Terry McMillan's ninth novel, pulls no punches about family, love, race and the ties that bind and liberate us.
I’ll be the first to admit that I probably could’ve been a better mother, and I’ve got three grown children to prove it. It goes without saying that I do love them. I’m just disappointed in how they turned out. Trinetta is the baby and at 27 she seems to have a hard time saying no to drugs and lowlife men, which has made her allergic to working more than a few months at a time. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe she’s the same daughter who lived on the honor roll all during junior high school. But then between ninth grade and junior college she fell in love too many times to count and lost her mind. She also loved beautiful teeth and was on her way to becoming a dental technician when she got pregnant. Over the years, Trinetta tiptoed back and forth and the last I heard, she’s only 12 units shy of being employable. I used to remind her of this small fact but she would just get defensive. She has given birth to three children. The last one was Noxema. Her daddy went to court and got custody after she drank some shampoo and had to be rushed to emergency. I wish he would’ve claimed those other two. Who they belong to is a mystery that may never get solved. In all honesty, I’m one step away from calling Child Protection Services on her if she doesn’t clean up her act soon.
My oldest, Quentin, likes cracking necks and backs, getting married and getting divorced. He’s a chiropractor and lives up in Oregon where hardly any Black people live, which has made it very easy for him to forget he’s Black. He enjoys being the token and hates the ghetto. He even calls me “mother,” which gets on my nerves because it sounds so official, and he says it using the same tone as telemarketers when they ask for Mrs. Butler. I’ve told him about a thousand times I don’t like being called mother, but he just ignores me. He was the same way when he was little. He doesn’t bend. Does everything his way, which is what has made him so difficult to like. Somehow, someway, he has made himself believe he’s superior to most folks. The only time I seem to hear from him is when he’s getting married or divorced. He’s on his fourth or fifth wife. I can’t keep up. One thing they all have in common is that they’re White. Not that I care. But why they all have to be blonde is what baffles me.
Then there’s Dexter. He’s in the middle. Another smart one who fell in love with stupidity. He’s doing 9 to 12 years for carjacking a Filipino woman in a Costco parking lot in broad daylight using a deadly weapon (which to this day he claims was just a flashlight and not a gun). Him and his high school buddy, Buddy, thought this would be a fun thing to do since the bus was taking too long and they were both high on that marijuana and Bud Lights.
If I had it to do over, I probably wouldn’t have had any kids. It’s too much responsibility trying to steer somebody else’s life when you’re still trying to navigate your own. Back then kids didn’t come with instructions, so you had to wing it. And based on all these modern books full of recipes on how to be a deluxe parent and raise damn near flawless children, I guess I’d have to give myself a C or a C- because apparently I did a whole lot of things wrong.
For starters, I didn’t always put my kids first. I mean I had needs too. Back then, between them and Lee David, I felt just like a pie. Everybody wanted a piece of me and barely left me with a little crust. Plus, I had to work. I did not talk to them in what they now call an inside voice. I talked to them like they were hard of hearing. It was the only way I could let them know I meant business. Plus, I didn’t like being a repeater. Saying the same damn thing over and over and over again and still not getting the results I was after. They were hardheaded. I’m proud to say I did not swear at them, but every once in a while they did hear [[Symbol]] me say sh– and damn and oh, hell no, and five or six or ten times the “F” word. Apparently this was supposed to ruin them but I don’t think this is what did it. I also said no a lot because a lot of things they asked for were unreasonable. Or ridiculous. Time-outs hadn’t been invented yet, which is why if they disobeyed me I sometimes popped their little behinds. I didn’t beat them, mind you, and never used any handheld items.
My mama raised four of us and she made it look easy. (I shouldn’t count Monroe, who was almost 13 when she took him in after her sister died, and he was trouble from the start.) But I’m here to testify: Raising kids is not easy. It’s work. Hard work. And work you don’t get paid for. The worst part is when the little suckers grow up and don’t appreciate the time and energy you put into them. Mine seem to have major lapses in memory. What they remember most is how much you got on their nerves. What you didn’t give them. Not what you did. And they blame you for the things they didn’t bother listening to. As if you never taught them anything. Or that it was useless.
As a mother, you can’t help but wonder where you went wrong and how much of your kids confusion is your fault. I probably should’ve read more fairy tales and more often instead of just on my days off, their birthdays and Christmas. (Trinetta could already read by the time she was 3 and refused to let me hold the book.) It wouldn’t have killed me to hug them every day instead of only when they did something that made me proud. Which I’m sad to say was not all that often. And maybe I could’ve got down on my knees and said their prayers with them instead of standing in the doorway listening. Then tucked them in like they do in fairy tales. Wished them sweet dreams. And kissed them on their foreheads. But I didn’t.
I won’t lie. I wish me and Lee David could have been a little more like the Cosbys. That both of us had graduated from college and become professionals. That we lived in an upscale house in an upscale neighborhood.
That our home was full of modern furniture, real art and real plants. A guest room we used for guests. That we needed passports in order to go to some of the places we traveled to, and went out to dinner where they had valet parking.
