Thinking of you

On Mother's Day, a daughter finds she can't escape the painful childhood memories that she hides from the rest of the year.


Rose Stoll
May 6, 1998 3:15PM (UTC)

A few months ago, I stopped opening my mother's letters. A small, dark event,
unsettling in its simple promise, that if I wanted, I could step out
of the frame of family and set aside the choking accretion of 37 years.
Foolish, sad presumption, that I could hope to contain this
insistent bilious seepage with such a disproportionately simple act -- or
could I? I remember coming upstairs and setting her letter down, turning to
take off my coat, then pausing to pick it up again. Looking with some
detachment at the familiar code of the immigrant's life: the overly glued
flap catching parts of the contained pages, former defense against shifty
third world postal employees carried over to her North American life; a
continuous row of stamps patched together from what was found in purses and
drawers, then supplemented at the post office window; a steeply cursive
system of addressing that ignores all postal convention. I stand there
unseeing, balancing the envelope on my open palm -- then, I drop it, into
the basket on my dresser. I do not have to open this. That done, and
slowly realized, I suddenly have to sit down. I never have to open
her letters again.

"But she is your mother!" Years of hissing relatives come to bear on my
sagging shoulders. She is my mother. As she has often reminded me herself,
invoking God, my dead grandparents and every
Hallmarkism she can think of, and me passing from anger to weary amusement
to indifference. Yet, now, I am not so sure it is indifference -- it seems to
be more of a closing, born of a frantic need to survive wasted, lost years.
I don't want to open her letters anymore; I don't want to listen to pages
of a life endured with imperfect sons, daughters, husband,
daughters-in-law, sons-in-law and other assorted relatives and people she
knows. I don't want to sit through the numbing minutiae of her last fight
with my sister-in-law or suffer the various ailments that now seem to
afflict her every waking moment or visit the squall she is being
forced into with her sisters over the disposition of my
grandparents' property God rest their souls if they only knew your poor
grandfather would turn over in his very grave.
I am no longer willing to
be a part of the frozen inert landscape into which my mother has
permanently carved herself a resting place, unwilling to break free even in
response to the muffled screams of a daughter whose childhood was being
ripped away from her.

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But she is my mother. And every year at this time I stand in front of
glistening bright row upon row of drippy sentiment enrobed in slick color:
She is my mother and I have to send her a card for this holiest of all
retail traditions, Mother's Day.

This farmer's daughter, this tall, large-boned woman with the wide,
archless feet of a person born to the soil, this person who bore five
children into a violent marriage, this frightened child who shuttled
between the redemptive calm of her parents home and the wrath of a vengeful
husband, this uncertain adult, this woman is my mother. A mother I have
held at arm's length for as long as I can remember, with whom I have never
shared girlish confidences. We don't easily or at all display affection in
our family. The last time I hugged my mother she was crying, because I had
returned home for a surprise visit after a five-year absence. I recall how
awkward I felt, how unfamiliar the physical closeness, and I remember an
uncharitable thought: that the howling woman I was gingerly touching seemed
to be crying less from release of emotion and more from the habit of coarse
display. Because this is how she lived her life, by laying it bare to the
nearest passerby. My mother kept no secrets and did not indulge in
ruminative pastimes. Scandals were savored and quickly spread, illnesses
were extended by detailing them to indulgent ears, decisions were by
consensus of the community and weighed by the simple rubric of being able
to hold her head up. And errant husbands earned one a place of honor in
this society, allowing the sufferer many luxuriant hours of backyard chat
with whispering neighbors.

And yet, there is the other woman, the mother
who gave her insistent teenage daughter her last $20 to buy
shoes she absolutely must have because all the kids in her
upper-middle-class school wore them. My mother dishes up meals to a gaping
family
maw and retires to the kitchen ostensibly to finish some chore, but really
so she
can eat her own diminished plate quickly. My mother is screaming from
downstairs as she tries to fend off my drunken father and there we are, my
brother and I, charging to her side, ready to kill in her defense.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

It's Christmas Day and our family is sitting outside on the steps of
our house. The landlord lives in the last house in the row, the second
largest building. His is painted, with a fence and windows that have glass
in them. He lives in the house with his wife, who has suffered a crippling
stroke and can hardly walk, and his illegitimate daughter. His daughter is
pregnant, and he is the father of the baby. The first house in this gray
line of crumbling shacks is the largest and nicest of them all, home to the
rest of his family, his son and daughter born of his marriage to his
shrunken wife. His wife spends a lot of time in the front house, his son
and daughter rarely visit the back house. I haven't seen them today, which
is odd because it's Christmas and everybody visits at Christmastime.
We're sitting outside because my father has returned home and in a
drunken fit has thrown most of the dinner out the window, along with some
glasses, a pot and plates. He has long passed from frenzy into
melancholia and is now sobbing into vomit-flecked sheets. Soon he will be
asleep and we may even creep out to see our friends' new toys. We have to
hurry back, though, because he sleeps fitfully and has been known to awaken
and start hollering for us.

