If you were a good mother, you would have gone shopping every week in the way that even the most cash-strapped parents somehow manage when they have children to take care of. But you let the food run out and you kept it that way for weeks. You always told us that we could “fend for ourselves.” If you were a good mother, you never would have stopped at Burger King on your way home from work before handing my sister and me a dollar a piece to walk down to the AM/PM. This was your idea of dinner: have two small and hungry kids amble by themselves along an avenue with a sketchy sidewalk to purchase mildewy hamburgers from a gas station: thin tasteless patties on processed buns, without even the solace of lettuce and tomato, that had been sitting under a heat lamp the entire day — this as you guzzled wine and watched Love Connection on the couch, hoping to live vicariously.
If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed my father to poison me with his homebrew formula when I was an infant. I was sent to the hospital in coughs and sputters and came very close to dying. Those who witnessed this unfathomable incident recall him cackling with a cruel congratulatory glee just before he fired up a fresh Pall Mall. He never owned up to his neglect, much as you didn’t. I would learn the wrong lessons from both of you.
If you were a good mother, you never would have allowed him to bury my small sensitive head into the couch. He pressed the palm of his hand against my flailing golden curls, which were always in need of an overdue snip, and pushed my trembling nose into the couch. I couldn’t breathe. But that wasn’t enough for him. He gripped his firm and cowardly paws to my throat and, if you were a good mother, you certainly never would have let him try to murder me again — especially with my horrified sister watching this entire spectacle and bravely intervening. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that this man was dangerous, even before the accident that came about because he was too stubborn to wear a seatbelt, the accident that threw him through the windshield of a VW bus onto some part of Mowry Road as he shirked many responsibilities that I take very seriously as an adult, the accident that scrambled an already scrambled brain, an accident that has led me to rightly question and rectify the recklessness I appear to have inherited.
If you were a good mother, you never would have snorted lines of cocaine through your greedy beak (I never witnessed this and, because I am committed to truth and fairness, I am obliged to observe that this is an inference divined through what I learned later through life experience, but did you really think we didn’t notice the powdery mirror you kept on your bedroom floor?). If you were a good mother, you never would have imbibed several boxes of cheap wine each week or brought strange men over or left us with shady babysitters who committed unspeakable acts. If you were a good mother, you might have stopped the one babysitter who forced me to suck him off and another babysitter, just a few blocks away, who told me that if I didn’t touch her, she would report what a horrible child I was and what a bad mother you were — not that there weren’t kernels of truth to her threats. If you were a good mother, you might have understood that one of the reasons I was diffident for so many years was because of all this and that I needed therapy, not your chastisement or your phony encouragement because I couldn’t work up the nerve for a very long time to ask girls out, much less make a move if I somehow managed to land a first date. But I can do that now. And I’ve never done so much as a bump in my life.
If you were a good mother, I never would have destroyed so many friendships and relationships. But, to be fair, that fatal flaw is entirely on me. And to be clear, every mistake I have ever made is on me. I don’t know if you’ll ever understand that this is the way life works. I’ve seen echoes of your self-destructive tendencies in my own life, which I now watch and curb like the most formidable hawk. But I know how to act and to apologize and to do right. I’m so sorry that you still don’t.
If you were a good mother, you might have understood that my flagrant nips into the liquor cabinet all throughout high school were a method of smothering the pain.
If you were a good mother, you never would have locked me in my bedroom during the entirety of seventh grade. If you were a good mother, you never would have stood there, doing nothing as the second man you married locked me out of the house as I stood outside, shivering in little more than underwear and a blue blanket that had been nipped at by the dog and spending part of the night sleeping with shame and fright in a parking garage.
If you were a good mother, it wouldn’t be so painful to answer questions about my family from people who like me and want to know me and let me into their lives. Why the fuck do you think I was an interviewer for so many years? Aside from being legitimately interested in other people’s stories, it was a great method to avoid talking about myself.
If you were a good mother, you never would have traveled one hundred miles and broken into my apartment and made me call the police, who patiently explained to you why what you had done was not okay. You never would have sent me an anonymous package (try taking better heed with the postmarks) containing a copy of Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, the same copy that is now perched on the shelves of the woman I loved for nine years who threw me into the streets after she had, with ample justification, had enough of me.
