The last time my mother and I spoke was Mother’s Day 2012. I was on the 3rd Avenue bus to my apartment in Spanish Harlem, listening to the usual chatter that formed the bulk of our conversations: her fellow secretaries’ hijinx; how her cantankerous Jewish neighbor only ever wanted to eat at Chili’s, where she hates the salad dressings; and the Arabian Peninsula-style dust storms that had recently been antagonizing Phoenix, which she spoke of with a sort of indignance at their unmitigated gall: “Well! You would just not be-lieve these ha-BOOBS!” (Me, in my head: “OMG please say haboobs again please say haboobs again please say haboobs again #haboobs.”)
The conversation turned to me and how busy I was preparing to fundraise for a web series I’d co-created, a broad, silly sort of “Romy & Michele in Queens” comedy wherein I played a woman. I’d braced for blowback, knowing full well my mother — deeply Christian and, when pressed, reluctantly homophobic — would not approve. But to my surprise, she simply said, “Well that sounds fun. Send me the link when it’s ready and I’ll contribute what I can.” I hung up bewildered. Either my mother turned a corner on the gay thing or, as was so often her tendency, she had not quite been listening to what I said. When my subsequent calls and emails went unanswered, I knew it was the latter.
That September, after the series had wrapped and life had returned to normalcy, I confronted her about her silence, and in so doing ignited 34 years of conflict and family secrets. To her, the web series was a gauntlet thrown, a way to force her to acknowledge the reality of my identity, and she found herself undone by having to discuss the unmentionable. By February, after six months of emails — mine desperate for reconciliation, hers cold, resentful, cruel in the way only religiosity can foster — all ties between us had been severed.
It’s difficult to explain the devastation that ensues when a mother breaks up with her child. The most common response from others, at least in my case, is vengeful dismissiveness: “If she can’t love you for who you are, then the hell with her.”
Would that it worked that way. Our connections to our mothers, of course, are not so loosely tied. They’ve been with us since before our first breath. We originate from their actual insides, and for the most important, vulnerable, formative years of our lives, they are our everything, the sun in our sky. The realities of biology, let alone emotions, don’t allow us to simply turn off the maternal bond and move on, and when the dust finally settled, all I was left with were questions. Namely: Who is my mother, and how could she do this?
Recently, I took a weekend to perform a much-needed purge of the belongings that had been hastily packed in a method best described as “throw in boxes now, ask questions later,” after the suicidal breakdown that followed my mother’s rejection necessitated fleeing New York. Among the detritus of my former life was a small stack of old photographs that, sensing an end was somewhere in the offing, I took from my mother’s house the last time I saw her, in 2009, just in case. In one, she is a pudgy three-year-old in 1949, her toddler’s belly pressing against her overalls, comically scowling at the camera from inside a nimbus of blonde curls in a way that foreshadows the tough cookie she’d become.
Thirty years later, she is regally ensconced in an easy chair with our dearly departed dog, 1970s stylish and lighthearted in a youthful way that had been worn out of her by the time I was old enough to have memory of her. Another twenty years, and she is Mona Lisa-smiling between me and my brother in her favorite University of Michigan sweatshirt despite the fact that I went to Michigan State, a treason we’d joked about earlier in the day. All three of us look so young and happy that it seems impossible we are now all estranged.
There is one other photo. Dwarfed beneath a gigantic sombrero, she is smiling and blushing as a restaurant mariachi band sings “Happy Birthday” in Spanish. After our final battle, I’d affixed it to my bedroom mirror, and would occasionally catch myself staring at it in the consuming way that leaves you forgetting why you came in the room in the first place. Still, I had somehow completely forgotten this photograph existed, and now, it seemed so weighted with symbolism it almost felt heavy in my hands. My mother in that silly sombrero, on what I think was her 50th birthday, a milestone in which no one seemed interested, so I’d scraped together my after-school McDonald’s pay and taken her to her favorite Mexican place at the mall.
She’d beamed the entire time, not so much with gratitude, but with pride: her son, her baby, balancing school and activities and McDonald’s capably enough that he could afford to buy her a plate of enchiladas. Something so simple gave her such joy, and it occurred to me that in what has been a truly tragic and painful life of death, abuse, mental illness, abandonment, poverty and turmoil, her sons, one of whom she no longer knows, are probably the only joys she’s ever really had.
