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On June 6, 1989, 15-year-old Eboni arrived in my office at the private boarding high school she was attending. The 10th-grader was wearing a freshly starched white blouse and was slightly apprehensive. She had just, she confessed, prayed about this meeting. Settling her long legs on the plum leather love seat across from my desk, she waited for me to turn the tape recorder on. She seemed interested and eager for the questions to begin.
Eboni is the youngest of her parents' three children. She is
their only daughter, born just as her parents' divorce was being
finalized. Her mother came to Canada 8 years before Eboni was
born, but her daughter still thinks of her as West Indian. As
a second-generation Canadian, Eboni defines herself by her place
of birth, displaying extreme willingness to assimilate with Canadian
culture. She notes, however, that her mother insists on helping
her to become steeped in some of the West Indian traditions from
which she seems to have distanced herself.
She's always saying, "OK. You're growing up. You're becoming a woman. You have to learn things." And she teaches me to cook. It's not just your Canadian food. She's always teaching me the West Indian dishes and stuff like that. For Christmas, we don't have eggnog. It's sorrel [a tropical drink] and Christmas bun all the time.
With a mirthful smirk, Eboni describes herself as tall, with
short black hair, big eyes, long feet, and small ears, and begins
her revisionist tale.
When it comes to describing her personality, Eboni is open about her faults. "I can be very stubborn (a description she revises 8 years later to read, "I am very stubborn"). I have a temper. And I can be a tease."
In recounting her strengths, however, Eboni relies solely on the voices of others. "People say I'm friendly and I'm bubbly." Not once does she refer to the gymnastic prowess which people in her community once told me was phenomenal. Eight years later, I asked her why. Her nonchalant response reflected more interest in who might have shared the description of her skill than a reason for the omission.
It had to be a friend of my brother. That was before. I'm no longer that flexible.
Had to be. Because his friends would say, Do the split again [mimicking their begging tone]. And I was an insane child. I would jump off the table and land in a split. And they would, "OOOUCHH" [She snickers]. Just seeing the look on their face was enough satisfaction. It was enough.
Ethnic Identity Awareness
What she also omits when I ask her to describe herself, as I noted in my journal that day, is any mention of her color. "And as I think about the silent subtext of the dark rich satin sheen of Eboni's chocolate skin, I wonder why she didn't mention it when she talked herself."
When I ask her, omission notwithstanding, to recall an incident illustrative of her initial awareness of her Blackness, she shares this poignant memory:
It was when my next door neighbor, this little boy, came out
one day. He used to stay in the house all the time. And I was
on the step and he came up to me and sat beside me and a friend.
And we ended up blowing bubbles, you know, boring.
And he said, "You're black and I'm white."
And I said, "Yeah."
And he goes, "How come you're black and I'm white?."
And I said, "Well, I'm just that way. God made me that way." And I guess he took that for an answer and went back in the house. Since then, it hasn't bothered me. Really. I'm just more aware of it.
Left Out in the Cold
As if in direct contradiction of her words about being unbothered by her Blackness, Eboni is very forthright about her concept of minority status as a deterrent to her happiness and success. She recounts a painful moment on the third-grade softball field.
We had to choose teams in softball. And everyone was chosen and they left me for the last. And then they said, "Well, we don't need any more [on our team], so we won't take Eboni." And I was just always, you know, left out in the cold. Other friends would come by. Not even friends, they'd say, "You got left out. Too bad, loser." And just take off. People said they were my friends but they just used me and abused me.
Mother to the Rescue
In retrospect, Eboni assumes that this incident and others like it strengthened her mother's resolve to put her daughter in a Christian school. The transfer was a critical moment in Eboni's experience, the conduit for Christian education all the way to grade 12. In reconstructed dialogue, she recalls the solution-designed words of her usually taciturn mother:
She said, "Being Black always has its problems." And she goes, "You're better off going to school at church. That way if there are any problems you won't get it as hard because there are other [Black] children going there. It's like an equal
balance of the ethnic groups there. So, you know, you'll find a place with your friends, and you'll feel comfortable."
But it was not a magical reduction of the left-out-in-the-cold' problem as she notes by a scribble on the margin of the 1989 interview. She did not really find a place. "In a Christian school, I was still singled out because of my colour even by children of the same ethnic group." But she admits that she was more comfortable at a church-sponsored school. Her resolve to forge ahead, regardless, was strengthened.
Gilding the Bug-Infested Hibiscus
Describing her mother, Eboni uses three strategies which characterize
much of her storytelling: retraction, revision, and omission.
As a young respondent, Eboni sought to represent an ideal mother
by gilding the hibiscus. (The lily is too North American a metaphor
for the contextual reality of this case.) But that beautiful tropical
flower, the national flower of her mother's island birthplace,
has bugs. Eboni knows it but does not quite reveal the plant-destroying
vermin. Instead she splashes gilt on the bugs. She recounts her
cover story so well that I am totally unaware of her actions.
When she told the true story 8 years later, I was stunned by the
brilliance of her cover. I turned to my journal for refuge.