None of us want him alone and drunk with my
mother, and I don't want it ever to get dark because my mother will be
asleep in our bed and he will insist that I sleep in
theirs. As much as I try to will blessed unconsciousness, there is no
escaping the
base perversion the night will disgorge. But it means that he will calm
toward my
mother, and in that pitiful cause-and-effect pairing of the young, unformed
mind, I see that I can help her, I can alleviate our suffering. I can shield
my mother by having my father visit his awful intentions instead on my
body. How perverse that a child should bargain for her mother's
welfare with her own self, that a mother should accept this heartbreaking
gift -- and that childhood should be dismissed in such a summary manner.

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My father tells the same story time and again when he has had too much to
drink, when reason mutates into mindless black rage. It begins with my
mother leaving him just before I was born and not returning until I was
3 years old, and it ends the same way with each telling, with him
sobbing and reaching for me, clumsily petting me and calling me his prize,
his gold, his most treasured child, all the while spraying my mother in
bespittled invective. He rails too against my mother's family, but I sense
fear and something else beneath the bitter onslaught: My father is both
afraid and grudgingly respectful of my grandfather.

I close my eyes and
search for those early years, but there is nothing in my memory of the time
spent with my grandparents, and there is an odd absence of any baby
pictures in my grandparents' photo albums. The earliest images I can find
show a chubby, shy child holding hands with her brother in the front yard of
my grandparents' home on the Pomeroon River. In the background is the house
my grandfather built, and off to the far right you can barely see the muted
gleam of the Pomeroon.

I love this river, the urgent, buzzing life of its banks and this creaky
dim old farmhouse wrapped in the dense, ripe promise of fruit-heavy trees.
It takes us an entire day to travel to the farm: cousins, aunts, my mother,
brothers and sisters, all one excitable shrieking group, and us giddy with
the realization that for a week or so, the long arm of my father will not
reach this far. My aunts arrive first, weighed down with bags of food and
clothing, which they arrange around their feet underneath the steamer's
slotted wooden benches. Once settled, they smile benignly at us, hand out
sweets to clamoring hands, and we're free to run off. Which we do, up and
down the narrow stairs, shoving and yelling from the bow to the lower
sections, perilously leaning out over the iron rails. The day slides by in
a dusty rumble of docking boats and bumpy land vehicles, until our bus
rolls to a belching end on the river bank. And there is my grandfather
waiting by the launch -- familiar, comforting, faded craggy gray head
crinkling in our direction. He gets up and lumbers over, a stooped beloved
giant of a man. We chug noisily down the river and arrive with the setting
sun.

This is when I have seen my mother at her happiest, with a father she loved
and a life simple in its needs, generous in its return. We feasted hugely,
childish appetites burst open by days of simple farm labor and excessive
play, by climbing trees, swimming in murky river water, digging through
piles of dusty old magazines, chasing after complacent chickens and running
screaming from imaginary tigers. Oddly, I discovered I missed my father on
the journey back and was foolishly glad to see him. I came to realize this
was but a vestige of hopeful childhood that faded and died in time. I
couldn't make that journey to Pomeroon as often as I wanted, coming to rely
instead on the embellished tales my siblings relayed back to me. My mother
went many times, choosing not to see or to ignore a young child's terror at
being left behind, seeking for herself the desperate relief of her childhood
home.

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That was the darkest time of my life, the years from my earliest memory
until well after my 11th birthday. I haven't seen my father in 12
years, and four years ago I spoke to him for the last time. There were no
showdowns, no violent last scenes, I just never picked up the phone again
and never responded to letters. I spent much of my life trying to figure
out why I was the target of his terrible abuse, and some
explanations were there, but none that pointed the way to reconciliatory
measures. At some point a shift must have occurred, because I stopped being
angry with him -- worse, I stopped thinking of him as my father. I think I
grew weary of my own internal struggles and wanted very simply to move
beyond them. But the anger didn't go away; instead it shifted to my mother.

What is a parent's role? My West Indian ancestry stabs an accusing finger
in my direction and swats the question away. It is the duty of the child to
the parent that is more important. Your parents do for you and they
sacrifice their entire lives and this is how you turn out. She is your
mother!
But a mother, my mother, would have taken me away from
the hell of my home, my mother would have run away with me, my mother would
have protected me. Instead my mother needed protecting, she sought escape
and she couldn't comfort, and in the end, the child could not continue
being mother to its own mother. But children need their parents, and as
much as I seem unable to draw comfort and enlist support from mine, I can't
ignore synthetic constructs such as Mother's Day. I will send her a card so
she can display it and point to it proudly and say, "That's from my daughter
in America." A small white sheet of paper, embellished with color and
glitter, its safe anonymity tells nothing of the sender, but to an aging
woman on the far side of the continent, it speaks of hope and
reconciliation and family.


Rose Stoll

Rose Stoll is a writer living in Northern California.

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Mother's Day Sexual Abuse

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