Family Matters

Unspoken Son

Sometimes, or closest ties aren't blood ties

Michael Shernoff
Magazine Issue
November/December 2004
Unspoken Son

We have words for all sorts of mothers–birth mothers, adoptive mothers, stepmothers, lesbian coparents, surrogate mothers. But we still don’t have the right word for the kind of mother Laura Brown was to me.

Laura had come north to New York City from Beaufort, South Carolina, during the great African American migration of the early 1940s. Outsiders would have called her our family’s maid or “domestic”–the person my father hired to take care of his sons when my mother died six months after my birth. From my point of view, although I soon learned not to use the word, Laura was my mother, and I was her son.

One vivid memory: I’m two years old, playing outside our apartment building in Queens. Every now and then, another child looks up at the building and yells “Mom!” or “Mommy!” until a woman sticks her head out a window and responds. Finally I, too, begin to call “Mommy!” Women open their windows, look down, and stick their heads in again. Finally hysterical, I run into what seems like a cavernous building shrieking “Mommy! Mommy!” I only stop crying when a neighbor brings me upstairs into Laura’s welcoming arms.

It was then that I realized that our relationship was regarded differently from those other children had with the most important woman in their lives. “Laura” and “mommy” were synonymous for me, but not for the people around me.

Not long afterward, my father met a woman named Ruth, whom I later came to call “Mom.” They married shortly before my third birthday and all of us, including Laura, moved into Ruth’s house in Jackson Heights. One day, I asked my two older brothers why Dad hadn’t just married Laura. I don’t remember precisely what they said, but I got the impression that I was stupid for even asking, which dumfounded me, since it seemed like a perfectly natural question.

In Jackson Heights, our family was an anomaly. Ruth was the only woman on the block who worked outside the home, and we were the only family with a maid. Six mornings a week before we woke up, Ruth would leave us in Laura’s care and head to her store up the block, her refuge from a noisy and messy house full of kids.

My parents weren’t emotionally generous people. The only time they ate meals with us was on holidays. During elementary school, when I came home for lunch, it was Laura who’d sit with me at the table and ask how my morning had been. These were the only regular, relaxed, intimate parental exchanges I had growing up.

After school, Laura welcomed me home and let me help her cook, cheerfully channeling my energy into making MY-T-Fine chocolate pudding or teaching me how to make a basic white sauce.

“Don’t you be sitting down while cooking,” she’d say, always generous with hugs or playful smacks. “Lazy way of making food results in bad food!” Our mood, so tangibly playful, would immediately chill when my stepmother entered the kitchen, sometimes to scold me for licking a spoon or sampling a dish before it came to the table.

As I grew older, Laura taught me through the stuff of her own life. She told me how, growing up in the South, she’d have to cede the sidewalk if a white person came toward her and I was horrified–without realizing that in our house, she never sat down and ate with us. Her life stories were my first lessons in the fine art of dodging victimhood. One day, she told me, while she was waiting for me after grammar school, a little fat boy asked her what she was doing there, since there were no black children at this school. With mischief in her eye, she told me that she’d replied, “There aren’t any white children here, either.”

When the boy insisted that he was white, she asked him what color his shirt was. “White,” he responded.

She took his arm and held it up against the shirt. “Now, what color is your arm?” she asked. “Pinkish,” he told her sheepishly.

I thought this was the funniest and smartest thing I’d ever heard.

Another time, she asked me to get her wallet from her pocketbook, and in the process I discovered a jagged, glass bottle neck. The previous night, she reluctantly explained, a man had hit her on the head with a rock and tried to rob her at the Brooklyn subway stop near her own apartment. She had, she said, cut him up good. We didn’t say much more, but she made me realize that being a target of violence didn’t have to translate into powerlessness. Remembering her courage and humor helped me, years later, find the strength and verve to become a gay activist.

My father taught me to appreciate wonderful food, and my stepmother Ruth introduced me to the ballet and the theater. But it was Laura who really parented me. I remained her unspoken son after I went off to college, returning often to my parents’ home to see her. After she developed severe diabetes, I was a regular visitor at her nursing home in Queens.

There, what had previously only been strongly felt could now be almost directly spoken. Her short-term memory had deteriorated, and I lived in terror of the day when she wouldn’t know who I was. But at each visit, she proudly introduced me to the nurses, aides, and other residents as “the boy I raised.”

Whenever I heard this, I’d be moved to tears, sensing her satisfaction at having done what she obviously thought was a wonderful job–especially considering that neither of my own parents, not even as they approached their deaths, had ever told me they were proud of me.

Laura died a decade ago. My brother Jeff and I paid to have her body flown back to South Carolina for her funeral, and I flew down to speak at Laura’s “home-going.” There, among her relatives, I could publicly describe how blessed I was to have had her in my life, and that even though I hadn’t come out of her body, Laura was my mother. She’d shown me that mother is a state of mind and a function of unconditional love, not an accident of birth.

As I spoke about her extraordinary generosity and capacity to give, the church filled with “Amens” and emphatically nodding heads. As her coffin was closed, I wept with an intensity that I’d never experienced before and haven’t since. I’d already buried my father and my stepmother, but it was only upon Laura’s death that I felt truly orphaned. There, in that black Baptist church, as Laura’s relatives circled me and comforted me, I was enveloped by a sense of family so often missing with my biological kin.

There was a feast after the funeral, the tables laden with the food Laura had cooked for me and taught me to love: perfectly fried chicken, homemade biscuits, sweet potato pie, fried catfish, and potato salads and cole-slaws that could never be bought in a store. Her sisters were thrilled when I asked if I could wrap some up for the flight home.

I still remember the envious looks I got from nearby passengers and the flight attendants on that difficult flight as I savored, in that food, the love that Laura, my true mother, had given me.

Michael Shernoff is a psychotherapist in private practice in Manhattan who’s on the faculty at Columbia University School of Social Work. Contact: or