Letters from My Mother: A Daughter's Gratitude for Survival

by Sevonna Brown @whereisvonna

My mother is alive and well, yet as a young girl growing up I did not realize she was leaving me letters along the way. As an adult woman who has earned the work of reflecting and rememory, I have the opportunity to revisit my mother’s messages, sent to me as a little black girl to be read only at the right moment in my journey in becoming a Black woman. In every domestic activity that she performed, there was a letter to open. With every public self-presentation, there was a letter to be read. Soft fingers pulled course curls behind my ears and brought soulfully warm meals to the silent dinner table, and there were letters right there, strewn about from kitchen counters where a hot comb lay to the bedroom doors where blessed oil kissed the frames gently yet abundantly.

As she washed the dishes she left me letters lost in her hands and between soapy strokes of water where she baptized herself of bruises and the abuse she faced at the hands of my father for over 40 years. Verbal and physical violence never destroyed her light or her ability to create, compose, and send letters to her daughters. We sipped them line by line only to fully indulge in them as we became women. Her smile wrote me many letters, infected by God’s eternal energies and the sacrifices Black mothers make that would have them comparable to Jesus in our young eyes.
I’m still in the process of deciphering the letters she wrote me while I was in her womb...They have just begun to speak to me as clear as day and sometimes as murky as night. From infancy to toddlerhood my memory is lost in files of trauma and conversations yet to be had with my mother, but I remember being little but too big to sit on my mama’s lap. Instead I would crawl up under her arms if I saw the opportunity. I would press my head into her bosom and she would say “You too big for that now.” Today those letters show me how I so badly wanted to hear my mother’s heartbeat. The abuse she suffered was so profoundly apart of my underdeveloped awareness of her life, and I was checking for her pulse at all times.

Letters were written and lived in our garden, keeping me close to a willingness to live during the early years of depression that I survived within the walls of our house. The smell of flowers in my mother’s garden reminding me of the sweet parts of life--that I too could grow. While buried in hard soil they still rose to the ripe occasion of love and survival. Like pruning red fingers and toes from a long bath hoping to bleed out the internal pains of repeated traumas, even raw wounds heal over--and over, and over, and over again. All of these things, soil, blooming roses, summer breezes, and hope, made up a recipe to be remembered for a little Black girl like me.

My mama’s fists, kneading in the garden, shared a hope for reconnection with the earth--or even a soul in search of Eve’s kind of forgiveness-- beauty of life, and faith that a seed planted would promise a blooming. She, like Eve, could never forgive God for making her out of a man’s rib. My mother craved mobility and escape from the crutch made at his side for her to lean on. Her economic instability and dependency festered like moss at the root of rotting willow trees. She searched in the softer parts of the soil for counternarratives to the Genesis tale--and that was how I knew she was a feminist (Eve was betraying patriarchy, not God) . Knees down in the dirt mirrored her prayer life, a humble servant before God who was one with the soil--walking in truth as the salt of the earth. She might question God only once in her lifetime, but would rise every morning to say “Okay Lord, have Your will.”

Her prayers, sung wistfully and intentionally, could be heard through a shower ringing out water and screams she refused to release for herself. These letters taught me that a conversation with God and some bath water could convince you that you couldn’t keep track of how many tears you cried even if you wanted to.

She left me letters that would help me to understand the ways the world loves to take Black women’s love but never loves to receive it as she would bring it on her own terms--creatively, fiercely, and unconditionally. That would be too threatening, now wouldn’t it?

All of her letters are not my story to tell. But the ways they’ve spilled over into my lap and opened themselves up to me at this point in my life has unearthed a series of intergenerational questions I am still left with today. Where does a Black woman find fierce love but inside of herself? What kind of love-justice can a Black woman expect in heaven? Does God see her behind the prayer closet or under the iron arms of tragedy and domestic violence?  When can I expect the sun to shine on a Black woman’s smile instead of just from it? Will the silence shatter,ever? In this new day, reading my mother’s letters has taught me that I am still learning how to ask for help instead of cry for it. These letters show me that trauma shows up in the way a Black woman does her hair: how her fingers choose to detangle the knots at the end. These letters show me that our biggest anxieties can show up in the smalls of our backs where bridges are built between heaven and hell and we must choose how we cross the fiery exits and entrances of our own stories. Black women all around me, like my mother, continue to be brutalized, violated, left unprotected, suffering yet hopeful. Vibrant yet invalidated; blessed but cursed at; worthy but used.

These letters taught me that a Black woman’s world is one of rejection and loneliness and too many times knocked upside --and downside-- the head. My mother could paint her mouth in rosy lipstick only to have it massaged off by the demonic claws of the devil’s mouth himself. Black women live underappreciated and under-nurtured lives because of this. People work so hard to pin Black women’s pain comparatively against their own, but never learn to simply listen.

Tiny assemblages of my grandmother’s letters to her at times present themselves in my mother’s voice. Either scriptures rise like Psalms out of an orchid, and hymns saturate our Black holiday affairs like carolers rolling up and down every block in white neighborhoods. Although they are both alive, the intergenerational dialogue between the three of us happens almost mysteriously. Murky blue/purple blood may communicate violet dreams in the color purple and in the key of love--either way we get it all said and done. I love that I can communicate with my mother and grandmother, sometimes just by saying nothing at all.
My grandmother is wise, like most. A Mississippian breeze troubles her song and I can hear the sound of Hazlehurst street lights coming on early enough for children to be warned. Between nightmares and other high vibrations I hear from these women--there are many things they refuse to say aloud.  And now that Fall/Winter are here depression is readily involved for what I believe to be the season for letter reading with utmost potency. Leaves fall from trees and paperless societies of love notes from my mother’s miraculous survival song find their way to me on the wind.

I am thrilled to read these letters in the past tense. Since they’ve been written, a new part of my mother has been born. She has risen, baptized, and untamed on the other side of the soapy water she once cleansed her tired hands in. Her weepy eyes now bear a smile of genuine and fruitful energy she can lean into on this side of her heaven.

I take heed to their messages and soak up their warnings. I stay in communication with them and ask for their guidance. I request their wisdom and honor their advice. I yearn for their peace and lean on their understandings.

It is on the wings of letters from Black women who have come before us that we will come to find our own.

Photo: Shutterstock

Sevonna is a womanist who thrives on the herstories, birth stories, and legacies of Black women before her. She loves everything to do with reproductive justice, Black women's liberation and Black girl magic. Find her reading bell hooks, Assata Shakur, or Toni Morrison.

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