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How Mamie Till Bradley Showed the World What Mothers Do
by Amy L. Hayden


"I'm sorry you are wiser, I'm sorry you are taller;
I liked you better foolish and I liked you better smaller."
- Aline Murray Kilmer

There are no public records of Mamie Till Bradley's 1941 pregnancy, but I imagine she carried her son, Emmett, in utero for thirty-nine weeks or so before she birthed him in a Chicago hospital, then took him home to raise him into adolescence on the city's Soutph Side. Mamie Till Bradley probably worked full-time to put Emmett through school, pay doctor's bills, and give him money to buy penny candy at the corner store on school-day afternoons.

In August 1955, Mamie bought Emmett a bus ticket from Chicago to Leflore County, Mississippi, where he would visit her relatives and see the home in which she was born under the watchful eye of the neighborhood midwife.

It was in Money, Mississippi, where Emmett met his cousins, drank Coca-Cola out of small glass bottles, swam in muddy rivers, and (the accounts vary at this point) whistled at a white woman in a small corner store.
    It was in Money, Mississippi, on August 27, 1955 that the white woman's husband and friends - and perhaps a few black men who worked for the husband - abducted Emmett in the middle of the night while his uncle and cousins sat and watched, paralyzed with fear.
    It was in Money, Mississippi, on August 31, 1955, that Emmett's mutilated body was found by a man fishing in the Tallahatchie River, a man stunned to find a bloated boy's body with a 125-pound cast-iron wheel from a cotton gin tied around his neck with barbed wire.
    It was from Money, Mississippi, that Emmett Till's body was sent home to his mother in Chicago.

In Chicago Mamie Till Bradley identified her son's body, misshapen after being washed up on a river bank, swollen and nameless, indistinguishable from a million other bodies of a million other fourteen-year-old boys had they been tortured and murdered by racists and dumped like sewage into a dirty Southern tributary of the Mississippi River. Emmett Till's unrecognizable body was not identified by dental records, birthmarks, or from the knowing word of a family physician, but because his mother, being his mother, knew his feet.

* * *

I first heard this story when I took a graduate course on lynching literature and we went to see a play about Emmett Till. When the line about her son's feet was uttered from Mamie Till Bradley - a heartfelt sob wrenched from the belly of the woman playing her part - I felt my body respond. It was precisely the sort of thing a mother would know. It struck me as particularly true, the sort of fact embedded in and embroidered upon a mother's memory: the exact shape of a toe, the curve of an instep, the rise and fall of an arch, the curl of the heel as it winds its way into the Achilles tendon and slowly widens into a hearty calf imbued with all the strength and vitality of what lies above and below.
    I recognized the sentiment, knew the line, felt for Mamie Till Bradley even though I had never lost a child and, even if I had, it couldn't compare to the experience of being a black woman who lost her only son to racists in what could euphemistically be called a lynching, as if one word could sum up such a thing.

After the class ended and the play was a memory, the story of Mamie and her son's feet remained. Of all the historical tragedies to which I bore witness - the Till case was a week's worth of material in a semester-long class - that was what I had left.
    Yes, I also remembered the pregnant woman whose child was cut from her womb and stomped to death while she was hung hog-tied from a tree and was eviscerated and burned while still alive and screaming. Somehow, though, Mamie Till Bradley identifying her only son by the shape and form of his feet was what meant the most.

* * *

I have memorized my children's feet. And not only their feet, but the rest of their bodies:
    heads, ears, noses, bellies, chins, necks, hands, dimples, knees, elbows. I am certain that if either of my children were to end up washed up on a riverbank with a cotton gin wheel attached to their necks with barbed wire I would know them. I do not mean I would be able to refer to some immutable memory I have of their bodies at any given point in time, although I do have virtual slide shows in my head and carry them always. Besides such obvious points of reference, what I mean is that there is a deep sense in which the memory of my children's bodies is imprinted upon my own, in a way which invokes an almost instinctual and visceral response to seeing them.
    I am an atheist. I am a skeptic. I do not believe in things that cannot be proven.
    My knowledge of my children: this escapes and transcends categories like truth and lies, it makes such distinctions seem like insults when what we are talking about is this kind of love.

* * *

My firstborn son: His right foot has a mole on the right side about half way between its sole and its top side.
    Until he was three years old his largest toe's nail on each foot would grow flat, edges upturned, a bird with wings stretched. When it started growing what I used to think as normal, I missed it that way, as if that tiny bird had flown away and didn't need me to take care of him any more.

