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My Mother’s Image

08 May

After being released from Sing-Sing for embezzlement, my grandfather’s first order of business was to remarry. His second was to retrieve his children from an orphanage where they’d been abandoned by their mother.  It was tough work: The children had been deprived of their identity having been left without papers, like mutts. My mother had been renamed ‘Patricia’ and her brother ‘Butch,’ names that are as foul to them still, more than 60 years later, as the most filthy of swear words.

It’s impossible for me to tell my mother’s story, much as I would like to. This isn’t even the post I intended to write this week but I’m at my parents’ home for the weekend and it’s a timely topic. All told I’ve lived with my mother for nineteen complicated years and I barely know her. There are some raw facts: She married at 16 to avoid going to the orphanage a second time but her husband philandered their marriage away leaving her with three children. She was in love with Elvis and Johnny Cash. Her favorite color is blue. She may be the undiscovered record-holder for the most phobias held by a single person. She never finished high school but got her GED in her early 30s. With five children, one grandchild, and a senile mother-in-law living with her, and the insistence of my father, Mother earned her associate’s degree. Then her bachelor’s. Then her master’s. Then her doctorate, each with a different scientific emphasis: pre-pharmacy, chemistry, physics, forestry all by the time she was 46. She is remarkable.

I was raised in a world of contradictions. We lived in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the United States with carpet that had been thoroughly soiled by countless untrained house pets. We drove luxury vehicles with plush carpet and leather interiors but, in a time before Target was ubiquitous, the finest attire I had was purchased from the JC Penny bargain basement at the poorest mall in the city. Did you know that even in the bargain basement there are ‘final sale’ clearance racks where the clothing is even cheaper? Perhaps not – most of the inventory was in our closets. My parents publicly espoused the importance of education and living a moral life, yet three siblings had children before they were 17 and dropped out of high school. Forget airing dirty laundry – there was never a hint of its existence. There were appearances, and then there was reality.

Privately, Mother struggled through school. Even were the curriculum not demanding, the schedule was arduous. With a single family vehicle that my father wouldn’t let her drive, she awoke by 4:00 a.m. to have her coffee, nurse my sisters, shower, and catch the 5:30 a.m. bus so she could make a 7:00 a.m. class at the university 40 miles away. Easily 15 years older than her traditional classmates, she gave birth to one sister and was teaching a chem lab the next day. We would make the drive across town and wait for her in the loading zone for up to a half hour without air conditioning in 110-degree heat.  Mother would run out between classes to nurse my sisters, before teaching the next lab or attending the next seminar.  We’d drive her home where she’d make dinner, wash the laundry, tend to my grandmother’s necessities, bathe the children, and then study until she collapsed.

The days Mother went without sleep, I went without sleep, too.  My job was to help keep her awake, a role that involved keeping the coffee supply current and engaging her in conversation when she got sleepy.  It wasn’t unusual for us to pull a couple all-nighters in a row, with me napping through the sticky hot afternoons to catch-up on my sleep.  At 7 or 8, I was quizzing her on formulae and helping proofread her papers. Odd to think of now, but there used to be a demand for people to type papers for other students. When she took in these odd jobs to make a little extra family dough, I typed the papers for her as often as not using my father’s IBM Selectric. Footnotes cost extra.

I remember lying on our bellies on the floor, my mother’s class notes spread around her as I doodled or read. The material was for her nutrition class and she was learning about ketosis and high-protein diets, what would later be marketed by Dr. Atkins. Her bleary eyes caught mine thoughtfully and she said, “I’ve put on a lot of weight since your sister was born. Let’s go on a diet together.  It’ll be fun. Imagine how many friends you’ll have.”

I was sold. Home-schooled, I didn’t have friends. With prettiness would come popularity. I felt it every time I went to the local elementary school for annual testing.  Wearing too short shorts and terry-cloth tops, I was unfashionable and awkward next to the other girls who wore lip gloss and stick-on earrings. My older sisters were slender and pretty. They wore cheap jewelry in the shower that stained their skin. Their hair was frozen into fluffiness with AquaNet. I could be like them.

