I found a photograph of my mother and me that my father took when I was about two. It’s one of his few (surviving) botch jobs. I have often wondered why he even printed it. Film photographers usually have to take three or four rolls to get two or three good shots, so it’s not like every single shot is precious. It’s underexposed, it’s very grainy and it wasn’t cared for, so it has been damaged. But there is a sweetness about it that must have caught his eye and made him want to try unsuccessfully to salvage it through the development process. What he couldn’t do in the dark room, I’ve been trying to do in Photoshop. Alas, you cannot create the light where it doesn’t exist, unless you’re prepared to hand paint it. It will never work as a photograph. So I put it through some filters, trying to preserve the feel of the picture while making it somewhat presentable. This is the final result.
As I mentioned in my “10 Things…” post before, I have made it a point this past year to bury a lot of the animosity I held toward my mother for so long. I won’t go into details (though I’m sure I already have, ad nauseum, to those who’ve been reading long enough), but suffice it to say that our relationship was… uhh… complex. It involved some violence and a lot of prevarication – perhaps on both of our parts – and, in the end, it resulted in estrangement.
She died on August 9, 1991. In the past 14 years, I’ve learned some things – about her, about me, about us as a duo. I realized sometime back in February that the parts of my face I couldn’t stand when I looked in the mirror were the parts that reminded me of her. That was no good. When you carry around hatred and anger for someone, it’s bound to come back and bite you in the ass at some point.
When my own daughter was about six, we had an argument about something she wanted to do which I said “no” to. After the customary litany of “whys” versus “because I said sos,” she suddenly blurted out, “But just because you’re the mommy doesn’t mean you’re right. How do you know you’re not making a mistake?”
It was an audacious question. But it was a true one, so I couldn’t be angry. How did I know? How does any parent? Anyone who has had a similar conversation with their child knows one is skating on thin, thin ice with some really hot blades when it comes to parental demagoguery. You absolutely want to remain the authority figure, but you must never give your children the impression that you are playing perfect. First off, they’ll see right through it. Second, they’ll feel justified in ignoring everything you say thereafter, because you've proven yourself to be a big, fat phony. So I figured it was best just to drop the act, and come clean.
“I don’t know I’m right," I told her. "Haven't the first clue. I could be wrong. I’m not angel. I’m not a god. I’m just a person, doing the best she can with what she knows. You didn’t come with an owner’s manual. I’m making this up as I go along, based on what I feel is right in my gut. If my gut proves wrong, then I’ll own it. But you can always rest assured that any decision I make about you comes out of my love for you and my desire to keep you safe and happy. If I inadvertently damage you with my ignorance, I’ll pay for the therapy.”
I’ll wager that the sentiment is one that every parent feels, though some might not have come up with the words on the spur of the moment to get it out. My mother might have felt those things, but been too afraid to say them. I was safe letting my daughter know that I was flawed (and knew I was flawed) because I knew she’d figure it out on her own sooner or later anyway. Maybe Mom didn’t realize that. Maybe Mom thought she was a good enough actress that she could keep from me the deepest, darkest secret – amongst many deep, dark secrets that would later come to light – that she held on to so tightly and guarded so vigorously.
My mother was a closet human being.
Shocking? Yes. Some will be offended. Others will turn away in horror and disgust. But the truth is the truth and must not be denied. My mother was just an ordinary person. Not an angel. Not a god. Just a chick, trying to raise a child alone. I didn’t come with an owner’s manual, after all. I just kind of showed up and expected her not to do anything that might get me killed. A tall order, especially for someone like my mother, who was used to being treated like all beautiful, charming women get used to being treated – a bit like royalty. I unceremoniously spit up on her. No wonder she was kind of pissed off at me.
I have no doubt that everything I said to my daughter was felt by my mother at some point. If she could have said the words, it might have paved the way to a more loving relationship in later years. It might have fostered more compassion in me when she failed at being perfect, rather than anger that she was guilty of false advertising. But I am the writer. She was the actress. Coming up with words is my job. She was there to give them a voice. It isn’t fair to expect her to do a job she never claimed to be very good at. So, I’ve decided as the writer, I have to share my words with her – the same words I spoke to my daughter a dozen or so years ago.
It has helped to realize that she most likely was doing the best she could with what she knew. I once wrote a character based on her, and in fiction, described the character as “a woman who meant well, but didn’t always do well.” I realize now that that was my mother. No harm intended. Many apologies. Do forgive.
The photo is a symbol of what I choose to remember about my childhood. It is the first artistic thing I’ve created in 2006.