*this post is my first contribution to the Writing Workshop over at Sleep is for the Weak. I chose Prompt #4, clear out a cupboard.
“Only a mother could love that face!” You know that your mother doesn’t love you, before you have words to say what it is that you know. “Remember, at least one person loves him – his mother!” It’s an ugly kind of knowing; a shameful kind. “There is no love like a mother’s love.” You push the knowledge right to the back of the forgetting cupboard. “God could not be everywhere, so he made mothers.” It is knowledge that sets you apart, marks you as unlovable. It is better not to show that you know.
When I was about three years old my parents held some sort of party at our house. My mother, annoyed that I had interrupted her talking, deliberately dropped the hot ash off the end of her cigarette as I stood between her and a friend. It hit the delicate skin of my shoulder and burned me. I don’t think I retain this memory because of the searing ash. What I remember is her intently watching the ash fall, the look on her face, as she realised she had actually hurt me. Blank. And the look as I began to protest, bottom lip quivering. I knew at that moment, as she vehemently denied burning me at all, let alone on purpose, that there was nothing – nothing – I could say to make her feel sorry.
This reads like a melodrama, or a twisted and childish fantasy. Don’t think I don’t know it.
I wore the cigarette scar for many years, and I would show it to people, sometimes. There was no one who would accept it. It was an invented story altogether, or it was an accident, but evidence of callous disregard from the woman who was meant to care the most? You need to show a lot more than a few little white marks to prove that. Some people won’t ever believe that lack of mother-love exists in nature, searching for alternative explanations even when a child dies.
Beyond what was acceptable as discipline in the early eighties, I wasn’t beaten. Beyond what was acceptable in fat-shaming at that time, I wasn’t starved. I had things, I had sunshiny days and icecreams. Some days, I had love, or an indistinguishable facsimile.
One of my other earliest memories? My mother wiping my bottom. Being so young that I needed help with toileting, I remember calling for her, I remember her careful touch. I also recall the day I had my first serious asthma attack, when I was left in the corner at kindergarten, terrified and wheezing. Picking me up at the usual time (they hadn’t called for her to come get me, despite me turning blue) was the maternal lion you’d expect: the furiously protective and anxiously attentive mother I know I would be if Bean became ill when out of my care. But that kind of mother only made fleeting appearances for me.
It was probably self-defensiveness as well as mental illness which turned this sporadic affection into an even rarer disposition after my parents became estranged. Eventually the wounds of separation formed a callous against further sentiment. Blank unfeelingness became the default setting, punctuated by cruelty.
I believe she burned me that day, and abandoned me not long after, and inflicted me with hateful words over the ensuing years, because she was ill. I believe if she could have loved me: if her narcissism wasn’t so overwhelming, her grip on ‘normal’ thinking so tenuous, then this would be a different story.
But this is not a Choose Your Own Adventure. This is how the story went – and goes – and I cannot change it, no matter how far back into the cupboard I push these dusty memories.
I too am ill, though differently. Although there doesn’t seem to be a permanent way to change that, there is no choice for this mother but to write a radically different narrative. And so I am, crafting our days in ways that I hope won’t have to be pushed into dark memory-cupboards in years to come. Sometimes, this task seems unspeakably difficult. And there is no thing in this world that is more terrifying to admit to feel to say to hear to write
I owe a debt of inspiration to isabelthespy for this post. This wonderful piece from her helped me to unjumble some of my thoughts around parental love.