Dear Lily June,
It’s been coming up again and again in my conversations with the other stranger-friends I interact with in this space. The bond. That nebulous emotional connection you and I are supposed to be cultivating every second of your existence so that you know, deep down, you were a loved, wanted, and necessary part of this human being thing we do. And I think we’ve got it. I hope we have it. Oh God, how do I do this right so that you know we have it?
There is a bond between my mother and I like a window, at which the two of us stand on either side of the glass. And through that glass is a single crack that, as we each look through it, we each think is casting a fracture over the other one’s reflection.
When I was a child, my mother was a battered woman. You can use the term victim during or survivor after, but the terminology doesn’t matter so much as the meaning behind it. My father was a brutal drunk, a man who threatened to take a cake my sister had spent hours baking, the first birthday cake my sister had ever made, and smash it, glass pan and all, into my mother’s face–on her birthday. A man who slipped his hands around a woman’s neck the way some husbands might slip a string of pearls.
Once, our VCR broke after my mother tried to rewind a cassette tape in it that she’d rented to entertain me when I was stuck home from school with the flu when I was around eight. The spools of tape got caught, for some unknown reason, in the VCR’s mechanical teeth. In response, my father broke my mother’s jaw. Before that event, my mother had lovingly boiled pot after pot of molasses to make her daugthers popcorn balls. After the event, she couldn’t accidentally eat so much as a popcorn kernel, so severe was the extent of her TMJ.
But this letter–which, forgive me my daughter, I may never ever show you, I just don’t know yet–is not about my father. It’s about the woman my mother became after these kinds of things kept happening to her over and over.
Part of the reason she’d been susceptible to courtship from a man like my father, who practically dressed in red flags instead of clothing, was because her parents before had neglected her. She told stories to my sister and I of her and her older sister and younger brother eating “sandwiches” with only bread and mustard. Her domineering preacher father and resentful-to-be-a-parent mother had all but openly abandoned their children to bare cabinets and empty bellies.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and my mother reinvented herself as the household’s mother for her sister and brother. She slathered the plain white bread with mustard, served it with love, and cleaned up the dishes after. It made her the responsible one, and probably all the lonelier.
So when she was barely seventeen and her parents kicked her out of the house, essentially claiming she was raised up enough at that point to take care of herself, it doesn’t seem to be a wonder she landed two years later, having been kicked from the nest and falling from friend couch to friend couch ever since, into the seeming wings of my father.
He took her in; he gave her a place to stay and, until she was actually pregnant, a man-child to support and nurture. And when, at nineteen, they eloped–only a month to the day they’d met–she soon after bore him their first daughter. Six years later, to save the marriage that had all but been torn asunder by the realities of who the two were to each other, she had me.
And ten years later, she’d fall into the arms of another lover, the man for whom she did secretarial work and who, between the lines of memos or around the water cooler, must have promised her he’d save her. They’re still married today, Lily, and your Grandpa Derrick, though he and I had butted our heads more than once–hell, more than twice–may have been the best thing that ever happened to her.
What hurt was that it wasn’t me and my sister.
I have a hard time, before I turned ten, remembering specific times I spent with my mother. I know we occasionally walked down an enormous hill to the local pool, but I don’t remember swimming with her. I do remember getting yelled at once for splashing water at her contacts–a fact that, paired with her incredibly pale, freckled, Irish skin that inevitably burned to a deep peeling crimson each summer, made me internalize the idea that she was like a toy too fragile not to be put on a high shelf. I wasn’t supposed to play with her.
I know, too, we would sometimes when my father left town for a business or ski trip on his own, celebrate with what seemed like enormous feasts for dinner. It was on those occasions that she often made popcorn balls for dessert in summer, snow cream instead if it were winter. And we three–myself, my mom, and my sister–would sit on our cold leather couch close enough, practically, to warm one another as we watched some chick flick like Angie or Steel Magnolias, a film about the inner strength of women. Though it’s the latter that I remember distinct scenes and plots of, I was moved when I looked up this quotation from the former:
“We are all broken. Those of us who are less broken need to help those who are more broken.”
And I remember, too, my mother singing songs like the bird she was named after, songs like “Tennessee Birdwalk” in which birds are stripped of everything that makes them who they are–their tree homes, their wingspans, their bird baths, their feathers until, in the song, they’re comically forced to hop around on the ground in nothing but their underwear. In real life, my mother must have felt like such a flightless bird, and so, no matter how high her mood or voice could rise, eventually I would inevitably hear, when I’d go on about school or movies or songs,
“Alyssa, I love you, but you have to stop. You’re giving me a headache.”
And then, at the conclusion of the walk or film or song, my mother would inevitably retreat to her bedroom, which may as well, despite there only being a wooden door between us, have been a bank vault. It felt like we were separated by steel. And so much, on the other side of that door, did I feel my mother was an inaccessible treasure, one whose love I could visit but didn’t know how to keep. On days when I rubbed her sore back, for instance, I was as good as a daughter. On days I complained that my sister had hurt me again (different stories for a different time), I was as good as a stranger.
Mostly, I remember a lot of time spent alone trying to be quiet in my room. I would play Monopoly alone, one hand against the other, or read, or watch TV with the sound on mute, or crawl into my closet when my sister was angry so I could hide where she wouldn’t seek, and I don’t know where my mother was at those times. Maybe she was in her own closet, too, rocking in the dark, afraid of my father. If she’d shared her fears with me, it might have brought us closer. But she was of the opinion there are some things mothers just do not share with their daughters, and so we held up our own walls in different rooms behind different closed doors for so long that, even after the divorce and the remarriage, we were only too practiced at retreating to our own dark corners.