Eboni seemed so sincere as she described her mother, telling the cover story with such finesse that it does not seem exaggerated, even in retrospect. She used story to reconstruct her ideal. Yet there is enough of the witch/goddess dimension to make her account very plausible.
Only a careful re-read of the 1989 transcript unearthed three
clues in her dialogue that might have revealed that her anecdote
was a cover story: her pauses, her immediate revisions, and her
allusions to public image. "She's almost like me. Stubborn.
Very set in her ways. She has a sense of humor. She's very caring
and shows a lot of love. She can get . . . She have a very . .
. I won't say a very bad temper. She has a bad temper but doesn't
show it to people."
Eight years later, I heard the truth Eboni felt comfortable admitting to. Her mother showed her bad temper to her daughter. She was cruelly abusive to her, once to the point of such intensity, "she was strapping me and I was screaming at the top of my lungs," that the neighbors had to call the police and Children's Aid on her behalf. She tells the story of the police visit, replete with reconstructed dialogue, almost tonelessly.
Right now, my mom's under investigation for child abuse. Granted it's 18 years too late. My mother was not just hard on us. She was rough! I always figured that the reason I had bruises was because I have sensitive skin. I have sensitive skin anyway but my mother would strap me and I'd have marks on the back of my legs for two days! And I would not tell anyone. I would not let anyone see. Because if they did, I know I would get beaten again. Because I had to show them that. That's what she would say.
Children's Aid did send someone to check on Eboni a few days
later. Eboni recalls that the officer was clearly intimidated
by the mother who told her firmly, "My daughter and I are
fine. We're cooking right now. You can go." Any protestation
on the social worker's part was met with the same firm response.
"You can go." Eventually, the woman left, resorting
to a paper attack. "But there was a report made. I'm just
finding out now," Eboni says as if to restore her own faith
in a system which also appeared to leave her out in the cold of
On another occasion when she was 6, just before they left for church one Sabbath morning, Eboni's mother discovered that her bus pass was missing. Certain that Eboni had taken it, and remembering that a police officer had flippantly advised her to take her child to the basement when disciplining her, she dragged little Eboni downstairs for another round of beatings.
Finally, my face tear-stained, my dress was all right because if I ever got anything on my dress, it was just another round about the basement, we finally packed up. My mother brought my breakfast to church. I remember I sat there. It was communion that Sabbath and my mother was one of the deaconesses. All her friends kept coming to me. "Eboni, you shouldn't bother your mother like this. You shouldn't lie. That's not being a good girl."
Three themes illuminate this pathos-filled story and begin to explain the reactive worldview that Eboni has developed over the years. The first is the power of appearances. Through her mother, Eboni learned that what the public sees is, in essence, what matters. Eboni's dress could not be soiled despite the trauma she had just experienced at her mother's hand. The mother's position as a deaconess must take priority over everything. That she had ruined her daughter's Sabbath experience was inconsequential. It would not show. The pretense had to continue. Eboni was again left out in the psychological cold of a false truthher mother's cover story.
The next theme focuses on the shades of the good mother in Eboni's story, regardless of the eventualities. The narrator-as-child shares the description of a mother who had fulfilled her obligation to provide nourishment for her child. The portable breakfast ensured that the young child would not starve. That the public, her church family, would see that she cared may have been coincidental. Eboni elaborates no further on that aspect.
Finally, this portion of Ebon''s story highlights the absence
of any support networks in her early childhood. The church members,
as her story describes it, were in her mother's corner. This theme
changed as her story line develops, and as she matures. An aside
in the 1997 interview emphasizes the change:
I wouldn't have gotten here without my community. I like to think I was raised by the whole church. Even when I was pregnant and had no idea [what to do], I could go to my friend's mother. I was very young, 19 years old. I had no clue. I had no idea about the pain. My friend's mother has taken me under her wing. She can say, "I raised her." Other people in the church [also] raised me.
The postscript of the bus pass story is even more emotive.
The next day Eboni discovered the bus pass in her older brother's
coat pocket. He had taken it. But her mother said nothing about
his action. She did nothing either. Eboni recalls her disbelief.
"Twenty minutes round the basement. I had bruises.
I was upset. And she said nothing. She didn't say, I'm sorry.
That was it." Left out in the cold of false accusations with
no reparations for the injustice she had suffered.
When I read that portion of the transcript for the first time, I was grieved at the absence of my ethics of caring. "Why did I not notice how pain-filled this moment was? Why did I not address her pain?" I asked my journal. And then I listened to the tape yet another time. I heard Eboni's voice recounting her story: dispassionate, emotion-free. "Perhaps her defense against pain?" I asked my journal. I had been sucked into the rhythm of the story and neglected the content and the rhetor. Remorse-driven, I rushed off a letter of delayed care to her.
Eboni responded almost immediately. Her response was atypical. She used very few words. In the margin of the transcript she had revised and returned, she wrote: "Painful as this may be, it needs to be told." This is the essence of producing the transformation narrative. Eboni exposed her scars and in the telling she started to heal. A few months later she sent me an E-mail message reiterating her realization of the gulf in her relationship, "I don't think we'll ever be close. At the workshop we just attended, she stayed with me in the mother-daughter session only because other people expected her to." Public image rears its gilded head once again.
