An ugly third-degree burn scar covers most of my left outer thigh. This is one legacy my mother left me. I was two years old and, the story goes, I climbed on top of our stove, turned it on, and sat down on the red hot electrical burner while my mother vacuumed upstairs, unable to hear my screams. Neglect? An accident? It’s a strange story, but it’s possible. I also knocked out my front teeth around the same age, falling down the stairs. Again, it’s possible. Nothing strange or unusual about a toddler falling down the stairs, especially in the late 60s before baby proofing was common.
Another legacy my mother left me was her voice, first in my ears, later in my head, telling me I was a mistake, an accident, that I was not loved but tolerated, and that I was capable of ruining lives (well, hers at least) by merely existing. I wasn’t even supposed to be alive, so I’d better watch it. It throws the accidents into a different light, this admission from her that I was not loved, was not wanted. It puts a small, scratching doubt in my head, enough to make me wonder what really happened.
It’s hard not to think about these things around Mother’s Day. All the stories in social media, newspapers and magazines that idealize and praise mothers and mothering, stories of bonds between mothers and daughters, are powerful triggers.
It’s also hard not to think about these things because I am a mother.
I like to say that my mother helped me become a good mother by demonstrating what NOT to do. I don’t yell, I don’t belittle, I don’t insult, I don’t shame, I don’t slam things, I don’t break things. I’m not saying good mothers don’t lose their tempers and do these things sometimes. They do. But good mothers who do those things make up for the mistakes with love and affection, even apologies, that hopefully balance it all out.
Looking back, though, I think what was worse than what she did do was what she didn’t do. She did not cuddle, she did not praise, she did not thank, she did not protect, she did not apologize, she did not love. She fed, she clothed, she cleaned, she tolerated, grudgingly. When she wasn’t angrily doing housework, slamming cupboards and drawers, she was smoking and drinking coffee in the kitchen, one eye pinched against the smoke curling from the cigarette clamped in one side of her mouth, the other fixed on the pages of a Harlequin Romance. I knew better than to seek attention from her, and usually just watched her from the kitchen doorway, trying to gauge her mood.
My most vivid memories of her from my childhood are saturated with feelings of fear and guilt. One afternoon she tried to show me how to clean my room. I know I was very young because I remember the vacuum cleaner was too heavy for me—try as I might I could not push it under the bed where I had been told to sweep. When she returned to find it unswept, she raged at me. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.
Another dim memory, playing Candyland, the only memory I have of her playing with me. I must have cheated, as very young children do–maybe trying to move my piece ahead without her noticing? Who knows. The game was put away very dramatically, with huffing and puffing and scolding and slamming and indignation. I cried, feeling worthless. She eventually left me alone.
That was our pattern.
And so it went. The fear and guilt morphed into loathing and guilt when I was a teen, and eventually pity and guilt when I was an adult and finally had a child of my own.
Oh, the waste of love. Until I had my own, I had no idea how eager children are to love and be loved, how easily it happens. It would have taken so little for her to have it, to give it. But for a variety of reasons (the subject of a future essay, perhaps), she could not. And as much as I tried to love her, I could not overcome my fear enough to do it.
I cried when she died, not because she was gone but for the life she had wasted. I do not miss her, and I am, if not exactly happier, at least relieved that she is gone.
Her voice is still with me, but it gets quieter as the years pass, crowded out of my head more and more by thoughts of my son, my husband, my friends, my work, my world. In spite of her, I give and receive love easily, even fiercely, especially with my son. And I am grateful for that every day, but especially today.
Happy mother’s day.