What are your plans for Mother’s Day? Your question tightens my belly, squeezes my chest, constricts my throat. Your question leaves me gasping for words. Can you tell? When you ask it? Can you see the pain rise in my eyes, like a moon?
Your folks live nearby? You spending the holidays with them? It’s not your fault. Your questions are so common, so ordinary, so everyday. You can’t know that for me, your questions are a sweat-inducing emotional calculus. Should I, or shouldn’t I? The silence lengthens, deepens, a river flowing between us, and you can’t tell, I don’t think you can, that I’m drowning. How to save myself. Should I smile, and offer a pleasant lie? Or take a risk, and tell the truth?
My decision depends on the situation. And also, on you. On what I see and feel from you. Do you seem thoughtful, your mind both open and sturdy, receptive to not only a difficult disclosure – but one that’s taboo?
Sometimes, taking the chance, I find another soul, carrying the same secret burden. We will dip our heads and speak in whispers, glancing to the left and right, trading details. We will hug before we part, holding on a bit longer, in solidarity, in camaraderie. What passes between us, a wave of shared sorrow, and utmost gratitude. For so long, so long, we believed we were alone.
Sometimes, therefore, I do it. I take the chance.
Are you close to your mother? I take a breath. Once I swim to the shore of truth, another grappling. Now I must decide what to say, where to start. It’s not, after all, a single event, but a whole history.
I might tell you about Ben, my first crush. I was twelve years old. It was sixth grade, my last year of elementary school, and knobby knees. When Ben arrived, the new kid in third grade, he declared himself my rival. Lithe and long-legged, fleet as a deer, he challenged my position as the fastest runner in the school. Our gym teacher arranged a race. I was terrified he’d win. And determined, he wouldn’t. I nearly died, running my guts out. It was a photo finish. Gulping air, I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to win.
And kiss him. I wanted that, most of all. Oh, the enchantment of Ben’s olive skin. His dark, glossy curls. His eyes like honey, aglow in sunlight. The first time a boy became poetry in my head. I side-eyed him during independent reading. He sat on his haunches at his desk, fingers jammed in his ears. He was wholly unusual and entirely captivating. His reputed interest in another girl, a slow, deepening heartache.
I yearned to tell my Mom. I longed to tell her, always, what stirred, and what hurt, my heart. When she picked me up after school that day, I gathered my crumbs of courage. I never knew, with Mom. I never knew, from day to day, moment to moment, which Mom I’d get. Emotional roulette. Sometimes, I was rewarded for sharing. Other times, amply punished.
That day, my seatbelt clicking into place, I glanced at her. Oh, she was dazzling. White-blonde hair in a high ponytail, red lipstick. My sister and I called her Marilyn Monroe. She waved that away. Scoffed at herself in the mirror. Pummeled her thighs with her fist. Called herself fat. She erupted when we tried to take a picture of her. Nonetheless, her beauty, and more than that, her Mom-ness, rendered me shy. I grasped the seatbelt as we backed out of the parking lot. I bit my lip. “Mom.” My voice, there, but barely. “I have a crush.”
As we pulled onto the main road, I dared another glance.
Hope leaked out of me with a nearly audible hiss.
Her jaw, clenched.
Her knuckles, white, strangling the steering wheel.
Her glamorous lips, drawn into a livid knot.
“How dare you,” she spat. And then, the deluge. You didn’t make your bed again this morning! You never help me. You’re lazy. You’re selfish. You don’t really care about me. You only pretend. You fall in love with some strange boy, and shit on your own family! Each word, each of my wrongs, a lightning strike, shooting from her mouth, searing my heart.
I turned away, as her furious rant persisted. I looked out the window. The Iowa farms flashing by, the rows of pig houses, pink pigs frisking. The lush green sweep of the cornfields. And then the sweet, strong rows of pines. I imagined throwing myself out the car. I imagined rolling into the ditch. I imagined running to the pines. The deep, dark solace. I imagined burying my heart, the raw, burning pain, beneath a cool, consoling blanket of soft moss and leaves.
But isn’t that normal? The complicated and difficult fabric of mothers and daughters? When you ask this, you lean in. Your face, your eyes, they pierce me. I see your hope. I see that it will bring you such relief if I relent. If I say, yes, well…maybe so. And this would be easy enough to do. After all, I spent my entire adolescence, and beyond, talking myself out of reality, back into hope. I know, believe me I know, what it means to want hope, more than truth.
It’s a danger I can no longer indulge.
So when I speak, I lean further into truth.
My mother punished my sister by showing her the blue suitcase. The blue suitcase became, for my sister and I, the emblem of our wrongdoing. The ever-present threat of abandonment. When my sister was five-years-old, my mother, provoked, grabbed her by the arm, dragged her into the bedroom, and swung open her closet doors. Standing on tip-toe, my mother yanked her suitcase from the top shelf, flung it on the bed. Blue, hard body, with gold clasps that snapped, revealing pockets so satiny they looked like water. “See this suitcase?” My mother hissed. “If I pack this up and leave, you did it. It’s your fault.”
