“Can you see me? All of me? Probably not. No one ever really has.” -Jeffrey Eugenides
I have tried a dozen times to tell you this story. I have tried a thousand times to forget entirely. I have accomplished neither. Now I feel like I have to tell you. I’m almost ready now. So I will.
Did you notice? Did you notice that I never told you of my mother?
Did you notice the holes in my narrative when you asked me about myself? The empty space where fond family memories and childhood reminiscences should have been? Was there a whisper almost-dreamt in the edges of your consciousness, a suppressed feeling of wrongness?
A pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas. -T.S. Eliot
Did you ever toss me something when I wasn’t expecting it? Was there an insistent, troubling half-thought as you watched me flinch deeply, instinctively–a look of apparently unwarranted deep-rooted terror flashing across my face before I could hide it?
“Some things you can be so close to that you never grasp their true nature.” -Jeff VanderMeer
There is a picture of my 23 year old mother holding me at a picnic. The early afternoon light pours in around us. I appear joyful and secure. Her smile is stunning as she smushes her face close to mine; her love and elation transform her. She grasps me carelessly in her enthusiasm to display me. She is radiant. I am 16 months old.
There will never be another picture like this of us.
“The importance of a child’s close relationship with a caregiver cannot be overestimated. Through these relationships, children learn to trust others; they develop a sense of the world as safe or unsafe and understand their own value. When those relationships are unstable, children learn that they cannot rely on others to help them.” -National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Sometimes I think I dreamt my early, happy memories. Memories in which my mother read aloud to me and I begged her to tickle me until I cried tears of delight. They are few enough; it’s possible I planted them there as a hopeful beacon of what my mother could have been.
The hazy, potentially false, happy memories of my mother end before my sixth birthday.
The rest of my memories are crystal clear.
We’ll start off slow and ease you in.
I remember perpetual hunger. I remember being excited for school because it meant I would eat two meals that day. If I could eat quickly enough, I might even be able to steal a second serving of cereal and feel full for a couple hours. At home, I was not allowed to eat unless told otherwise.
Other people remember pranks and adventures with their friends; I remember food. I remember my friend’s mother giving me a full bowl of Cocoa Puffs cereal once. I remember a toasted pair of frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts for me on an afternoon visit. A handful of animal crackers from a friend’s daily after-school snack.
When primary caregivers abuse a child, the child learns that he or she is bad and the world is a terrible place.” -National Child Traumatic Stress Network
I remember learning I was bad. “Why are you so obsessed with SEX?!” My mother shouted nonsensically when I was 8. I had written a story for school in which a talking apple fell out of a tree, kissed me, and we got married. “I don’t know, I don’t know, I’m sorry, I won’t do it anymore,” I babbled through sobs, my arms half-raised protectively in front of me, dreading the inevitable, familiar words.
“Get me a spoon to beat you with.”
It was instinct to put my arms up when my mother started beating me, but she always coaxed me into lowering them. She would toy with me, alternating her tone between reconciliatory and authoritative. A half smile on her face at my incoherent terror as the spatula or slatted spoon hovered attentively in the air waiting for its opening on my thin frame. My mother made me put my arms down so she could beat me secretly, from bony scapula to trembling upper thigh. Arms were visible; bruises on arms raised questions.
“Having learned that the world is a dangerous place where even loved ones can’t be trusted to protect you, children are often vigilant and guarded in their interactions with others.” -National Child Traumatic Stress Network
As I got older and bigger, my mother relied more heavily on psychological punishments and verbal taunts which I will spare you. Despite everything, I still loved her and tried to please her. She was everything.
Once, in high school, I decided to try hiding my emotions and not acknowledge the poison spewing from her mouth. She responded by punching my glasses off my face and pushing me down half a flight of stairs.
“I poured everything I had into you, and you were still empty.” -Iviva Olenick
Eventually I learned that my mother was not normal. My childhood trauma was not normal. My resulting self-loathing was (outside of the circumstances) not normal. And I left.
But she still does her best to reach me–the tap tap tap of a gnarled tree limb scratching on the bedroom window at night–cunning messages sent third party through others. Sorrowful, wounded messages that tell the messenger subtly what a heartless, uncompassionate daughter I am for surgically removing her from my life.
“I just wish you would forgive your mother,” my grandmother sighs regularly. “I know you had some disagreements with her when you were a teenager, but I just pray my girls will be together again at last.” A long, slender pin sunk deep into my heart. A vermilion blossom of pain and remembrance.
“Get me a spoon to beat you with.”
I don’t know why she can’t love me. Maybe when she looks at me, all she can see is my father’s rejection of her. Maybe it’s not me at all. All I know is she makes me feel hollow.
This is why the rest of the story is so important.
“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.” -Philip Larkin