it's all relative

My Mother and … Weddings

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg/Photos: Getty

It’s All Relative is an exploration of all the different ways of being a family in the year 2019.

When they met as editorial assistants at a magazine back in 2009, Jessica Silvester and Crystal Martin inevitably started talking about their moms. Silvester’s mom Phyllis, a middle-class Italian-American woman, had died a few years before; Martin’s mom Cynthia, a middle-class black woman on the west side of Detroit, was always calling her at work with annoying questions about technology. One woman’s mom reminded her of the other’s, and vice versa; Silvester recognized the tone Martin took with her mom during those calls — the softness and vulnerability and defiance and exasperation— and Martin was surprised to find Silvester’s stories about her mom, a white woman, so relatable (there were go-to phrases, like “shut up and be quiet” she had assumed were just black-mom things).

A decade passed, they remained friends, Silvester became a mom. Both women started thinking a little more deeply about the way they were raised. What did their moms get right, where did they fall short, how did issues of race bubble up in all of this, whether insidious or overt? They started writing, separately and simultaneously, about how these two women acted in all sorts of ordinary circumstances — at the hair salon, on the checkout line. Here, they considered their moms, and themselves, in the context of weddings.

On Jessica’s Mom, Phyllis:

I didn’t quite know what to make of it when I saw my mom dancing at weddings, this stunning dark-haired woman swaying the hem of her metallic woven gown as though she wasn’t shy, as though she always went to bed past 8 p.m., as though she didn’t reserve all her socializing for the 11:32 a.m. lunch period in the teacher’s lounge. The eight-piece band would launch into the tarantella, and she’d be spinning around, locking arms with cousin after cousin — Big Henry or Little Henry or just Henry — her massive breasts not sitting quite right in her formal-occasion bra; her freakishly long third toe poking out from strappy shoes; her attention-seeking only child standing nearby belting lyrics like who the hell she thought she was. (I thought I was good.) She never seemed self-conscious about any of this at weddings, reserved as she was in everyday life.

The thing was, if we were at a wedding, it probably meant we were around family — and if you were around family, in my mother’s book, you were allowed to have fun. You didn’t have to hold back. “As long as you’re with your own kind,” she would say, if she caught me partaking in a round of Cousins Shots during cocktail hour, even though I was very underage. “It’s good to be with your own kind,” she would conclude toward the end of the night, just before she and my dad and I darted onto the floor to give the dancing bride the cash envelope (“a boosta,” my family called it; “we gotta go give a boosta”).

On the ride home, her dark eyes still all aglitter as she gazed out the window, a sugared-almond party favor dissolving on her tongue, she would tell me the ways in which the lives of certain cousins we’d seen that night — Joey and Jenny, who had married a “Yolanda” and a “Leon,” respectively — had been more difficult for how far they deviated from “their own kind,” from their Italian roots, ending up with a Puerto Rican woman, ending up with a black guy. They were discriminated against everywhere they went, she explained; even their own family never really treated them the same. (She said nothing of the difficulty that could also come from staying with your “own kind,” as in the case of one woman in our family whose husband threw her down the stairs.) “Make life easier for yourself however you can, my baby,” she would say to me, backward-wrapping her long arm around the front passenger seat, veins up, extending her lacquered fingernails for my little hand to clutch.

This sounded like perfectly sane advice to my young ears. Romantic partners seemed secondary to me, anyway. Who needed to marry for passion when you already had the boundless love of a family like ours, of a mother like mine? (And if that reads as though I were raised in cult, that’s because my mother’s brand of Italian was one.) When I came home for a college break wearing my boyfriend Pat’s shamrock-green T-shirt that said “Cheers, Dublin!” my mom waved a finger in my face and reminded me, joking but not, “You’re not Irish.” We took a shopping trip to Urban Outfitters and got me a red version from the same line of tees, this one with the words “Ciao, Roma.” I wore it proudly.

Who would’ve thought that by the time my cousin Elio’s wedding came around, on a mild, twinkly October evening in 2005 — still so many years out from my own eventual wedding — that my mother would be gone? Certainly not Elio, who just that summer had come to her hospital bed and asked, “Aunt Phu” — all my cousins called her Phu Phu — “will you do a reading at the ceremony?” Certainly not my mother, who later sat up in bed, blushing, and repeated: “I’m going to do a reading at Elio’s wedding.” Certainly not me, who believed every word she said.

