Family

“You Were Butt-Ass Naked With a Face Mask On”

What happened when Raven, 22, moved back in with her mom after her senior year of college went virtual.

Illustration of a mother peering into a room where her daughter sits at a desk surrounded by law books.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

Wendee, 51, and her daughter Raven, 22, live in Houston. Raven moved back in with Wendee after students were booted from Cornell’s campus. Now Raven is a Ph.D. student in the African American Studies Department at Northwestern, still living with her mom. Wendee is a single mom and a corporate presenter for Fortune 500 companies. (“I jokingly call myself the ‘Oprah of pharma,’“ she says.)

This is part of “I Miss You. I’m Worried About You. Get Out of My House.,” a series of conversations between parents and their children about how their relationship has changed since the beginning of lockdown.

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Raven: All I’ve known my whole life is being raised in a single-parent household. We moved around a lot. There were always some ups and downs depending on what was going on moneywise.

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Wendee: It was rough. You’re not lying. We slept in a homeless shelter in New York. I remember once when you were little, maybe 3 or 4. There was just no money and just no food in the fridge. I sat on the bed and started crying, and you came over. You know toddlers have those cute little pudgy fingers, and you just grabbed the sides of my face. You used to say, “Don’t weary.” Not worry. “Don’t weary.” I don’t know why but it used to make me smile. You would say it with your whole heart.

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For a while, I was doing Broadway. You were hanging out in the wings, you were at rehearsals, I mean, you were everybody’s baby. You would just sit there with a snack and a juice box and then clap at all the appropriate times. I had the right kid for my situation because you just frickin’ rolled with it. So yeah, you are my boo, you are my road dog. And I feel like when the pandemic hit, we pivoted to a muscle memory, we pivoted to that same dynamic.

Raven: At the beginning, I was a senior at Cornell, and I had gotten a travel grant from the Asian Studies Department to do a research project in Beijing and Seoul during winter break. So before people even knew that COVID was starting, I was in China. I was having the best time of my life exploring East Asia, which was so lit. Then it became breaking international news that COVID had started.

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I was kind of holding my breath throughout the semester. Finally we got an email like, sorry y’all, you’ve got to pack up, you’ve got to go home. That was a pretty abrupt and devastating end to senior year, even though I realize that’s not the biggest crisis in the world. But there’s no way I would have been able to make it through the emotionally tumultuous incident that was getting senior year canceled without your support. I was on the phone with you pretty much all day every day, crying or asking, how do I ship all my stuff?

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Wendee: Oh god, you were crying so hard when you called me.

Raven: Coming from a lower-income background, my grandparents not being able to even go to college or finish college because they didn’t have the financial means—it was especially hard to have graduation canceled. With you not even being able to finish college, graduation was not just for me. It was a celebration of all that my family has sacrificed to get me to where I am.

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Wendee: The plan had been for me to come up for graduation and help you pack everything, then go off somewhere and be fabulous and then you’d go to Chicago and begin your life there for the Ph.D. So finally, we’re like, all right, we’re going to fly you home. You put on as much PPE as you could get your hands on, got on the plane. When you got to the house, I made you disrobe.

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Raven: Mmm hmm, in the hallway.

Wendee: You were butt-ass naked with a face mask on. The shower was on. I had on rubber gloves and I escorted you into the house. After you got in the shower, I sprayed everywhere you’d walked with Lysol.

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Raven: It was scary. I was afraid to come home to you. Ultimately, we knew, whatever was coming next, we needed to be together to get through it. But in the months after that, I think one thing that was difficult was just us reacclimating to living together again.

Wendee: I feel like the Raven I got back was traumatized Raven. Your mental health was not good. Having your whole world collapse, if any little thing went wrong—like, our Wi-Fi was doing the most. You got so mad at me. I was like: “I don’t make the Wi-Fi! I just order it and pay the bills!” I was quietly freaking out, trying to figure out how I was going to even keep us in this spot, because I didn’t have a job at the time. Then when you came for my neck over the Wi-Fi, I was like, “Go to your grandparents.” So you went to visit them. And actually, real talk, that was the best move because when you came back home, you were like, OK, now this is cool.

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Raven: You’re right. I was wilding.

Wendee: But I would have thought something was wrong with you if you hadn’t been, honestly. I would have been like, check her pulse.

Raven: I agree that it was a good move for me to go and stay with Meemaw and Daddy Papa for a bit, because at least their Wi-Fi was stable. I think I was just so stressed trying to get through the rest of senior year virtually and finish strong. I was honestly extremely depressed. I think maybe I didn’t express that very healthily.

