Her face flashed in my mind the second the scalding water hit my shoulders. Her face then, thirty-some years ago, since that’s how I still see her even now; young but vaguely angry, with countless creases radiating from her lips thanks to years of long drags on her Marlboro Reds. Her eyes, big and beautiful and the clearest blue; the eyes that bored through me without seeing me, the eyes that saw only what would serve her dysfunction, and I feel a chill run through me despite the steam from the shower.
“When will you get over it, already?” the voice said. “What an awful person you are, still holding a grudge against your mother.”
I moved into the searing pulse of water and looked up. The streams are uneven because the showerhead is busted in random spots. Just like me, I thought, broken in places but still slogging through the motions and serving a purpose, though inconsistently and unreliably. Just like me.
I closed my eyes and thought about the word “grudge” as the water washed over me, because if I dissect the word I can push away the ick that I still feel when I think of her. Analyzing words is my safety blanket; my way of making the roller coaster thoughts and still-ripe emotions palatable.
Grudge is both a noun and a verb. The noun is passive. Pervasive. Grudge: a persistent feeling of ill will or resentment resulting from a past insult or injury.
As a verb it’s harsh: to be resentfully unwilling to give, grant, or allow (something). The noun is the victim, the verb the judge. How very odd it is to be able to be both at the same time, I think. The verb is making the choice over and over and over and over again to be the noun. To fortify the walls. To stay stuck.
When I think of my mother I think of sharp edges. I think about the words that spliced right through me and left gaping holes that I’ve not been able to fill; not with kids of my own or kind words from other people. Not with food, not with wine, not with sex.
When I think of my mother I think of venom. I think about the pleasure she seemed to take in making others feel small, in how she practiced her super power with words that humiliated and reduced us to broken, unworthy parts while she stood watching, an apathetic witness to the unraveling, her words so familiar they became my own. Fat ass. So ugly. Stupid girl.
The water cooled from scalding to hot and the voice said “You don’t hate her. You’re afraid of her.” Then silence before it finally whispered “You’re afraid you are her.”
The same frown lines when I look in the mirror. The same ability to hurl ugly words. The same gift for shutting down and walking away despite the pleas to not go. The same…
What else, I wonder. What else is the same?
I don’t know anything about my mother past my teen years; nothing but hearsay, anyway, and stories I’ve heard through family gossip. I’ve not wanted to. Still don’t.
Yet I wonder.
I wonder if the vicious words that flew so easily from her mouth were diversions instead of decisions, her default way of shifting the focus from her own brokenness to someone else. Anyone else.
I wonder if the bragging about her looks—the big boobs, the tiny waist, the blonde hair—and the constant parade of faceless, panting men through our apartments was less about confidence and pleasure as it was about deep insecurity and a rabid need for acceptance.
We’re not the same, I tell myself. I hope we’re not. But now that I’m on the other side of forty I think that if I try, I can see her a little bit differently.
When I look at her through my eyes as a daughter, I don’t understand any of it. I don’t understand how a mother makes a punching bag of her children’s self-esteem. I don’t understand how a mother chooses drugs and men over the daughters who so desperately wanted her attention. I don’t understand how a wife betrays a man who moved mountains to remain a family.
But through the eyes of a divorced, tired, sometimes lonely woman I think I might understand just a little bit more. I think I might understand that it was never about the daughters or the husband or the big boobs or the tiny waist. I think I might understand that being broken can make us hard and mean and that if we don’t face that desperate truth of feeling inadequate and alone and unworthy, it can fester and we can become even harder. Meaner. Uglier.
I think I might understand that we all build walls but that we choose different materials, and I think I might understand that perhaps this is the only choice we really have; to choose kind words or wield our words as weapons, to eat when we’re not hungry or welcome strangers to our bed because we desperately want to fill those greedy, unrelenting holes, and to choose adding a link to the cycle or doing our damnedest to break it.
The water is cold and I’m shivering and scared that I’ve inflicted on my kids the legacy she left me when I realize that it’s the walls we have in common, she and I, and that as painful as it is to admit, I’ve followed in her footsteps more than once. The voice is right. That’s what terrifies me. That’s what I hate.