And so I have often related to the words of the poet Larissa Szporluk when she wrote,
“Rest assured, the nest left you.”
In all fairness to my mother, that crack in the glass casts a shadow over my face the same as hers. When, as a teenager, I wanted to defy her, I would demand she not just list her rules, but justify them. I wanted to know Why much longer than a five-year-old mutters the question in regards to the sky’s blueness or the winter’s cold. I demanded the Why of everything until my mother would retreat to the old standard, “Because I said so, that’s why!” It’s not an invalid response. She was the authority–the mother–and she had a right to set rules I didn’t, couldn’t, or, as is more likely the case, just wouldn’t try to understand.
I would spend hours and hours talking to the handful of friends I had at school–into the wee hours, too–but I shared little to nothing of my life with my mother. There were times, absolutely exhausted from caring for my half-brother, your uncle Denny, all night long, she would, at three AM, pick up the phone receiver and tell me to “for God’s sake, hang up.” I was rarely deterred, more often incensed that she’d violated the privacy of my conversation (did it matter that it was on the phone line she was paying for?). She learned I was sexually active through a letter I’d left lying out, and I figured turn about was fair play, so I dug deeply into her drawers until I found her diary.
In it, I read about how my father had kicked my mother in the stomach when she’d been pregnant with me, how when she’d been trying to have a baby with her new husband Derrick, she’d lost several to miscarriages the doctors attributed to her later age (around 40). I wish I could say I ran to my mother and apologized, bowed down to the difficulty her life had held in awe and told her, through all she’d been through, that I loved her.
Instead, horrific brat that I was, I stormed into her room and demanded to know why she hadn’t told me these things. I had a right to the inner-most secret pains of her life, I argued, because I was her daughter. I only hope that horrible logic doesn’t still haunt her memories as it does mine when I think about ways I could have been, should have been, still should be, better to my mother.
It was the pregnancy with you, Lily, that changed something between me and my mother. If the crack didn’t heal, we at least worked harder during those months to peer at each other around it. When I was still in the first trimester, she’d tell me about the magic of those first movements in the belly, and there was such wondrous nostalgia in her voice, it made me realize she did, had always, love(d) me.
“Alyssa,” she’d tell me with each new stage of pregnancy, then early parenthood, “just wait. It keeps getting better.”
And though I couldn’t, wouldn’t ever be able to, remember those moments when she must have rubbed her hand over her swelling belly while I grew and kicked inside her, the moments when she’d held me, wailing and moaning with no discernible right answer, until I’d fallen asleep in the crook of her arm or thrown over her shoulder, they must have been there, somewhere, in a past inaccessible to me.
And I did what I do when I want to mend fences or process things or move on: I wrote her a letter. And she wrote back to me. And there were many tears for what had always been and what couldn’t be. And things are still awkward and misshapen between us; our hearts do not, my dear Lily, move in sync. But every now and then, we seem to catch the same beat.
One stranger-friend I’ve made, herself a fairly new mother, sent me this video, a commercial that recreates an actual study whereby blindfolded children, just by feeling their faces, were able to identify which of half a dozen women were their mothers:
The theory, I think, is that a bond is so much part of the natural, the biological, that despite different circumstances–this mother who works, that one who stays home, this mother who feeds by the breast, that by the bottle, et cetera et cetera–children will automatically respond to and know and love their mothers.
I don’t know, then or now, if I’d have known my mother. You can’t know–maybe won’t ever–how desperately I want you to know me. I think that’s what every word of these letters, this blog, is about. I’m giving you all I know how to give: a lot of poetic talk from a woman who is so socially awkward, I’m sometimes still shy around your father. What if I’m too shy around you, too? What if I don’t know what to say when we’re face-to-face, staring at each other with all the blinders off someday?
I think of the poet Rumi who says,
“…there is a window open between us, mixing the night air of our beings.”
If there is a window between us, I will be grateful that it is not a wall. But my daughter, each night as I pull you close to me to smell your hair, as you curl like a comma into my arm, and the love there has no language to speak, I hope to God we find a way–that I’ve never known, never been taught how to do–to make it last.
And if you come to a time in your life where you’re unsure of if I love you, if I ever loved you even, know this: I loved you before you were ever born, and you were still a dream in me, shining like the silver moon’s curled body caught in the gleam of a windowpane. I love you right now, as–if I ever do share this with you–you read. And my daughter, no matter where I am or what’s happened to me, I have found a way–don’t doubt it–to love you forever.
Just as it was there for my mother and me in ways I wasn’t able to listen or hear for. In the words of the “funny” song she so often sang to me, she so like the bird who’d flown North to escape her own broken nest and had a brood of eggs she wasn’t entirely sure what to do with:
When spring is in the air
And the bald headed birds
Are whisp’ring ev’rywhere
You can see them walking
Southward in their dirty underwear
That’s Tennessee Bird walk
- “150px-Mother Galanda” by Mikuláš Galanda – http://www.sng.sk/sk/uvod/zbierky/moderne-a-sucasne-umenie/moderne-a-sucasne-maliarstvo. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:150px-Mother_Galanda.jpg#/media/File:150px-Mother_Galanda.jpg