Late afternoon and the rain is bucketing down, cold winter rains that smack down into red clay.
The housemate is having tea next door with the neighbours and I have finished my writing and editing for the day. I’m sitting thinking about something that has been on my mind all week.
I know three women in recovery, some sober for years, some for months, whose adult daughters no longer speak with them, who have cut off all communication with their mothers. This estrangement causes the mothers unbearable grief, anguish, yearning. Unfinished business.
Their daughters move to other cities, other countries, and the mothers do not know how to reach them. They hear their daughters are pregnant, but they will never see their grandchildren. One of them goes downtown to shop for bedlinen and she sees her daughter, older and with ash-blonde hair, walking down the street towards her. The daughter looks up and sees her white-faced trembling mother — she glances away, crosses the street and coolly walks on. The distraught mother remembers the small baby daughter clinging to her skirt, smiling at her, blowing kisses. Who is this stranger who will not give her mother another chance, will not call home?
I was a daughter like that. I left home to go to university and did not answer my mother’s letters, did not speak to her on the phone if I could avoid it, went for years without telling her where I was living or what I was doing. She did not try to stay in touch with me and I knew that was because she was drinking. The drinking made her indifferent to my absence. She was ashamed of her drinking and did not dare invite closeness. Her own mother had been a harsh and cold woman who did not care as much for her daughters as her sons.
From early childhood I felt unloved by her and my mother’s presence was erratic in my life. She came and went. She did not protect me from my father’s predatory violence, had no way to protect herself. She was a volatile, chaotic alcoholic and would insist she loved me, would scream in the same breath that she hated me, would tell me about her own sufferings and humiliations at the hands of men, while I sat solemnly beside her and cringed within, a six-year -old exposed to confessions and indiscretions that felt like another physical intrusion, ants crawling on my skin. She could not help herself: drunk or sober, she blurted out her discomfort, her rage, her disappointment and terror. I learned to go away when she was speaking, to go into a frozen and unfeeling place where I could not be hurt or manipulated, terrorized by her.
That horror of my mother’s presence would persist into adulthood. The smell of gin on her breath in the mid-afternoon, the spots of liquor staining her blouse,that flushed face and unfocused gaze, the radio turned up too loud, her weepiness and the surreptitious noise of her glass being topped up in the pantry, the face-powdering and extra smear of lipstick, stink of perfume, the incoherent maudlin stories that would give way to rages and threats. And I would sit there, unmoving while inwardly I would go away to the frozen north, the vast icy wasteland where there were no people, no human messiness. I abandoned my mother years before I left home.
My friend Damian said to me when I was 25, as we sat eating pasta together in a dingy but lively trattoria:
‘You’re there in front of me, but it is as if you have left the room.’
I did not know what to say. I was my mother’s daughter, I had no other way to be in the world.
Then too, I was the adult to her childishness for so long, the nurse for her invalidism. I could not save her from herself, no matter how I mothered her. And so I chose to save my own life and went away. She never forgave that betrayal, complained bitterly to my sisters, called only at the end to tell me how badly she wanted to die. And then I could not reach her, my pleas and tearfulness could not touch that destructive madness.
And afterwards, the daughter of a suicide, she haunted me, my own life taking on the same distorted shape, my alcoholism so similar to hers. It was a narrative like a closed corridor without windows, no beginning and no ending, the same dead-end space, the same pacing and despair in a cul-de-sac.
My heart aches for her now. I often wish we could have met somewhere on neutral ground. So that she might have known, for once and for all, that it was all forgiven, all forgotten, that despite everything the love would continue.
Would she have heard me? And what might she have said? I shall never know and that silence will persist. The compassion and tenderness I feel now for her and cannot show her. And that she never found for herself in that brokenness.