Posts Tagged ‘moms’

Today is Mother’s Day. I’m not home to bring my mother flowers or make her breakfast in bed, but I do have a present for her. For Mother’s Day, I’m going to ask my mother what cause she’d like to support, and make a donation. I also decided to share this story. It’s not about me and it’s not about her (she’s still with us, thankfully!), but it is a piece about mothers and daughters.

I hope she likes it. I hope you do, too. 

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Why I Don’t Kill Spiders
by J.R. Johnson


My editor leaned back in his chair as I looked at anything but his face. A flash caught my gaze, eyeshine from a wolf spider perched on a lily by the window. The spider waved at me. I ignored it; grief does strange things to the mind.

My boss frowned, his lean face lined and serious.

“I’m sorry about your mother, Jo, but you’ve got the weekend to decide, no more. Stay in research if you want, but Kristof’s retiring and I’m offering you his job. True, investigative reporting is high profile. You’d have to get out from behind your desk, but your stories would matter. Take it.” His fingers rested on the old-school sheets of half-edited copy scattered across his desk.

“Do you need someone to check on your apartment, feed a cat, water plants?”

The small kindness surprised me.

“No,” I said, not sure which of his offers I was answering. “Thank you, but no.”

The overnight bag nipped at my heels as the heavy glass door swung shut behind me.


Tired from the flight, I tripped coming out of the baggage claim area and heard a loud guffaw from the service entrance. I didn’t look over in case it came from someone I knew. I peered into thick evening fog, searching for a taxi. Already, home felt like an enemy camp.

We ordered pizza for dinner, pepperoni and half olive, like she liked it. I sat with my father at the kitchen table, both of us trying so hard not to see the empty chair that we had no strength left for conversation. Memories of my mother caught in my throat, bright stories I couldn’t bring myself to tell on such a somber night. Instead I finished my last slice and left the crust on my father’s plate.

“I’m going up, see if I can make a start on the vault.”

He nodded without looking my way, eyes lost in shadow.

I slipped through my parents’ bedroom to the cramped little door for the attic. The vault, I called it, overflowing with my mother’s treasures. Her memories. I left the door wedged open with the superstition of the child I once was.

Each bare riser flexed, precarious, and the attic air harbored a parched smell of rafters and horsehair plaster and cobwebs. I left the occupied webs alone; my family has never killed spiders. Stiff and reluctant, my legs resisted as I forced them to collapse onto the wide-planked pine floor.

Dozens of boxes filled the big room, coated with a thin dust of neglect. Most overflowed with old toys, clothes so out of date they were stylish again, and my mother’s memories from college. She never talked much about her degree in folklore, but from the delicate handwriting and care with which she copied her notes I could see she loved it. Faded binders cracked with the suddenness of bone when opened. They went into the discard pile.

I kept her rings. Two solid bands of gold that weighed thick and heavy in my hand, their surfaces marked by years of wear but still lovely. “For us,” my father said when he drifted upstairs and handed me the little velvet box. “She wore one for each of us.” I turned away so he wouldn’t see me cry.

There were other boxes, too, filled with carefully wrapped lengths of hand-woven cloth. They were prettier than I remembered, even the icy white fabric rich only with texture. Each piece incorporated subtly different colors and the patterns never repeated. They were exquisite. They were useless. I saved the best, the ones that reminded me of summer days and warm laughter, and put the rest in the pile for Goodwill.


When I was young my mother wove stories. An oak floor loom occupied most of the front room in our house. She sat on a wide wooden bench and talked while casting the shuttle left, then right. I watched her work the long foot treadles to craft elaborate patterns, shot through with every color of the rainbow. In sharp contrast, the room’s walls held monochrome pictures of blackbirds in trees and sable-limned landscapes. Why keep such stark images?

“Black is beautiful,” she would say. I didn’t believe her, of course, but that is how the story always started.

My parents are white. When they decided to expand their family they did it in a non-traditional way. “You didn’t come to us from a stork,” she would say, my mother. “A spider brought you.”

I did not find this comforting. My parents’ lackadaisical housekeeping habits and love of arachnids only reinforced my fear of crawling things. If there had been a local spider-hating club I might have applied. Not that they would have accepted me.

Small and sleepy, our town was a peaceful little hamlet where everyone knew everyone else’s secrets. That sort of stalemate makes for a successful détente, until some new element comes along to upset the balance. I was that element.

I am not white. Not pale, not pink, not blonde haired or blue of eye. I am black, and despite all my mother told me, not everyone thinks that is beautiful. The nice part was that the town banded together across old wounds. The not as nice part is that they put me on the other side. The first time I came home with a swollen lip my father patched me up and my mother made sure I had an ice pack and consolation cookies. They assumed I lost the fight, and I didn’t say otherwise.

