Washington Irving, of “Rip Van Winkle” fame, once said “a mother is the truest friend we have, when trials heavy and sudden fall upon us…still will she cling to us”. That’s how I feel about my own mother. In writing a series of blog posts about the people who have helped me get to certain places in life, she’s sure to show up at every turn. So, that’s how I’ll start off The 24 to 30…with my mother, Robbie (Robin) Joyce Thomas.
THE BACKGROUND. I’m pretty sure my mother was the 2nd person I met late on the evening of October 24, 1984…after the OB/GYN who delivered me, of course. She was a young and vibrant 22 when she had me, the 1st of her 4 children. She chose against her first instinct of naming me after my father and against her 2nd instinct of naming me Toryn Tyrese, which would’ve undoubted resulted in me having Triple T, 3T, or T3 as nicknames. Instead, she branded me as AnJuan Jarrell, with a portion of my first name being an ode to a Hall of Fame baseball player that she was particularly fond of. At the time of my birth, my parents were not married and my mother lived with her 2 sisters and brother in my late great-grandmother’s house on the Southside of Birmingham. According to the stories and anecdotes of the time, I was quite the lively person as an infant. My mother always tells me that everybody in the household learned so much about themselves when I came along. My infant years were spent either on Birmingham’s Southside with my mother’s family or Five Points West with my father’s family. There was a spell back then when we moved to Chicago. My own recollection of my childhood experiences with my mother take me back as far as the age of 3. It was in those tender years—when I was 3, 4, 5—that my mother probably had the most expectations out of me. I had a little sister at the time so I was no longer the baby on the scene anymore. I remember all the responsibility of myself that came with being a big brother and to a larger extent, a growing young boy. I struggled to conform initially, mostly because I was reluctant to surrender the attention that was exclusively mine since I was born. My mother, to her credit however, was patient with me during those growing pains though there were times when corporal punishment—typically in the form of those switch whippings or the ones with the straps off her many purses—was necessary. My mother was big on education. When I was 3, she enrolled me and my sister in the JCCEO Head Start program, opting not to wait until I was kindergarten-eligible in 1990. She took me away from those fun days of wreaking havoc in Grandma Sallie’s Little Big Green House and put me in an early learning environment, starting a pursuit of education that still exists today…some 26 years later. It was my mother who decided against me entering kindergarten at Elyton Elementary, the West End neighborhood school I was zoned for, and instead sent me to the more prestigious Glen Iris Elementary. That decision proved costly as it meant that I would have to live full-time with my great-grandmother, who resided just across the street from the school. My mother’s work schedule was too hectic to take me back-and-forth across the city every day and my father was still driving trucks nationally at the time so it was a necessary move. The year-long separation from my mother was actually pretty tough on both of us. Though we talked on the phone multiple times a week, I only saw her and my sister maybe once a month during that time. I remember her being so proud of me when I showcased my progress in kindergarten…like counting to 10, reciting the days of the week, writing my name, and recalling select words from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. Though she thought Glen Iris was the better school, she caved in on my desire “to come home” and up until I moved full-time with my father in 2001, I lived under my mom’s roof. My mother was also the person who introduced me to public transportation. Whether it was the CTA buses and the “L” during the visits to Chicago or the MAX in Birmingham, we got around pretty easily on public transportation. In fact, I didn’t even know my mother could drive until I was I was in 6th grade. When I first started kindergarten, before I moved in with my great-grandmother, my mother would put me on the bus with a note that I showed to the driver to make sure I got to my stops. I remember it clearly: I’d catch the inbound 5-Ensley/Wylam at the corner of 3rd Ave W & Center St in Elyton and transfer to the then 14-11th Avenue South at 2nd Ave N & 22nd St in Downtown Birmingham. From there, the morning shift driver—his name was Tony and he and my mom went to high school together—would make sure I got to the stop at 14th Ave S & 11th Pl, where my great-grandmother was waiting to walk me across the street to school. It was like clockwork every day for the few weeks I did it. People today wonder why I’m so precise about how I travel on public transportation…well, there’s your answer why. As I grew out of the little boy years and closer to my teens, I came more into my own and that’s when my well-noted stubbornness and independence kicked in. As I progressed through my teens, that close-knit bond we had in my younger years started to wane a bit. Our personalities were too strong for each other, which wasn’t necessarily a shock since all of my much older family members always said “you act just like Robin did when she was your age”. Me and my mom clashed on things like girls calling the house, curfews, and even my participation in organized sports. She won all the time as my resistance was usually met with stiff punishments and/or the occasional slap to the face that left my entire body stinging for minutes on end. Though we had our battles, she didn’t love me any less than she did my less troublesome younger sisters and brother. In fact, despite my consistent hardheadedness, she still worked hard to get me some of the things I wanted but everything that I needed. Our constant clashes and my feeling of never winning with her led me to feel like she was operating under totalitarian rule, which resulted in me moving with my father full-time in 2001. Still, there