Four Memories of My Mother
I used to feed the ducks that lived in the lagoon behind our house. My dad went with me sometimes, but most often I went alone—the lagoon bordered our backyard and it was easy for me to slip away undetected. My favorite day to feed the ducks was Saturday, which was when moms and daughters were out in force. I’m sure other people were out there, too, but I have always cared most about moms and daughters.
Moms were aliens to me, foreign creatures I could only see outside of my home. I’d observe them from my vantage point atop a pile of wood chips as they walked down the bike path along the lagoon’s edge. Obsessively watching those women was a compulsion stronger than being glued to Saturday-morning cartoons.
The moms would always walk with a bag of stale bread in one hand and their daughter’s small hand in the other. I so badly wanted to experience that feeling of having my hand held by a woman who was walking half a step ahead of me. Wherever she was going, we’d head there together.
The mom-daughter duos all blend together in my mind: the daughter watching as the mom separates pieces of stale bread for her to throw into the water, as if the child can’t tear up bread on her own. If the ducks ever got too close for comfort, the mom would swoop in, a protector shielding her precious youngling from the squawking assailants. She’d shoo the scary ducks away and then crouch down and look at her little girl closely, their faces in a vacuum away from the rest of the world, and tell her that everything was okay. She’d wipe the tears off her daughter’s cheeks and brush the wood chips off her daughter’s ankles as if to make her whole again. It didn’t even seem like it was a special occasion that the daughter was being comforted by her mother; it was as natural and innocuous as breathing. In those moments I wanted very badly to climb into the bubble they created, to feel the warm air inside. I felt resentful but still curious, unable to look away, like when you’re little and you have to watch your brother open presents on his birthday.
I liked to watch how the moms talked to other moms, acting as translators if their kids wanted to add anything to the conversation, always so understanding of each other, nodding and smiling and laughing. I thought maybe my mom didn’t realize she could have gone to the park to find people to talk to.
I liked how the moms would listen to their children’s overly descriptive monologues as if they were sharing critical information before the mom would tactfully decide whether or not to insert her own wisdom. One of the most common exchanges was when a kid would tell their mom they were hungry, but when the mom would offer healthy snacks like apple slices or celery sticks, the kid would say NO to all of these options so the mom would counter with, “Well then, you must not be very hungry after all!” Then a negotiation would ensue, and the kid and the mom would come to an agreement on the ratio of apple slices to gummy worms the child was allowed to eat. I never negotiated with my dad for anything and I had no idea how these kids could negotiate with their mothers--what leverage could a child possibly have? I would have gladly eaten those apples with the cores already cut out!
Every little girl watches and looks up to the older women in her orbit. There’s an innate desire to admire them and to want to be like them. I know this because my cousin and I used to spy on my aunt while she was getting ready to go out to dinner, imitating her with our fingers as she strapped on her bra. Little girls linger while their mom is on the phone with her friends, soaking in the gossip that they’ll most definitely misinterpret and regurgitate to their friends. Little girls stand very close and watch their moms in the bathroom stall at the airport. They look closely at their moms while their moms clean them up. These are looks of deep need, as if their mothers always make everything okay.
I imagine all little girls as potatoes, wondrous nuggets of raw potential just waiting to be shaped by their mom-chefs. Whether your mom tenderly styles you into a Hasselback dish, tosses you in the microwave, or is totally absent, she is going to affect you. My mother took her own life before there was much time for her to shape me into anything. I was four years old, almost five. The greatest legacy she left me was her suicide. I try to imagine what it feels like to be washed, dried, peeled--to be turned over under warm water, then pushed gently into an oven and basted every now and again. But it is another thing entirely to never be touched at all; to be left alone in the cabinet to sprout eyes and fend for yourself.
Before she died, my mother was in and out of my life like a jack-in-the-box. By the time I was four years old I knew she was sick, I just didn’t understand quite what that meant. At that age, sick meant a sneeze or maybe an ear infection. It had easy-to-spot symptoms and was cured by taking gooey sweet red medicine. But none of that applied to my mother’s mental illness. Depression is an invisible disease. Back then people generally didn’t understand that depression is an illness like any other. Depression is something that you have, not something that you are. The stigma around depression begins with the way we talk about it and the way we label it. But I didn’t understand this as a kid. I was looking for sneezes but all I saw were screams.
My mother had to be kept in a special place, locked up, safe from herself. But even there she was not entirely safe. According to her medical reports, she once lit her room and herself on fire. The orderlies caught her and she did not die that day. What do you need to feel inside to light yourself on fire? Do you feel fire inside that you need to get out, or do you feel nothing inside and so maybe lighting your hospital bed on fire and lying down in it is the only thing that can make you feel something? I was brought to visit her the way you’d visit someone in jail, in a highly controlled and scheduled way, but I don’t remember anything other than the sterile white walls and fluorescent lights.
My mother was deeply mysterious to me. In my mind’s eye she was very tall, which is funny because I later learned she was well under five feet. I’m actually much taller now than she was, but even so, in all of my imagined scenarios where I meet her again she is still somehow taller than me. She used to wear swooshy nylon sweat suits with matching pants and a jacket. I cannot remember her ever wearing anything but these matching sweat suits. When I wear matching sweat suits now, it is a secret nod to her.
Sometimes my mother was allowed to come home. This was a highly anticipated event in my family. It meant she had demonstrated enough outward-facing progress to be released from the asylum. Even as a toddler I could tell it was a very big deal, like when a dad buys fresh lobster for the entire family, one for everyone. It’s a special occasion! But when my mother came home it never felt like she belonged there. I remember knowing in theory how moms and daughters were supposed to embrace and feel at ease with each other, but I was never able to actually achieve this with my mother. I don’t remember ever hugging her. I’m sure she sensed this awkwardness, too, which must have made it even harder for her to come home--especially when it meant coming home to my brother and me, two little potatoes who were growing and transforming wildly, always one step more evolved than the last time she saw us. I imagine that she must have felt increasingly alienated from us and maybe even started thinking that it would be better if she were gone.
Even though her goal with suicide might have been to disappear, there are things about her I will never be able to forget. I have four memories of my mother and three of them are bad. They sit in the back of my mind all the time, like a lady on a green velvet chaise longue who mostly blends into the background but will sometimes wink and wave at me to get my attention. I remember she is there at all the wrong times. I am learning, slowly, to simply wave back.
In my earliest memory of my mother, she’s leaning against the doorframe of the office in our old house wearing a red edition of the nylon sweat suit and smoking a cigarette. I still think of her anytime I smell cigarette smoke. My dad never told her not to smoke inside the house, even though I could see it bothered him. I figured that she was allowed because she was special. She stood in the doorway staring into nowhere, totally motionless save for the cigarette. Her hair, which was short and curly, absorbed the smoke around her. She looked like a movie poster to me, grainy and glamorous and ethereal, not all the way there. In college, girls on drugs who smoked cigarettes in fraternity basements looked like my memory of my mother: tragic and theatrical, beautiful and standoffish. People have a certain demeanor when they’re smoking cigarettes, like they’re listening to a story they’ve heard before, as if they’d rather be out there, somewhere else. Their hands are occupied and so is their mouth; they are not able to hold your hand or kiss you.