Wendee: Our natural state is not contentious. Usually, if you’re kind of snippy with me, before I even mention it, you’re like, “Mama, I think I was a little short with you. I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean it.” Well, that wasn’t happening when you first came home. But this year was an exercise in how to pivot successfully in chaos.

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Raven: I think we’ve done that.

Wendee: When you finally came back, I was having my own delayed response to the trauma and some other stuff going on in my life. I literally took to my bed. The mom part of me that was still there was like, oh, my kid probably hasn’t eaten. I would order Amazon groceries so at least there’d be snacks, but when dinnertime came I could feel the anxiety rising in me. So I’d get on Uber Eats and order dinner. I ordered dinner every single night for us for over a month. I did not have the emotional strength to go into that kitchen and make us a meal. That ain’t me. I love to cook for my kid. I live for it.

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Raven: Yeah, it’s your love language.

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Wendee: But we both had our meltdowns at different times.

Raven: In different ways. But now I feel like we live together so well. We have a great vibe. We both just do our own thing and when we’re starved for human affection, I’ll just be like, “Hey, Mom, can get I hug?”

Wendee: You have the bigger bedroom. You’ve got your guitar in here. You film your YouTube videos. I’ll hear voices on the other side of the door. You have full life happening in this little 14-by-15 room. Without a word we just kind of—

Raven: Fell into a rhythm.

Wendee: Yeah. We’ve found what works with our natural abilities. I hate cleaning the litter box, so you clean it. You don’t like getting up early, so I feed the cat. I do think it’s weird for you trying to date.

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Raven: Yeah, I mean obviously I’m not out here in the streets right now. But Hinge exists, I’ve been talking to some people on and off over the last few months. In college I didn’t really have to answer to anyone about that; I could just be out ’til all hours of the night. If I hadn’t had a conversation with you about this, I would not have been out dating and potentially exposing myself and bringing it back to you. I was like, are you comfortable with me going on dates? I was doing my very best to be mindful.

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Wendee: You’re so careful. I was like, well, if there’s a precaution to take, you’ll take it. And I didn’t think it was good for you to be in here all the time with nothing but your mama.

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Raven: You have been very understanding about my dating life, very compassionate about it. You didn’t pry or push. But I definitely felt a little bit of awkwardness around it.

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Wendee: I try really hard to not be conventional and to be progressive in my thinking, but sometimes you’ll say something, I don’t know if it shows up on my face, but inside I’m screaming and holding my hands on my cheeks like the little boy in Home Alone.

Raven: Like what?

Wendee: It’s almost always around sex. I don’t want to know. It’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” up in here.

Raven: We’re very sex-positive. You tell a lot more than I tell, though.

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Wendee: I hate when parents play pretend. I want my daughter to see me as a fully realized human being.

Raven: We really do need each other. I think we make each other better people.

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Wendee: I love you and not just because you’re mine. Oh god, you’re going to make me cry.

Raven: Mom!

Wendee: I’m sorry.

Raven: No, I feel the same way.

Wendee: People always say, “You only have one?” I’m like, bitch, yes. I got the best one. If you were on the other side of the world or the country through this pandemic, I would not be able to sleep.

Raven: I feel like one of the most profound things I’ve learned from you over the past year is just how to move with care. You’re always doing little things, without being asked, to show me how much you love me.

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Wendee: I’ve learned so much from you. Like, TikTok dances and stuff. Makeup tricks. Even overhearing your classes. That honestly is one of the coolest things ever. My whole brain explodes sometimes hearing … there are words I’ve never heard in my whole life. Chinese classes and French classes and feminist gender classes. I’m getting this ancillary, tangential education just being around all this. That’s something. I’ve been living here by myself for four years.

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I just love showing up in the space around you because if I sit for long enough, before I leave that space I’m going to learn something new. I don’t know if that’s something that parents anticipate or expect. You’ve asked me to review some of your papers. I know it sounds like not a big deal, but these are thesis-level papers. I didn’t even finish college. You’re like, “Mama, can you look this over?” I’m so honored you ask me to do that, that you trust what I have to say.

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Raven: Recently we went out to this outdoor brewery, and we were sitting in the corner sipping on some beer, and that’s when you told me that you had applied to Northwestern to go back to school. You didn’t tell me you’d gone through the whole application process, didn’t ask me to review anything, you were just on the low about it. I was freaking out, because I was like, oh my gosh, does that mean we can move to Chicago together? Because you’re totally going to get in. We’re manifesting it.

Wendee: Even if I don’t, you were like, “Mama, would you be open to moving to Chicago with me?” I was like, are you shitting me? I would go. I would get my own apartment.

Raven: It’d be a good adventure for you.

Wendee: Being close to you, it makes me love learning again. You’re an old soul. You’ve been here before.

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