This happened, more than once.
My sister and I, when we made her mad, checked the closet to see if her blue suitcase was still there. A ritual of panic.
Did other daughters do this? Did they fear, like we did, setting their mothers off on a rampage that might last for days, screaming, slamming, silent treatment – a short but brutal war?
I didn’t know what was normal. I didn’t get out much.
I was sixteen, then eighteen, then twenty. Still living at home. No car, not even a driver’s license. No friends. Certainly no boys.
Living with my mother, like living with a jealous boyfriend. She fawned over me one instant, mocked me the next. She watched my every move, as though my every move belonged to her, both cherished and despised.
Was that normal?
When I left on my first date, my mother threw the vacuum cleaner at me.
You betrayed me. That’s what she said.
It was true, I hadn’t asked her for permission, or even told her about the date.
On the other hand, I was twenty years old. Twenty.
The boy, he worked at McDonald’s with me. I was a cashier, he was a cook. He took me line-dancing, and then we played horseshoes. It would’ve been so sweet, had I not been so scared.
My mother stopped speaking to me. One week, then two.
You ambushed her, my father said. My mother’s staunchest protector, defender, no matter the fear in his daughter’s eyes. Or his own.
My mother declared, my sister and I were against her. She swore she could hear us, plotting her mutiny. She could not live in the same house with her enemies. She moved into our old RV, parked in the driveway. She only came inside the house to use the bathroom.
One morning, I crossed paths with her. She entered the garage, wrapped in her robe, the same time I left for work, in my McDonald’s uniform. We both froze. And then, I will never forget. My mother. Her lips tearing away from her teeth, a silent snarl. Her eyes narrowing into slits. The saliva, at the corners of her mouth.
To this day, I’ve never been looked at with such hate.
Was this normal?
My father called an emergency meeting. He told my sister and I, he’d devised a plan to lure Mom back into the house. We have to kick-start her maternal instinct, he said. My sister and I listened to him, intently.
We trusted him. He was smart. He’d studied engineering at Iowa State. He and Mom, two small-town Iowa kids. My Mom, daughter of the town drunk. My Dad, youngest son of a successful corn farmer. She looked like Marilyn. He had the swoop of dark hair, the rebellious sideburns of Elvis, the cockiness of James Dean. No one in that river-and-farm town had ever seen anything as Hollywood as the two of them. One day, Mom stepped out of the post office with her mother’s mail. Dad roared up beside the curb on his motorcycle. Boldly, he motioned for her to hop on the back. She did.
Twenty-five years later, my father tells his daughters, “We’ll stand outside the RV and argue. Then, I’ll pretend to attack you…”
My sister recoils. “You’ll attack us?”
She wasn’t willing.
If it took my Dad swinging at us outside the RV. My sister and I shrieking, ducking away from his fists. If it took more horror, more nightmare.
Whatever it took to reignite my mother’s love, I’d do it.
Let me do it.
So your mother had trauma. Did you give her another chance? I see it in the way your gaze falls. These stories push back hard against your hope, your nearly religious adulation of Mother Love. One of a kind, irreplaceable, and unconditional. You want to find a way to hold fast, keep believing, the same way I did. So when you ask about second chances, I get that, too.
My first day of college. I tell you how I met him. My husband-to-be. The first one to break through the fortress of my family. The greatest surprise, how my mother loved him. He didn’t have a mother, and there she was, my mother, with homemade cookies, and hugs. Their bond, instant.
I was grateful. And so very careful. I concealed her history of rage. Our battle-scarred family. My sister and I, our relationship manipulated, mangled by playing out our assigned roles, the good one vs. the bad one, pitted against one another. Rivals for a mirage of mother love.
I did not tell him what occurred behind the scenes when he wasn’t there. I did not tell him about that night, after dinner, when his headlights disappeared down the road, and she turned on me. Her paranoia kicking in. He’d been tired. Maybe he hadn’t thanked her quite enough. Maybe he hadn’t responded as brightly, or given her as much adoration. Whatever rule he broke, after he left, she blew. She accused me of talking about her behind her back. She told me I would ruin their relationship. And she’d get me back, oh yes. He wouldn’t love me anymore, once he found out about…
The Real Me.
I’d heard this before. The hidden truth of my being, like a dark phantom my mother claimed, only she could see. She threatened to unveil The Real Me – to anyone who looked upon me kindly.
I did not tell him about the night she raged, hurled at me the word dumbass. I did not tell him how I crawled to my room, buried myself beneath the covers, cried with wildness, with abandon, as one cries over a death. It wasn’t the word. It was the new understanding. Year after year, my mother could look me in the eye and bite, inject venom, and watch shock, then pain, cover my face. Over and over, she could do these things: Pack the blue suitcase. Throw the vacuum cleaner. Move into the RV. Break the furniture. Threaten, harass, hurt, leave, and terrify. Without flinching. Without apology.
