“Hating your mother is a luxury. You should be grateful. ‘Used to be people couldn’t afford to turn away people. They needed everyone to get you through this difficult life.” Her voice was deep, matter-of-fact, with an edge of barely contained impatience. She talked to me as if everything had already been said, like I was one page behind in the dialogue. It reminds me of the way I talk to my grandmother – waiting for something to strike me as strange or wrong, waiting to be offended or frustrated. “We never forgive our mothers for bringing us into this heart-breaking world.”
I wait for her to say more, but she’s said it all.
“Mom is at the end of her life now. She’s lived a pretty long life. Almost 80 years. She was married for over 50 years, but Dad died last year at Christmas time. It’s been hard for her since he died. She has to face her old demons alone now.
“Your death was her defining moment. She never recovered from that. She was terrified that night she saw you in the casket. She was home alone. All her sisters were grown, married and she was the youngest. Her dad didn’t mourn you the way he should have. He sounds like he was a real asshole. She can’t bring herself to say that about her father, but I can. And she says she saw you because they did the funeral at home. And she screamed, and it echoed in the house. The house was so big, and it made noises all night. She thought you were making the noises because you were haunting her. And then she didn’t talk again for a year. She was catatonic.” I stop rocking myself on the hammock. “I want to understand her. I’m so angry at her.”
“What for?” she asks.
“I wanted her to be as big and important as the moon or a planet. My love was that big, and I wanted her to take up all the space in my heart. But she wanted to be small. I wanted desperately to admire her because I knew I couldn’t love her if I didn’t. For years I had an accent like hers. I would notice things that I knew she’d notice and talk about, like how pretty someone’s car is. I lengthened the ends of all my words and softened consonants. Pretty was perdy. I spoke English the way she did. I knew the right way to make all the verbs and subjects and nouns change. I knew all the pronouns. I knew big words inside. But she didn’t, and so I chose not to.
“I was 8 years old when I gave up trying to be like her. I was in second grade, and my teacher was named Mrs. Moore. She was tall and a red head, a white woman in my brown world. She wore lipstick and silky blouses. I could see the lace of her slip through the slit of her beige business-casual skirts, like a secret only I had bothered to notice. A language all to itself that articulated respectability, femininity, and the distant understanding of the connection between all the things I was sure I wanted to become.
“She relished her mastery of English. She loved teaching us spelling, composition, reading, and writing. She once caught me cheating. I hadn’t studied for the week’s spelling test. I hated the idea of getting a single answer wrong. I thought I’d die if that happened. I thought the whole world would unravel if I couldn’t control my success at tasks. Before the test I wrote the week’s vocabulary words out on a napkin – light orange like a creamsicle. The napkin was textured, like a tiny sewing machine had perforated it with a small, intricate pattern. I had written out the words in marker. The words bled into the napkin, weaving around the small raised parts of the pattern.
I put the napkin down on my desk and tried to hide it in the crook of my arm. She would walk up and down the rows during tests. She wore chunky high heels that were beige or navy, and she’d tap past our desks with a thick clack.
When she saw the napkin she snatched it right out through the crook of my bent arm, and held it up high above her head. ‘See, children, this is the sort of thing that is UNacceptable.’ Everyone was silent, and I don’t remember feeling ashamed.
“I loved her. I decided to stop talking like Mom. I conjugated my verbs, used my big words she didn’t understand. It was like I only had so much loyalty to give and I had to give it all to Mrs. Moore. Because she was the kind of woman I wanted to be. I wanted to be the kind of woman who would expose cheaters on spelling tests, not the kind whose hands smelled like she’d been cleaning fish for dinner all day.”