Photos by David West
Layne is a young, strikingly pretty, lavender-haired dreamer. There is an approachable lightness about her, and you can sense her sincere interest in people. A fine artist, she draws, paints and sometimes works in ceramics. She loves to cook. A single mother, the center of her world is 9-year-old Jackson.
Shirley is a curvy, wickedly sarcastic, fiercely outspoken Filipino married to a kilt-wearing,
Godzilla-loving Celt and living in an unrepentantly red state. Completely at home on any stage, she plays piano, sings, dances, and acts. But the role she cherishes most is that of mother to 2-year-old Michael, nicknamed “Little Kaiju.”
They’ve never met, but there’s clearly a connection as their right hands are joined in the middle of the table and wet molding putty is poured over them. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time,” Layne said. “As an artist, this hand is my career.”
“When my son was 6 months old, we had his foot cast,” Shirley said. “You know how they do those belly casts of pregnant women? I didn’t feel like I could do that, but I’m willing to share a hand!”
They immediately begin to tell one another about their sons. And they ponder how the current political climate is impacting their families. “I basically want to make sure my son doesn’t grow up to be an asshole!” Shirley quipped. “I want him to be able to control his emotions.”
Layne’s son is getting tall. It won’t be long before he is a young man. “My son’s approach to the world is blended in the way that adults or people with more life experience choose to be,” she said. “His view of the world is much more open. His relationships with strangers are much more open.”
In the midst of intense protests and frightening hostile divisions among people, both women feel an obligation to seize teachable moments. “Parenting made me realize there are some things I need to make sure Michael is aware of,” Shirley explained. “He is half white and half Filipino. I deliberately chose a day care with an African-American director and a diverse staff. These are active choices you have to make as a parent. I have participated in protests. I have protested the Confederate flag, but I am aware of the threat of violence. That scares the shit out of me.”
“I’m nailed down to the South but not nailed down to its ideals. It makes me afraid to be put in a community that is prejudiced,” Layne said. “In the last year or so, with the election, we’ve had conversations about why it’s important to accept people. You have to have an open mind about people.”
Shirley is still reeling from the outcome of the presidential election. Like all Americans, she comes from an immigrant family. She said she knows a first-generation immigrant who voted for the Republican candidate. “I guess self-interest prevailed. I don’t want that for my son,” she said.
Layne’s son, Jackson, is attending the same elementary school where she went as a kid. She was in school when she got pregnant, finished the semester, and took a break. She supported herself waiting tables in a Thai restaurant. “I have been in school as long as he has been in school,” she said. “I feel like a lifelong student.”
Both women believe it is especially important to give their sons enriching life experiences, to introduce them to all kinds of people from all walks of life. They are deliberate in the choices they make for their young children. “I can take my son everywhere,” Shirley said. “He has met all of my Vagina Monologue sisters. The fact that he is alive right now is a teachable moment. I answer his questions. … He sees transgender, Latina, Muslim. People fitting all descriptions have held and cared for my son. As long as I am there to help guide him, he is pretty cool with all people.”
This past summer, Layne took Jackson on a trip to New York City. “I painted my son in Times Square,” she said. “We did everything we could in 36 hours. We took the ferry. We got lost on the subway. We bought matching Converse sneakers. … Speaking of teachable moments, we were there during Pride Week. The Pulse Nightclub shootings had just happened. All we saw in New York was people loving one another. We walked all over New York carrying rainbow flags.”
Layne hopes to take Jackson to Italy this summer. She has studied there before. And she also would like to repeat the New York trip together in 20 years.
“Little Kaiju has a heart-shaped birthmark on the back of his neck,” Shirley said. “He’s only 2. He hasn’t asked questions about sexuality yet, but if my son were gay, I would be fine with that. When I was coming up, being gay was (ridiculed). Times have changed since then.”
Both women claim absolutely that motherhood saved them.
“I found out I was pregnant while I was in therapy for sexual trauma,” Shirley revealed. “Having to be there for my child literally saved me. … I realized what I needed to do for my body and myself.”
“Jackson saved me also,” Layne concurred. “Being pregnant, it could have been hell on wheels. But everything changed. For the most part, it was just me by myself. … My dad brought my childhood crib over so he got to sleep in the same crib that I did.”
As the mold continued to harden, the women thought about what life would be like if they didn’t have their hands. What would they miss the most?
“I would miss cooking, and making cocktails for my friends,” Layne said. “If I didn’t have my hands, I would be dead. I need them to do my art.”
“I would miss playing the piano and bathing my kid,” Shirley said. “We speak a language with our hands when we belly dance. The movement of the hands is so important.”
February 18, 2017