On his six-month birthday we had a party. Friends of mine (two children each), came, told me I was holding him too much and I believed them. That night he cried himself to sleep in a cold crib made of white metal, the kind people in Mexico (or is it China now?) make for export, the kind people in Guatemala think are cruel when they accuse us of keeping our babies in cages instead of holding them. At six months, I could not know this was true. Now, at seven-plus years, I nearly weep thinking of the memories I do not have and shiver at the thought of him small in a metal cage, seeing only cold white bars and appliquéd Pooh Bears and Disney characters on his nursery walls, wondering where I'd gone and why I'd abandoned him when only weeks (days?) earlier I'd promised him I wasn't going anywhere.
    When he started stopped crying himself to sleep there, alone in the cold cage, I missed holding him, feeling his body change, awake to asleep, a step backward, going from the place where everything was so hard to softness, my breast, hearts beating together, breath getting slower, and then just peace and darkness.

There are times I look at him now and wonder what happened.
    I have forgotten the early years, times when he was two or three and learning to be the little person he's become.
    I remember at some point I thought he was miraculous, learning to do so many things, things I take for granted now that he is seven-almost-eight. I try to remember a time when he could not get dressed on his own, when I changed his diapers, when I carried him because he could not walk.
    I know I used to feed him baby oatmeal with a tiny blue spoon and when he would push some of it out with his tongue I would take that spoon and scrape it along his chin and lips to scoop up the cereal and push it back into his toothless mouth.
    Now that he is seven, now that he uses the toilet and wipes himself (without using an entire half-roll of toilet paper) and washes his own hair and can tie his own shoes, the only evidence I have that he was ever helpless is in photo albums and the conversations I have with his father about how very long ago his infancy seems.
    He is at the stage now where he is toothless again, grinning proud at having lost his "baby teeth."
    I am proud, too, but also wistful because the toothlessness shocks me into the past and I remember how long of a journey it's been. Despite what they say - those nameless ubiquitous arbiters of motherhood folklore - no one is ever their mother's baby forever.
    We simply forget; perhaps what we do is remember too late.

His hands and feet are almost as big as mine now.
    On laundry days we get confused over whose socks are whose and when mine are dirty I wear his and they fit me well. I used to wear his Rage Against the Machine t-shirt - the one with a Molotov cocktail on the back - because mine has holes in it. My wearing his clothes is uncomfortable for my partner, my son's stepfather; he says it's disconcerting and confusing.
    I pretend I know what he means.
    I stopped wearing the Rage t-shirt.
    The socks remain an innocuous and hidden rebellion.

My son and I have taken to cuddling again. Years ago, when I kept trying and he kept pushing away, I assumed the time had ended for close easy intimacy. I enjoy it so much I wonder if grown men cuddle with their mothers.
    I figure they do not, and resolve, this time, to take as much as I can. I put off writing, doing schoolwork, doing laundry, so we can lie on the couch with my arm around his body and hands intertwined, talking about how he wants to be a paleontologist in the summers and an existentialist philosopher in the winters when he is grown. Perhaps he will be an auto mechanic or an artist instead, but I relish his high-pitched little-boy voice and wonder how different our lives become when we have someone to hold us while we imagine the what-ifs of the world.
    At times I wonder if Mamie Till Bradley cuddled Emmett when he was fourteen years old, or if she thought he was too old and wouldn't enjoy it. I remember being fourteen myself, dating an older boy whose parents invited us to curl up on the end of their king-sized bed after our date and we would chat about things I have long since forgotten. I felt safe then, imagine that's how my son feels now, how Emmett would have felt if he was willing to cuddle. I pretend Emmett snuggled with his mother on a divan or settee and that when he died Mamie could remember the recent curve of his smaller body against hers as they talked about what would come next. I imagine whatever dreams Emmett had didn't die when his body was found bloated and disfigured, that Mamie Till Bradley swallowed them, digested them, perspired them with every tear she cried until they evaporated and rained down the day Emmett was buried - an open-casket funeral, because Mamie wanted the world to see what they'd done to her boy - but no one could take away the feel of her son's body when she hugged him good-bye. No one could take away the things that left her able to identify her son by his digits and limbs.

* * *

My second son could not be more dissimilar from my first.
    In times of frustration, I say if I had known he would be this different I would not have wanted him (he was, as they say, "unplanned"). My older son would sit in his room and play with toys until noon on the weekends without calling out for me or even wanting to see me.
    Now, in the way only a seven-year-old can, he uses our beagle for a pillow as he reads for hours, curled up and sucking his thumb no matter how many times I paint it with nasty-tasting stuff I bought at Walgreen's. His little brother, though, now twenty-six months old (still young enough to be counted in twelfths rather than wholes), he has not calmed since the minute he escaped into this world.

