Mother's strength greatest gift to her son

By Seneca Flowers

As I stared out my living room window, snow fell softly to the ground; the outside world had turned to white static, visual noise. Calming. Soothing.

Sometimes snow is a symbol of Christmas.

For me, it's alligators.

When I was around 8, I lived in an apartment in the middle of Tampa, Fla.

Somewhere around that time, my mom reconnected with her first love/husband, James. They were originally high school sweethearts, but years had passed between them. They separated after the Vietnam War left, a then young soldier, James…unstable…unpredictable.

But he was back in the picture, and this was the first time I had met him, my brothers' father.

The alligator farm was a stinky array of manmade lakes with writhing reptiles that smelled similar to freshwater fish, but mixed with mud and feces. I feared the alligators.

I was told they could latch onto a person and, in spinning motions, spiral to their underwater dens where they would feed. Violent. Hungry.

But the men didn't fear the alligators. The men wrangled the beasts with giant poles with rope loops around the end.

I would watch them hoop the 'gators and pull tightly. They would yell at one another in men language, a language I had not yet learned.

They tugged and twisted; they violently pulled and yanked the beasts from their underwater dens. The other men wrapped duct tape around the reptiles' eyes, bound their mouths shut, threw them in the back of a trailer, like a horse trailer.

I stood on the trailer wheels, holding my frail body gripping old steel, to watch the piles of animals—bounce and jerk while looking for some form of release.

Alligators ropers were my heros

These men were my heroes. Fearless. Gritty.

And back at our house trailer, we ate the alligator meat. It was good, but it was all we had. There was no milk, cereal, eggs or bread. There was no dessert. There was only alligator meat, sometimes potatoes or a vegetable, but often not.

Some days my mother fried the meat; others she baked it, and later in the week, in tears, she fried it again while cursing it. This was not an exciting world for her as it was for me.

While exploring the farm, I walked into a freezer one day and saw one alligator dead on a table, with skin missing in parts. Its exposed torso flesh was white-pink with the head still intact. I wouldn't go near it. As I stared in fear, the men yelled, "Boo." I cried and ran, for I knew the reptiles could surely still get me.

The alligator ropers were not my mother's heroes, for she saw them through adult eyes. She saw them Jonesing; she saw them as they twitched, and their hands shook like cattails beaten by violent winds. She saw them when they cursed their women and neglected their children.

To her, they were just men who disappeared into the woods at night to find alcohol and drugs while their families wept in trailers in the swamps. To her, they weren't men; they were animals.

So we left; it was only about six weeks later, but we left.

One late night, we snuck out in late hours with our measly belongings packed tightly into a car, having no hint of our next destination. She never really had a plan, but she was positive and strong, so I was too.

Broken down with nowhere to go

However, there was a major glitch. We were broke. While driving back to Tampa, we broke down and slept in the car along the breathing highway. She didn't sleep, but I didn't know that then. She just pretended, so I could feel safe while she muffled tears, trying to figure out a plan for me.

I was too young to understand we were homeless, but she told me her job needed her in Orlando, so I had to stay with my cousin.

I asked her if that meant when I visited her, we would see Disney World. I was excited. She swallowed, breathed slowly and with watering eyes replied, "Yes, of course, honey." Patient. Nurturing.

So I lived in Tampa, while she lived and worked in Orlando.

My cousin provided a nice house, clothes and toys for me, the way family does in times of need.

Yet, miles away in Orlando, my mother worked for a former employer as a gas station manager, saving money, starting over again. She lived out of her car until she found a place on the edge of town.

A little after Christmas, she came and took me to her home, surely to spoil me for the holiday season. I was excited. It had been a long time since I'd seen my mother, and I imagined she would shower me with Transformers and G.I. Joes, all the toys, boys dream of.

We pulled up. From the car, we could see her front door was cracked open. It didn't take her long to start crying as we walked through the shredded wrapping paper and empty boxes. She kept grabbing pieces of holiday paper, crushing the emptiness with her hands, hoping the burglar missed something. But the emptiness was still there. Nothingness. Hollow.

This was the Christmas the alligators had brought me. As if their teeth gnashed into me and pulled me to their dens. As if they ate into my chest, leaving me in the darkness of underwater murk.

But I realize they couldn't hurt me. Because even in what appeared to be nothing, I had safety and strength. I had the one I needed all along. I had my mother. Strong. Stable.