by Nancy Musinguzi
I can’t remember a time when my mother didn’t cook. She always found a reason to keep us at the dinner table – for breakfast before school, family coming from out of town, a graduation, or a spark of inspiration by a mistake in the kitchen, she turned it into a meal for all of us to try. Regardless of method, she used food to bring us all together, slow us down from our hectic lives and help us remember how to converse in the language of the world – love. The relationship we share with our mothers are sacred beyond comparison. Our mothers are the first set of eyes we see, the first touch we seek, the first we feel familiar with and grow to trust. The unconditional love of a mother can transform, heal and repair life, teach us lessons about pain, growth, and ultimately how to love ourselves, plainly and simply.
When I first met Tiffany, I was reminded of this power that all Black mothers have. She was a patient woman with eyes that spoke volumes of life overcome with strength and persistence. Tiffany began our interview with a brief reflection on her experience living in Minnesota, being raised by conservative Black parents, and her new role as a healer at the People’s Movement Center in Southside Minneapolis. The dialogue eventually led me to ask her about her family and relationships with everyone in her household. In an interracial marriage with her White husband, Elliot, Tiffany shared with me the challenges of raising four daughters of varying ages, complexions, and racial backgrounds including a White, teenage daughter and a biracial child. Going through various phases of her life–admitting at times that she felt severed from herself, not completely valued or cared for–Tiffany explained the joyous side of motherhood. When she spoke of her children, particularly her youngest daughter, Luca, her eyes became ablaze with passion and warmth. Her family and children hold her heart together and provide her with an endless source of wellness. I bridged these connections and requested I meet her family to experience this unparalleled world of love first hand.
We chose a Sunday morning to meet again.
A few days later, I stood on the lower steps of their home, waiting anxiously to meet her family for the first time. I was finally greeted by a man I assumed to be Elliot at their pine green door. A face accented with lines from smiles and loops of laughter, Tiffany’s husband welcomed me inside as I inhaled the aroma of food. Tiffany called from the kitchen, glued to the stove-top making gluten-free pancakes and oven-baked bacon. I could hear tiny feet running after each other above me, and my face gave away my eagerness to finally meet her daughters. Tiffany smiled and told me to come down later to join her family for breakfast.
I vanished upstairs and discovered three giggling girls rolling over each other in bed sheets and pillows. One of the girls introduced herself as Vivian, and I instantly remembered her from my conversation at the Center with Tiffany when she was describing the nature of her daughters during our interview. Her step-sister, Jemila, beaming with gentle eyes and ebony skin, introduced herself next and then brought Luca, the youngest, to greet me and my camera where she smiled and sat sheepishly in front of my lens. Luca, only two-years-old, had the attitude of a person ten times her age. Strong minded and sharp, her natural ability to interact with her sisters, both nine-years-old, inspired me. I wondered what their lives were like sharing parents of different complexions and histories, but conjoined together by the values of home. I recognized this while eating breakfast with them at their kitchen table. The differences we had between us began to melt and blend with each new conversation, ranging from school, music, favorite foods and back-story of how Tiffany and Elliot met. “She wouldn’t date me at first,” Elliot grinned while Tiffany stacked food onto our plates, “but after a while, the connection was undeniable.” They exchanged a series of smirks in a language that only they understood, while Luca whined for more food with a bloated belly.
Eating and sharing space with Tiffany that morning made me understand the simplicity of love. Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours in the United States. Sitting at a kitchen table with a group of people connected by the raw meanings of kinship brought on new thoughts about how we create definitions of family. How can we maintain authentic connections between each other without biology? What can we learn from transcending values of home into our everyday relationships with others outside of our home?
Tiffany shared with me her transformational journey in turning into the woman and loving mother she is today:
“...the girls. Yes, I do have very different relationships with each one. I’ll begin with the oldest.
Scarlett is 18 and lives in Dubuque, Iowa where her dad is from. My relationship with her has changed over the last couple of years. It began as more of a friend connection. I was the cool adult that she liked to hang out with. We would go to the beach, we would make art together, it was fun. I eventually though, came to a point where I had to choose whether to continue being her friend, or to step into the role of an adult who was responsible for her wellbeing. I chose the latter. As a result, our relationship is no longer the one of leisure, which I do miss. I am still trying to find the balance of friend and parent figure. It’s a tricky balance because I have come into her life at a stage where she is very quickly becoming less and less dependant upon parents. It makes it a little more challenging to figure out where that balance lies. Scarlett has grown into an amazing, confident young woman who is secure in herself, her beliefs, and her choices. I have so much respect and love for her.
Vivian, will be ten in just a couple of days. This is yet another tricky relationship, one that I am constantly working to improve. The thing with Vivian is that I feel as though I have to overcompensate for where she may need some extra support. I know I am harder on her than any of the other girls. I know it may be difficult for her to see right now the position I have taken, but I come from a place of love. I love that girl so much, I see where her heart is, what her potential could be and I know she’s been through a lot in her young life. I try to remind myself that she’s just a young girl, just a kid that needs support and love and nurturing. She is a very intelligent, strong-minded, creative girl who will run you into the ground if you let her.
Jamila, is nine also. Her and V are just about six months apart and two very different people. Jamila and I have had a special relationship from the very beginning. A special bond. Jamila and I spent a lot of time together when she was a baby, and still do now. I always felt as though our connection was more than just that of great niece/ great aunt. She has always been my girl. In a way, I sometimes think of her as my first child. With her, I really began to understand what it would take to be a parent, where and when to protect, and when to step back and let her explore her world with just a reminder to be safe. She’s intelligent, imaginative and quirky. I often allow her to take me into her world of make-believe. It is always quite a ride in her fantasy. I feed that flame as much as I can because it’s a beautiful gift that I hope she always keeps close.
Last, and certainly not least, is Luca. At two and a half, she is a force to be reckoned with. Luca keeps me honest. Her pure heart, filled to the brim with the very rawest of emotions, is the most true thing I have ever had the honor to witness unfold. With Luca, no part of me can ever hide because she sees right through it. What choice do I have then but to respect her intuition, her highest self, her intelligence, and show up and try to match her in brilliance?
I see some of myself in all of the girls. Each one of them challenges me in ways that I never imagined I could be. I am up for it, though. They have given more to me than I could ever begin to repay. I am forever indebted and grateful to have them in my life, to be able to call them my girls.”
Nancy Musinguzi is a documentary photographer, activist, and writer based out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Recently a graduate from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media. Nancy previously worked as a freelance photographer and writer in New York City to tell stories about subculture and art communities she lived in and traveled to. Currently, she works as an artist-in-residence at the non-profit organization, Youthprise, where she has had the opportunity to install her work in two solo exhibits.