Memoir

I’m Not My Mother’s Cleaning Lady

People see an elderly white woman and her middle-aged black daughter and assume I must be the hired help.

I’m Not My Mother’s Cleaning Lady

“Who do you work for?” the maintenance man wants to know, eyes narrowed slightly. I register his accent just as he’s appraised my brown skin. English is not his first language. We’re alone in the laundry room of my mother’s condo, where I’ve been folding sheets. He’s just walked in, toolbelt at his hips, and stumbled upon an unfamiliar woman of color. I reason that, to him, brown skin plus housework means Help. Either I work for someone in the building, or else I’m an interloper from the housing project across the street.

As I consider the best response, my gaze takes in the name-tag pinned to his front pocket. “Tony.”

He’s subjugated me with his question, but I know his name. Should I use it and answer directly? With snark?

“I’m self-employed,” I might respond, telling the truth but playing dumb. “I have a private psychotherapy practice in New Jersey.” I could add, “I’m very fortunate. My work schedule allows me to visit my mother and do her laundry from time to time.”

“I’m visiting my mother,” I say benignly. “Just helping her out.” I smile as if it’s a quaint indulgence to do a loved one’s chores, as if I’ve sent the servants back to their families to enjoy a day of rest.

Me and mom in Cape Cod, taken by my dad when I was a year old. (Photos courtesy the author)

Like many other Gen-Xers, I’m a member of the “Sandwich Generation,” with children at home and an aging parent who needs me more than she once did. Today, after getting the kids off to school and seeing two of my clients, I hopped on a bus for the city. Mom needs me today, though she’d never admit it. A few days ago, she had an incident – not a fall. My mother doesn’t fall. Falling would make her an old lady and she is not one. Each decade we conspire and push back the definition of “old” to make sure she’s in the clear. Ninety is the new 55.

In any event, my mother had an incident, which involved a fan situated in the middle of the floor at night, a trip to the bathroom and contact between my mother’s body and the floor. So, here I am, doing her laundry – a concession she has allowed.

Tony frowns. “Who’s your mother?”

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When I tell him, his frown deepens. So I give him her apartment number, confounding him further. Tony repeats my mother’s name, shaking his head. It simply can’t be. The woman I’ve indicated is white.

I focus on appearing unperturbed by Tony’s skepticism, trying not to choke on what should be a minor frustration. The problem is, today’s encounter is compounded by dozens of childhood memories where I was informed that my mother – the woman who gave birth to me, raised me, loved me more than life – was not my mother. The layers of annoyance add up to a rage I’ll never express. To do so would feed someone’s angry black woman stereotype and risk being ejected from my mother’s condo for good – folded sheets and all.

“She’s my mom,” I confirm.

And then I’m seven years old again, in a bank, where my mother is waiting in line. I’ve wandered a few yards away from her to practice twirling around on the cool, marble floor, the heels of my Mary-Janes clicking pleasantly.

“Are you here alone?” I stop spinning to find myself surrounded by strange adults.

“Where is your mother?”

Scanning the serpentine cue of grownups – a forest of dark coats and plain, pale faces – I don’t see Mom. One woman, tall with regal posture, pretty in the way of storybook queens – not princesses – eyes me. She does not smile the way other ladies smile when my mother is holding my hand. Her red lips tighten, she turns away, and I feel unseen.

Mom emerges from the mass of bodies. “I’m right here!” She pounces, pulling me to her side, glaring at the offending bank tellers. My mother neither hides her indignation nor accepts their apologies. I feel tension in her body. As if, believing me to be unaccompanied, they’re threatening to take me away. Her protective arm reassures me: she’d never let that happen. I’m relieved to be claimed, but humiliated, embarrassed, all too aware of my brownness, my puffy hair, in contrast with my mother’s white skin and straight bob. I’ve made a scene, when all I wanted was to twirl around in peace.

Long before the bank incident, I believed all families were like mine, with brown daddies, pink mommies, and kids who were something in-between. The whole point, I thought, was to get as many colors in a family as possible. But as my world expanded beyond the walls of our home I saw that other children – pink and brown alike – matched both of their parents.

The three of us on our first and only holiday card, 1970.

Once, while I was playing in the playground behind our apartment building, an older girl confronted me. “That’s not your real mother.” She pointed toward the benches, where Mom sat.

“You’re adopted,” another girl explained. “They just didn’t tell you yet.”

With no idea what “adopted” meant, I was nonetheless aghast that they knew something I didn’t regarding my own existence. Later, when I told my mother about the encounter, she defined “adopted,” asserting that while there was no shame in it I was no such thing.

“You tell those kids,” she said. “You say, ‘My mother gave birth to me.’ You say, ‘My mother is white, my father is black, and I came from them.’” She went on to list the family friends we had whose children were also mixed. Most were lighter than I, resembling their white mothers more than their black fathers. Still, I felt somewhat validated, less alone.

As a teenager and young adult, when my mother and I appeared in public together – shopping, for example – I’d loudly dramatize our connection. “Mom! What do you think of this?” “Mom! How about that one?” “Mom!” As though repetition of the word would stem people’s doubts.

My parents in Barbados, 1993, the last trip they took together before he died of cancer.

Now my mother is an elderly white woman and I am a middle-aged black woman. I’d be naïve not to know the image we conjure. Still, I feign surprise at people’s assumptions. Like the time I brought my mother to the hospital to see a specialist. Mom is perfectly ambulatory, normally requiring only the support of a cane. So the nurse looked askance as I attempted to follow them into an examining room. An aide would have stayed behind in the waiting area. “And you are?” the nurse said, an eyebrow raised in challenge. “Lisa,” I replied, offering a hand. The nurse remained hesitant, so I explained my relationship, forcing a casual laugh. How could you not place us as mother and daughter? How could you possibly mistake me for her home care attendant? Yet today, faced with Tony’s persistent denseness, I blurt out the words:

“I’m mixed.”

At last, he comprehends.

“Oh! Oh, yes, Lorraine,” he says, and proceeds to tell me how wonderful my mother is. How strong. “Is she O.K.?” He saw her doing her own laundry just last week.

And we stand here, making genial small talk about my mother until a neighbor of hers whom I’ve known since I was a kid comes up and takes over the conversation, allowing Tony to get to work. I remain pleasant, gracious, smiling my upper-middle class, suburban soccer mom smile.

Me and mom at my bridal shower held in her apartment, 1999.

On the bus ride home, I’m still thinking about Tony and how he judged me. I muse that he has my mother all wrong too.

Mom is white, but she’s the widow of a black man and knows a thing or two about racism. She and my father were chased by white thugs with bats, denied entry to hotels, barred from renting apartments. Some people were enraged by the sight of them together. My father had transgressed against white men by sullying one of their women, rejecting his own. My mother had robbed black women of one of their men, cheapening herself in the process.

But those narratives had nothing to do with my parents’ marriage. Always compatible, they learned from each other and evolved together. Mom sees the world through a black lens, though you’d never know it to look at her. The ghost of an interracial love, half a century long, is always with her.

Someday, not long from now, my mother too will pass away. There will be no more mix-ups over our relationship, no confusion, no surprise in the expressions of those who learn I have a white parent. I will mention my mother and people will nod, picturing whatever image they like. But I’ll still be hers.

Me and mom on a vacation we took with my husband and children in Rhode Island, 2016.