My dad and I dressed up and went. Although, my father told me, he wasn’t going to dance. It was a thought that had never occurred to me, neither that it would be necessary to show such a sign of respect, nor that it was something my mother would have wanted — but then again, who could exactly say?

My mother had so many truths she wanted me to live by, so many rules; when they came out of her mouth, I received them as the wise words of the woman who cared about nothing more than looking out for me; I believed her love knew no bounds, and so I took “love” and “bounds” to essentially be one in the same; the lines she drew were just an extension of her love. I still believe that. The only difference is now I know that staying inside lines can’t protect you from hurt — neither can love. Not even your mom’s.

On Crystal’s Mom, Cynthia:

Growing up, I never considered my mom to be a shy person. As a nurse, my mom seemed like she was the aunt of everyone who worked on her hospital’s floor, giving career advice to younger colleagues, teaching them how to be attentive to patients and bringing them in leftovers of her homemade dressing from the holidays.

And she loved to dance. I remember sitting off to the side at my Aunt Elaine’s wedding to Uncle Gabe in the late ’80s — there was my mom in one of those Patti LaBelle dresses: big and boxy up top, fitted from the knees down. The electric blue fabric didn’t slow her down. Her upper and lower body rocked in opposition as she two-stepped. Occasionally she tilted her head down, as if she was enjoying seeing her own feet and hips animated by bass lines. Then that smile appeared: Her teeth were big, white, and straight, her most beautiful part.

But she was shy in certain ways, I guess. Just a couple hours before the wedding, she’d been back at the house telling my dad and I that she was dreading this whole day because she knew she was going to have to pose for pictures, and she didn’t like how she looked in pictures — the chubbiness of her neck or the acne-scars on her skin. She found making conversation with strangers painful.

That shyness may not have held her back in life, but I know she worried about me growing up able to speak for myself. When we went to JC Penney to shop for back-to-school clothes, she’d push me ahead of her in the line, gesture toward the checkout person and say, “Tell her what you need, Crystal,” as my face got hot and my armpits prickled with sweat. “I’d like to pay for these, please,” I’d say, as my mom handed me cash for the transaction. When she saw me sitting there at Aunt Elaine’s wedding, social anxiety weighing my butt to the chair, she waved at me to come out on the floor (I didn’t).

When she came to my best friend Tiffany’s wedding four years ago, the roles were reversed. I am now often the most social person in the room; my friend was shocked the other day when I said I wasn’t sure if I was an extrovert or not — she was like, “Umm, you can stay out all night, without a drop of alcohol or any drugs, just on the adrenaline you get from socializing.” My mom, meanwhile, has become physically handicapped; 30 years of nursing took its toll on her body that was already not in the best shape. She uses a walker now. At Tiffany’s wedding, my dad was happy-drunk on Jack Daniels, giving future-parenting advice to me and my friends, waxing poetic about all the ways he could’ve been better as a dad, and my mom — instead of pulling him out on the dance floor to wrap up his fatherhood reflections and get him to leave us kids alone — was just sitting there. I’ve looked at pictures from that wedding, and she isn’t smiling in them.

I’m constantly trying to think of ways to help her get some of that vibrancy back that she used to have on the nursing floor, and on the dance floor — I’ve suggested swimming, flower-arranging classes, volunteering with old folks so she can see just how many physical gifts she still has left. But she’s resistant. That frustrates me and makes me scared for her, but I also get it; it’s not easy to live in her body. But maybe we’re making progress. Over Christmas, I went with my mom to visit an aunt in North Carolina. We went to an outdoor Chinese lantern festival. The ground was muddy but she still made it up this big hill; when she got to the top she stopped, looked at me and asked, “What’s the dance the kids do?” She let go of her walker and started performing a modified floss, making fists of her hands, lengthening her arms, and swinging them in front of her hips.

I think about the more universal ways in which it’s harder to be a black woman than it is to be a black man — existing at the intersection of two oppressed groups — and I think it’s so unfair that after dealing with that her whole life it’s not her, but my dad who is the one getting better with age; becoming more open, loving, spending more time with his kids. Meanwhile, my mom keeps meeting new struggles. I don’t want my dad to struggle. I just want my mom to be able to dance.

My Mother and … Weddings