"I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all."
- James Baldwin
My mother taught me what is not normal.
It’s not normal to bang pots and pans out the window and shout, “Happy New Year!” at midnight, making your child cringe when she realized nobody else was doing it.
It’s not normal to go to a party and collect all of the recyclables out of garbage bags to collect the nickels, becoming a family joke.
It’s not normal to watch soap operas from 11:30 am until 4:00 pm.
It’s not normal to need two cups of coffee before your children can open presents on Christmas morning.
It’s not normal to tell people you don’t like/can’t use the gifts they give you.
It’s not normal to have your “conversations” resemble monologues.
It’s not normal to fail to make eye contact when speaking to someone.
When I was fifteen, my family took a vacation. During this vacation we had an old fashioned picture taken at one of those storefronts. My mother, sister, and I wore off-the-shoulder gowns. We all had hats. It’s my favorite picture of our fractured family because it spoke volumes. My sister had a determined expression, which conveyed her stubborn streak. My father looked exactly like himself, although in atypical garb. I, for the first time, thought I might not be as ugly as previously believed, if perhaps I could have all of my pictures brown and white and serious, hiding my braces. But my mother’s picture was the most telling. She has a serene smile and is looking away, eyeballs tilted slightly upward.
For many years, I spent my time studying other mothers. In them, I looked for the mother I longed for. And the woman I wanted to be. And to some extent, the mother I hoped to someday be.
And so I strive to be a better acquaintance, friend, wife, and mother than my early “role model”. I remember in an argument to say specifically what I’m unhappy about instead of name-calling. I remember to listen when someone else is angry, instead of drowning out his words.
This means I can’t overreact the other way. Just because my mother made embarrassing calls to other mothers to say I’d be coming to the birthday party but because I was on a “pure food diet”, I’d bring a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to McDonalds doesn’t mean my children eat McDonalds every week. Just because I couldn’t have the birthday cake doesn’t mean my children have a steady diet of Twinkies. And just because my Easter basket was filled with carob and beet-dyed Easter eggs, doesn’t mean my children get to gorge themselves on chocolate and candy.
I learned a better relationship with food.
But some things have been harder...
Seeing my body as it really appears has been really hard. I have to remind myself just because it isn’t as small anymore doesn’t mean it’s big. And it doesn’t make it misshapen.
Seeing my face as it appears is difficult too. I resemble her, and one day I worry I’ll look in the mirror and see her reflected back. I remind myself I am my own person.
I hardly had an alcoholic drink until my 30s because I worried about alcoholism. At some point I believed I had control over this as in everything else, so a drink or two, here and there is okay.
Why am I writing this?
Because I’m home. I find it hard to go home sometimes. Doesn’t everyone?
Also because my relationship with my mother forms my first three manuscripts. In the first, the mother is distant. In the second, the mother is mean. In the third, the mother is an alcoholic who inappropriately confides in her daughter. I don’t so much borrow the scenarios I experienced, but more the feelings of isolation, embarrassment, and burdens I felt in my childhood.
Writing must’ve gone a long way towards healing because my mother’s presence comes up in my manuscripts less and less.
But my presence is in all of my manuscripts. And the protagonist often takes my same journey. The journey to find his voice. Because only in doing so can he confront his demons and move on.
Writing has been cathartic in more ways than I ever imagined when I began. It’s probably not a coincidence that I stopped looking for signs I was becoming my mother when I began writing. Part of it was because if it hadn’t happened then, it probably wouldn’t happen. But the other was writing revealed what made my mother and I different.
We are a product of the people who shaped us. But we are our own people. We decide the path we take.
How did your family shape you?
How have you shaped yourself?