A Doll to Dress Up
Reflecting on her mother-dyad, Eboni notes wistfully:
I don't think my mother was prepared for a girl. She always wanted a little girl. She sews. She'd make me all these dresses with smocking this wide [indicates about five inches]. That's all I was. A doll to dress up with the cute dresses, and the bows, and things like that. She didn't want to [mother me]. She didn't know how. She still doesn't know how.
Eboni's reflective analysis of her situation illuminates a reciprocal gilding on two
levels. She covers up for her mother's poor child-rearing pattern; her mother covers
up for her daughter's ugliness' with cute dresses.
"When I described my mother, I covered up what she was really like. She has an awful temper which she has a hard time controlling. My mother and I aren't close. We've never really been close and I don't think we'll ever be."
Her mother was indeed caring and loving but the love seemed reserved for her brother, rarely for Eboni. Once again, she was left standing in the cold outside of the warmth of her mother's love. But the daughter comes to the mother's defense, surmising that she knew her son needed therapy but could not afford it so showered him with all the love she could give instead.
Her focus is only on Jesus [her mother's nickname for her brother]. And that hurts. It bothers her that my brother is sitting in a jail cell right now. Also for something he didn't do but he is there. I am here. My brother needed help. My mother was told to take him for tests. She didn't. I don't know if she couldn't afford it. But she didn't. Now my brother is paying the price for it. She thought my brother should be better off than I am because I'm a girl.
But there may be yet another explanation. Sherman (1994), in
her introduction to the womanist anthology she edited, explains
the push-pull nature of that love:
We have been told that Black mothers love their sons and raise their daughters, with the unspoken insinuation being that our mothers do not love us. But the reality is that many of us spend a good portion of our lives trying to learn how to live as independent-spirited grown women in spite of struggling with the fierce controlling love of our mothers. (p. 1)
In Search of Othermothers
Having problems with her own mother, Eboni improvises. She finds her own idea of the good mother, an othermother' as she describes the women she selects to function in that maternal role. Each woman is selected, unconsciously it appears, to fill the gaps missing from the mother-daughter component of her family life. In the 1987 interview Eboni described a young friend, Wanda, whom she regarded as her othermother.
She's known me since I was two. She used to call me her little shadow. She and I just kind of grew together. She's the type of person I can talk to. She helps me with school problems. Things like that. She's always there for me. She doesn't have a temper.
That this othermother is White makes no difference to Eboni. Her othermother is Ukrainian. In 1998 she elaborates, via E-mail, on the comforting difference the woman
made in her life. Wanda had become her role model, as Eboni's E-mail response notes:
As I got older and more problems developed between my mother and me, Wanda was my saviour. She would pick me up and take me out. She has an interest in old fashions and I have to admit so do I. I liked everything she liked, and tried to do everything she did. Even when I got our car [recently], I went back to the lessons that she gave me in driving standard. She is a good friend, and a good Christian. She is everything I want to be. She is the best friend I ever had.
Eboni goes on to describe another woman, a dormitory dean at
her boarding high school who performed some of the nurturing roles
of a mother and is now one of her role models. Between the lines
in Eboni's reflective narrative, we hear both past and future
dimensions of mothering: what she wanted in her formative years
and what she will be herself.
She was a loving and kind single mom. She was the kind of mom I wanted and wanted to be. Every night she was on duty I would leave a note on my door for her to come tuck me into bed, and she would! I know that sounds childish and immature, but I never had that. I was grateful that somebody was happy to do it for me.
Eboni expands her list of role models to include two women whom she met in her private school setting. The first is a substitute elementary school teacher whom she describes as "smart, educated, and talented." The second is a gentle high-school secretary and mother of three who "always made me feel so special. I admired her for the way she juggled family, work, and God."
A Personal Vision of the Future in Two Phases
Picturing herself in1999, young Eboni chose a career in social work although she was clearly not overcommitted to the idea. Her career goals were still nebulous. She had the notion that her profession will be in the helping services and people-centered, but at 15, the details are blurred. The incentives for action lie in the fact that she will have a profession, not just a job.
What is non-negotiably specific is a college degree and the traditional marriage arrangement with children. She even includes in her description of her weekday ritual the daily telephone call to her mother. With a pause that I now surmise could have been a tiny catch in her voice, she describes her future relationship with her own daughter, making tacit comparison with her own non-relationship with her mother. "I am going to be more understanding with my daughter. If I had a daughter and she was up to mischief, I could always say, I could see both sides of it."
Her 1997 revisionist postscript asserts, "My goal would be to understand and remember so as not to make the same mistakes, to pass on what I know and what I've experienced." Clearly, her capacity to represent future consequence in thought gives her yet another cognitively based source of motivation (Bandura, 1977b).
On June 7, 1997, a svelte self-assured Eboni greets me at the airport with a bouquet of spring flowers in her arms. She is excited, she tells me, and reiterates the sentiments she shared when I called her a month before to ask if she was interested in continuing the earlier study. "So much has happened since then. I can't wait to tell you all about it." As we drive to a hotel for our interview, I am struck by the change in this young woman. Gone is the uncertain teenager. I look on, amazed and enchanted, as she downshifts through city traffic and hastens to our destination.