“Johari, have I ever told you the story of how we met?” That’s how my mother liked to put it. She didn’t use the word adoption. I nodded, of course she had, but she smiled and kept speaking, her voice falling into the almost rhythmic cadence of a well-traveled tale.

“Trust me when I tell you, black is beautiful. I know, because here you are, the most beautiful thing in all the world. When you grow up you will be a great storyteller.” My mother liked to exaggerate for effect but I knew better than to interrupt. I settled for rolling my eyes.

“It was a cold day at the end of Fall. The nights came early and winter lurked around the corner. It was the time of year when many creatures become slow, weak. Spiders are like that.” She bit into a cookie.

“I sat in this very room, here by the window,” she said, “when there came a booming knock!” She threw her hands up in mock surprise, spraying cookie crumbs across the floor. I sighed and waited for her to remember that I wasn’t a baby anymore.

“It was night and we weren’t expecting anyone. Afraid in the dark, still I opened the door. What if someone needed our help? And I was right.” She smiled with a tenderness I still felt years later.

“Anansi stood on the threshold. Can you imagine? A giant black spider, weaver of tales, singer of stories, right there on our doorstep. He held a little bundle in two of his arms, wrapped with the finest spider silk. That was you.” The melting ice pack sent a cold bead of water running down my arm.

“‘I cannot care for the child,’ Anansi said. ‘Orphan of my favorite storyteller, she will grow to have the same spark. If you take her, I promise riches beyond imagining.'”

I always winced at this part. My parents were teachers and anything but rich.

“Of course we agreed,” my mother said. “The only thing Anansi asked is that I use this loom to weave the stories of your life, so that someday he might return and know you. And so that you would not forget where you came from.”

Finishing the cookie and putting the ice pack back in the freezer for next time drained the last of my strength. I was tired of being the one thing all the kids agreed on. Tired of standing out, tired of pretending to believe that a talking spider from African legend left me on a doorstep in Iowa.

“It’s ok that I’m adopted,” I said. My mother frowned, perhaps not understanding. “I just don’t want to pretend that I’m something special. I get enough grief in school as it is. Let me be normal. Ok?” Troubled eyes followed me as I climbed the worn carpeted steps to my room.


Hours later I reached to the back of a deep shelf and felt polished wood rather than cardboard. A box the size of a photo album sat nestled in cobwebs and labeled with my mother’s handwriting.

“Johari, my jewel,” it read, ink faint after years of storage. Inside, sachets and sheets of tissue made sure that whatever this was, it stayed safe. Protected. I peeled the layers back, wondering what she could have hidden away all these years.

A letter lay inside, dated on a Sunday in November, the year of my birth. I took a deep breath, thinking I knew what this was but not certain I was ready. Still, I opened the delicate envelope and slipped out several pages of frail blue paper. Airmail stationery, thin and light from the days when connection required such things.

“To My Beautiful Child,” the letter began. “Trust me when I tell you…”

I couldn’t keep myself from reading it through. With this letter she’d woven the story of me for the first and now last time, her voice echoing through the years. I saw myself sitting at the foot of her loom as if nothing had ever happened between us.


Like some adoptees, I went through a period of wanting to know where I came from, who contributed the genetic material necessary for me to exist. And I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t above using that most awful of lines to win fights: “You’re not my mother, you can’t tell me what to do!” I cringed to remember how her face crumpled, and at the hot spike of triumph in my gut.

We fought about my friends. It turned out that the best way to protect myself from other kids was to despise my difference as much as they did. The day in junior high when Toby Miller made some vicious crack about my skin and I laughed was a turning point. No more bruises, no more ice packs in the freezer. All I had to do was give up who I was. My mother didn’t see it as a good trade. I saw it as survival.

We didn’t talk as much after that. No more languid afternoons in the front room, sharing stories by the loom. Her mood was dark but, strangely, her weaving lightened. No more colors, just white upon white upon white. I learned later that white is the color of mourning in some cultures, but at the time I felt relieved. It seemed less peculiar than a mother who made cloth the color of gemstones, of rainbows, of tacky clothing stores at the mall.


The letter was not alone in the box. Beneath the envelope a final fold of tissue protected one last gift, a swaddling cloth of the softest silk, with gossamer filaments woven in a pattern of unimaginable complexity. My fingers’ rough skin caught at the fabric but the threads did not break.

I knew it then, with a certainty as inexplicable as the story in that fragile blue letter. Spider silk.

My mother wanted me to be a teller of tales, the rightful heir to Anansi. Instead she gave me the gift of normalcy, allowed me to lead an unremarkable life. I let the exquisite fabric cascade across my lap and cried.

Darkness clung like the spiders to bare windows, but neither sent chills up my spine. Surrounded by the stories of my life, I was possessed by a conviction stronger than my fear. I would take the job. Stop hiding. I would become something… more.

The house shook as a booming knock rang out on the door.

© J.R. Johnson
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Happy Mother’s Day!

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