If you were a good mother, I never would have longed for you to die, a terrible thought that I believed for far too long would release me. But I now know that I am the only one who can live with myself. I don’t want you to die, but I don’t want to know you and I don’t know if I can ever forgive you. When a social worker told me at my lowest point that you couldn’t be that bad, it took every ounce of personal strength to resist reaching across the table and beating him to a senseless pulp for his flip and uncomprehending remark about something that has caused me unbearable pain for so many years. But I know that, while we share parts, I am not you and that I am not my father and I know that there are other ways to react.
If you were a good mother, you would have known that leaving 120 comments on my website in less than 24 hours was highly disturbing. If you were a good mother, you’d know that sending me a relentless spate of packages (all marked RETURN TO SENDER by me and placed dutifully back in the mailbox) are the actions of a stalker, and that bothering me and somehow tracking down a phone number that only a handful of people knew when I was at my worst point disrupted my healing process. I was quite capable of healing and becoming a better person without you.
If you were a good mother, you would have understood that my incessant joke-cracking was a form of survival. You might have known that learning to laugh at yourself is a way of discovering humility. If you were a good mother, you’d understand that subsisting in a marvelous universe and living a happy life involves not assuming that you are at its center, but being grateful for every small moment and giving to others even after you’ve had a rough day or you’ve been terribly hurt. I remember the way in which you were ridiculed by the Sacramento Union when you were photographed in a ratty dress at a charity event and how you took this so personally that you badmouthed the newspaper. What the photographer did was cruel, but, if you were a good mother, you would have known that there were other good people who worked at that newspaper and that most people are kind and that these kindnesses outweigh the casual wanton acts that every human has to deal with. On the night of your 47th birthday, when we went to a comedy club in Old Sacramento, the host made a few cracks at you between acts and you took this so much to heart that I stood up midway through his verbal fusillade and diverted him with a comical aside, suggesting that I would fuck him if he kept up his advances. The audience laughed. After the show, when we were all consoling you, I went up to the host and personally apologized for your conduct. He asked if you were okay and offered to apologize to you, but you were already out of the building. You could not understand that he was putting on a performance. If you were a good mother, you would have faced him and discovered that he wasn’t a bad guy. You might have possessed courage. You might have brushed this off.
The crisp new outfit that you purchased every week over groceries, when your kids were skinny and starving. The new car you bought because, in your own words, it made you feel young. If you were a good mother, you would have understood that growing old is not something to be feared, that youth is a false ideal, and that life deepens as you push past your fortieth birthday.
If you were a good mother, you would have known that Mother’s Day and your birthday were the most horrific days of the year. You demanded that the world stop what it was doing and dump all its attentions upon you. You’d drink yourself into a sad stupor of self-loathing that made us very worried and very frightened. But we would always tell you that we loved you and that everything was going to be okay, when you were supposed to tell us that.
If you were a good mother, you would have known how to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you.” I had to learn this on my own. You remain incapable of saying these vital words to this very day. How many joyful moments have you missed because of your puffed up pride and your resolute narcissism?
If you were a good mother, you might have understood that taking me to a church on a weekly basis, where one member of the congregation said of me, “There’s something of the devil in that boy,” was not healthy for a budding atheist. I knew there wasn’t a god when my father burned me with his cigarettes and spoke to me in a calm voice just before beating the shit out of me. I know that no amount of faith in a fictitious entity would help me reckon with the deep burns.
If you were a good mother, you might have known that I reacted so hostilely to you selling your fur coat to buy me a guitar on my birthday because the gesture was not about celebrating my life, but about your sacrifice — something that never should have been an issue in the first place if you were a responsible person. But I have to hand it to you. My guilt did get me to learn the guitar.
If you were even remotely aware of why you aren’t a good mother, you would have taken precautions on the night I was conceived. While no one is ever fully prepared to be a parent when those two pink lines materialize, you refused to understand that, the minute you knew you were due, you had responsibilities to a new life and a duty to be a good mother.