I remember that when I telephoned her to arrange for this interview, I was struck by the mellifluous tones of her voice. It was as devoid of the ocean sounds of the typical Caribbean voice as one belonging to a landlocked AngloCanadian. Only once did she lapse into the dialect, even though I did a deliberate probe by using the intonation of our motherland to discover if that would trigger a reactive linguistic reflection. That paraverbal stimulus had no effect on her. Only when she recounts her mother's derisive response to her stated dream of becoming a vet, did the dialect appear. "And she told her friends, Eboni wants to be a dawg dackta!"
I check into my hotel, and we take the elevator to my suite. Eboni talks non-stop, regaling me with news of her classmates, her young sons, and her husband. In my room, I arrange my note pad and the tape recorder on the round table. Eboni drapes her long legs elegantly on a nearby bed. "I don't know that I'm a good person for your study," she
begins. "My family is so dysfunctional."
I assure her that it is her reality that is important to the study; not an ideal picture. When she confirms that she is still comfortable with continuing the interview process, I activate the tape recorder.
"Actually the whole week before your arrival, I'd gone
through a slew of different emotions," Eboni confesses. "I
was excited. I was nervous. I kept thinking, What's she going
to think? Am I really successful? Am I kidding myself?"
Eboni's definition of success is simple. "Success for me is when a person achieves what they set out to do. They've reached their goals." She goes on to amplify her definition. Success is not a static process. "But it seems like you're always setting goals. Every day there's something new, even if they're little things." She elaborates on the little things of her short-term goal. "If I'm successful, I'll be able to fly myself and my entire family to Jamaica for a week next year."
Tenacity and Foresight
Finally taking on the acclaiming mode (Benoit, 1997), Eboni
describes herself. "I'm not stubborn, I'm determined and
tenacious. When I set my mind to something, I don't let go. If
I have to take a break, that is fine but I'm still going to go
back and finish." To explain what she means, she tells the
story of how she managed the broken discontinuities (Bateson,
1989) of the typical child-bearing woman's cycle.
My husband was going to university, I was going to community college. Before our first son was born, I put my name on the waiting list for day care. After I put my name down, they informed me, You're number 200 on the waiting list for day care. And I thought, Well, I guess you won't be going in this lifetime, and they said, "It's good to put your name down, because [other] people will come off."
With that plan on the back burner, she started looking for
immediate child-care arrangements. When their son was born, the
people in her church, the same ones who had advised her to wait
till the baby was in school before returning to college, volunteered
to baby-sit. Two months later, her favorite baby-sitter was transferred
to another city.
Just before that time officials from the day care called to asked if she was still attending school. When her attendance was confirmed, she was assured that a position for her baby was available. Better yet, the center was subsidized. Day care was free! Eboni was able to finish the first three semesters of the 2-year legal assistant training before her second pregnancy became noticeable. Delaying her final semester "because I wasn't going there that big [with] as my husband calls it, the beached whale syndrome" she returned just after the baby was born. "Both my parents had said, Take the rest of the year off'." But Eboni was not to be deterred. Completing school was her focus. She recalls her parents' contending perspectives, warring with her own. The asymmetric lines of the reconstructed dialogue below reflect the conflict in the three voices.
Don't even bother to go back to school.
Raise your little ones and then go back.
I didn't want to do that.
(And then my father being the type of man he is said,)
Well, you need to work now.
Why do I need to work now?
Why do I need to work?
I don't need to work.
Eboni reports that even her college instructor seemed amazed
at her tenacity.
Jay was born April 30th, classes started for me May 7th. I was in class May 9th.
I explained to the professor, "I'm sorry. I won't be able to attend class this week because I just had a baby." The woman looked at me and said, "What are you doing out of your home?"
I was not going to let a li'l 7 pound 12 ounce baby keep me
from getting my
diploma [laughing] as precious as he is. It wasn't that big a deal. He was with his father in the evenings.
Her Seed Story
Eboni shares a retrospective childhood story of coping with an angry mother. It illuminates the cognitions that fired Eboni's actions: careful thought and self-regulation.
I got up one night and I remember being sick. And I missed the toilet. I threw up all over the floor. My mother was still beating me. How could you do that? I'm vomiting. 'm sick. And I was old enough to realize that shouldn't happen. She should not be punishing me. I was sick. It was a floor. It could be mopped. I
was very sick that night and very bothered by the fact that she was angry at me. I was rarely sick again after that. If I was, I didn't say anything. I watched what I ate very carefully.
Halfway into the interview, Silver, the next participant, arrives.
Her train was early. I put Eboni's interview on pause and take
them both out to dinner at an elegant little French restaurant
down the street. Their dinner-table dialogue was so powerful,
that I had to get their permission to jot down some tidbits of
their conversation. Silver is on her rhetorical soapbox.
"We are becoming like them. We're slowly but sure being sucked in by the black hole of them. And my mom says, But that's not a bad thing.'
And I say, "You don't understand. That means you were right!"
Not until we are alone together the next day does Eboni admit that becoming her mother is her greatest fear.
