The Bond–In Which I Wonder How We’ll Connect

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:

Oh remember my darling
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

***

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25 thoughts on “The Bond–In Which I Wonder How We’ll Connect

  1. ShitHappens2U says:

    This REALLY hit home with me. While I never blog about it…know that I can definitely relate. For years I was terrified to have daughters because I thought my relationship with them would be like the relationship I had with my mother. I decided for me, to be a better mother, I had to become a better person…which included being a better daughter. I was able to repair a broken relationship by accepting that my mother may not show love or love me the way I believe she should…but she had and continues to do it the best way she knows how. Looking at it with older eyes, that is enough.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Somehow I never got back to you on this, and since I find myself missing you on your blog (though I know you’re going through a lot and there’s thus no pressure for you to publish anything), I just wanted to say that I think what you said was so wise. It’s hard to try to be a better daughter so that we can be better mothers, but I think it’s so invaluable to the process. I hope you’re alright lately.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. ShitHappens2U says:

        These are true words. It’s crazy, I have a TON written…just simply need to push the “publish button”. Things are calming down a bit and I hope to be back at it soon. This week is the first court date for my cousin’s murder…and I intend to be there front and center. So, my energy has gone to preparing myself for that.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. janeydoe57 says:

    Whoa does this bring back memories. Unfortunately they aren’t pleasant ones but I was as much at fault as she was for the abyss between my mother and I. Thankfully I’m very close to at least my youngest daughter. One out of four isn’t bad is it?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ellie P. says:

    How beautifully you write, Alyssa. Hits me like a brick – and yet is feather-soft touching. I think one day (in fact I *hope* one day) you will give these precious letters to Lily June. And she will weep with joy for having the luck to have a mother like you.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. tinytales2tell says:

    That was such a beautiful passage to read. You have a unique way of connecting through your honesty. I know your daughter is lucky to have you and the security you’ve given her despite the sadness you encountered as a child.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. BarbCT says:

    {{{{{{Hugs}}}}}} You have such a marvelous way with words, Alyssa. I do hope that you will save many of these letters for Lily. And don’t worry about “getting it right.” I don’t know what “daddy’s” background is, if he had a good childhood or rough like yours and mine. But as long as the two of you love each other, Lily will always know she is loved, too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      Thanks, Barb. The encouragement means a lot. Lily’s dad’s background is similar to mine, worse as he was the target of the abuse. But at least that means we worry together about “getting it right.” And we do love each other. And we do, with every fiber heart to bone, love Lily.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Whiskey Cat says:

    Whether she knows it or can express it or not I bet your mom is proud of you for learning to love your daughter so well–for surpassing even her best attempts. Thanks as always for spilling open your heart with your writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. corriewright2013 says:

    I see why you are the strong woman that you are. To overcome so many obstacles and still be able to turn out to be the wonderful woman, mother and wife that you are is a testament of your strength. If your little one can look through the glass and see an ounce of herself in you, then she is destined to be a young woman of strength and knowledge just as the one who taught her.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Eva. says:

    Reading u always makes me feel good. I hve had an evolving rship with my Mom. For which I am pretty proud but what I want to say is , we never really define what kind of rship we hve with a mother/ a daughter. We have an ideal and the most important is doing everything possible to attain it . I know Lily will be proud of her mother.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. Kennedy says:

    Skeletons are only scary when they’re in a closet…and so I started out writing a book about things I couldn’t explain to my young children–I had no intention of publishing, just sharing some history. This sounds like the formation of something similar. There’s no greater gift, so I think you should continue.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Patricia says:

    The important thing is that you and Ryan are breaking the cycle. As I have said before, don’t keep family secrets, they will destroy. Lily will benefit from knowledge of family history. It won’t be easy but it will be the most beautiful gift you can give her, your history. If you are afraid you will disillusion her, I beg to differ. When I read this post, I could see how your mother emulated her mother in a way and I could see myself in her as a victim of domestic violence. Looking for the best in people makes for a more joyful life. Your mother is a product of her environment just as mine is, she did nothing to deserve the neglect and it sounds like she crawled in a protective shell. Believe me, when my father used me as his confidant, I hated it. Even though you and I knew what was going on, for your mother to make you her confidant would mean to put another burden on your shoulders. She did the right thing in my opinion.

    My mother confided something to me so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. She had promised my dad that she would never tell anyone. She was drunk when she told me. I, in showing off, made a joke about it in front of my father. He was furious at her. The damage I must have done to what was left of their relationship at the time. Believe me, it was not a joking matter. Yes, I appreciate that she told me but apparently I didn’t have the maturity to handle it. Hindsight…

    I truly wish you wouldn’t worry about the relationship you will have with Lily. You are honest, loving and honor her in every way. The love you feel for her jumps out of every post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. dearlilyjune says:

      While we don’t intend to keep secrets, knowing when and what and how much to tell Lily as she grows older is what scares me. I want her to know that alcoholism runs in our family, and I want her to recognize the signs of abuse so that she never finds herself in a situation unprepared. And yet, I don’t want her to be scared of her grandparents–or of herself. I want her to see that she’s not “doomed” to any particular life of abuse or addiction. I want her to be empowered to be her own person, regardless of her family member’s history. I just hope I can figure out the most mature and helpful way to convey these lessons to her.