If you were a good mother, you might understand that I am terrified of becoming you, that I am scared of having children even though I very much like kids and nearly every kid seems to adore me, that one of the reasons I allowed self-destructive behavior to subsume me for so long is because I share some of your terrible qualities. If you were a good mother, I never would have had to wait until the age of forty to tell myself with fewer doubts that I am a kind, marvelous, and happy person who has every reason to live and that, despite your behavior, I still deserved to be born. But I also know, even if you had decided to be a good mother, I probably still would have ended up a mess of a human being. But I am now far less of a mess. And even though I know that you have prayed for reconciliation after more than twenty years of silence from me, having you in my life remains an impossibility. Because you refuse to accept that you are anything less than a good mother.
I generally read silently, but wanted to say something here. I’m not sure what exactly. I want to recognize the strength. The drawing of lines. The resolution. Thank you for this. I’m nowhere even close to this (not even remotely), but wanted you to know you’ve been heard.
I wish you peace…or as close as you can find.
As a child of a “bad” mother, I get what you are saying here. I really do. I cut my borderline mother out of my life 13 years ago and every year it seems like more and more is revealed about the true depth of what she did. (I had repressed two full years of my teenage life that I only fully remembered last year, at age 41, and that alone retraumatized me in ways I thought unthinkable.)
But… I’m also a mother. And have been for almost 20 years now. And I can see in the way you describe things that they *may* not be as simplistically horrible as you want them to be. Yes, I’m sure your mother was selfish and mean. But try to consider that maybe she was also capable of being a little bit kind some of the time. My first husband told me there are few Lex Luthors in the world (meaning few true evil people), and a wise writing teacher, when I first started writing about my childhood, and it came out much like what you’ve written—100% bad and horrible, with no light streaming in—pointed me in the direction of Holocaust memoirs that recalled life as teenage boys in camps being allowed to catch glimpses of naked girls by sympathetic guards. Meaning that even in the worst of circumstances there is joy and pleasure to be found and no one survives, makes it out alive, unless the people guarding the gates give them *some* kind of hope.
I can (and do) tell all sorts of horror stories about my past. The abuse and neglect and alcoholism and unspeakable things are all there. And I’m not saying you didn’t go through it all, nor am I being an apologist for your mother—I’m saying that you may think this reads as one big ball of “I’m totally over you because you were a bad mother and I didn’t need you anyway” but what it really screams out is “I really needed a mom and never got one and I’m hear to tell everyone how much pain I’m still in.”
Until you can humanize your mother, and see her as someone doing the best she could with what she had, and also try to see whatever good she had in her (trust me, there has to be something, even if it’s small), you’ll be walking around and unable to see your childhood as something that made you rather than something that you escaped.
Of course, you can also do what I did to that wise writing teacher and tell me to fuck off. It took me a decade (and being rejected from the writing community in my city, because everyone found me too angry and depressing) to realize he was right. Once I did, everything changed; my writing changed (people wanted to read what I wrote all of a sudden, too, because it was nuanced rather than raging).
Just some insight, albeit wordy insight, from someone who’s been there. Take it or leave it.
Toby: Thanks for the comments and no offense taken at all. You read the right message. I’d be a fool to think that I was “totally over” my mother or, more accurately speaking, the terrible need for family, one that often fills me with terrible loneliness but that I am getting better about handling, in my life. It’s one of the reasons why I enjoy volunteering to spend time with the elderly. While I do have a “new” family in the form of friends who have been there for me, I was abandoned by my family and left to rot two years ago. I actually view my mother, for all of her many faults, more favorably than my uncle, who is possibly more selfish, far stupider, and more overtly crueler. My mother was kind from time to time as well. Made me a Gandalf costume from scratch when I was five, bought me mathematics workbooks around the same age, took me out to a few dinners, laughed at many of my jokes, tried to take us on a New England vacation when I was in high school using all the resources she had. It kills me that I have to view her through the prism of many abuses, for I agree with you about people and, like you, I have also read Icek Kuperberg. Part of writing this essay — and all this has been kicking around for some months — is so I can dispense with the “good” and the “bad” and stop allowing any monolithic emotion to guide my memories.
Wow. This is so beautifully written and gutting and emotional. Your voice is so powerful. She couldn’t strip you of that. As a mom who tries her best, I’m sorry.