Practicing Improvisations: Balancing Competing Attractions
The following day, the final phase of the interview series
begins in the spacious quietude of a children's playground. It
is Sunday. The neighborhood children are still at home with their
parents. By choosing this site Eboni illustrates, perhaps unconsciously,
her skill at balancing competing attractions. She can collaborate
with me in this interview
while enjoying the sight of her healthy young sons frolicking with their father on the monkey bars.
She continues her story. Before the disaster of the read diary, Eboni had used her journal as a place of reflective refuge. Her mother turned that place to a house of shame. Locking her thoughts inside, she turned to the dreams that motivated her strategies for success development. Driven by the big picture of her self-regulated future, Eboni uses pre-planning as the running motif in her life stories. She plans to avoid sickness. She made plans to go away to school.
"I was planning to leave. I had turned 12 or 13. I was sitting in the house. I said, Forget it. I'm going out that door.' I knew I was going and just wasn't coming back, the ways things were unfolding."
Switching to the present tense, her narrative describes her thought processing 12 years before. "There's no way I can stay here and be a strong person."
It was just one story after another. How my brother got away with things. My brother had threatened to take my life. And my mother refused to make him leave. My mother refused to make him. I said, "I'm sorry but I'm not going to stay in this house, when my life is in danger." So I moved out!
In polylogic voice, she recounts the dilemma which her brother's threat created in her life plan. Her mother was insistent that she and her sibling stay at home together. Her church friends tried to offer suggestions. She remained resolute.
In a footnote, Eboni recalled how she solved her domicile dilemma. She moved in with her fiancé, married him, and continued with her plans for a college education.
Symbols of Success
Eboni uses her photographsthere are more than 24 in her
collectionto illustrate her success stories. Searching through
her collection of photographs, she shows me her self-selected
symbols. Most often her symbols are very visibly public. "I
think of myself as successful because I have [reached] my goals,"
she acclaims. Her voice becomes softer. "I've always wanted
a house. Now I share it with my husband, but we have our house."
Then she describes a moment of epiphany.
"I had been in this house just one week. In February. I came in. Took off my shoes. Walked in and said, I'm home.' I felt that. I was talking to the house. It was our house. But it was my space."
Her treasury of success symbols expands. "This is our brand new car which I can now drive. It's stick shift! (delighted). This is our house. This is my garden." The list changes forms as she sorts through her pictures. They become relational. Her tone softens as she picks up a picture of her men. "This is my husband asleep between our sons. This one's for you. I knew you'd like this."
Her Talent Domains
Eboni's litany of success moves to her accomplishments in sewing, cooking, canning, photography. "These suits," and she indicates her little sons in pin-striped overalls, one in blue; the smaller one in green. "I planned them. I bought the fabric last year but I didn't cut it out last year. It's a good thing," and she applauds her own restraint and foresight, "because they've grown. I made them this year. I had fun making them." I tell her that the little boys look as cute as their outfits. When they came to brunch earlier, her sons were wearing the outfits. It was obvious that she had designed them for the durability youngsters who play rough-and-tumble outdoors require, and with great attention to detail.
More pictures reveal her sons' amazing wardrobes. Her seamstress' talents spread beyond sewing for her family. Lifting up a photograph, she shows me a picture of a young girl in a beautiful cream lace dress. "I made that. She had no dress that she could wear for her graduation."
Taking up another photograph of herself in her blue kitchen, she says. "This is me baking. This is what I like. I'm good at it. I've become very domesticated."
"Weren't you always?" I query.
"Not by my mother's standards." I wonder why she still uses her mother as yardstick, but I ask her if she likes blue instead. She nods. "But it's not just light blue. It's a smoky Wedgewood blue." I note the keen attention to detail which seems typical of her.
In a telephone conversation 4 months later, Eboni talks about making cherry pie with the 50 pounds of frozen cherry-pie filling her in-laws brought for her. "What am I going to do with all of that?" she queries. When I suggest that she give it to her friends, she says, "West Indians don't bake pies." I did not know that. But what I was coming to realize post facto was that she had moved so close to assimilation with her host culture that she had deliberately chosen the Canadian way of cooking. Her mother realized that too. Eboni recalls, "My mom used to pop over all the time. She wouldn't call or anything. She would just buzz I'm downstairs'."
She recalls one early morning visit. "She just adores C [Eboni's firstborn]. She came over at 6:30 in the morning. She'd cook him breakfast. It was cornmeal porridge. I said, You must have gotten up at five'. She said, Yeah, I know you're not gonna do it'.
Eboni's litany of talents continues:
I canned nine 700 ml. jars of strawberry jam last year in late June. By September they were gone. My mother took one. My girlfriend took one. Everyone loves my strawberry jam. I'm going to do peaches this year. In apple juice. No sugar. We are very health-conscious.