When I am writing I cannot concentrate for more than a quarter-hour at a stretch; interruptions vary in their kind and degree, but they are the one constant in our relationship. At times I must stop because he has climbed atop a flat surface - his dresser, the toy box, a kitchen counter - and cannot find his way down.
    Other times he sneaks up behind my office chair and twirls my chair and the words on the page end up jumbled while my keyboard and mouse slam to the floor and I get dizzy from the spin but he smiles and laughs in joy at my confusion. I constantly feel as if I'm in a war zone: I do not know what is coming next or when. In quiet times he peeks his head around the door frame and squeaks a "hi mommy!" in his tiny toddler voice then rustles away on little legs still slightly bowed from his time crouched, waiting, inside of me. When he really needs me in a deep little-boy kind of way he approaches apprehensively with his head down, a little shy, while he whispers so softly I have to read his lips: "I want mama milk." And then I take him onto my lap where he is too big to fit comfortably.
    I nurse him deeply and he kicks the keyboard with his left foot, one of his feet whose second and third toes are joined at the first joint until the bothersome poundings - he has my legs: strong quadriceps, healthy calves that cause even the monitor on the desk to jiggle when he makes impact - slow and then stop and he has fluttered into sleep but not before sighing and, sometimes, laughing a bit.
    Sometimes he doesn't fall asleep on my lap, and instead wiggles free and says "bye mommy" in a small and deep voice, as if he's telling me a secret only I can understand, and he writhes down onto the floor where he finds a comfortable place on the carpet by my feet and twitches off to sleep.

Despite the non-stop action, his unpredictable nature, the little one is my snuggler. We practice attachment parenting, which means I'll nurse him until he wants to stop and he'll sleep in bed with us at night until he decides he wants his own bed.
    When the baby was born my older son moved his race car bed into our room so no one would feel left out.
    We have a family bedroom in every sense - even the cats and dog join us in the wee hours - and often it's the only way we are all in the same room for more than an hour.
    Technically, the little one has his own bed; it's a metal toddler-sized affair we garbage-picked from our neighbors down the street and pushed up against his father's side of the bed.
    At the beginning of the night, he curls up there in a modified fetal position: knees to his chest, but then on his stomach, so he's in a tight lump with his rump up in the air, his cheek pressed tightly onto the mattress, drool leaving a dark wet circle on the sheet beneath him. By the time we wake up in the morning, he's made his way over his father and into the space between the two of us, snuggling up under the covers with his head on my pillow.
    More often than not I wake up with the feel of his shaggy head on my lips, the lavender smell of his baby shampoo stirring my senses. His father wants me to cut his hair, but I'm holding out.
    I like the way it feels when I close my eyes and his body nestles up to mine and I can run my fingers through the length of his locks and feel the hard shape of his skull under my knuckles.
    At these times I remember the sharp force of his cranium as he descended into the world and forget how unruly this child is during the light of day, when sleep is not so near, while I'm trying to write and work and be more than just his mother but he can't understand what else there might possibly be.

* * *There are times I dislike my children. Sometimes it borders on hatred, which I have to believe other mothers understand. It is difficult, often confusing. There is an incontrovertible and physical pull I feel toward my children, like the huge magnet from freshman physical science class when I was thirteen.
    At times, though, I also feel resistance, like the way my sons' magnetic toy trains refuse to connect if one of them is pointed in the wrong direction and the boys end up screeching and frustrated because they want them to fit - now! mama! - but they simply cannot.

Many times I wish there was someone to talk to about these things.
    I want to be honest about the frustration I feel struggling my children into the back seat of the Mustang I hold on to because to do otherwise would be losing too much of myself.
    I want to tell stories about how I'm trying to drive in that tiny car and the boys won't shut up and they are crying or talking or wanting to tell made-up jokes that don't make sense and there is nothing I'd rather do than pull into the next gas station and just leave them there, strapped in their car seats, knowing that eventually I'll come back for them until they realize, terrified, that I'm not.

In reality, in the truth that matters most, I am not the mother who does such things. I have to believe there are millions of us in the world, the women I see at the grocery store with screaming children, my neighbors whose yelling I can hear across the street in the summers when children are home, the mothers I see at the doctor's office where children either never sit still or are perpetually crying.
    These mothers - with lives as far apart as my white suburbia and Mamie Till Bradley's racist hell - probably, at times, also want their children to disappear, leave them the hell alone so they can get work done or just have a simple minute to breathe without the air around them growing suffocating with the tiny sticky breaths of small children crowding their space. I think the difference between all of us and Mamie Till Bradley - besides the obvious - is that Mamie had to live with the regret and remorse of having felt ill will for her child (which all mothers do, no matter what they say) and then never was able to take it back because the only person who could make it disappear had died, and he didn't die easily, which made it all the worse.

