The first time I write about my mother, she hates it. What I write is this:
“In the morning my mom tells us to go back to bed because it’s too erly [sic].”
It wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t sitting on top of a line about my dad buying me candy. In retrospect, it’s him she should have had the problem with. She reads the incriminating sentence in my notebook on parent-teacher night and the next day, my dad speaks to me about it.
“Your mom was pretty upset about what you wrote,” he says.
“Oh,” I say.
In The Argonauts, her memoir about motherhood and identity, Maggie Nelson muses, “Most of my writing usually feels to me like a bad idea” (123).
I haven’t yet learned that feeling. I am seven. I didn’t write it to hurt her.
Looking back, I’m not surprised that, when faced with the Herculean task of writing a sentence on each of my family members, I struggled with what to say about my mom. So completely absorbed in her familial roles, eager to experiment in her own obliteration (Nelson, 37), she seemed barely more substantial than whatever I felt toward her in the moment. I clung to scraps of her. In first grade, when it was my turn to say what I wanted to be, I said, “A physiotherapist,” except I couldn’t get the word out right. I didn’t know what it was or how to pronounce it—just that it started with a p and was what my mom used to do. Before me, back when she was a real person.
The next thing I write about my mom is even shorter, but she hates that too. It’s her birthday and I want to help make it special, just like she does for us: I make her a birthday banner. I don’t know who her favourite cartoon characters are, so instead I just write, “Happy Birthday Mom!” and decorate the rest of the Bristol board with colourful exclamations of her age: 35. I’m proud of my work and I think she will be happy, but she cries instead. I ask my dad, “Why?” and he tells me that she is sensitive, she doesn’t like seeing her age up on display. But my age is always on the birthday banners. Once again, I feel confused.
I grow older and the mother in my head grows ever wispier, evanescent. I learn what a physiotherapist is and know immediately that I don’t want to be one. One day at supper, my dad asks who my role models are and I say Whoopi Goldberg when really I mean Guinan from Star Trek, and Mariah Carey because I’ve just been given my first radio and she is my favourite.
“Don’t you think your mom would be a good role model for you?” he prods.
And I say, “No, not really,” awkwardly, without looking up, the same as when mom comes back from the hairdresser. It feels like a test and I know that I’m failing, but I don’t know why they keep asking me questions they won’t like the answers to.
My mother says I am a wonderful writer. She tells Nanny and Grampy how talented I am, while I read the new Post-It note on Nanny’s fridge. It says, “There shall be no criticism in this house.” I show my parents the bits of my schoolwork that I think they might like: reports on books that I love, projects on topics that interest me. I keep my feelings in simple sentences. For my birthday, I request a diary with a lock.
Christmas Day, 1996, I sit at the kitchen table, alone, writing in my diary and crying. I am crying because five days before my little brother was hit by a car while crossing the street. What I write is exactly what you think:
“It was the worst Christmas ever. My brother is dead.”
My mom comes up behind me, screaming, “Don’t write that! Don’t write that!” She snatches both the diary and pencil from my hands and begins erasing furiously. As if I won’t remember if it isn’t written down. As if it won’t exist if it isn’t on the paper. But I don’t want to cry in a vacuum.
“Mom, stop it! That’s mine! Give it back!”
She is in pain, I know—the kind of black hole pain that can’t ever be fixed. Eventually, she’ll learn to step around the hurt, to tread lightly across that valley in her memories where Luke lives. Fresher griefs will come to steal the spotlight; future joys will distract her. But not tonight, not when she has only begun to fall.
I know all this, but still I scream and snatch my book away; I am in pain too and I’m not in a comforting mood. She flees the room in tears and I sit at the table, alone again, retracing all my words from the leftover pencil indentations. Tears drip over the paper, even though they know it’s cliché.
Fifteen years old, I compose a short speech for church. It takes less than a minute to thank our departing youth leaders and give them a blanket as a wedding present. My words are a blip, half-improvised, tossed in the bin before I sit back down.
But my mom loves this speech like nothing I have ever done before. She tells me I would make a wonderful pastor’s wife and immediately I shatter. Each fragment of my self seems a frightened, wounded casualty, crying out, “Help me, save me, I’m still here!” I scramble to find some noble aspect that I can hold up to her eye and say, “See, this is who I am, and I am worth more than that!” But I can’t find any heroes and she doesn’t understand why I’m upset.
I stop writing. Then I feel lonely, so I start again. My dad leaves, returns, leaves again; the rest of us wonder where that yo-yo will land. She sits alone in the dark. She doesn’t want to celebrate her birthday. She refuses to be in photos with her grandkids.
We fight, it uproots all our shallow graves. Her apology email opens, “I wish I had your writing skills at a time like this.” I told her, I’m not mad, because how could I be? How could I function, constantly burning? Eula Biss writes, “The mother of an adult child sees her work completed and undone” (in Nelson, 140). I’m not mad, I’m just Me. I can’t erase our history. She says to my sister, “I could go my whole life without knowing what Amy thinks of me.” Once again, I see my shadow and run.
I am scared to write. I am scared of saying things I’m not supposed to say and feeling things I’m not supposed to feel. I’m scared of you getting hurt because not everything in our family was apple pie and hugs, even though enough of it was. Maggie Nelson expands on Barthes: “I am a writer; I must play with the body of my mother” (106). Am I a writer? I know by now the stories I want to tell, they’re formed from all the thoughts I shouldn’t say—ideas so enthralling they need to be followed around for a while. There is nothing beautiful or complicated that will just sit still and let you capture it. That’s why the pen moves. I didn’t learn to be quiet; I didn’t learn to be polite. I couldn’t learn to bury my most hurtful truths; I’d have to fall in after them.
Please forgive me.
Nelson, M. (2015). The Argonauts. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press.
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