In another phone call, her elation echoed over the lines. "I'm
teaching my 4-year-old to read. He already knows 35 words. The
minister's wife suggests that I home-school him. I'm excited about
What she does not mention but is clearly observable is her success as a mother. She talks about several instances which are in direct contrast to her own experience of being mothered as a child. Recalling the story of her mother's implicit mandate that she pay scrupulous attention to her dress even if she was being whipped, I am enchanted by Eboni's remarks when she shows off a picture of her drenched sons, playing in the water
of their grandfather's farm. "I told them, Go ahead. Have a ball. I've packed a change of clothes for you!'"
She recounts a precious memory which illustrates the special bond she shares with her firstborn son.
Nothing makes me happier than having my son come to me and say, "Mommy, you're a good girl. I love you." And this is out of the blue. He's not taught to say that. He's not told to say that. He just feels like saying that. So I find myself very successful [even though] my parents have doubts about that.
Space as a Coping Strategy
Eboni pulls out another photograph. "These are the boys
on the porch. Something we can enjoy. Before, in the apartment,
we couldn't. Other people were always around. I may be selfish
but I need my space." The space theme abounds in her storied
picture show. She talks about her present driveway in terms of
space and freedom. When she talks about her dream home on acres
of land with greenhouse and swimming pool enclosed at the rear,
the long driveway is again predominant. It now is undergirded
with the privacy motif. "Our driveway will be long. About
a kilometer or so. Because no one will know where we are. They
do not need to know how big our house is."
When I ask her why she needs so much space, her response is simple. "Because I want to have five children. I want to be in the house and have them in the house and not know they're there." That is a recurring theme in her narrativetogether but separate. It emerges in her plans for their bedroom.
"My master bedroom is going to be huge. It has to be huge because we have to have a king-size bed. I slept on a king-size bed with my husband once and I didn't
remember he was there. I rolled over twice and didn't know he was there." Her smile suggests that this is something that she will strive for.
Picking up another picture, she talks about another space-related place of refuge. "This is a sunset. We have beautiful sunsets all the time. I used to ride or walk, when I was living with my mother, to the park beside the river. I would go there and just sit and watch the sunset. I would lose myself in it. I love to watch the sun go down." She waxes lyrical as she revises the transcription. "Sunset is beautiful. It's romantic," she writes. "The colors seem like paint splashed against the sky. Breath-taking!"
Describing a solitary cat in her picture collection, I hear a description of her. "I love this picture of the cat. She's looking so much like a feline. Proud. Cats are proud animals. They do not like to be bothered. They do not take orders from anyone. I like the fact that she was sitting there [on the window sill] so undisturbed."
Greenhouse: A Place of Refuge
On three separate occasions Eboni makes reference to the peace she finds in greenhouses. When she worked at a greenhouse in the summers of her high-school years, she recalls the feeling of finding a place: "I just loved being there. It was so relaxed. So therapeutic. The humidity. It wasn't really hot. The smells! Nothing but flowers. I loved it." As she talks, I hear a great similarity with the way she describes her high-school yearsthe peace, the nurture, the positive growing environment.
As Eboni reshuffles the pictures, she picks up the one of herself in bed reading. "I like to read in bed," she informs me. "I read Prov 31 every morning. I haven't memorized it yet. It's like a wish list. Done that; gotta do this. I'm hoping that someday I can say that I've done everything on that list."
Smoothing the picture, she muses. "This, in my mind, is the picture of the perfect mother. (She laughs.) Nowhere else but home. Pristine, devoted."
"And wearing a flannel nightgown," I cannot resist adding. We explode into laughter together.
For Eboni, God is more than reading the Bible. As she reflects on the five event-filled years of her married life, she says. "The way things have happened for us is nothing short of God's blessing," a theme that recurs through her dialogue. She realizes it too. "I know I keep saying this a lot. But God takes care. He does." What most people would attribute to luck, Eboni regards as the care of her loving God.
As I prepared to bring this study to a close, I phoned to ask Eboni a final question: Where did she learn the God-reliance evident in her lifestory. She paused for several moments before responding, "It had to be at [high] school. I watched those people around me and could tell that they really believed in God. So I watched and planned to do the same things."
An analysis of Eboni's stories suggests that several of the incidents in her lifefrom childhood to young adulthood--have become the guiding metaphors for understanding her life story.
In a rage about something Eboni had done, her mother became
She stood at the door and she said, "Get in the house." I didn't get in the house. And she said, "I'm not going to hit you." That I did not believe because I knew once I got in the house, there was no way of escape. Well, she insisted so I made a run for it, but I was not quite agile enough yet to jump the fence [snicker] so I ran around the yard, and she was strapping me the whole way. And I was screaming at the top of my lungs. And this was very embarrassing because the whole neighborhood heard me screaming. And I remember, I tripped and fell.
Eboni steps out of the story to bring us back to the present. "And if you talk to my mother about this today, she'll say I'm lying." Then she continues the pain and terror-filled narrative. The structure of her sentences have changed. They are now very descriptively concise and emotive.
She picked up a bottle. An empty grape juice bottle. And I saw her with it in her hand. And I rolled over. And I heard the bottle come down with a thud. So I got up and ran again. My friend's mother came into the back yard just as I was going in the house. My mother had dropped the belt. She picked up a piece of wood. It had a nail on it.
Using reconstructed dialogue, Eboni continues the story.
"My neighbor said, Don't you hit her with that!'