      As to what my mom did or didn’t tell me, it’s hard to know what the “right thing” was. In some ways, I wish, at least after the divorce, she’d been more open with me and my sister about the dysfunction in our family so that we all could have come to terms with it and healed. But she had to do what was right not just for her children but for her self, too. And ultimately, I have to accept that her choices were just that–hers, not mine, to make. I am grateful that she didn’t try to burden me with her secrets, but I had my own secrets that I was burdened with, listening to and seeing the abuse. And I was scared because I had no one to talk to about them then. It’s why it’s so important for me to talk about them now. And why I want Lily to know there’s nothing that can happen to her that she needs keep secret from me.

      I’ll always worry about my relationship with Lily. I DO love her with all of my heart. But it’s so much easier for me, given how I was raised, to tell her that through these letters. I worry about the ways I’ll “tell” her in “real life.” Will I hug her enough, given that I was raised with little to no affection? Will I hug her too much? Will I compliment her in the “wrong” ways? I know there’s no such thing as perfect parenting, and all I can do is try my best, but it doesn’t make me worry any less. I’m writing these letters now so that if I fail later, at least she’ll know, deep down, how I really felt. I’m a lot less articulate with my mouth than I am with a keyboard…

      Anyway, here’s to breaking cycles, Patricia!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Patricia says:

        I told you before, she will grow up in spite of you. The thing is, she is already just like you and that can be a challenge. I made the mistake with my stepdaughters of telling them too much. They were too young to handle it plus they have that drama gene. Of course, it got repeated but I couldn’t blame them, I made the mistake. It hurt but I had to hold me head up and let it go. I decided that the gossip would die down and it had nothing to do with me. It was their need to stir up shit. The person I was when I made those mistakes was not the person I was today. I let the girls off the hook by telling them that I had given them too much information and I understood that it was a lot to keep to themselves. I tried too hard. I ask myself what I would want to be told. I think being Lily I would want to be told that there were hard times with mom/dad while growing up because your dad didn’t know how to deal with his anger and alcoholism and upbringing. Let her know that it was hard on you and your siblings. Then tell her your dad’s strengths (if you can come up with some) in simple terms. Let her know that its o.k. to love an alcoholic regardless of their behavior. Let her know that alcoholism is a part of him but not him. Teach her to separate him from the disease. In fact, it has helped me to learn to separate any person’s actions from the person. Kinda like, “You did bad but you are not bad.” Its the same understanding I want from people in my life. Let her make her own mind up. If she finds him difficult to deal with, she will walk away but it will be her choice. Give her that permission if you see a rocky road. It will not be easy. The instinct is to protect her from him but he belongs to her just like he belongs to you. He may be a much better grandfather than a father. Just keep an eye on the situation and if you become uncomfortable, ask yourself if it is your old demons or are they becoming hers. If she doesn’t like what she sees, I know you will not force a relationship. and give her permission to walk away. She will need that permission not to feel like she is betraying the family. With your mom, that one is easy. Just let her know that her grandmother had a tough childhood which affected her mothering and your relationship with her. Let Lily know that that’s not what you want with her. Then tell her the story of her birth and your mother’s part in it. Tell her about the good times. You don’t have to go into detail about the bad times just let her know there were tough times. She needs to know because that will help her understand you just like your parent’s childhood helped you to understand your parents. If I went on face value, I would hate my parents. An Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting helped me start the process of forgiving. Alyssa, I know you don’t have much free time, if any, so attending ala-non or Adult Children of Alcoholic meetings would be tough so I will recommend a couple of books that you can choose to read or not. One is “Co-Dependent No More” by Melodie Beatty. It changed my life because I found out I was not crazy or alone. The other would be Adult Children of Alcoholics. There is a daily reader called Courage to Change which is excellent, its like they read your mail. You will read one or more when you are ready. I believe they will give you the answers you are looking for. They won’t tell you what to do or how to do it but they will arm you with the information and support you need. I think there may be Ala-non meetings online, not sure. You see, as ACOA’s, we have common traits that are as old as time and those traits have been addressed so why should we struggle with trying to find the answers for ourselves.

        The reason our friendship works is that we are both ACOA’s so I know how you work because that’s how I work. My suggestions are just that and they may or may not work for you so be careful to be sure they will work for you or that you are ready to take that step. I have made and do make every mistake in the book but I am better off today through what I have learned about myself and my family. It is easy for me to advise you but because my brain moves so fast, I don’t stop to think before I open my mouth. That’s why writing works for me. I can preview what I write. I think writing letters works for you because you are shy and afraid of reactions. If I were writing these letters to Lily, I would print and give them to her one at a time as you think she is ready. They are a gift and I believe she will see them as such. They are you so you are giving her a little piece of yourself with each letter. Wow, that was good!😆

        Liked by 1 person

      2. dearlilyjune says:

        I think I need that mantra tattooed to my forehead so I don’t forget: She’ll grow up in spite of me. She’ll grow up in spite of me. She’ll grow up in spite of me! As long as she doesn’t grow up TO SPITE me, I think we’ll be good!

        And I’m still learning what it means to be an ACOA, maybe more truly than ever before now that I’m a parent and the cycles are truly mine to break. I know we don’t have Al-Anon meetings locally (I’ve looked–at the insistence of my father, believe it or not, for whom AA has been such a tremendous blessing), but I’ll have to check out those books you recommended.

        And thank you, truly, for your encouragement to share all this with Lily. She’s still so young that this has been my place to “test the waters” and try out what I might say with certain lessons.

        Of course, so much of what I tell/teach her will depend on HER–her needs, her personality, her maturity level, etc. And then, ultimately, it won’t always matter WHAT I tell her because “She’ll grow up in spite of me,” right?

        I’m learning, Patricia. Slowly but surely. 😉 Thanks, truly and deeply, for all the support and guidance. You are a wonder!

        Like

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