This past year, I told my mother, by text, that I would not be home for the holidays. She replied, “Whatever you wish.”
A couple of years prior, my family’s corpse lay strewn on the beach and I had spent a considerable amount of time since then trying to figure out the cause of death. Murder? Illness? Comorbidities? Drowning? Failure to thrive?
It happened on Florida’s Gulf Coast, where my sixty-seven-year-old mother lived alone. I had arrived for a weeklong stay and she asked me urgently whether I had told my brother I was planning to visit her. My brother lives in Hawaii. “Did you even tell him???” she asked with a hint of hysteria in her voice. “I’m pretty sure I mentioned it,” I said, which was true, but I also know that I hadn’t mentioned it recently. “Well, he didn’t know!” she said, trembling with a pretzeled-up rage. She felt that my failure to tell him was a deliberate unkindness to her and to him, but mostly to her. She anticipated that my brother — a line cook at a burger joint — would naturally jump on a plane for some $800 and join my mother and I, if only he knew when to arrive. She knew that our family of three would enjoy an enchanted togetherness if only I’d stop trying to thwart it.
Years ago, my great aunt wrote me off because I signed my name in a letter to her with printed script instead of cursive. It was explicit: “Just LOOK at how she signed her name!” In my late twenties, my grandfather forced me to parrot the words “I’m a cruel girl” to him because I had not visited him recently. “Say it! Say it!!” he commanded, trying to combine levity and sadism in one gesture. My mother’s sister suddenly told her delicate thirteen-year-old daughter one summer day, after an argument, to get on a plane and go live with her father. She called her ex-husband on the spot, drove the beautiful girl to the airport while in the throes of a choking fury and that was that — my cousin never lived with her mother again. My great uncle did something to his own children once that I find I am unable to repeat. It involved a family dog.
My mother’s demands are mild by comparison to her enraged Scots-Irish family. Why not just give her what she wants? Yes. I will try. I mean, I always do try — always have tried — but I’ve been falling down on the job in recent years. It’s not as easy for me to understand or anticipate what she will want these days until it is too late and she is already upset. Though I have always felt ancient, I am even older now, and so my mind has shifted focus. I had a nascent academic career that was presently driving over a cliff. My marriage was in bad shape. It was a troubled hour for me and this distracted me from the task at hand — the task that had been at the center of much of my life — to know completely, in fact to become one with, the mother-mind.
Despite everything, my mother’s purple hair — and her advancing age — made her a touching figure. I had told her a couple of times in the past that it was not merely a purple cast over her intended brown, but was really violet. Bright, glowing in the sun. She is very conservative in her dress and appearance and would not have deliberately allowed a punk reference like this. “It’s just a slight tint,” she said defensively, “and I don’t really care.” She looked like a lollipop. A slightly butch, Southern lollipop.
Because my mother made sure that my brother did know about my visit, he decided to come. My lovely, sinewy brother. I always envied his lithe beauty and thanked God more than once that he was a brother rather than a sister. It would have been painful to be compared to him as a sister. He was a low-level employee at a restaurant with a tenure of less than a year, and as such, a two-week vacation was not allowable. So this trip required that he quit his job. Which was a welcome event to him anyway. The job was a stopgap in his mind — as every job had ever been, even when he was executive chef of an upscale establishment.
He also wanted to make his mother happy.
My brother scheduled his arrival for four days after I was scheduled to leave. My mother assumed I would stay to see him and I don’t remember having a conversation about it. It was automatic. I would stay for one day after his arrival. And if I REALLY wanted to make her happy, I would stay even longer.
The equation whereby my brother’s vacation to the mainland equaled quitting a job was a very old one. It had happened again and again and again. As the older sister who had tried, clumsily, stupidly, at times, to mentor him in the past, it concerned me. Even if I was dying to see him, I would have discouraged him from coming, but our relationship had also become strained, so I said nothing. I was afraid he would end up lingering in Florida making not enough money, growing anxious and depressed, both sacrificing himself to my mother and seething at her — awash in an unnamed anger. And that’s exactly what happened. He stayed for eight months.
But I’m jumping ahead. And since you are about to encounter the mortal remains of a family, it’s best we both stay focused. The day arrived for my brother to make his appearance at approximately noon. My mother and I first had a short walk on the blessed beach near the rental unit I was occupying (she had a small one-room studio and couldn’t accommodate guests). The Gulf Coast, despite the desecration of rapid development, shimmers and burns like the face of God. When I am in the white-green fire of it, I stare first like a predator — trying to absorb the scene into my being — and then like prey — waiting to be erased. The heat on my skin and the sound of water at the edge. But I fail.