"My mother said, I'm not gonna hit her with that'.
"My neighbor said, Then what's it doing in your hand?'"
The storied action rises.
So she went back to her houseit was just a few doors downand called the police. The police came to my house and were looking me over. They said, Well, she doesn't seem to have any bruises'. As if she is still keeping a secret, Eboni whispers an explanation:
It was all in the back of my legs. Actually right here [pointing to her inner thighs just above her knees]. I put my legs together and stood with my back to the wall. I knew if I let them see these bruises, my mother was going to kill me. I was all of maybe six at the time.
And then came the final letdown.
And after this is when I lost my faith in the legal system. [Her laugh is cynical.] I looked at the policemen and thought, I will remember your face. He told my mother, "People round here just need some excitement. If you're gonna hit your daughter, take her down to the basement and lock the door."
In disbelief, she reiterates: "That's what they said. They had no idea what was going on in that house." Locking the door became yet another metaphor of her life.
Locking the Door
That incident left an indelible impression on Eboni's mind and gave her the metaphor for yet another strategy. She locked the horrible memories in the basement of her mind, jotted them down in her diary, and moved on. She describes the trauma of being wounded by her own ball-point pen.
My mother was a control freak. She read my diary. And it's not like it was there and she opened it up. She had to go out of her way to read it because I hid it under my mattress. Under my mattress! Between my mattress and my box spring. And she went there and read it. And the reason I know? She told my uncle what she was reading. I was just so . . . How dare you? That was my private life!' And after that I stopped having a diary.
The repetition and revision under my mattress' add depth to the violation theme in her story. But there is yet another thread to Eboni's story. Woven into her tale is a theme of self-regulated deference to her mother. "I thought about [saying] 'You've no right!' But I couldn't say that to her. She is my mother!"
The Bleeding Heart
Selecting a picture of a pink-flowered bush, Eboni focuses on a visual metaphor. "It's kind of ironic that I have this in my backyard. Bleeding hearts." She explains. "There are times when I felt my heart was broken. It's bleeding."
"Talk to me about that," I urge. Her compliance is understandably limited. "It's just the pain I went through. Different situations. From one thing to another. I've always liked that flower. It's not my favorite, but I've always liked it."
I ask Eboni what metaphor she would use to describe herself.
"A diamond. But I'm not sure why. I have expensive taste,
I guess." When I posted her the verbatim transcript for the
member-check, I drew a large question mark beside her diamond
response. Two weeks later, she E-mailed me an exquisitely complete
explanation of her choice:
Have you ever seen an uncut diamond? Check out an encyclopedia or a National Geographic magazine. Uncut these stones have a beauty only some can see. To myself, and many others, they look like chunks of ugly, jagged, broken glass, useless and worthless. They are dirty and often have pieces of rock or coal attached to them, almost like unwanted baggage. The diamonds are carefully mined and collected. They're sorted. No two are the same. They are then brought to a diamond cutter. A master, if you will, in the trade, who takes the unattractive chunks of glass and shaves or cuts off all the unwanted baggage. He then inspects the stone and decides what shape it is to become. He carefully applies his trade and skills, and masterfully turns the chunk into something sparkling and beautiful, something of extreme value.
Eboni turns her focus on the substance of the diamond and I
begin to see why she chose this metaphor.
The diamond is the hardest natural substance known to man (if I'm not mistaken). It can't be crushed or chipped. It cannot be molded. It has many facets or faces. Each face shows a different side of the stone. It's as though the diamond has a personality. It can be looked at in different ways and under so many different lights and it will always shine and sparkle.
Casting my mind back to her high-school years, I realize that
the sparkle in her ever-present smile is what I remember most.
She defined herself well. But the process is still not complete
as the message shows.
Now once this is done, it is sold to the customer who then adorns themselves with its beauty and elegance. Others who see it are drawn to it. Its owner is eager to show it off and share all it has to offer. Diamonds are very precious and rare.
Eboni concludes her diamond explication with another metaphor,
one laden with God-themes. It is only at this point that she includes
herself in the analogy.
To own one, it must be purchased, and the purchase price is very high. Some people sacrifice a lot to own one and they pay a great deal. In my case, God sacrificed his only Son. My price tag was paid with His blood.
Then she writes that it is an hour later, but she has returned
to her computer to add a postscript even though "it is 10:30
and I really should get to sleep. My headache is back, but I really
want to go through this once more. I kind of like it. I never
really thought about it like that before."
Her diamond metaphor does an exquisite job of creating structure for her life story. I reread the piece circling six critical themes in orange marker: unwanted baggage transformed into something valuable and extremely beautiful; a stone which cannot be chipped, cracked, or molded; a stone with many faces; a stone to which others are drawn; a well-set stone which the owner shares for all to see; a stone for which her God paid the price with His blood.
The similarity between the analogy and her life story is striking. Her stories indicate that she often felt left out in the cold like unwanted baggage.
My brother used to tell me I'm ugly. I even had people tell me that. Even my parents. I remember that my mother would say, "You want to see how ugly you are? Let's get a mirror and look at your face." I hated mirrors for a long time after that. I wouldn't even stop to look at one.