Hearing my mother describe her father, you immediately envision a classic stock character from a black-and-white movie, the kind of honorable, jocular “when men were men” guy that Humphrey Bogart would play. There’s the stories about the funny way he’d drink his coffee (“*sip* Oooooohhh that’s good coffeeeeee”), his love of saying, “Hoo dawggies, now we’re cookin’ with gas!”, and how he’d gamely let my mother play “Beauty Parlor” with him by putting my grandmother’s curlers in his hair while he watched baseball. Mentions of his abuse of his wife and son, of the beatings she witnessed, of his suicide, would make her go silent and dark, as if she’d just crumpled inside herself. Sometimes, they’d propel her out of the house, driving off in her Ford Escort and returning hours later like nothing had happened. When questioned, she would brightly dismiss the topic. “Nobody’s perfect,” and that was the end of it.
Ever my mother’s son, I spent the first 30 years of my life casting my mother as a saint, an underdog done wrong who managed to be a perfect mother in spite of it all. Nevermind that, overwhelmed, unsupported and unstable, she frequently lost control and became abusive; nevermind that our relationship, from as early as I can remember, constantly vacillated between her being desperate for and repelled by me. The more you talk about the good, the less you remember the bad.
But in the aftermath of our separation, it suddenly became imperative that I face the unpleasant facts about my mother. There was only one route out of the fantasy and into reality, and it ran right through the past: if I was to move forward, I had to first go back and relive everything I’d been working so hard to avoid. It was an experience so terrifying it now makes perfect sense to me why people keep their proverbial Ford Escorts near and dear. I am the better for having done it — I feel confident I would not have survived otherwise — but the paradox of it seems to be that in order to stop seeing my mother as a saint whose abuse I deserved, I had to recast her as a monster I’d heroically survived. Suddenly, the good memories sank into the background until they disappeared.
Until finding those photographs, my memory of my mother, the face frozen in time in my mind, had been one of fury, lips pursed, eyes narrowed to slits, screaming invective in a terrifying voice out of scale to her tiny body. I’d forgotten all about the face in that Mexican restaurant, the twinkle in the eyes, the round and rosy cheeks which I inherited, the few hints of that sweet midwestern Gidget that survived the way her life shook out. For years, I’d barely been able to remember her affection no matter how hard I strained. But now I recalled, almost tactily, the feel of her tiny-bodied hugs, reaching up for them as a kid and bending down for them as an adult; the way we would both almost faint with joy and relief at the first glimpse of each other each time I came off the plane from the harrowing visits with my Dad. And perhaps most vividly, I remembered the ancient maternal pain on her face as I climbed into the cab of my post-college U-Haul, her shaking with sobs in the rearview mirror as I drove off toward Los Angeles.
My mother was and was not a monster, and she was and was not a saint. Her mothering broke me and scarred me, and it gave me life and strength and salvation. All of this, in all its complicated, contradictory, fucked-up weirdness, is simultaneously the truth of us. And I miss her, every day.
There’s no lemons to lemonade element of my mother’s story. It’s one of hurt, loss, abuse, defeat after defeat after defeat. It’s unfortunate that I have at times borne the brunt of that. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my own life, it’s that the psyche and heart have limits to what they can endure. Cliches about never getting more than we can handle are just perky bullshit needlepointed on throw pillows. We may not die of what befalls us, but we more often than not crack apart beneath the load.
My mother, though too scarred and guarded to be specific, has admitted that she failed her children, that she carries that self-knowledge with her every day, but that she also did the best she could. And it occurs to me that that is all I can really ask. We all too easily forget that our parents are mere mortals and that, just like us, they never actually know what they’re doing either. All of us are just muddling, throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks, gritting our teeth and hoping for the best. All things being equal, I can’t say I could have done better than she did with the hand she was dealt; if I’m honest, I think I would have done far worse. And that is not nothing.
I don’t know if my mother and I have a future. I am open to her, but my hard-won realism tells me she is likely too hardened, too scared, too trapped by religion — maybe even too old — for there to be a way forward. Time will tell. But I know her love, however flawed, and the good in her, despite the bad, is real. And I know that with or without her, I will survive, because that is what she taught me how to do. And for that, I will always be grateful.