Although I was 9 and Mother was 44, our eating plan was pretty much the same: 50 carbohydrates a day, as much protein as we could eat, and, if we kept to the plan, a 2-ounce shot of Pepsi at the end of the day.  For exercise, she’d have me run laps through our air-conditioned hallway late at night while she studied. Extra activity equalled extra reward.  Mother made a matrix for me: 100 laps was worth an extra ounce of Pepsi; 25 push-ups earned me a sugar cube. On the other hand, there were negative incentives. If I was caught not sucking my stomach in, I would have to forsake a nickel. Had I known about Skinner boxes and operant conditioning at the time, I might’ve noticed some parallels between me and white mice.

I remember cheating once. Someone in the house was ill so there was a box of orange sherbet in the freezer.  Tempted and left unattended, I ate the entire container’s worth. Mother noticed it missing but did not criticize me. Instead, she gently said, “you can lie to me, you can lie to yourself, but you can’t lie to your body.” Chastened, I compensated by lowering my carbohydrate intake to less than 10 grams daily and forgoing the nightly treat of Pepsi. I sickened and was hospitalized briefly. My parents were uninsured and, besides which, noone could leave work, grandmother, children, and home unattended to stay with me so I had to be discharged to recover at home.

A few days after the hospital visit, I went into the kitchen to get my breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and Monterey jack cheese. Mother was in there already, sitting at the table with a friend of hers, drinking coffee and eating a cinnamon twist pastry from Dunkin Donuts. Even though I was 9, I behaved in a way that shames me still. Stormily, I flung open the refrigerator door, grabbed a couple eggs, and threw them at her before running back to my room and slamming the door. She followed and we had our first screaming match (only one of two ever).

I told her she had ugly skin and looked fat, that her teeth were bad and she embarrassed me with her bad clothes and haircut. I was ashamed of her and hated when other kids saw me with her or when my father was around and people mistook them for my grandparents.

Mother exploded with rage, probably aggravated by fatigue, by years of frustration of studying degree programs she hated to appease a husband who himself was a high school drop-out, while caring for his diabetic senile mother and her motley assortment of peroidically dysfunctional children, all on an erratic income for which she was largely responsible because my dad refused to hold down a traditional job. She matched my fury and hate with equal passion. “Don’t talk to me like your shit doesn’t stink.” It was the first time I remember hearing her curse. “I’m not less than you. I’m not shit you walk on.”

She turned me to face the mirror in my room. “You look just like me. You have glasses and bad skin. You have fat. Don’t make me feel less than you. You are my daughter.” Her last words were all but spit from her mouth. Mother stomped out of my room, slamming the door behind her. Had she been a cartoon, a scribbly black cloud would’ve been above her head as she stalked down the corridor with the mental force of her anger crumbling the walls on either side.

I don’t remember crying but I think I must have. What I remember was rage. Rage at this imperfect body, the woman who’d helped make it, and the inescapability of my fate to remain harnessed to this imperfection.  I was 9 and had no outlet for my rage – no sibling I dare hit, no park to play in, no pet I would ever kick. There was no place to direct this rage but at myself.

Facing the mirror, I balled my fists and hit the parts that caused most offense.  There were my thighs that couldn’t run fast enough, the stomach that had to be sucked in, the arms that were too weak for push-ups. Each was treated according to its failure. When my skin failed to bruise, I hit harder, angry that even in my rage I couldn’t achieve results. I hit and heard the dull thud as my fatty skin absorbed the punch, and then hit, thud, hit, thud, again and again.  I sprained my wrist and couldn’t use it well for days afterward.

More than 20 years later, I’ve caused more than a few sprained wrists. At the moment, I’m better – not because I fool myself into thinking I’m any better controlling my temper, anxiety, or frustration with my worthlessness but because I’m medicated. It seems to help a little, if only by taking off the edge a tad – or maybe it’s just a damned good placebo.

But, except indirectly, this post isn’t meant to be about me – it’s about my mother. Her spewed words of hate from that day so many years ago have become my angry self’s mantra. When I rage at myself most, what I hear are my mother’s words crying at my 9-year-old self and her voice is my own. I understand enough to know that at 9 years old, I alone couldn’t have made her feel those things. But somehow her brokenness has become mine. I fear that I’ll never shake it, medication or no. Worse, I fear I’ll pass it on.

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