For most of my boyhood, my mother and her mother—an old, Polish woman barely bigger than a sparrow and about as restless—ruled our home. Life might have been different, of course, had my father lived. As it was, when my brother and I were eight and six, he died one April night, suddenly and suspiciously. My mother, she barely 33 and a widow now, was left to raise her two sons. This was Chicago, 1970.

When I look back, I see my mother as a woman who was loving and full of wit and humor, but often, too, she would be filled with melancholy and silence, reduced to sitting at the kitchen table, dealing herself endless hands of solitaire. Some years ago, I asked her what she felt that first night she was alone, the night after my father died. She looked at me and said, "I sat down at the kitchen table. I had put you and your brother to bed. And I remember as I sat there, all I could think was that your father was gone and I had to take care of you and your brother. That it was all up to me to raise you two guys." She paused. "And I just thought to myself: 'Nothing is going to stop me.'"

And nothing did stop her. My brother and I finished school, started our own lives. Built families.

I would be less than honest, however, if I did not say that as I entered the world of work, of a life outside of my boyhood home and the matriarchy's orbit, I always felt something was stopping me. I always felt incomplete—weak?—because I came to feel in my bones and my heart that I did not know the ways of men. That I didn't "speak" men. For years, I felt alone. Isolated. Unable to belong. At the root of it, I always believed that having been raised by a single mother, I was not socialized in the ways of men (whatever that means).

Next: Growing up without a father


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