I’ve been digging through photo albums looking for a joyful memory of my Mom that I can look at because I want to remember her happy. Not only will “It will never be okay that our mothers are dead” (Dear Sugar # 67: The Black Arc of it). I never want to forget her.
One of the albums was from the 70’s called “Baby’s Milestone’s: Birth to Seven Years” and it contained illustrations of squiggly babies and blank lines for writing underneath pictures that were expected to be taped in place. Mom had a fastidious propensity to organize.
She taped, cut and pasted and she even wound a creepy lock of my dishwater blonde hair on a page titled “first haircut.” She wrote notes in her dedicated, secretarial handwriting. She recorded my weight, measurements and shots that took place at 3, 6, 9, months old and so on until she put the album away about twelve months in and stopped recording.
It was time to hire a babysitter and get back to work. She was a paralegal and an active in at least three women’s organizations. I’ve often wondered if she grew up in a different era and place, if she would’ve preferred to live on a ranch with horses and a butch girlfriend in a cowboy hat and spurs than be strapped down with kids and a career in our dinky California town.
According to my mother’s meticulous records, I was born sneaky.
It’s there, on my six months page: ”She is very sneaky.” In addition to that character trait which followed me well into the dark alleys of adulthood, my first word, at six months,was: “Dada.” Evidently, I squealed with delight whenever my Dad came into the room.
On the same page, she claimed, I didn’t cry much, even when she most expected me to, like at the Doctor or on trips. I am not much of a crier. By six months old, I was a trooper, prepared for an emotional showdown. I’m uncomfortable with my own and other people’s vulnerability, but that’s beside the point.
Let the record show: sneakiness is in my DNA.
What was I trying to sneak at six months old? My stuffed Miss Piggy? What was out of reach that I wanted so badly I had to attempt to fool my Mom in order to get it? What was she withholding?
I wondered if I refused to say “Mama” because I was angry that she was busy withholding whatever the thing was that I was sneaking. More likely it was because we were so merged that I thought we were one person. I needed her to breathe.
Nonetheless, I was a sneaky little fuck and I said “Dada” much earlier than “Mama.” It would be three long months before I would ever say it. Nine months old was the first time I said it, to be exact. My Dad was up at 5:30a.m. and off to his office to work every day, all day. I didn’t want him to leave without me. Maybe my rushing-at-him “Dada” was an attempt to get him to stay.
At six months, Mom acknowledged that I disliked being slapped and later at nine months wrote that I “cried very loudly when I was slapped” What child doesn’t cry when slapped? This was fifties throwback discipline, carried into the seventies and parents were vexed: were their children friends to smoke pot with or free labor to discipline with corporal punishment the way their parents had done? I didn’t know my role.
Mom kept my wrinkled report cards from Kindergarten, first and second grades from the private catholic school I attended, shoved in between the pages of the photo album with my gross baby hair spilling out everywhere. The bulk of my education was singing songs about the blood of Christ. The thing was, we weren’t even catholic. We sporadically attended a shabby brown, old, First Baptist Church where I went to bible school and made wobbly structures out of Popsicle sticks and glue.
The report cards made me sad. The reoccurring theme was my low self-worth and my refusal to grasp mathematical concepts. These qualities also soared with me into adulthood like a mosquito. “Needs encouragement,” one nun said. “Needs to gain in self-confidence and learn her math facts.”
When Mom was dying, she asked me to come home and look through photo albums with her, but by the time I got home, she was completely out of it on morphine so it didn’t happen.
In these albums are pictures of a Hawaiian vacation when I’m about twelve: my brusque, grinning grandfather who was a beekeeper, canner and plumber, hammered a coconut in the tropical sun until it split open. My svelte hunk of a big brother lived in Hawaii at the time and worked as a cook. Years later, he’d be hooked on drugs and spend most of his adult life in prison or living out of a van with his infant. He’d been happy while in Hawaii and so we visited him: my aunts, uncles and my pretty, valedictorian, cheerleading cousins.
In a lawn chair, Mom looked tanned and carefree, less than two years after her horrid divorce, happily married to her blue collar Burt Reynolds double. I’m struck by her geography: her shapely face and skin, her straight teeth and regal nose. We look alike: our long arms and slim hands. In the photos, we tan the same deep brown way, our Irish pale skin eclipsed by our Algonquin Indian gold skin. We found the ocean relaxing. She was never sick.
In the photograph, there’s a pig being roasted in the ground and we stood shoulder to shoulder with matching profiles but our insides were completely different. I smiled to conceal what was going on inside me. She smiled when things were going well. She yelled on an intercom when she was angry. We were a family of yellers.
It was difficult to be a separate person, especially after the divorce. It was absolutely necessary for me to side with her, in order to be loved. Any positive experience I had with my Dad, post-divorce was an absolute betrayal. She ran interference when he wanted time with me, and time with me was scarce. Visits were tense. I couldn’t be myself with my Dad, everything about me was wrong. Dad’s new wife’s mission to ensure her daughter’s place in the family was secured. They had a lock down on my Dad.
Filled with a lonesome furry, I stole stuff from retail stores and ruined people’s marriages I made a scene and left messes. I rejected both my parents and ran away.
I wished my Mom’s hatred for my Dad hadn’t mangled her insides and made her ugly, but it did. She had my loyalty, but this type of loyalty felt like bees in my stomach. There were jealous rages and screaming fights well into my thirties. She demanded to know where I was going; exactly what I was doing with my Dad and when I would be coming to her house. It was her way of protecting me. She didn’t want me to hurt, the way that she was hurt.
It was never a competition. I loved her more than anyone. I also loved my Dad.
Here is the photograph. The joyful memory: I am twelve years old and in Hawaii with my Mom and the whole family. My Mom is beautiful and tan and lounges on a chair reading all day with a visor on her head and big black sunglasses.
Her shapely, toned legs are strong. I want to be as smart and pretty as she is. I have a friend with me and when the adults are inside the house drinking, we discuss sneaking out of the house my parents rented on Kauai. My plot is to meet a local blonde surfer guy, that I flirted with earlier that day on the beach and make out with him. I sneak out alone and am surprised to find him, sitting on a rock under stars in bare feet. His blonde hair goes silver in the moonlight. The night is quiet and warm. I don’t know how old the boy is. I kiss him for a long time but I don’t know what comes next so I get scared and run barefoot back inside the house where my whole family is sleeping.
In the Hawaii pictures I look exactly like my Mom except there’s something else in my smile and I know she’s right: I was born a sneak.