was love between us and I always visited until I moved away for college and the military. We hit a really rough patch when I was 19 that lasted up until I was 22. We had an agreement that she was gonna buy my first car—the 1994 MAZDA Protégé also known as The Deuce—but she never paid me on it. I got offended because she basically got a free car off of me and that close-knit bond we always had started to unravel. Words between us got few and far between. She’d call and I’d be cold and distant towards her. It actually led up to me going almost an entire year without speaking to her…even avoided her during visits home. We eventually resolved that…I remember crying to her, asking for her forgiveness for being “a horrible son”. And she forgave me and said “you’re my son and I’ll always love you”, something she’s always said from my younger years and even now. As I was making the move to Tokyo in 2007, my mother was the one who hugged me the longest before I departed through to the TSA checkpoint at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. That was the longest 4-minute hug in the history of mankind. It was my mother who answered in the middle of the night when my wallet was stolen and I was left in Hong Kong without any money to get back to Tokyo. The first time I asked her for money in 10 years, she went overboard and sent me twice the amount I needed. My mother is also the most worrisome person ever, a title she still holds today. In my first years away from home in college and the military, I expected no less than 3 phone calls from her per day…even when we weren’t on good terms. I remember looking at invoice statements of my cell phone bills and at least ¾ of the calls were incoming calls from her number. While she doesn’t call at such an alarming frequency today, we still talk weekly and now that I’m finally close enough to visit regularly, I always stop by to say hello…that and to raid her refrigerator and cabinets for groceries and leftovers.
THE MOMENT OF IMPACT. Though me and my mom had our tumultuous moments as I was growing into who I am and as she was growing in her experience as a mother, she always had my back. Nobody f’d with me because they didn’t want to deal with my mother’s backlash. She can curse and argue with the absolute best of them. She even had a .25 pistol that I’m sure she wasn’t afraid to use if things got real. In fact, I remember a confrontation I got in with a particular adult and I said “I’m telling my momma” to which that person replied with an “oh s***”. That leads me to her moment of impact. I’m reminded of the Parker High incident in February 2001. After a “secret admirer” letter went terribly wrong, I became the principal figure in a rumored plot to “blow up the school” on St. Valentine’s Day. The rumors started in January 2001, not long after we returned from winter break, and intensified in a manner similar to Hurricane Katrina going from a Category 1 to a Category 5. I ended up getting administratively suspended, under intense pressure from other parents and some teachers, for 11 days leading up to and through St. Valentine’s Day. My mother was not happy about the fact that I got sent home but she was infuriated with the fact that the principal refused to talk to her and the school board didn’t allow a meeting until after St. Valentine’s Day. When February 14th did pass and nothing happened, as I said all along in my defense of the rumors, my mother raised hell because the school administration—and the system administration, at large—not once attempted to notify her of the events that were going on as those rumors were escalating. When I did return to school, it wasn’t the same for me. Half of my teachers refused to let me make up the work I missed, including 5 tests. Once I told my mother, she came back to the school and raised more hell. I remember being in that meeting with her, my father, the principal, the assistant principal for my grade, and the guidance counselor like it was yesterday. I made it clear my feelings in that meeting on how I was being treated by the administration and the teachers, going as far as to say “I’ll drop out before I come back here on Monday”. In the exact moment I said that, I kinda cringed because with the emphasis my mother put on education, “dropping out” wasn’t even an option in our household…heck, I would venture to say we couldn’t use the words “drop” and “out” in close proximity. I figured my mother would chastise me right there for that but she did something totally different and totally unexpected. She cursed out the principal, the assistant principal for my grade, and the counselor…called them “conniving mofos”. She looked at me and said “go get your s***, you ain’t coming back” before turning to my father and saying “he’s going to Huffman”. The folks in the school office drew up the paperwork and my mother escorted me as I got every teacher to sign off. She had some words with the ones who refused to allow me to make up work. The words she had for Ms. Harris, my African-American Literature teacher known for her blond hair and bad attitude, is something that people I know from that moment still talk about.
HOW IT GOT ME TO 30. As I close in on 30, knowing that my mother has been and will always be there for me has been critically important. Though I haven’t always appreciated it, she’s always been my biggest supporter and #1 fan. She’s been there for me every step of the way in almost every situation. From that one time I got my foot ran over in front of Snoozy’s Bookstore to the time a neighborhood parent put their hands on me to the injury that forced me to be recycled in Air Force basic training to an ex-girlfriend leaving me out to hang with a 103.2°F fever, she’s always been there. And even though I’m a grown man that’s got his own, she still reminds me that I’m still her child and that nothing on this earth can take that away from her. There’s no way I get out of my teens much less my 20s and on to 30 and life beyond without my mother’s love. The same love she’s shown me from my first moments of life is the same love I expect from the lucky lady of the future towards my own kids when I get to that point.