My mother never said she loved me. This was true up until somewhere in my late 20s. This isn’t to say I didn’t know she loved me. I did. She was dutiful and caring, with steady support that I didn’t appreciate nearly enough. She would listen to me ramble on and on about this thing or that person, and she seemed perfectly content to sit and listen, offering gentle and wise counsel. There were times when I knew she had no idea what I was talking about, but she never lost interest in the conversation.
No, it wasn’t that I didn’t know she loved me, she just never said it.
Maybe it was her older generation, Caribbean upbringing, or maybe it was something more personal to her. Maybe her mother didn’t say it either. I am honestly not sure.
What I am sure of is that all of her children—the eight she gave birth to, the two she gained from my father, and our neighbors and friends—all have some special story of my mother’s love.
For me, it was the time when I was 14 and got into a fight at school and she had to attend a parent-teacher conference to discuss my behavior. I sat at the meeting, eyes glued to the floor, too embarrassed to look her in the eyes. I was the youngest of her children and none of my siblings ever brought this much shame to our household. I had spent that entire day dreading the meeting, wondering if she would embarrass me at school like I had seen other parents do when their children got into trouble. I refused to look at her, mumbling an apology I didn’t mean to the other girl involved in the fracas. It was over, I was a walking shame, and I would never live it down.
I sat in the room planning my life of crime and delinquency when my mother did something so mundane, so regular, that it rocked me to my core. Licking the tip of her thumb finger, she wiped a smudge off my face. An act that mothers around the world have done without thinking. An act I did with my children. It must have been four seconds at most, but I remember tensing up, we weren’t the touchy-feely type of mother and daughter. Yet with that single thumb swipe, my mother communicated something to me that I was very sure I didn’t deserve. Compassion.
Maybe she could sense me slipping away, maybe she just really couldn’t handle looking at my smudgy face anymore, but, at that moment, I became very aware I was still my mother’s daughter.
At that moment, my mother didn’t have to say she loved me.
I wish I could say it was smooth sailing from then on. It wasn’t. Our relationship remained cool and distant. I was very aware she was a wonderful parent but for all of those years, my mother didn’t say she loved me. And neither did I. Because I think worse than my mother not saying the words, was the fact I didn’t say them either. I would see her give all she had to her children, and I never once said I love you and I appreciate you.
Sometime in my 20s, I moved into my very first apartment. The day I moved out, my mother came over to help me get settled. And then because I was scared to sleep alone in the tiny apartment, I begged her to stay over that night. My mother is a creature of habit, and I am sure the thought of sleeping in an unfamiliar place was abhorrent to her. She wasn’t sure I should have moved out, she was afraid for my safety and wondered if I had made the right decision. But I needed her, so she stayed with me that night. I remember us cramming into my small, first, apartment-sized bed and at that moment my mother didn’t have to say she loved me. But I wished I had told her I loved her.
Living on my own gave me an appreciation for her unlike anything I have ever known.
If I went home, I was sure to leave with enough provisions to make it to my next payday. My 20s were filled with so much relationship drama and because I wasn’t seeing her every day, our phone conversations became more interesting. She wanted to know everything I was doing, and I would ask her how things were in Morvant, the village where I grew up, and we would fill each other in.
I think it was during one of these conversations, the idea popped into my head—What if I told her I loved her? What if I just said it? I chickened out during that phone call. And even though I practiced, it took a few more phone calls for me to garner the courage to do it. From the beginning of that fateful conversation, I knew I was going to end our phone call with “I love you.” I wanted to wait until the end in case it got awkward, I could just make a quick escape. I was willing to try it, but I was still a pretty big coward. We chatted about the usual stuff although I barely heard anything she said, and then after what seemed like an eternity, our conversation wound up. I knew if I didn’t do it now, I would probably never do it and for some reason, I was at a place in my life where I needed to do it.
“OK, Mama, I’ll talk to you later . . . I love you.”
The line on the other end went silent for a moment and then, “I love you, too.”
There was no unsteadiness in her voice. Nothing unsure about her answer. She was my mother and she loved me. I cannot say why I expected it to go differently, but at the moment, I released a breath I felt I had been holding for almost 30 years.
It didn’t take us long to begin to end every conversation with “I love you” or as my mother would say “love you, love you, love you.” Always three times in a row. It didn’t take us long to become the touchy-feely mother and daughter type either. We begin and end each visit with a hug and a kiss. Her tiny, frail body wrapped in mine.
One of the greatest gifts I have learned from my mother is how to express love. Like her, I don’t have to say I love you to my children. I show them love every day. I show them as often as I can, I show them until they shrug me off and say, “I know, I know, you love me.”
But what I have also learned from my mother is that love is meant to be told.
Our relationship has changed significantly by us saying the words. So, I do that too. I tell my children every day, over and over that I l love them. Sometimes they shout it back amidst kisses and hugs, or whisper it at bedtime, other times they smile knowingly or nod their little heads. And still, there are times when they wouldn’t react at all. And that is all OK. Because my children know they are loved. But this mama has no intention of ever wasting an opportunity to say I love you.