I wanted to write a memoir but the connective tissue of the memoir didn’t interest me. I wanted to render memories that would pop up like mushrooms and quickly vanish. I owe much to where I was raised, in a black neighborhood where people talked to each other and spent time on the porch and on the corner, as did my brothers and their friends as they smoked weed, drank Mickey Big Mouths and Heinekens, and talked all the time about the insanity of Vietnam, nuclear war, and H.P. Lovecraft, and from there they’d segue into the adventures of the many memorable characters in the neighborhood. I tried to do that here. A new installment will appear here every Saturday this and next month.


My education was doomed from the get-go. My parents sent me to the Holy Name of Jesus Christ I Wept Elementary and almost immediately things went wrong. My first-grade teacher didn’t think much of me — actually, she thought I was retarded and told this to my mother. Lolita Teresa Villavaso Tervalon waited for opportunities to concentrate all of her considerable wrath on anyone who deserved it. I wonder how this nun, a Filipina woman, could have failed to sense that my mother was a volcano of rage who had already decided that the nun hated black people and hated me because I was lighter than she was. It was complicated racial mathematics but Mama often came up with the right conclusions working from flawed premises. She had some kind of radar for confrontation and once alerted to it headed straight for it as though it was her calling. 

I fell asleep in class and didn’t know how to be a first grader since my mom had me skip kindergarten to spend more time with her. Then I ate something that disagreed with my stomach in the school cafeteria and vomited it up. The nun had me clean it up instead of the custodian. I don’t remember telling Mama about getting sick and making a mess and having to clean it up, but she somehow knew and the next day she requested a meeting with the nun and the nun met with us before class. The nun didn’t have the sense to be afraid of Mama, but Mama didn’t take long to put the fear of God into the nun’s heart.

“Sister, did Jervey throw up in the cafeteria?”

The nun, picking up on my Mama’s murderous rage, mumbled a reply.

“What? I can’t understand you.”

“He did,” the nun replied.

“Did you make him clean it up?”

The nun was smart enough to know Mama was close to erupting and tried to slide over to the door for a hasty exit, but Mama had outmaneuvered and blocked her.

“Let me explain this to you, Sister: if you make my child clean up his own vomit again, I’ll rip your veil off and put your face in it. You understand me, Sister?”

The nun stood there, mouth hanging open, terrified to move. I was embarrassed and confused but also proud. 

My Mama, my brutal hero.


Jervey Tervalon was born in New Orleans and raised in Los Angeles, and got his MFA in Creative Writing from UC Irvine. He is the author of six books, including Understanding This, for which he won the Quality Paper Book Club’s New Voices Award. Currently he is the Executive Director of “Literature for Life,” an educational advocacy organization, and Creative Director of The Pasadena LitFest. His latest novel is Monster’s Chef.