Once upon a time, when I was 23 years old, I went out to eat alone at a restaurant. Midway through my meal, I had decided I needed to use the restroom. I retired to the facilities, did what I had to do, and stepped back out into the dim dining room with the intent on returning to my seat. For some strange reason, I paused in the hallway and stared across the vast sea of eating patrons to watch a couple enter the restaurant. The woman turned her head and my blood ran cold in my veins.
It was my Mother.
Involuntarily, I gasped and backed up against the wall. My Mother and the man she was with were amicably talking to the young hostess and were unaware of my presence. However, I quickly became overcome with an almost mad desire to get as far away from her as possible. Irrationally panicking, I ducked into the kitchen. The waitresses and cooks all stopped what they were doing to stare at me. Blubbering like a small child, I begged them to let me sneak out their back door. They obliged.
This is the story I tell people who compliment my courage. I tell them how I stood in that kitchen, wringing my hands and toeing a dirty floor as a waitress retrieved my car keys from my table. I tell them how I slunk out past the dumpsters while my salmon cooled on my plate. I tell them how I clutched my steering wheel as I drove home and how my hands cramped up and how I needed to put ice on them later.
If they persist in calling me brave, I will simply reemphasize my point: Everyone is afraid of something. I may calmly hold my hand out in the face of a snarling dog and I just might jump off of a bridge without a second thought…but I will also cower away in the kitchen of some shitty restaurant if someone who looks a little too much like my Mother walks in the door. She is what I am afraid of and neither age nor experience has cooled my fear. Call me pathetic, if you wish, just don’t tell her where I am.
With that said, I do not hate my Mother. People often assume I do which never fails to befuddle me. Hating my Mother would be just as futile as hating a rattlesnake or hating a starving hyena. My Mother can’t help what she is. She is simply a product of her environment.
When I was a young girl, I would spend large quantities of my time trying to figure out ways to relate to my Mother. I thought if I could just figure out what made her tick, I could win her over and convince her to love me. So, I would read the books she read. I would watch the television shows she watched. I learned the words to all of her favorite songs and mimicked her dance moves. Sometimes, I would sit at the top of our steps and listen to her conversations with other people as she sat in our living room.
One night, after my Mother had done something especially cruel to me, I sat at the top of our steps and listened to her as she talked to her boyfriend. After awhile, they got very quiet. I wondered if they were getting intimate and considered heading back to my bedroom because I definitely didn’t want to listen if they were. All of the sudden, my Mother asked her boyfriend something I will never forget.
She said, “Do you think I’m just like my Mother?”
Her boyfriend tried to pacify her. “Of course not. You’re nothing like your Mother.”
She answered, “Sometimes I think I am. Something I think I’m just like her.”
They sat in silence for a little while longer. Bored and slightly confused, I crept back into my bedroom. Curled up safe and warm in my bed, I mulled over what my Mother had asked her boyfriend. I just didn’t understand it. As far as I could see, my Mother was nothing like my Grandma Rose.
[Note: The Grandmother in this story is not my Mother’s Mom. She was actually my Great Grandmother. Rose was her daughter.]
My Grandma Rose adored me while my Mother did not. Periodically, she would show up at our front door and request my Mother’s permission to take me away for the day. At first my Mother would refuse and they would speak to each other in stilted, overly formal tones. However, my Mother’s desire to get rid of me would eventually cause her to give in. Then, my Grandma Rose would whisk me away for the day and treat me like a little princess.
She would take me to fancy restaurants where we would sip tea from delicate china glasses with our little pinky fingers poised carefully in the air. We would go shopping and my Grandma Rose would buy me pretty dresses, shiny patent leather shoes, and hair bows in every color. If there was a doll I had my heart set on, my Grandma Rose would insist on giving it to me. Before I would accept the gift, I would ask her if I could please pick out something for my brother as well. My Grandma Rose would wrinkle her nose distastefully and remind me that my Mother already gave him so much already. I would tell her that I didn’t care; it was important to me that he didn’t feel left out. My Grandma Rose would sigh, roll her eyes, and absentmindedly toss a transformer in the cart for him, too.
After our shopping spree, we would go back to her house, curl up in her big, soft bed, and watch movies together until all hours of the night. The next day, after a pancake breakfast and an invigorating shower, my Grandma Rose would carefully brush and style my hair. She’d drop me back off at my Mother’s house, shiny as a new penny.
I never spent days like that with my Mother.
The day after my Mother’s late night talk with her boyfriend, I decided to pay my Grandma Rose and inopportune visit. I biked over to her house, knocked at the door, and braced myself against the barrage off kisses and compliments that immediately rained down upon me. With a piece of candy firmly lodged in my cheek, I finally worked up the courage to ask my Grandma Rose a question.
“Grandma,” I questioned, “Did my Mother have a bad childhood?”
Suddenly vicious, my Grandma Rose snapped, “Is that what she told you?”
Taken aback, I bit my lip. The truth of the matter is my Mother never really said anything at all to me about my Grandma Rose and never once did I hear her talk about her childhood. However, I did not want to admit to my Grandma Rose that my curiosity was the direct result of my spying on her. Unsure and a teeny tiny bit afraid, I stared at my Grandma Rose silently.
Finally, she spoke again, “Let me show you something, V.”
She then led me over to her bookshelf and pulled out a photo album. She flipped open the album and pointed triumphantly at a picture of small girl in a pretty dress. “This is your Mother,” she told me, “I think she was 6 in this picture. Does she look miserable to you?”
I shook my head. Indeed my Mother did not look miserable as a 6 year old girl. In fact, she was clowning for the camera with a big, toothy grin on her face. My Grandma Rose flipped through the album some more.
“Look at this picture,” she insisted, “Look how pretty her clothes are! She was always dressed to the nines! And look at how many dolls she had in her room! She had every toy a girl could want. Oh! Look at this picture! See this dress? This dress cost me a pretty penny!”
“She does have some pretty clothes,” I agreed.
“Of course she did. I wanted my child to look presentable which is more than I can say for how she treats you. And tell me the truth…does she look unhappy in these pictures to you?”
“No, Grandma. She’s smiling in every picture.”
“Of course she is. Your Mother had a wonderful childhood. If she says anything different, it’s only because she wants attention.”
Before I left my Grandma Rose’s house that evening, she gave me yet another gift. This time, she gave me the photo album with the pictures of my Mother as a young girl. I hid the album in the very back of my closet. Whenever my Mother punished me, I would take the album out of my closet and flip through it angrily. Here was the proof, right before my very eyes, that my Mother had no excuse to be as evil as she was. In all of her pictures, she smiled and posed for the camera. She was always dressed perfectly with white leather gloves and sparkling diamond earrings. In the background, there were shelves of dolls and toys and every other thing a girl her age could ever hope to have.
Sometimes, after my Mother punished me, I would flip through her photo album, stare at her pictures, and seethe.
Part 2 of this story can be found here.
- Grandma Rose Was Crazy
- Overheard in the Post Office
- Girl Fight!
- Shallow Bastards
- Fucking Magazine Salesman