved.  Unlike many children who share my story,  I knew I was loved.  I knew my mother and my sister cared about me.  It’s undoubtedly the one thing that most saved my life when I was writing Last Wills and Testaments every night.  Although we attended Two Rivers Baptist when I was young, and then our current church, Christ Church, after my brother’s death,  our attendance was always sporadic because of the constant moving.  So I didn’t learn about God through the church.  I learned about God through having my forehead anointed with oil while I was sleeping.  I learned about God while sitting on the bed, reading from the Bible with my mother and sister.  I learned about God by listening to my mother’s soulful prayers.  And everything I learned about Him promised He loved me.  While I had to prove myself worthy to everyone else (sometimes even to my mother and sister) I learned to believe I did not have to prove my worthiness to God.  He just loved me.  That lesson made me lean on Him when I could not lean on anyone else.  When, like Taya, hope was almost an illusion, I didn’t give up because Mama had taught me to sing “Gathering Flowers” and “Amazing Grace” instead.   “Leaning on God” wasn’t an abstract idea, it was a tangible, daily act.

Once,  we again had nowhere to go.   We ended up checking into a KOA campground.   We’d paid for a couple nights.  We set up our tent.  My sister and I loved the KOA campground.  There was a pool,  there was a lounge with a Pac-Man arcade and Ski-ball game;  a television, too.  At night, we’d sleep in the tent, listening to cicadas and the sounds of other campers roaming about.  We’d eat bologna sandwiches and Doritos.  Ice cream sandwiches from the gift shop were a treat.  When our few nights ran out, we still had nowhere to go, so we stayed there.  We stayed in that tent for about a month, and they never charged us for it.  What I learned through living in a tent, and the car, and hotel rooms was that my mother loved time with me and my sister.  We did watch TV as a family a lot but we also played cards and board games like Scrabble.   We listened to music and sang.  And sometimes we would do nothing but be in the same space.  Me reading, Mandi listening to music and Mama playing crossword puzzles.  It was hard, and I wouldn’t wish it on any child, but it taught me that, contrary to what I learned when my father was home,  important people liked spending time with me.

In a lot of my books, the girls talk about the feeling of ants crawling in their skin.  I felt those ants.  They were alive and they made my skin almost impossible to live in.   But my mother and sister challenged the thoughts that came with shame.  I would spend the nights feeling useless and ugly but, in the daytime,  my mother wanted to hear about my book and my sister would play Barbies with me.  It made me see the night, and all that happened in the witch’s house,  as things that could be overcome.  I knew daylight would come.  Mama would wake,  Mandi would wake and he’d go away.  All I had to do was wait it out.  And that thought, that knowledge, gave me the most priceless gift of all:  hope.  I didn’t have to be a superhero,  all I had to do was wait.  If I could just wait, it would end.  That idea kept me from becoming Taya.   So, in a very real sense, Mama and Mandi helped me survive until the witch was dead, gone.

Today is Mama’s 52nd birthday.  Birthdays are days to remind ourselves that we are worthy and that we matter.  In being the devoted and selfless mother she’s dedicated the last 32 years to being,  I’m sure it’s sometimes hard to remember why she matters.  But it’s important that she take the time to celebrate herself today.  It’s important that she take time  to feel good about laughing, about shopping for herself, about enjoying herself.   It’s important that she know how very, very much I appreciate, acknowledge and understand everything she has done for me and Mandi, and how much I love her for all the gifts she’s given me.  Love is a verb.  It is something you do.  And, every day for thirty-two years already, my mother has chosen to love my sister and I by spending time with us, by praying for and with us, by supporting our dreams, by showing us what devotion looks like, by believing in us and in family.  She’s been there, the one person I knew I could rely on, my whole life.  When my first daughter was born and it ended up being an emergency C-Section, she was the one I asked to be in the operating room with me.   When I had my very first book signing, she was there to watch as a reader first purchased and then asked me to sign the book.   She came to my first public speech.   She continues to inspire and motivate me.   She’s got a dancer in her heart, and music, and her poems are some of the most beautiful ever penned.  Her history is one of trauma, uncertainty and fear but, through it all, she’s been the rock that my sister and I know we can trust.  She’s been the laughter, the love and the faith.   Happy birthday to Mama, the  ever-true “wind beneath my wings.”