So we return to the micro-minutae of familial suffering.
I said to my mother, “After Nathan arrives, why don’t we go to your place and practice using your scanner a few times before I leave tomorrow.” I had bought her a printer/scanner and knew she would need a little coaching to get going with it.
And that, it seemed, was the blunt instrument that did us in. Did you catch it? When I asked my mother if we might spend a couple of hours away from my brother, I had unknowingly precipitated our demise.
As a look of horror and violence crept across her face, and the alarm in her voice and body took hold, I understood, in an instant, that she had expected that I would spend every moment with my Peter Pan brother, excluding trips to the bathroom, from the second his plane landed — a rapturous coming together that did not merely include a couple meals, but everything in between. Faced with my suggestion to go help her with her scanner, my mother wept. I was a monster.
* * *
Nathan’s flight arrived and he was not hungry, so rejected the idea of dinner. We laughed and hugged under the careful supervision of the mother. There was some awkward conversation amongst us, and then Nathan left for the evening. He went to hang with his high school friends at a local bar — and go back to one of their houses and enjoy some recreationals. I had considered joining Nathan, mainly to fulfill the desires of my mother — assuming it would make her happy, though I had lost my magic ability to actively respond to the mother-mind. I don’t think I ever had or will have a greater skill. But I was a bit out of practice and so my mother-intuition, while still strong, was not producing the immediate response it once did. An exhaustion had taken hold of me, deep down at the atomic level. I didn’t go out with Nathan; I tried to force myself but the thought of it made me tense, uncomfortable and weary. It wasn’t my scene. Mom went to bed early.
After a stiff breakfast the next morning, during which my mother was quietly miserable and Nathan was jetlagged, I got in my car and left. But not before my mother suggested I might stay one more day. You may find this an outlandish claim, but I really did consider staying one more day with her. The force is strong.
That was the end of my family. We all limped off in our various directions and never came back together. Though I had weathered worse episodes than this one with my mother, now was the moment; it was over. Tissue had turned to bone.
When I was eight or nine, my mother once said “when you have your own kids….” And I told her, before she went further, “I’m not having kids.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“I would be too jealous of them,” I said. I couldn’t formulate it at the time, but I knew that my imaginary offspring would get to experience the inner life of a young person, freed from the un-supportable burden of raising a mother. Perhaps this was the final blow, right there at the beginning. Maybe it wasn’t the scanner.
Declining to continue the family can be an obstacle to family togetherness.
My mother’s insatiable need was rooted in extreme deprivation — and I had known and honored it from my earliest years. Her father’s green eyes would glow, she used to tell me, when he was angry and anger was his daily bread. When, as a nineteen-year-old, she came home from work one day, dressed to the nines for the first time in her life, her father looked her up and down, asked her who the hell she thought she was, and didn’t speak to her for nine months. She moved out during that period — and despite the cruelty and the beatings he delivered to his children, he did give them this: they were allowed, even required, to move out. My mother by contrast gave me many wonderful gifts, but not that one. Neither my brother nor I were permitted our separateness. We were technically middle-class people, but at the heart of who we were was a brutalized, motherless, underclass little girl in a chevron-striped dress and white sandals.
Parentification is the clinical descriptor. For parentified children, all the years of childhood, adolescence and beyond are spent in a state of near-panic that they might not come through for a parent — that a mother or father’s need might go unrecognized and unfulfilled. I was in college when my father died and my desire to drive away my mother’s loneliness consumed me — my epic daily phone call to her formed only a tiny portion of my general program for her well-being. I also kept a running list of gifts that would be suitable, sent them at regular intervals, and was careful to spend every possible vacation day with her, while maintaining maximum delightfulness. My mother would say she didn’t ask for this. She didn’t have to.
I was only as happy as my unhappiest mother.
Once upon a visit to me and my spouse, my mother found a spider on her bed. She jumped up, ran to our room, deployed my sheltering instincts in the extermination of the tiny fiend and then questioned me, with a mildly chiding tone: “That isn’t going to happen again, is it?”
And now it’s Christmas again and I am reminded of both the poignant longings of my dear purple-head mother and of my own dereliction of duty, which does pain me. I love the fantasy of the family we once had. For decades, all the energy of living was spent on them. But family sometimes has an end point. Perhaps not an explosive one, but a slow fade, a soft wave out the side window.
* * *
Eliza Saavedra (a pen name) lives in Plainfield, Vermont.
J. Longo is a freelance illustrator and storyboard artist working out of Brooklyn, NYC. Follow him on Instagram to see more illustrations.