Yes, I tell you. My voice breaking.
But weren’t there good times? What about those?
The good times. The way she laughed, ebullient and frisky, dotting the tip of my nose with whipped cream. The earnest way she loved the world, pointing out the poetry of morning light on the wall, the frolicking shadows of leaves. The way she halted our intense games of badminton, made us stop, face the sunset, see the shape of angels in the clouds. The gardens she planted, the way she cared for the flowers, with deep, maternal tenderness. The same way she tended us when we were sick. The same way she taught me to read. The same way she believed in my gifts, thought me pretty, and read my writing with tears in her eyes. The way she told me she had faith, one day, I could be something.
The good times, you see, meant everything.
The good times were seducers, leading me back.
Pointing again and again to the well of hope, my poison.
What about forgiveness? Have you tried to make amends? I take in air. Even when I know it’s coming, I’m never prepared. For the accusation, sharp, thrust between my rib cage. For the responsibility, heavy, a millstone around my heart. I know what you really mean by forgiveness. It is not for the sake of inner peace. It is Duty, disguised as another, purer word. I know this. The moral obligation to make amends with my mother – is mine. The way her behavior was always mine. Mine to study, to navigate, to understand. Mine to love, and mine to protect. Mine to fix. Mine to save. Mine to remain loyal to, the way my Dad did, until the very end.
I left home at the age of twenty-five. I ran away. That’s how my parents saw it.
I’d finally told my boyfriend the truth.
He said the word. THE WORD.
One word, powerful, ruthless as a sledgehammer. Breaking my heart.
And then, breaking me free.
The next time Mom exploded, went on a rampage, I packed my own blue suitcase. A garbage bag, filled with everything I could grab, in five horror-stricken minutes.
It wasn’t much, to start a new life.
I was married in mismatched thrift store clothes.
Not a crush.
Not a date, without permission.
My mother cut me off. And following suit, as he’d always done, my Dad.
I spent the first few years of my marriage in despair, begging for mercy, trying to win them back.
Trauma-bonding is – no joke.
They ignored my cards and gifts. The pink roses, their wedding flower, I sent each anniversary.
I mailed Dad letters. To his office. Realizing that, if I wanted contact with him, it would have to be secret. I sent him a book called Stop Walking on Eggshells. Borderline Personality Disorder. When I found that book, not long after leaving home, the lightbulb moment. A terrible A-ha!
Waking up, at twenty-five. Life with Mom at last, finally, made some sort of sense. The puzzle pieces of my growing up, scattered and nonsensical, fell together, creating a picture I could begin to decipher. This – strangely ecstatic, fearful, religious, just short of a miracle.
I bought a copy, mailed it to Dad’s office. Then indulged in unreasonable fantasies. He would read it. He would get her help. It wasn’t too late to heal. Not too late to have the family I dreamed about.
He wrote to me.
He thanked me for being discreet, sending the book to his office, not home. He said he would read it.
And he told me, in no uncertain terms, that no matter what, he would not be part of my life. As long as Mom chose not to be – neither would he.
I grew ill. The stomach pain, corrosive. Panic attacks, internal tornadoes, devastating. Midnight visits to the ER. Doctors ordering tests. EKG’s and EGD’s and colonoscopies. They were flummoxed. Clearly, I was sick, dropping weight swiftly. 130. 115. 100. Tiny bird girl, bones hollowing. But the tests were normal.
Hands shaking, I called an acupuncturist. I had never tried, nor thought of trying acupuncture. The urge to pick up that business card, that phone, to call – a mystery.
Before the treatment, he did a radical thing. He pulled up a chair and asked me about my emotions. My life. Did I have any trauma? The story broke loose. He listened, and then, the most radical act of all. Rather than preach forgiveness, redemption, and amends, the beloved story of our world, he urged me this.
Let them go.
Hope was not my friend.
Hope, he said, was killing me.
I often now wonder, how many walk this world with a story, that is taboo.
A heartache. That becomes a headache. A back ache. A stomach ache. A heart attack.
Untold stories do not disappear. They sink in. They settle. They hurt in profound, unexpected, and sometimes catastrophic places.
Only when I stopped trying to make amends.
Did I start to heal.
But she’s old now, isn’t she?
What if she gets sick?
Won’t you go see her – one last time?
Won’t you regret it – If you don’t?
Your questions hit my heart, drive in deep, like stones from a slingshot.
I don’t think you realize. I don’t think it’s personal. I don’t think you’re truly responding to me, but what’s in your own head. To beliefs, deeply held. To your own fears, of loss, being cast out, ostracized. I don’t think, you even see me anymore, as you repeat the mantras we’ve all learned and learned to say, without thinking.
But she’s your mother.
No matter what, you only get one mother.
Family is everything.
Family is all.
Blood is thicker than water.
I nod. And smile. Emptied.
I’ve given all the truth I, or you, can bear.
I shouldn’t have.
I’ll go away, ashamed.
And I’ll remember.
This is why we swallow our stories and do not talk.