Things don’t always go as planned, especially if you didn’t really have any, which is probably why Lee David spent 39 of his 65 years lifting boxes at UPS and I’ve spent 29 pressing a little button on thousands of doors and saying, “Room service!” It doesn’t matter anymore that it was (once) a five-star hotel in Hollywood because in six more years I get to turn in my size-16 uniform and call it quits. And even though both of our pension checks and Lee David’s social security will keep us going, it won’t be the same. I live for those tips.
Unfortunately, I’m the only one in my family who didn’t get a college degree. But I do believe there’s more than one way to get an education. I’m far from dumb. I watch CNN and listen to NPR and I watch the National Geographic Channel and nature programs. I read every chance I get. Mostly novels because they take me away from all the bullsh–that might be going on around me and it’s a good way to escape my world and move in with folks I don’t know. I don’t like murder mysteries or whodunits because I don’t need to read about death when I can go right down the street and see it. I don’t like romance novels because you always know how they’re going to turn out and I am not interested in grown-up fairy tales because life is hard and there is no guarantee you’re going to have a happy ending. But I do believe that even if you make a left when you should’ve made a right, there’s still time to make a U-turn and get in the right lane. Fifty-six might be old to some folks but I think I still have time to improve myself. I just want to have something besides kids and a husband to show for my life.
5 Questions For Terry McMillan
Here’s the thing that happens when you’re reading a Terry McMillan novel: You’re almost always pulled in from the beginning with the “voice.” For many of us it will always remain Mildred Peacock, the Ma’ Dear of Mama (Viking), McMillan’s first novel. Then too there was the Arizona quartet—Bernadine, Savannah, Gloria and Robin—that transported Waiting to Exhale (Viking) into a cultural phenomenon that spawned a box office hit and an infectious sound track. One of my favorites remains Marilyn Grimes, the middle-aged heroine of 2005’s The Interruption of Everything (Viking). That is, until I stepped into Who Asked You?, McMillan’s new fiction universe. I recently caught up with the author and found out what inspired her latest and how she has grown after a quarter of a century of writing books we love.
ESSENCE: You’re now living in Los Angeles. Was Who Asked You? inspired by your move to L.A. or had you started to think about this novel when you were in Northern California?
TERRY McMILLAN: I set the novel in Los Angeles long before I knew I was going to be relocating here from the San Francisco Bay Area. To my knowledge, I haven’t set a story here and I thought in light of the issues confronting my main character, that this story could work being set in Los Angeles.
ESSENCE: You balance 15 characters well and give each of them a distinct voice, from Nurse Kim to Venetia. What did you want to say with this narrative?
McMILLAN: Everybody has a point of view—especially when it comes to other folks’ business. In this case, I thought it befitting to show how each character felt about and reacted to others. The only way to do that, and make it feel immediate as well as authentic, was to tell the story from multiple viewpoints. How often do children get to express their feelings or their confusion in an adult book? Also, in real life people get on each other’s nerves, especially family members, and although most of them love and care about each other, they also have opinions they don’t always share. But sometimes they do, which can cause problems, particularly when it’s critical and unsolicited. It was challenging to tell the story this way, but the novel dictated the structure. I didn’t decide to write it this way to be clever.
ESSENCE: I love that Betty Jean loves literature! So many ESSENCE readers have varied tastes in books. She’s growing through reading, which is so cool. How have you changed since publishing your first novel?
McMILLAN: Betty Jean wasn’t college-educated, because I wanted folks who read this book to know that it’s not a prerequisite for having good reading taste. I wanted a reader to know that she was discerning and I wanted her to explain why she chose to read the things she did. I can’t say how I’ve changed since publishing my first novel insofar as writing goes, but I can say that I continue to try to tell honest and realistic stories about realistic characters with realistic problems. That’s all I can do.
ESSENCE: You’ve always been supportive of writers whose works don’t often receive as wide a hearing. What writers are exciting you now?
McMILLAN: Other writers are not competitors. We are all trying to do the same thing: Tell compelling stories we hope our audience can appreciate and enjoy. There is room for all of us. We are a mosaic. I don’t read writers based on their ethnicity. I read what I like. That being said, African-American writers are having a more difficult time getting support from publishers, and as a result, many of them suffer from little or no exposure. I have a list of all authors whose work I admire on my Web site, but here are some names I encourage folks to read because they are brilliant: Martha Southgate, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Attica Locke, Bernice McFadden, Edward Kelsey Moore, Mia McKenzie, Kaui Hart Hemmings, Esi Edugyan, T. Geronimo Johnson, Mat Johnson, Dana Johnson, Danielle Evans and Yvette Edwards—to name a few.
ESSENCE: Congratulations on Whoopi Goldberg bringing A Day Late and a Dollar Short to the small screen. I’ve got to ask: How is Getting to Happy coming together?
McMILLAN: Thanks. Whoopi rocks! I believe someone is working on a new script for Getting to Happy.
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