On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves./Washes the grave with silvery tears./A soldier cleans and polishes a gun./Sleeps unaware of the clarion call. –Simon & Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair / Canticle”
When I was five my mother took me to the theater to see The Shining. All I could remember was the blood that was a river and a child screaming REDRUM. When I was eight I pumped on the swings with a girl called Tangerine, and later that night I asked my mother about something I’d seen. Earlier in the day the police cleared the park because of a woman on the ground. Men covered her body with a sheet and took her away. I wanted to know about the woman, about the cold body that lie on the ground. She was probably a junkie, my mother said through a faceful of smoke. When I was ten I crept at the foot of my mother’s door because I’d heard her wailing; I’d heard her head bang against a wall. I thought it was Danny all over again–another man beating a woman because he could–but when I opened the door to her bedroom a crack, a hair, I could see her and my stepfather curled up in a cocoon. Later I asked about what she’d done and she snapped, did I want to get pregnant like all the other degenerates up and down the block? Sex was a death sentence–it would ruin all that she had planned for me. And she had plans. I wasn’t like the others, she’d said. I wouldn’t grow into a woman drinking out of brown paper bags, a woman who said ain’t instead of aren’t.
For as long as I could remember I was able to write and read. I suppose I owe her that–her knowledge that books were a way in and writing was a way out. Even now, even after all this time, I need prose in order to see.
When I was small my mother would tell me stories about knives and black magic. She’d play her records, a mix of rock and roll and soul, and I’d lay down next to her, curl up close. I remember burying my face into the thicket that was her hair. My mother was a forest I wanted to get lost in. She told me she grew up in a home and she had to protect herself. However, as I grew older, I realized that my mother had an abusive relationship with the truth–you never knew which stories were true and which were of her own invention. A born revisionist, she recounted stories altered with each retelling, and all the stories came with some sort of truth. Never cry, never be vulnerable, always hurt before you are wounded–her axioms lingered, and I would spend much of my adult life unlearning what I had been taught. Even now I struggle with being vulnerable. When I relapsed last year, I didn’t call my closest friend–I sent her a g-chat because the thought of getting on the phone with her seemed like a line I couldn’t yet cross. The idea of breaking down into tears was unimaginable. I’m getting better at letting people all the way in, but it’s been a tough journey.
One of my mother’s favorite songs was “Scarborough Fair,” a song whose origins were rooted in the belief that love is impossible, that one had to go through extreme lengths to prove their devotion. She’d play the song, lifting the needle of the record player and setting it down again, and I’d close my eyes, drift into sleep as my mother told me that all of this was important. That it was imperative that I see the world for what it is. You can’t afford to be blind, she said once. I couldn’t afford to be a child.
By the time I was twelve I’d seen people die, overdose, fuck, pummel, beat, drink, smoke joints, shoot up. I saw countless films about the cruelty of men and bore witness to the cold revenge my mother inflicted when you crossed her. I stood guard while she stole money from a delicatessen safe, right after they let her go. I watched her jealousy of me. When I bought Lisa Frank stickers with my allowance money, she’d buy bigger books and stickers for her own collection. They were always perfectly arranged, and I’d spend weekends trying to mimic her precision. I watched her envy my youth, education (she never set foot on my college campus), and my writing. She told me that she was a writer too, but I never saw anything she’d written. But I saw her steal my journals and handwritten stories and read them. I saw her quietly watch me win awards and accolades for stories I wrote about the life we’d lived, stories that sometimes made her look like a monster.
Over a telephone line, a few years after my book had been published, I told my mother she’d stolen my childhood from me. She spent the better part of every conversation asking if she could see me, if I would meet her teenaged daughter. She spoke of our mutual drug addictions as if they were badges of honor instead of crosses to bear, and she didn’t understand why I didn’t love her because the past was past, and couldn’t I simply forgive her? You stole my childhood from me.
I have to tell you that I had hope. I did. I’d hope that all the years had changed her, that I could undo everything I’d felt about her in my first book, but she only became a barnacle from which I wanted to be excised. I spent so many years doing the work, repairing the damage I had done to myself and those whom I loved, and she remained changeless. She had a man and a new daughter and she sometimes worked in a local school. She will forever be my first and only true hurt.
Sometimes I wonder what all of this sight cost me. I read an article once that relayed that some of the finest writers (not all, but most) are broken people trying to knit themselves back together again. Childhood trauma, loss, pain occurs before they’re able to put words to it, logically process it, and this damage alters them somehow. This damage, which may have been resolved by faith, therapy, love or medication, imbues their work with a sight just beyond their reach. And the work is writing our way to, around, above, under and through that place.
I turn 39 this week and I have this gift and this loss, and they weigh on my hands. So I find myself staring from one to the other. One to the other. Always, one to the other.
The photo above is one of the last ones I took of my mother. It occurs to me now that I somehow predicted her leaving by photographing it, because some time after this photo was taken she would later leave my father and I in this car, wearing this jacket. Her face, always obscured. A figure just beyond my reach.