In my childhood family photo albums, I can’t find a single picture where I’m alone with my mom.
Does that mean I wasn’t loved or memorialized by her in some way? For years, I would have said, “She cares more about Boo or Cinda than she does about me,” but the truth is much more complicated.
My mom loved me with expectations from the very beginning of my life. I was expected to be a boy and entered this world an immediate failure. In hindsight, she was only twenty-three when she had me and no doubt disappointment weighed heavily on her at my arrival, though I did for years hold the distinction of being her only baby of five who wasn’t born breach.
I wish that one instance of following proper birth protocol had set me up for a lifetime in her favor, but it did not. Our photo album shows that by the time I was six weeks of age she already objected to my lack of a smile.
What I remember most about the early years was a constant pressure to be what I was not: a boy, a smiler, more outgoing, more affectionate despite the fact that I was simply different. The pressure was so great, I ran before I walked, bypassing the middle step in what I imagine was an attempt to escape the hot seat of her unrelenting scrutiny.
I know now that my mother’s intentions were the best. She loved me to the best of her ability. I can only imagine the demons she held in check were tortured and considerable, from the harm that fought past her defenses and settled on me.
I grew up feeling unloved by her, unwanted and wrong in every way. By seventeen, I was actively suicidal.
The first time I tried to kill myself, the school counselor called my mom and told her what I had done, and she picked me up and screamed all the way home never to do anything so stupid again. It was so ironic, I laughed even at that inopportune moment as she drove on muttering reflectively, “Stupid kid.”
When I look back on it now, I’m glad my mom had the response that she did. I was a stupid kid and her screed kept me from attempting that again for a few months. In her own way, she saved my life just enough, and so I minced along from event to event until one day, I found out I was going to be a mother and promised myself I would never consider suicide again.
From the dregs of our twisted past, we made many mistakes on each other. I wish, now that she is gone, that I could have known what she wanted of me. Once she worked out that I wasn’t the son she had hoped for, what dreams did she hold for me, if any? I’m old enough now to know she must have suffered her own substantial pains because meanness is bred and not born.
I love my mom in a truly bicameral way, the old and unholy hell that was her on a rant, screaming, “I wish you’d never been born,” was balanced against her wicked Dorothy Parker humor. She was exactly the mother I needed as a grown woman, while possibly not the right one for me as a small child.
The last Mother’s Day we spent together, was in 2012, about two months before she died of ovarian cancer. I knew she might not see another Mother’s Day and took her to visit her mom, aged 97. I watched as my mom glowered from the sofa at her mother who fawned over my mom as if she were the world’s greatest wonder. Noticing her shoes didn’t match her velour pantsuit, always a “fixer,” my mom asked, “What size shoe do you wear?” To which my grandmother replied, “It’s twelve o’clock dear.” That was them in a nutshell, a lifetime of conversation at cross-purposes yet fraught with love, my mom raised by a bona fide Auntie Mame when she would have preferred a stolid June Cleaver.
There are many perfect mothers in imaginary worlds out there, and none have ever darkened my door. In their stead, I received an imperfect one, one I grew to despise and then forgive and then love with all my heart. There is no amount of time that would render me the perfect child anymore than the world can render me a perfect mother.