Chances are, if Mamie ever did resent Emmett, he didn't know.
    Children remember the love and the patience, paper airplanes and origami, science experiments and painting projects; they remember long cuddles in bed or on a couch, tickle fights and chasing each other around the house in stocking feet and pajama pants.
    If asked, these are the things my children would say define our relationship, and we have evidence: tiny multicolored paper animals adorning my desk, the canvasses we made last summer on the back porch getting our fingers gooey with poster paint, the collective memories of our bodies tightly wound around each other, holes in our socks from running too much and too quickly on bare floors.

* * *

Even more than my children taught me about how deeply I could resent them, they taught me how to love. I know it's trite, it's been said a million times in much better ways by people more famous and poetic, but nonetheless it remains true when I say it to myself.
    Even beyond the moments I spend - brief and infrequent - wishing I could drop the children off at an orphanage where they will be loved and cared for, there are the infinite moments where frustration floats away and in its place is a peaceful remembrance of the reasons why I put myself in this position.

I don't think motherhood is about always liking your children and wanting to eat them up as if they're a delicacy of which you'll never grow tired.
    I know we're supposed to sign an unconditional love clause with the unwritten and invisible mama contract, but there's a difference. My mother used to say she'd always love me, but sometimes she didn't like me very much, and she had a point. I will always love my children, go to the ends of the Earth to make sure they are safe and warm and loved and will do whatever needs to be done for them to grow into healthy, happy, feminist men, but there are some times I simply do not like them.

I imagine that, even more than most mothers (given the circumstances), Mamie Till Bradley felt deep sorrow for the moments in which she did not like her son.
    She regretted that she yelled too much, had too little patience too many times, worked so hard for so long that some nights she could not tuck Emmett into bed. At his funeral she probably felt she had failed him, that perhaps if she had given him something he had been missing he would still have been alive.
    I grow quiet and sad when I think of this; I suspect anyone who has lost a loved one regrets not being a better person when time wasn't so short. It's probably harder when the circumstances include a mother losing her son to racists in a town he wasn't used to, based on behavior that would have been relatively innocuous in his hometown. Although I do not know for certain, I suspect Mamie believed she was guilty, that Emmett still would have been alive if she'd just been a better mother, whatever that means, if only she'd never wished he would leave her alone.

* * *

Over the past two years I have read thousands of pages of material surrounding the Emmett Till case. Most of it has dealt with Mamie Till Bradley, whose courage and compassion continue to astound me. Until her death, she regretted all the things a mother would regret under the circumstances but, based on the things I've read, she embraced that. She acknowledged there were things she could have done better, or at least differently - not sending Emmett to Mississippi, for one - but she was also honest with herself. She knew that when Emmett was being beaten to death and then dragged into the undertow of the Tallahatchie River, he remembered her love and the kisses good night and whatever his version of origami animals and paper airplanes was.
    Emmett knew he had been etched into his mother's soul and she into his. He knew, in all the moments of his life, from his first breath until his last, that in the end his mother was the only person who really knew him.
    And even though he knew that, Emmett could not have known how truly it was so.

For many people, Mamie Till Bradley's identification of her son's body was unbelievable; some insisted it was impossible and refused to believe the body was Emmett's.

The naysayers must not have been mothers.

I have to believe they were people who have never been nine months pregnant with their children kicking inside of them with such force that footprints can be traced on the belly with a finger. These people do not know the joy intrinsic in sleeping next to a child whose body warms your own. They do not know what it is like to feel the flutters of a baby yet to be born and then the next day feel the same flutters from a newborn baby - yours! - lying next to you in a hospital bed trying to nurse from breasts just beginning to bloom with life. They don't know the feeling of closing your eyes while a child wiggles into just the right space that fits your body and without moving an eyelash you just know - just know with your bones - exactly where every part of that child's body is, right then, in the world.

They don't know what it means to memorize the shape of a child, commit to memory the details that make the child your own: the quirks of a leg, an arm, a smooth belly, the curve between the thigh and the knee, the way a neck tilts to one side or the other when a child questions the world, the smoothness of their hands, the stubbiness of little fingers, the length and width and curve and bend of each toe on each foot of your child's body.

Only a mother would know.



About the author:
Amy L. Hayden is a full-time English graduate student in creative writing at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before entering graduate school, she worked in the newspaper industry as a business editor and writer. She has two children, ages seven and two, and lives in the western suburbs of Chicago with her partner of five years and their two cats and a dog. She is currently working on her first nonfiction book, a memoir of the years she spent living in Texas as a child.



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