Dessa Grows Up

Growing up to be someone who clicks when she walks

High heels on hardwood woke me up most school days. My mom would come into my bedroom, wearing a tailored suit and an invisible dot of Chanel No. 5. “Up. Time to get up, babe.” Her heels in the hallway made the sounds of the powerful, glossy world of adults, the tall people without bedtimes who ran the world. Even before I knew what I wanted to do when I grew up, I knew I wanted to be a person who clicked when she walked.

My mom came to Minnesota from New York to become a TV reporter. When we went to the Bronx to visit family, all her siblings talked at once in Spanish and English. Then they’d do a song by the Mamas and the Papas in four-part harmony. My mom sang when she was alone too, while vacuuming or in counterpoint with voices on the radio; she tried not to sing at the office but kept catching herself at it. Lucky for everyone my mom’s voice was breathtaking. For a long time I thought I’d be foolish to try to be a singer—I couldn’t have won American Idol even if it were cast exclusively from the people who shared my address.

When I was a teenager, my mom transitioned to a job as the spokesperson for the St. Paul Police. She was on call 24 hours a day; if there was a big crime, she’d go to the scene to report live to the journalists. Once a resident at a retirement home beat another resident to death with a teacup. Sometimes I’d wake up with her and sit on the bathroom counter in the middle of the night, talking while she put on mascara and got ready to face the cameras.

When the Hallmark holiday rolls around, mothers are often thanked for their roles in the domestic sphere, but I’m most keenly aware of my mom as a standard of professionalism. My mom traveled, put in long hours, brought work home. Pregnant with me, she stayed at her desk even after her water broke, telling her coworkers that she had plenty of time to get to the hospital before delivery—just gotta finish this last report.

This year my mom retires. Watching her pack files, it dawned on me how much my Bronx-born, executive mother set an example for me. With her as a model, it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a rapper because I was a girl. I didn’t fully realize my mom’s experience was that of a “person of color” until hearing her warn my brother about racial profiling post-9/11—a conversation she’d never need to have with me because of my fair complexion.

Now I travel for my job. My work doesn’t call for high heels; I can wear black boots to everything. I do have a dusty bottle of her same Chanel No. 5, though. And when I need to feel especially adult, I wear it like a Kevlar vest. 

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