In her own words Eboni indicates that her marriage transformed
her into feeling as if she were something valuable.
I cannot believe that I'm even remotely pretty although my husband tells me that all the time. I said to him one day, "If we put a tape recorder in our bedroom, no one would believe that we'd have children." Because I'm always telling him to get lost. And he just says, "I love you. I think you're gorgeous!"
Her resilience to her mother's attacks could neither chip nor
crack her. As her seed story illustrated, she developed an intentional
strategy to deflect her mother's ire. The success graphic starts
in her words with the plan to go to a high school far away from
her mother's house. Her many faces are hidden in the ubiquitous
mask of her ever-present smile and her many cover stories. The
many facets also reflect the multi-dimensionality of her talent
domain. Beside the ones noted above, she adds yet another. "At
church, I'm actually dubbed as the official photographer."
And then she tells me about a photo of her two sons that was aired
on the Oprah Winfrey show.
Eboni elaborates on the roles that contribute to her multifaceted self. "I am a mother. I am a wife. I am a student. A sister. So many things and I do not mind being all those things. [Although] some things I could do without." Her notes in the margin of her plans for her dream house reflect the sharing theme: "I want to share all that I have. The more I have the more I'll share."
And she concludes with a reference to a faith she insists has kept her grounded. She alluded to her faith several times during the interview. When we charted all her past successes on the success staircase (see Appendix H), I exclaimed: "You came through regardless. It shows the power of you!" Her response humbled me.
No, it's only because the Lord loves me. He has a purpose for me. My friend's mother said to me last week, "Just knowing you were out there. I expected you to be dead. Committed suicide or dead. Not here. Dead. Promise me that you'll go home and pray everyday." She doesn't know this but I do. That is the reason why I'm here.
Later on her ruminations lead her to a signature refrain. "The way things have happened for us is nothing short of God's blessing."
A Poem Emerges
Slowly I re-read her transcripts, fell asleep listening to
her voice on the interview tapes, and read the transcript again.
Then just as slowly, I penned some lines of free
verse based in developmental parallels around her "left out in the cold" metaphor. I mailed the poem to her for an authenticity check.
She called, almost immediately. "I don't understand it." Bewilderment gilded her voice. I explained that I wanted her to react to what the poem seemed to be saying to her. I told her she could rip it apart, re-work it, do whatever felt right to her. It took months for her to respond to that task. Her E-mail message, when it finally arrived, made me understand that I had been listening dangerously (Rasi, 1997). I had cast her in the role of passive victim. She actively refused that role.
While reading this poem again, I'm still confused a little. I have to admit that I'm a little slow. Maybe it's because I have such resentment that I don't feel left out in the cold, but more forced out into the cold. I feel that most of the things that I had done to get in from the cold wasn't just the kindness of strangers, but a combination of that and my fight to come in from the cold. I finally got to the point where I didn't want to be left out there anymore.
What she also unveiled in that interaction was that it was
easier for her to disagree via E-mail. The respect for an older
woman was so deeply ingrained in her that it made her reluctant
to tell me about my error face to face, or even voice to voice.
She had told me during one of her frequent telephone calls that
respect for her mother was ingrained. "It's been instilled
in me that mothers get a certain amount of respect. My husband
can't understand it. But she's my mother."
She gave me that respect as well. It seemed that she was willing to accept the blame for any misunderstanding rather than cast it in any older woman's direction. "I'm still confused," she wrote me. "I'm a little slow." In reality, I was the slow one in that segment of our interaction. Her parting paragraph was summative. "I guess what I'm trying to say is that this poem doesn't show the struggle and faith that I would get in to where it was warm." She was absolutely correct. I had unwittingly violated her sense of agency.
Our re-worked poem reflects her multi-stepped progress to success from self-regulation to self-reliance, with a self-selected support system. The dialogic tension of other storied voices appears in italics. It now reads:
Analysis of Her Story
Eboni, by her own admission, loves to talk. "I love to tell stories about my life. Finally I found somebody who will listen," she told me on the phone one evening. An excellent participant in active interviewing driven by narrative inquiry, she usually has a story to illuminate each point she makes about her life history. Most of her stories have a characteristic identifying introduction. "This is a story" or "This is a side-note," or "I can recall . . ."
Her stories are often implicitly comparative. Having related the difference between her brother's upbringing and her own, the dissimilarity in outcome is clear. She is now a successful woman. Her brother, her mother's beloved son, is in jail. "I think it bothers her that of her three children, I'm the one who succeeded and went on," she admits.
Her stories show the contrast in her mother as the mother of the ugly child, and the loving grandmother who would do anything for her daughter's son even if meant waking up before dawn to cook his cornmeal-porridge breakfast.
Eboni's portrait comes alive as she describes her pictures. In her perfectionist mode, she cannot resist indicating ways which would have improved the finished product. "Use a wide-angle lens" here or a "different flash" there.
Rich with thick description, resonating with audible voice, Eboni's stories are so riveting that as I listened, time lost its meaning. When the tape stopped, I looked at my timepiece with dismay. My plane, the last one that evening, had just taken off!