I rarely remember my mother happy. She existed on a drip-drip of existential and real-time angst and an inability to let anything go for most of her 58 years. Often I was the thing she couldn’t let go. This inability to surrender any control affected me emotionally in a huge way. My mother acidulously kept track of all my wrongs in a black file she kept in her mind. And I could not break through to tear the pages out.
First I was too fat. My mother told me that often (even though I look at pictures now and realize I was holding an extra five pounds at most – just like now) and made me feel unattractive physically.
Let me share a story. My family had obligatory “weigh-ins” every two weeks and I dreaded them like the plague. Every other Monday, after dinner, all of us weighed like a dysfunctional Weight Watchers sacrifice right after Sunday dinner. No one would be spared. My parents, who both smoked like fiends, always weighed the perfect amount, as did my skinny sister. I finally got on the scale only to always tip it at a “too chubby weight.” Every time. My father, who I was closer with than my mother, took to calling me a name that stuck for the remainder of my childhood. It was “tub.” I was mortified. Other than the name, which I figure now he thought was cute, he stayed totally out of all family squabbles between my mom and I until I left home at 18. I wish I could have done the same.
Next, my mother had an obsession about me washing my hair too much, which tortured me no end. Her rule was twice a week no matter what. This became an issue when I was in 7th grade and amid peer pressure, I needed to have clean hair just to hit the starting line. And often I didn’t. My mother, on the other hand, was svelte and well groomed. She kept her figure by watching what she ate and by smoking. But all I could see and feel was that I was not like her.
But the hair and weight were not the only things that disappointed my mother. The way I dressed displeased her greatly. It was the early 70’s and I wanted to wear short skirts and short shorts and those were expressly not allowed. Instead, I wore pedal pushers down to my knees and sensible tops ensuring that no boy would ever look at me. And they didn’t.
My mom also fought me big time on makeup. Simply put I could never, under any circumstance, wear any. She said girls who wore makeup were “French whores.” But I had some. My favorite aunt had sent me a makeup kit at Christmas when I was 13 with everything in it and when my mother was shopping I used to play “Miss America.” I would slather on blue eye shadow and apply little circles of blush only to wipe them off before my mother came home. One time I forgot and was given the cold shoulder for days.
There were also house rules. None of my friends could come over and gab in my room. Sleepovers and the like? Not allowed. Having fun making cookies in the kitchen? Not a chance. My house was off limits in every way – often to me. My mom was a loner, had no real friends and crocheted and watched soap operas when she wasn’t keeping house. That was her life.
But the biggest thing my mom disliked about me was my sassy mouth and I suspect I had one. I was not happy with her total dislike of me and while I can’t remember what I said in “talk back” mode to her, I am sure the seeds of it were screaming for her to like and accept me. She never did.
I was likely trying to have any kind of good opinion of myself and her serious push back of that desire engendered some response on my part. How could it not? I was desperately unhappy and filled with self-loathing. I had to do something.
I dealt with my teenage angst by reading, writing and tooling around on my bike. And by getting into fights with my mother. Later, in high school, she relaxed a little. But I never broke through her misery. Today, more than 20 years after her early death I long to hold her, tell her life isn’t so bad, and make her a carrot cake with cream cheese icing, her favorite. I long to tell her I knew she really loved me but she just couldn’t show it and that it was not her fault. She just didn’t have the skills to love me as she was never taught how. Maybe with cake and hugs, I could have made my mom happy. At long last.
Clover Mahoney is a writer and a college professor. She has had both blogs and poetry published. She is married and has a super energetic rescue dog.