This week's homework was to start with the quick write prompt: I am still afraid to write about. . . . Whatever story emerged from that initial writing needed to include the elements of money, sex, a taboo, and a secret.
The picture haunts me. It always has. Even before I knew the secret of my paternity.
A young woman, my mother, kneels at the side of a maple spool bed with her newborn daughter, me, propped up on a pillow facing her. The mother looks at the bundled baby with such awestruck love, beaming from a smile I have no conscious memory of, the light streaming through the window is dimmed by the smile’s power. Barely tamed dark curls, a rounded nose and one thick eyebrow, her own mother’s features, create a profile of a new mother’s love that Mary Cassatt would have been proud to paint. The baby looks back at her mother, a cupid bow mouth forming an “o” of wonder. The love between them is so palpable my heart aches to see it.
I’ve spent a good portion of my life trying to get that woman to look at me in that same exact way. With no success. She held me at a distance, held me responsible for behaviors impossible for a child, and held me to standards she didn’t follow herself. “God hates a liar,” she would always say. I lied constantly to protect myself from her silent shunning wrath and Daddy’s two-inch leather belt applied with enough energy to leave welts and occasional bruises. When I finally had proof that she was the biggest liar of all, the victory was bitter and left me feeling even more unloved.
I tried to follow rules that shifted like loose sand under bare feet, and when that didn’t work I broke her clearest rules by drinking and sleeping around and then becoming pregnant by a married, black, ex-con. I tried to be smart because she valued intelligence (she would have become a lawyer if her granddad hadn’t forbidden it), and when I couldn’t be smart enough, flunked out of college. We both wanted her offerings of money (to bail me out of hospital debt and college loans) to repair the huge rips in our relationship. When that wasn’t enough, when nothing was ever enough, I gave up. I dedicated my life to being nothing like her, only to discover that not-being someone is not living.
Time and the hard work of healing have brought acceptance of, and even gratitude for, the complicated relationship we had. Rather than needing to make her understand me and take responsibility for the harm she inflicted, I find myself wanting to understand the woman I called Mommy.
I study the picture and overlay the facts kept hidden in the secret for so many years. I consider the childhood she survived (a childhood not completely revealed to her children until after the secret was), and try to put myself in her skin.
I become my nineteen-year-old mother, just over a hundred pounds, still tender from giving birth. My smile is wide and open, in spite of the embarrassing ill-fitting dentures I’ve worn for just a year. I’m aware of Granny across the room taking this picture and ignore her – finally I have something she can’t take away from me.
I gaze at my daughter (the very beginnings of myself) holding her two tiny perfect hands in mine. Nothing else exists except for the two of us, the power of the love that binds us, and possibility. I pour my soul out to her.
You are so beautiful. It’s worth the loneliness and embarrassment of these last months to be able to hold you now. I can’t believe how real you are – so soft and alive with those bright bright eyes looking back at me. I’m sorry to bring you into a world with no daddy. Oh, you have one, but he’s not here, and he will never be. I will see to it that you never have to know what a monster your daddy is. You look so much like him. I hope you grow out of that.
I’m a little scared, Debbie. I don’t know what’s going to happen to us. I don’t want to have to keep living with Granny and Granddaddy – actually they won’t let me stay here long. They’re already talking about when I can get out and get a job so I can support us until I get married again. I can’t imagine leaving you to go to work, but you’ll be in good hands. Granny can hardly keep her hands off you. I wonder if she loved me that way when I came to live with her.
I don’t remember Velma, my own mommy. I wish I did. I only had her for a year and a half before she died. I wish she were here now to see how gorgeous you are. I hope you grow up to look like her. I promise not to leave you like she left me. I know she couldn’t help dying, but I do wonder how different my life would have been if she had survived her illness.
Danny’s mom, your Grandma Dee, has already said she’ll take you as often as she can, even though she’s busy working as a teacher. I think she feels really bad that her son left his pregnant wife for another woman. Bad enough that she paid for our divorce.
I want you to know my sweet baby that I left him. I wasn’t going to live with a man who didn’t want you. He made me choose, him or you, and I chose you. And I’m so glad I did. How could a cheating, lying, drinking jerk come close to competing with you? There was no choice to be made. Truly. I wanted you from the moment my body told me you were here.
I promise to love you always little one. I won’t leave you. I won’t ever make you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. I won’t let anyone hurt you.
You will never know this, but I know a thing or two about being hurt. First not having my own mommy and having to share Granny with your Auntie Bea. Then being left behind by a daddy who starts another family, but doesn’t come back for me. I don’t have a daddy to give you right now, but you will always have your own mommy.
Granny and Granddaddy have a possible new daddy picked out for you already. I can’t stay single, they say. It’s bad enough that I’m divorced and it’s certainly not right for a woman to be raising a child by herself. I don’t want to get married again, ever.
Danny and I loved each other in the beginning. He was exciting and sweet; I felt like I really mattered to someone for the very first time. We were going to travel the world and have great adventures and then have tons of children. All that seemed to change the minute we got married – he drank and yelled and hit me. I couldn’t tell anyone. A wife has to please her husband, so it felt like my fault that he got so mad. I actually didn’t mind when he left me alone, even after I found out where he was going.
If I absolutely have to marry this new guy, there will be some clear ground rules set this time. If he wants me, he’s going to have to agree to never tomcat around, never get drunk, and never ever hit me.
I want you to grow up with a daddy who loves you. If marrying this new guy will make everyone happy, and give you a childhood I couldn’t have, then it might be worth it.
Mother and Child, by Mary Cassatt (1908), from Flickr